Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Off Point

By Eric Grode

APRIL 19, 1999: 

VARIOUS VOICES: PROSE, POETRY, POLITICS, by Harold Pinter. Grove Press, 205 pages, $23.

Harold Pinter shows his hand on the very first page of his insightful (if disingenuously titled) Various Voices: Prose, Poetry, Politics. A 1950 appreciation of Shakespeare expresses awe at the Bard's flat refusal to take sides as a playwright: "Such comment as there is is so variously split up between characters and so contradictory in itself that no central point of opinion or inclining can be determined."

Now, the argument could be made that such multifariousness is precisely what defines a great writer. By that benchmark, Pinter fails woefully, as does this collection of short stories, poems, interview transcripts, and other pieces. His strengths (and, many would argue, his weaknesses) all stem from his steadfast refusal to modulate or mute his voice. Notwithstanding the occasional tribute or cricket reminiscence, these pieces return time and again to the same core issues -- the interwoven threat of language and power, the menace that necessarily stems from inequality, the futility of struggle. The pleasures of Various Voices -- and there are many -- come from Pinter's attempts to flesh out the ramifications of this single-mindedness, to fill in his famous ambiguities with knowledge and grace.

When Pinter arrived on the scene, such concepts were hardly rare in London theater. But the terse, ominous exchanges that make up virtually all of his works -- a series of sidelong glances into the psychotic maw of power -- stood out in stark contrast to the indignant prolixity of John Osborne and his fellow Angry Young Men. Pinter was just as angry as any of them, and he was only 28 when The Birthday Party opened in London, but he already seemed aged by the weight of his eternal subject: after a series of deflections, evasions, and seeming non sequiturs, the strong crush the weak. End of play.

Several contemporary playwrights, including David Mamet, have rallied behind Pinter's refusal to provide any further explanation behind the characters and situations in his work -- "Everything to do with the play is in the play," he writes to one inquisitive director. Many reviewers, this one included, have in the past chalked up this reticence to a fundamental lack of insight. Here he refutes this notion intelligently and (somewhat) compellingly: "You and I, the characters which grow on a page, most of the time we're inexpressive, giving little away, unreliable, elusive, evasive, obstructive, unwilling. But it's out of these attributes that a language arises. A language, I repeat, where under what is said, another thing is being said."

Politics pervades nearly every sentence of Various Voices. The stridency of Pinter's message occasionally overshadows nuance and coherence, particularly in the overcooked verse that makes up this book's central third -- "At Quadragesima in March/Bubbles shutter the frogs/in transparent sacks," reads one particularly awkward example. All but a few of his short stories suffer from a similar burden. (Two happy exceptions are his elegiac "The Coast" and "The Examination," a fascinating look at the almost imperceptible shifting of power.) And his political writings, most of which target US and/or British complicity in various atrocities, are compelling individually but begin to cover the same ground.

In some ways, though, Pinter's message benefits from repetition. "The dead are still looking at us, steadily, waiting for us to acknowledge our part in their murder," he writes in a 1996 newspaper article. Until they have cause to avert their glance, Pinter will continue to stare right back at them.

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