Craig Raine remembers Harold Pinter, who passed away in 2008
It's just over a year since Harold Pinter died. But I think of him in the present tense, at Lord's cricket ground, ebullient because he has conquered cancer, and the titles of his plays are up there on the scoreboard. He looks as if he is about to score himself – grinning, sexy, full of mischief, irrepressible.
As his art was irrepressible. The cliché is the pause. But it co-existed with the riff, a torrential thesaurus, a kind of dramatic Tourette's. This is the waiter in Celebration addressing his uncultured customers: "He [the waiter's grandfather] knew them all, in fact, Ezra Pound, WH Auden, C Day Lewis, Louis MacNeice, Stephen Spender, George Barker, Dylan Thomas, and if you go back a few years he was a bit of a drinking companion of DH Lawrence, Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, WB Yeats, Aldous Huxley, Virginia Woolf and Thomas Hardy in his dotage." Just when the audience knows it's bullshit, an unlikely list, a glib, mechanical recitation, the phrase "in his dotage" is dropped. Hardy would have been very old, relative to the other literary celebrities. Pinter's plays are poker-faced, smiling enigmatically, daring us to call their bluff – disconcerting.
In New World Order, one of Pinter's darkly comic political sketches, two torturers are talking above a seated, silent figure – their potential victim. They might be surgeons chatting over an anaesthetised patient. It is a perfect, simple parable of power. When one of them mentions the victim's wife, the tone isn't menacing. It is indifferent, neutral, measured, contained, matter of fact and therefore menacing. Pinter knows the cliché – the muscular sadist – and instead gives us two dapper types, differentiating and making discriminations: "The terms are mutually contradictory." With, of course, the odd obscene expletive. Not just dapper either, but "pure" and sentimental, moved to tears by their political beliefs: "keeping the world clean for democracy." In New World Order, that punchline winds us like a blow. It is a synecdoche for the infliction of pain. And it is a typically candid Pinterian irony. There is no physical violence on stage, no action. But feeling "pure" is a demonstration of its opposite. Directors often talk these days about the "action" of any scene – meaning, what is the unspoken objective of the characters on stage? What is the subtext? It is a method invented initially, I would say, to explain Pinter.