Up against the wall

Over the weekend OpinionJournal ran the testimonial to Harold Pinter’s dramatic work by Wall Street Journal theater critic Terry Teachout: “Another left turn in Stockholm.” Teachout may be the best practical critic at large in the country today, and his views merit serious consideration. Today the Journal ran the perfect counterpont to Teachout’s column, a brilliant takedown of Pinter by Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens’s column is available to subscribers only (subscribe here). It’s titled “The sinister mediocrity of Harold Pinter.” Here is a slice:

Harold Pinter’s early writing for the stage was correctly described — with no objection from him — as “the theater of the absurd.” But it has been left to the selectors of the Nobel in literature to make that definition postmodern and thus to drain it of all irony. Their choice of Mr. Pinter is a selection of absurdity quite detached from drama: a straight and philistine preference for the grotesque. “I have no idea why they gave me the award,” said the playwright when the news was brought to him. This justified incredulity showed a brief flash of his old form.

But in point of fact, any thinking person knows precisely why he was this year’s Laureate at a moment when a person of even average literacy might have lit upon Rushdie, Roth or Pamuk. Just as with the selection of Jimmy Carter for the “Peace” Prize, where the judges chose to emphasize the embarrassment they hoped thereby to visit on the Bush administration, the ludicrous elevation of a third-rate and effectively former dramatist is driven by pseudo-intellectual European hostility to the change of regime in Iraq.

Mr. Pinter’s work, according to the clumsily-phrased Nobel citation, “uncovers the precipice under everyday prattle and forces entry into oppression’s closed rooms.” Let us agree that his early plays — he has not produced anything worth noticing since the 1960s — do indeed show an uneasy relationship between the banal and the evil. But let me offer you a stave from a poem he wrote in January 2003, titled “God Bless America”: “Here they go again,/The Yanks in their armored parade/Chanting their ballads of joy/As they gallop across the big world/Praising America’s God.”

This, and other verses like it, were awarded the Wilfred Owen prize by a group of English judges. When re-reading Owen on “the pity of war,” I invariably find that it is difficult to do so without tears. When scanning Mr. Pinter on the same subject, I cannot get to the end without the temptation either to laugh out loud or to throw up. The sheer puerility of the stuff is precisely a combination of banality with evil: a preference for dictatorship larded with obscenity and fatuity. (And scrawled, I might add, by a man who helped found the International Committee for the Defense of Slobodan Milosevic.) One has had more enlightenment, and been exposed to more wit, from the walls of public lavatories, such as those featured so morbidly in Pinter’s early effort “The Caretaker.”

Believe it or not, Hitchens is just getting warmed up at this point. I trust the Journal will make the whole thing available on OpinionJournal next weekend.

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