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The Jewish voice of Harold Pinter
By Michael Kustow

Michael Kustow Writer. Producer. Broadcaster, has been for nearly four decades at the leading edge of innovation and excellence, as a writer and producer in the theatre, the avant-garde arts, films and television. His authorized biography of Peter Brook brings together his experiences in work in England, France and America, and is based on a friendship and collaboration with Brook of more than forty years. It was published in England by Bloomsbury Publishers, to coincide with Brook’s eightieth birthday in March 2005, in America by St. Martin’s Press, and in France by Editions du Seuil.
Born in 1939 in London from a family that originated in Kiev and Warsaw, Michael Kustow was educated at Haberdasher’s Aske’s School and at Wadham College, Oxford, where he took a B.A. in English. At Oxford, he acted and directed with his contemporaries, including Ariane Mnouchkine and Dudley Moore. He staged anti-war comedies on the CND marches from Aldermaston, and wrote about British and European theatre for the influential theatre magazine, Encore.
After university, he lived and worked on a kibbutz in the Galilee in Israel, and then began his artistic ‘love-affair’ with France. He joined Roger Planchon’s Theatre de La Cité during 1961/62 . In 1962 he wrote to Peter Hall, and joined the Royal Shakespeare Company. From 1962 to 1967, It was at the RSC in the ‘sixties that he met Peter Brook, and worked with him on the Theatre of Cruelty season and as a writer for US. From 1968 to 1972 he was director of The Institute of Contemporary Arts,. In 1973, Peter Hall invited him to become an Associate Director of the National Theatre. Over the next seven years, he created the NT’s Platform Performances, directing work by Havel, Pinter, Ted Hughes, Brecht, and a complete cycle of Shakespeare's sonnets in a completely new order. In the National’s Cottesloe Theatre, he devised a cabaret of Brecht’s poems and Hanns Eisler’s songs. At the Queen Elizabeth Hall, he directed his new translation of Stravinsky and Ramuz’s The Soldier’s Tale, starring Claire Bloom Pinchas Zukerman, Wayne Sleep and Maina Gielgud. In 1980, he went to Boston at the invitation of Robert Burstein, for whose American Repertory Theatre he became Dramaturg, as well as Lecturer in Drama at Harvard There he taught a course on the director in the theatre, and ran a seminar on drama criticism. He returned to Britain in 1982 to become the first Commissioning Editor of Arts for the newly-launched Channel 4 Television, producing more than 500 hours of arts and music programmes over the next seven years After leaving Channel 4, he became an independent producer and writer. He has a particular interest in keeping the classical Greek legacy alive.
He contributed three programmes to Channel Four's 1993 Democracy season, marking the 2,500th anniversary of the birth of democracy in fifth-century BC Athens. The most ambitious of his Greek projects was the dramatic saga Tantalus, a ten-play cycle on the Trojan War and the Greek myths, written by John Barton and directed by Sir Peter Hall, of which he was Associate Producer. In 2001, he produced for BBC Knowledge Foreign Aids, a one-person satirical show about AIDS, written and performed by the South African performer, Pieter Dirk Uys. He is currently developing An Arm and a Leg, a music theatre piece about two actresses, one Israeli, one Palestinian, based on true stories from the conflict in the Middle East. web:

Every considerable writer is born with a core voice. Their greatness comes from what they do with this voice, how they refract and extend it, how they argue with it. I have always thought that the core voice of Harold Pinter is Jewish. He doesn’t accept this identity readily, won’t be co-opted into given allegiances, says he’s a man and a citizen first and last. Out of his core voice he’s spun voices with an Irish energy, an upper-class reticence, the crushed monosyllables of the underdog. Last but not least there’s the rage of his political speeches, actions and poems, notably his sustained opposition to Israel’s 18-year imprisonment of Mordechai Vanunu, for revealing nuclear ‘secrets’. This variety of contentious voices seems to me planted in ‘the dialect of his tribe’, as T.S.Eliot (a non-Jewish, indeed anti-semitic poet who helped Pinter enlarge his voice) called it.

In Pinter’s early Birthday Party there’s a bounce and lethal thrust about Goldberg as he and McCann bamboozle the withdrawn Stanley Webber.
GOLDBERG: Webber, you’re a fake. When did you last wash up a cup?
STANLEY: The Christmas before last.
STANLEY: Lyons Corner House
GOLDBERG: Which one?
STANLEY: Marble Arch.
GOLDBERG: Where was your wife?
STANLEY: What wife?

This is no different from the techniques of the torturers and interrogators in the political plays Pinter wrote thirty years later. But it’s specifically Jewish in the aggressive questioning of the Jewish father-figure, whose very gaze - like Kafka’s father’s - seems a condemnation. Goldberg moves fast so that he can wrong-foot his interlocutor, get his riposte in first, a trick Pinter may have learned anti-Semitic hooligans on Hackney streets.

The other side of Pinter’s outsider sensibility, which can be called Jewish, is found in his earliest prose pieces, especially those featuring a protagonist with the Kafkaesque name, Kullus. These are studies, briefly lightened by black humour, of night-time alienation, minimal worlds, threatening tests. Their withdrawal from the outside world, their ghetto self-burial, is fiercely etched: Kullus took a room. The window was closed, if it was warm, and open, if it was cold. The curtains were open, if it was night, and closed, if it was day. Why closed? Why open?

But then, in a typical act of self-contradiction, Pinter sets beside these pictures of an anorexic world, exuberant pieces about Anew Macmaster, the Irish actor-manager he acted with (‘He was humble. He was a devout anti-puritan. He was a very great piss-taker’) and of the Yorkshire cricketer Len Hutton. These were three of the ways to free himself from the introversion of a exclusively Jewish world: through Ireland (whose Samuel Beckett was a liberating writer and moral guide); through acting; and through extreme Englishness - not just cricket, but the manners and accents of upper-class English society.

He portrayed the erotic entanglements of the English upper class in his middle-period screenplays, especially those made with the McCarthyite exile Joseph LoseyThe Servant, The Go-Between and Accident, with its Oxford lawns and cricket-pitches. Even in this English Arcadia, brutal games of lust, power and deceit were played out. It was, as Pinter said of his work in an early aside, a glimpse of ‘the weasel beneath the cocktail cabinet.’ Perhaps it’s a Jewish collective memory to mistrust the apparent, the surface of things, even when they’re at their most reassuring. Look at Germany.

The Jewish voice in the family domain comes into its own in The Homecoming, which, it must be said, Pinter does not acknowledge as a Jewish play. The father Max, a patriarchal giant and a butcher, dominates his family, entirely male now his wife has died. He derides his sons, who vituperate back in good measure. The first production in 1965 was shrewdly captured by Penelope Gilliatt, writing in The Observer: ‘Max is played by Paul Rogers with a perfect grasp of the fact that half of the grating comic power of the dialogue comes from speaking a line against its surface meaning, roaring hatred when demanding a hug or vilifying his puny life when his words are apparently boasting about it.’ That’s a description of a massive Jewish distrust about the inability of words to mean what they seem if I ever heard one. The actor’s delivery undermines dictionary definitions.

I saw a preview of the play in Brighton with the playwright Robert Bolt (The Man for All Seasons). As we walked along the promenade, reeling from the power of the play, Bolt said to me, ‘Harold’s quite different from the rest of us. In his play, it’s as if you’re walking along the promenade and suddenly find yourself half-way down a manhole.’ I still think that’s the best image of Harold’s abrupt unveiling of the threat beneath appearances, something every Jew can recognise.

The tribute given by the Nobel Committee, awarding Pinter this year’s literature prize, was precise. They praised the writer "who in his plays uncovers the precipice under everyday prattle and forces entry into oppression's closed rooms". The first, metaphysical point of the untrustworthiness of the world, is one that every Jew, indeed every man and citizen, could willingly accept. It’s the second, the political point, and the way Pinter has repeatedly and insistently made it for twenty years, that gives rise to unease in some people – and which may have played a part in his award, following another radical playwright, Dario Fo.
Pinter’s polemic is rude, it knows no boundaries. It ruptures decorum and taste. A good deal of it would not be printed in this newspaper. It is offensive. It is meant to be. It is the voice of a man disgusted with those in power, with the jailers and torturers, with Bush and Blair. He has no fear of standing up in public, no caution that it might be better to keep your head down.

When Graham Greene died, Pinter praised him for his ability to look beyond the rhetoric of politics to ‘the reality of a naked, tortured body.’ This is also Pinter’s compulsion. After the fine-tuning of his main stage plays and the dry concision of his political plays, he breaks out with poems like American Football, A Reflection on the Gulf War and the military triumphalism of ‘Operation Desert Storm’. His poem, a parodic macho yell, begins

It works.
We blew the shit out of them.

What has this faecal rage got to do with the playwright who opened out his Jewish voice and felt his way through the surfaces of English society with increasingly refined tools?

I think it’s the same man, and the same core voice, that I would certainly call Jewish in another sense. Here’s Pinter putting the boot in: ‘Mr. Bush and his gang do know what they're doing, and Blair, unless he really is the deluded idiot he often appears to be, also knows what they're doing.’ Pinter’s political fury, his condemnation of torture and censorship, his outrage at state murder, is powered by the same direct anger that we can recognise in the troublemakers of the Old Testament, the Prophets Ezekiel and Jeremiah. They too found the abuses and crimes of their society intolerable and berated them with ferocity. Jeremiah thunders against his society that he thinks has betrayed itself.

I will make Jerusalem a heap of ruins, a haunt of wolves,
And the cities of Judah an unpeopled waste…
The corpses of men shall fall and lie like dung in the fields,
Like swathes behind the reaper, but no-one shall gather them.

Pinter’s outrage has in its way been just as urgent and disruptive. When he went with the late Arthur Miller to Turkey to meet and testify to the torture of political prisoners, the pair of playwrights were invited by the American ambassador. After a dinner with all the civilities and a polite but critical speech by Miller, the party broke up into smaller groups.

The Ambassador said to me: "Mr. Pinter, you don't seem to understand the realities of the situation here. Don't forget, the Russians are just over the border. You have to bear in mind the political reality, the diplomatic reality, the military reality." "The reality I've been referring to", I said, "is that of electric current on your genitals." The Ambassador drew himself, as they say, up to his full height and glared at me. "Sir, he said, "you are a guest in my house." Arthur suddenly loomed up. "I think I've been thrown out", I said. "I'll come with you", Arthur said, without hesitation. Being thrown out of the US embassy in Ankara with Arthur Miller -- a voluntary exile - was one of the proudest moments in my life.

The man who’s writing his Nobel acceptance speech to give in Stockholm in December, will doubtless shoot more of these arrows of fire. Like every true artist, Pinter is irreducible. It’s a matter of joy and hope for the world (and for Jews) that this righteous but far from self-righteous man has been given the Nobel Prize.


Source: Copyright The Jewish Chronicle

Related Links:

  • What's it like to work with Pinter?
  • Nobel prize goes to Pinter
  • Read more by Michael Kustow

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      satheesh, sri lakna    (5/11/2006)

  • Michael Kustow

    Harold Pinter doesn’t accept this identity readily

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