The World That Harold Pinter Unlocked

It was in Chile, sometime in the early 1960s, that I saw my first Pinter play. That’s where and when I first heard Harold Pinter’s name spoken. That’s where and when and how something in my work and life changed forever.

What was extraordinary about that hour or so that I sat through «The Dumb Waiter» in Spanish was how immediately recognizable that play by Pinter was, almost Latin American in its familiarity despite being written originally in elliptical English by an author from Hackney. As I plunged into every one of his works in the years that followed, Pinter became irreplaceably, uniquely inspiring. He showed me how dramatic art can be lyrical without versifying, can be poetic merely by delving into the buried rhythms of everyday speech. He whispered to me that we often speak in order to hide, and perhaps avoid, what we are really feeling and thinking. He was not afraid of silence or letting his characters lapse into stuttering or inscrutability. He understood that if you push reality hard enough, it will end up exposing under its surface another dimension — fantastic, absurd, delirious. He suggested that the worst hallucinations of fear are not immune to the pendulum of humor.

But all of these lessons in dramatic craftsmanship pale next to what he taught me about human existence and about — dare I say the word? — politics.

From that very first play, I felt that Harold Pinter was unfolding a world that was deeply political. Not in the overt sense (as would happen later, beginning in the early ’80s, in several of his dramas) that his creatures were affected by who governed them, whether this or that man controlled the army or gave orders to the police. No, these figments of Pinter’s psyche, at least back in the ’60s, did not care to dispute the public arena, were uninterested in changing the world for better or for worse. They were, on the contrary, sad citizens of intimacy, obsessed only with their own survival.

And yet, by trapping us inside the lives of those men and women, Pinter was revealing the many gradations and degradations of power with a starkness I had not noticed before in other authors who were supposedly dedicated to examining or denouncing contingent politics. All power, all domination and liberation started there, he seemed to be saying, in those claustrophobic rooms where each word counts, each slight utterance needs to be accounted for, is paid for in some secret currency of hope or suffering. You want to free the world, humanity, from oppression? Look inside, look sideways, look at the hidden violence of language. Never forget that it is in language where the other parallel violence, the cruelty exercised on the body, originates.

Two men waiting in a basement to kill somebody. An old tramp laying claim to a derelict room. A birthday celebration interrupted by intruders. A woman afraid of being evicted. A son who comes home to his dysfunctional family accompanied by an enigmatic wife. Primal scenes of betrayal that could be transpiring anywhere on our planet, embodiments of a vast and disquieting landscape of dread, the precarious condition inhabited by most of contemporary humanity, the neglected narrative of the 20th century.

It was perhaps natural that I projected onto those stories born in England the disturbing shadows of my own Latin America. How many Davies crossed our Santiago streets? How many Peruvian Roses feared and desired that visitor from her past? How many killers took their time in the Buenos Aires cellars of yesterday? How many would await us in the Sao Paulo cellars of tomorrow? And how to tell those stories, respecting the uncertainty of those existences on the rim of extinction, mercilessly stripping the masks forged out of the lives we made for ourselves and yet also be gentle, oh so tender, with these victims of their own delusions?

Pinter knew how.

And I was haunted by his knowledge, so obsessed that my first book was an examination of his plays. Many years later, when I began to write for the theater, it was his influence and his aesthetics that guided me. By the time I dedicated «Death and the Maiden» to him, we had already become close, he and I and our wives, Antonia and Angélica, but all our meetings and dinners and outings together were really a continuation of a conversation I had started before I had ever been honored by his friendship.

His characters may not have been communicating with one another, undoubtedly lost in the swamp of their own words and solitude, but Pinter himself was another matter. He spoke to me on that inaugural occasion and has done so ever since, with unmistakable clarity, became the contemporary author who knew how to dispel the terror of my own loneliness merely by fearlessly naming it. Now that he is gone, I must face a world where I can no longer dial his number and hear his dry voice, or sit down with this older brother of mine and lament for hours the newest human rights abuses, or find his latest poem in the mail. Now I am left with what I discovered when I was first enraptured by his play more than 45 years ago, left with that mysterious heart and mind of his with which he will continue to help me and countless others make sense of the glories and miseries of our time.

Ariel Dorfman, a Chilean American writer and professor at Duke University and the author most recently of Other Septembers, Many Americas.