Letter from Turin

What struck me about the political involvement of the Nobel Prize-winning playwright Harold Pinter while watching him for two days in Turin was his understanding of truth. The exploration of truth is seen as a generally taboo topic not only in the United States and Great Britain, but also in Greece. Pinter, who also recently won the European Theater Prize, has a powerful «to hell with that» response in everything he says and writes. He tells the truth, however brutal. For example, a few years ago he recalled that Washington seldom respected international law. Consider this essay, in which Pinter included an example from our part of the world: «In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson said to the Greek ambassador to the US: ‘Fuck your parliament and your constitution. America is an elephant, Cyprus is a flea. Greece is a flea. If these two fellows keep itching the elephant, they may just get whacked by the elephant’s trunk, whacked for good.» Two years later, the US-backed colonels took over Greece. Some months ago, an ailing Pinter delivered a powerful Nobel lecture, which had been videotaped for the awards ceremony in Stockholm. Once again it was a devastating assault on US foreign policy. At one point he argued that «the United States supported and in many cases engendered every right-wing military dictatorship in the world after the end of the Second World War.» For Pinter, the US elephant has grown to be a monster of grotesque and obscene proportions. In 2003, he was diagnosed with cancer and nearly died. Now, having recovered from cancer of the esophagus, Pinter took the stage of the 300-year-old Teatro Carignano in the center of Turin to speak to Michael Billington, the Guardian’s theater critic. And he offered some very strong words. «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,» he said. «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… 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.» Then he gave a good kick in the gut to the government of Tony Blair, which has allied itself with George W. Bush’s America. «I think that Blair’s subservience to Bush is shameful and disgusting,» Pinter said. «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.» The content of the Nobel lecture as well as the discussion with Billington in Turin was highly political, but Harold Pinter remains a source of honor, pleasure and contemplation as a playwright, director and actor. In Turin, he also discussed how a play is engendered by a line, word or image. Pinter’s work in the theater touches the most basic impulses of the stage as it moves from phenomenally low comedy to a transcendent chill. His work includes political thrillers, psychological dramas, social satires or even work bursting with digital interactivity, as Professor Elizabeth Sakellaridou of Aristotle University in Thessaloniki noted. Antonis Antypas, the founder and stage director of the Aplo Theater in Athens, took part in the Turin symposium after Pinter personally recommended him. Antypas says Pinter’s work and views are very popular in Greece. «His plays are produced very often. There have been very significant Greek translations of his plays and poems,» Antypas said. «From personal experience, I know that a great number of theater lovers have been initiated into Pinter’s work and there is deep communication between the audience and the author. On the other hand, his political stance and his daring political interventions have won him the appreciation and admiration of most thinking, progressive Greeks.» Antypas has directed more Pinter plays than anyone else in Greece, staging works such as «Other Places,» «Moonlight,» «Betrayal,» «No Man’s Land,» «Celebration,» and «The Birthday Party.» «My relationship with Harold Pinter’s work began at the time when I was a student at Karolos Koun’s Drama School in Athens,» Antypas said. «Here I have to say that Karolos Koun was the director who introduced Harold Pinter’s work to the Greek audience, with the presentation of his plays ‘Caretaker,’ ‘Homecoming,’ ‘Betrayal’ and ‘Old Times.’» Some years ago Harold Pinter visited the Aplo Theater for an Antypas production of «No Man’s Land,» the 1975 comedy of menace in which communication breaks down and one is afflicted by memories of the past. Currently the Aplo Theater is showing Pinter’s 1958 work «The Birthday Party.» Antypas calls the play «prophetic.» Pinter, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, finds the prescient personal angle in the world’s hard political developments. He has strongly protested the NATO operations in the Balkans. His short 1988 play «Mountain Language» was inspired by the plight of the Kurds in Turkey. His eloquence, talent and vision also won him an honorary professorship at Aristotle University in Thessaloniki almost six years ago «for his contribution to modern theater and in recognition of his efforts to protect human rights.»