on plays, politics, life & death
including a reference to the Rachel Corrie flap.
The reaction on the theatre lists I follow is very scary. I haven't seen the play, but I've read the script of My Name Is Rachel Corrie. The play is adapted from the young woman's writings: diary, letters, emails..... she was an idealistic American peace worker sympathetic to ordinary Palestinians. What this young woman had to say, her testimony, which seems mild and well meaning to me, is too controversial to be heard by New Yorkers? I'm about to perform in the American premiere of Robin Soans' TALKING TO TERRORISTS. What kind of reception is Soams' play going to get in Boston, if Rachel Corrie is too tough for NYC? ? Soans' play lets terrorists tell their own stories, from their own POV. Not just one "situation" either, but several deep and terrible pairs of opposites. Nevertheless, I'm proud and glad to be part of it. Nothing human is alien.
After several of us posted the Guardian' s account of the London theatre's shock at NYTW's cancellation, we were asked: "Do we really need news of New York theatres filtered through British papers?"
I think we do. The Guardian has the best-- most extensive-- theatre coverage of any paper in the English speaking world, and since it is free on line why would anyone interested in Dramaturgy neglect to read it? I certainly "need" it, and am very grateful for the opportunity to read how American theatre looks to knowledgeable Londoners. I note that 2 American plays have been reviewed recently: "The Exonerated" got 4 stars, "Shadow Box" 2.
March 14, 2006
Harold Pinter, newly honoured with the Europe Theatre prize, takes the stage in Turin to speak to Michael Billington
"I've written 29 damn plays. Isn't that enough?'
Tuesday March 14, 2006
MB: Can I take you back over the last extraordinary year. You've won the Wilfred Owen prize, the Franz Kafka prize, the Nobel prize for literature, now the Europe Theatre prize. Has all that public recognition helped to sustain you through a difficult period physically?
HP: Well I've been through a number of gruelling experiences some of them quite gruesomely funny in a way. I attended a rather exhilarating festival of my work given by the Dublin Gate Theatre last October for my 75th birthday. I was leaving Dublin the next day and, as I was getting out of the car at the airport, I slipped and gashed my head on the stone slab of the concrete pavement. My wife, who is also here, turned and found me covered in blood. I spent four hours in hospital that night in a pretty terrible state, got back to England the next morning, started to recover and woke up two days later to discover that I'd been given the Nobel prize for literature! So my life over the past year has, quite literally, had its ups and downs.
MB: What effect did the Nobel prize have on your life?
HP: Well for a start it was a great surprise. Quite unexpected. A chap phoned me at about twenty to twelve from Stockholm and said "Good morning, is that Harold Pinter?" and I said "Yes." He said, "I'm glad to tell you you've won the Nobel prize for literature." I said, "Have I really?" He said, "Yes." I said, "Thank you." The next step really was that I was asked to write and deliver the annual Nobel lecture. I then found myself in hospital again. I had a very, very mysterious skin condition which emanated from the Brazilian jungle. I should explain I've never set foot in the Brazilian jungle but I shared this very distressing physical condition with the Brazilian Indians. Anyway, I came through that and was writing the Nobel speech when the phone rang and it was the doctor saying that he'd looked at my blood tests. He said, "You must come into hospital immediately." I said what do you mean by "Immediately?" He said, "Now, within the next five minutes."
I'd actually just finished the speech so it took me about 10 minutes to get to the hospital. Shortly after I arrived I found myself in intensive care and found it extremely difficult to breathe. There were lots of doctors around and my extremely anxious wife. I then realised, for the only time in my life actually, that I was on the point of death. Because if you can't breathe, that's it. And I'd never been aware before of any such extremity. But I didn't die, the doctors got me through it and here I am today.
MB: Thankfully [loud applause]. I don't want to morbidly dwell on this but at that moment of realising death may be imminent, what happens, what goes through one's head?
HP: Well there's no time to think. You don't think at all. You just experience it. What you do, in my case, is that you fight and fight to stay alive. You try and insist upon breathing. You insist on not losing the ability to breathe. And I just managed it by the skin of my teeth.
MB: Having written the Nobel lecture, you then had to deliver it. How difficult an experience was that?
HP: Well I was in a wheelchair. I was taken from the hospital to the studio, did the speech and then went straight back to the hospital. But it was OK. I'm quite used to speaking my own text ... My main concern when I was making that speech, and even writing that speech, was not to be at all emotional.
MB: Coming on to the content of the lecture itself, it seemed to me to say that, while there is no definitive truth in art, we have an obligation to examine the truth of our lives and our society. In that sense, is Iraq a watershed? Because of all the documentary evidence, because of Guantanamo, because of Abu Ghraib, people around the world have woken up to reality?
HP: There does seem more public awareness now of what we're actually responsible for, what actions our countries have taken: what it means, what destruction actually is, what torture actually is. It so happens that I've been very preoccupied with this for many years. Things like Abu Ghraib and even Guantanamo are not new things: there are many precedents. As I pointed out in my lecture, American foreign policy has adhered rigidly over the last 50 years or more to one concern and one concern only: "What is in our interests?" ... There are many, many Americans who are as disgusted and ashamed and angry about this as I am. And I received a lot of letters from Americans after I made my speech, many of them couched in terms of some despair. But, coming back to your question, I find that in attacking American abuses of power I have in the past sustained a good deal of mockery. Been called at the very least an idiot. But we all know what's looking us in the face now. I believe we've been faced with that for many years.
MB: But that's a key point. Because one of the pivotal moments in the lecture is when you repeatedly say of American intervention in the internal affairs of other countries "It never happened" as if we had air-brushed certain events out of our consciousness. But you can't say that with Iraq, can you? The evidence is with us daily. There is a heightened awareness of the lies and deceptions.
HP: Quite so. And, of course, what cannot be ignored now is that most people are well aware that, in the case of Abu Ghraib for example, those acts of torture were hardly random events. They weren't one bad apple, as it were. They came from the very top. We're looking at the White House. We're looking at the Pentagon. We're looking at Number 10 Downing Street by the way. Who we're looking at here I'm not quite sure. But I've got a funny feeling a few people in this audience will have a few things to say about that. It's where you live that leaves the greatest impression on you. I certainly feel a strong sense of shame at the actions of our own government. I'm talking about the British government. I think that Blair's subservience to Bush is shameful and disgusting. It's also more than that. It's a disinclination even to accept the fact that if you go and drop bombs on thousands of people in a sovereign state - whatever you think of that state - it is not only an act of mass murder. These are war crimes.
MB: In Britain, it [the Nobel speech] was shown live on a satellite channel, reported in full in the Guardian. But it was, as far as I know, pretty much passed over by BBC television. Did that surprise you?
HP: It wasn't passed over. It was totally ignored by the BBC. It never happened. There are those who argue that the BBC's ignoring the speech was to do with its complicity with government. I don't believe that. That's a conspiracy theory which I don't subscribe to.
MB: So what is the answer?
HP: I don't know. You'd have to ask the BBC.
MB: Given your views on politics in Britain and Blair's subservience to Bush, I just wonder if there is any figure in British political life whom you respect.
HP: There was one man in the Labour government, Robin Cook, whom I had a very high regard for. He had the courage to speak out and to resign over Iraq. He was an admirable man. But resignation over a matter of principle is not a very fashionable thing in our society.
MB: Can I turn to the other half of your Nobel lecture where you talk about the process of writing. You spoke about the way a play is engendered by a line, a word or an image. Also about the way characters resist you and take on a life of their own. But is there not also a conscious part of you that is organising the action and the characters?
HP: I'm not aware of my consciousness working in that way at an early stage of writing. After it's got to a certain point, I then work very hard on the text, quite consciously. In other words, I just don't live in my unconscious the whole damn time. I keep an eye on it. But one of the most exciting things about being a writer is finding the life in different characters whom you don't know at all. To a certain extent, you've got to let them live their own life. But there's also a conflict constantly going on between you as the writer and them as the characters. Who's in charge? There's no easy answer to that. I suppose, finally, the author is in charge. Because, whether the character likes it or not, all I've got to do is take out my pen and do that (a gesture of erasure) and he's lost a line. It may be one of his favourite lines of dialogue [laughter]. But I've got the pen in my hand.
MB: Take a very concrete example, Ruth in The Homecoming. She obviously has a will and a life of her own. But did you know, from the start, where she was heading? That is, towards an ambivalent authority over her inherited household?
HP: I really didn't know what was going to happen: where she, or the play, was going. I don't know how many people here know it but the second scene shows the elder brother, Teddy, bringing his wife home from America to meet his family in London. As I found these two figures in the room, I had no idea what was going to happen to either of them. Gradually the play grew and dictated itself partly through her actions: Ruth's sexual strength and authority just seemed to grow in stature in a strange way as the play went on. This may sound rubbish but I simply couldn't get out of her way. She started to dominate the play in a way I hadn't expected. She was unavoidable and is one of my favourite characters actually.
MB: Is the process the same for overtly political plays like One For The Road, Mountain Language or Party Time?
HP: It can't be exactly the same, no. It's rather difficult to define. But in Party Time you have a lot of well dressed people enjoying a fashionable, champagne-filled party while outside there are roadblocks and helicopters. I knew from a much earlier stage that the people at the party - or at least some of them - were responsible for what was happening in the street. So I had a certain kind of knowledge which I didn't possess in writing The Homecoming. It's a very layered activity, writing plays, and it's never the same experience twice.
MB: Political theatre obviously takes many different forms. Do you admire writers who adopt a very different approach from your own, such as Brecht?
HP: Yes Brecht was very important to me to read and I greatly admire his poetry. But, coming back to the present day, I have a great deal of respect for the work of David Hare: Stuff Happens, The Permanent Way and so forth. He writes very clear, sharp plays that analyse what is going on. I admire his rigour, his honesty and his insistence on looking for the truth.
MB: At the moment in Britain there is a great hunger for verbatim theatre. Is that a movement you support?
HP: Absolutely. It has produced a lot of good work at the Tricycle and the Royal Court, though I'm alarmed at what has happened to My Name Is Rachel Corrie in New York [the play recently co-edited from Corrie's diaries and letters by Alan Rickman and Guardian features editor Katharine Viner] ... The real fact there, as you know, is that Rachel Corrie was a young American woman who was looking at the Palestinian situation in Israel when one of the bulldozers that was demolishing Palestinian houses ran over and killed her ...
But that play has now been withdrawn by the producing theatre in New York and that is, I think, typical of what is happening more and more in Britain and America: suppression of dissent and the truth. I'd just point to the example of the prohibition of protest within a certain area outside the Houses of Parliament. One woman walked into this zone and read out the names of British soldiers killed in Iraq of whom at that time there were about 80. She was arrested, fined and now has a criminal record. What she was actually doing, in reading the names of the British dead outside the Houses of Parliament, was reminding people in Parliament of their ultimate responsibility. So the lid was put on her straight away.
MB: What about your own position at the moment ... is the itch to put pen to paper still there?
HP: Yes. It's just a question of what the form is ... I've been writing poetry since my youth and I'm sure I'll keep on writing it till I conk out. I've said it before and I'll say it again. I've written 29 damn plays. Isn't that enough?
MB: Finally, we're celebrating the Europe Theatre prize. In the age of infinite electronic possibility, do you still have a positive faith in what theatre can do?
HP: The mere fact of audience and actors sharing that specific moment in time, the intensity of the life that passes between the stage and the auditorium, means there's nothing quite like it. So yes I still have a faith, a shaky faith, in the act of theatre.
On the same day as the New York Theatre Workshop put out an statement on its web site
about the cancellation-- or postponement........
Regarding My Name is Rachel Corrie
March 14, 2006
I have heard from many of you in the past few weeks about the Workshop’s decision to request a postponement in producing My Name is Rachel Corrie.
This moving, first-person play was given to us because of our reputation for presenting difficult subjects in a thoughtful manner. And rightfully so--a first reading inspired our collective commitment—which we still hold to—to sharing Rachel’s voice. In the weeks that followed, we carried out our routine pre-production research that includes exploring the social, political, and cultural issues raised by the play. This is our standard operating procedure.. (continued to the site) .....