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Sep 1, 2012

Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming, Old Times and Ashes to Ashes

Political Commitment in Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming, Old Times and Ashes to Ashes

C Vairavan, Research Scholar (ACR Fellow)
Department of English
Anna University, Chennai-25

In 1975, Howard Brenton dreamed of ‘a play acting like a bush-fire’, smoldering into public consciousness. A few years later Pinter’s writing overtly political plays was actually a dream come true for Brenton and his generation. As early as 1948, Pinter knew that he ‘wanted to get out in the world’ (Gussow, 142). This article explores Pinter’s The Homecoming, Old Times and Ashes to Ashes in the light of literary theories that bring out the theme of political commitment. It also sheds light on the various perspectives such as gender politics and marginalization that show cases political commitment.

Key words: Gender politics, Marginalization, Political commitment, Political plays, Public consciousness

1. Introduction
Harold Pinter was one of the most influential dramatists among the young generation of playwrights. He was born into a Jewish family in the London region of Hackney. His grandparents were Jews who had fled persecution in Poland and Odessa. His father, Jack, was a hard working tailor whose own family had artistic leanings: his mother, Frances, came from a convivial, extrovert and spiritually skeptical relations. And it was not difficult to trace in Pinter's own complex personality essentials from both sides of the family. He balanced his father's faintly authoritarian nature with his mother's instinctive generosity. His family was disrupted by war. He experienced the sense of insecurity by his removal from his family which can be easily seen in various plays, sketches and the poems of him. He was very much influenced by Beckett and Kafka. Most of his contemporary political playwrights were impressed with his works and his political standpoints. Pinter has acknowledged for his contribution to political debate as to his involvement with contemporary drama. The Independent newspaper in December 1998 described Pinter as ‘playwright and human rights activist’ (Derbyshire, 2001) and it seems that his latter role is most certainly assisted by his fame as the former. When this period of the British Government supported it, Pinter seemed more intent on making moral pronouncements on current affairs than producing challenging theatre in the later years of his life. He claimed in 1989 that he had always been ‘a political playwright of a kind’. Yet, in 1966, he said ‘politics bore me … I distrust ideological statement of any kind’. (Pinter, 2005)

Pinter uses it differently according to context, at once about the relations of power between individuals as well as the structures of power which keep us subjugated. The researcher proposes to look at Pinter’s writing through three ‘political lenses: the lens of gender politics, world political history, and marginalization and contemporary politics. In this light these perspectives have been analyzed in Pinter’s plays The Homecoming, Old Times, and Ashes to Ashes.

2. Political Commitment as a Theory

Raymond William’s emphasized that on Political Commitment which signifies the influence of Marxist and feminist perspectives and the break from the conservative Christian framework which has hitherto dominated. According to Homi K Bhabha (1994) theory of political commitment is crucial and must significantly inform political debate, it is not the only option for those critics or intellectuals who are committed to progressive political change in the direction of a socialist society. It is a sign of political maturity to accept that there are many forms of political writing whose different effects are obscured when they are divided between the ‘theoretical’ and the ‘activist’. It is not as if the leaflet involved in the organization of a strike is short on theory, while a speculative article on the theory of ideology ought to have more practical examples or applications.

Stuart Hall (1992) insists that cultural studies, while it may have been radically transformed by the influence of theory and may have no identity or purpose if it loses the critical tension between political commitment and theoretical speculation. Still, it is not always clear what the political commitment of cultural studies is a commitment to, except insofar as the field has always affiliated itself with the question of class and, more recently, with the political issues of gender and race. He was a Conscientious Objector and anger always comes from a place that is linked with personal experience.

Pinter’s lethal invective against the ideological machinery of war and the invasion in Iraq reveals the radical stance that has characterised his artistic temperament and political involvement over the last three decades, and which, at least before the Nobel award, has, possibly, made him more famous in England than his literature ever did. His list of engagement is long. He condemned the role of the U.S.A. in Pinochet’s military coup in Chile in 1973, perhaps the event that initiated his political activism. Pinter’s plays are embodied with these political happening. These embodiments are not direct, but symbolically placed in his characters, settings, dialogues, themes, etc.

3. Analysis of the Plays in the Light of Political Commitment

Political theatre presents an entirely different set of problems. Sermonizing has been avoided at all cost. Objectivity is the key element of the political theatre. The characters of these plays are allowed to breathe their own air. The author did not confine and constrict them to satisfy his own taste or disposition or prejudice. He must be prepared to approach them from a variety of angles, from a full and uninhibited range of perspectives, take them by surprise, but nevertheless give them the freedom to go which way they will. This does not always work. And political satire, of course, adheres to none of these precepts, in fact does precisely the opposite, which is its proper function.

In the era of writing that spans plays such as The Birthday Party, The Caretaker and The Homecoming, since 1980s, Pinter’s work seems to be more explicitly about the abuse of human rights and the ‘pattern of lies which government actually tells to its citizens’ (Gussow, 1994: 84) in plays such as The Kind of Alaska, Mountain Language, Ashes to Ashes, and One for the Road. These are the plays which form the phase in his writing which critics deem to be ‘political’ (Billington, 2007).

Pinter's new role as moral chorus in the wings of the political stage has coincided with something of a drought in his playwriting. Not only have his plays been few and far between over the last twenty years, they have also been short and invariably politically-inspired, more agitation than art. Pinter has also been prepared to re-interpret his greatest stage plays in political terms, as an incipient expression of his moral condemnation of injustice (Billington, 2007).

Billington believes that commitment to political drama is evident throughout the British theatre which should engage, wherever possible, with momentous public events’. Perhaps it is hardly surprising, therefore, that his method in writing the book is to set out to prove that Pinter has always, in one way or another, been a political playwright. It is interesting to note the events of Old Times given the context in which the play was written. In Pinter’s career, his arguments exempting Old Times from his claim that he was always a ‘political playwright of a kind’, only contains that this statement is indeed applicable here. He focuses on the Old Times of two women  character who are  both fighting with each other for survival and ‘hostile to the idea of reconciliation with the world of men’ (Sakellaridou, 1988) cannot be anything other than a political act, however unconscious. And compared to Ashes to Ashes, a more overtly political play, and indeed Pinter’s earlier plays such as The Homecoming, and One for the Road sees symmetry in the presentation of women here. All the women end the play in silence, a silence that is maintained despite male insistence to the contrary.

But in Old Times, there were also women remembering, and this is itself a very powerful political act. In Ashes to Ashes, the act of remembering enables Rebecca to have an empathetic response to victims from the past, but Kate and Anna’s remembrances are not designed to provoke empathy, or to forge any kind of connection between people whatsoever. It is used as an instrument of leverage, a way to gain power over another and thereby possess them, or dispossess them of their subjectivity, Just like language, it becomes a political tool.

The political interaction in the play Ashes to Ashes consists of two contradictory discursive modes. Throughout the play, each of the two figures seems to obey a different code of conversation: one conversational pattern, represented by Rebecca, echoes the earlier Pinter, while the other, represented by Devlin, portrays the later Pinter through the direct, explicit style that has come to represent his political phase. The play has an underlying logic which is hidden under several layers of meanings, thus demanding an active engagement from the audience. The public response to the play, since many of them could not understand what it is about. Elyse Sommer, in her review of the New York production through Internet, warns that a proper understanding of any Pinter play demands special attention to every clue. Pinter has introduced in this play two character, both are forty years old. Devlin and Rebecca were discussing the past life experience. Accordingly, as the play starts Rebecca is telling Devlin, who presumably is her husband, of a former lover. The initial scene is reminiscent of Old Times, Whose opening also shows a couple in their forties with the husband questioning his wife about a former relationship. The difference is that whereas in the later Anna, Kate’s old time companion, is a real presence, in Ashes to Ashes Rebecca’s mind is often doubted. Consequently, the situation is defined from the start as a dialogue between two people about a third, absent figure, whose presence is felt throughout the play.

Power, where it comes from and how it is gained, is essentially Pinter’s most prominent subject. When this war of power is fought between individuals of different gender, the fight inevitably becomes sexual and political at the same. Pinter’s gender politics is a widely subject and good reason since he is equally controversial and ambiguous in his gender politics as in other aspects of his work.

3.1. Gender Politics
According to Webster’s New World Dictionary, gender has been used primarily to refer to the grammatical categories of “masculine,” “feminine,” and “neuter,” but in recent years the word has become well established in its use to refer to sex-based categories, as in phrases such as ‘gender gap’ and the ‘politics of gender’. This usage is supported by the practice of many anthropologists, who reserve sex for reference to biological categories, while using gender to refer to social or cultural categories. Gender identity, an individual’s self-conception as being male or female is distinguished from actual biological sex. For most persons, gender identity and biological characteristics are the same. There are, however, circumstances in which an individual experiences little or no connection between sex for example, biological sexual characteristics are distinct and unambiguous he/she is or ought to be of the opposite sex. Gender identity is not fixed at birth, both physiologic and social factions contribute to the early establishment of a core identity, which is modified and expanded by social factors as the child matures.

Gender is not natural but cultural; it is in some sense a role and thus intimately connected with theater, our culture’s privileged site for problematizing the relation of the real and the role, the authentic and the textualized, the natural and the mediated. The recent writers like Anthony Giddens and Barron Giddens obviously believe that women have been denied their real status in the society and personal relationship by men; many playwrights like G.B.Shaw, “a day never passes without a performance of some Shaw play being given somewhere in the world.” Glenn Beck has interview to Bernard Shaw’s when he said “you must all know half a dozen people at least who are no use in this world, who are more trouble than they are worth. Just put them there and say Sir, or Madam, now will you be kind enough to justify your existence? If you can’t justify your existence, if you’re not pulling your weight in the social boat, if you’re not producing as much as you consume or perhaps a little more, then, clearly, we cannot use the organizations of our society for the purpose of keeping you alive, because your life does not benefit us and it can’t be of very much use to yourself.” (Beck, Glenn, 2010)

Tennessee Williams was asked by an interviewer if he would ever write “directly” about current political events, including the struggle of African Americans for civil rights and the Vietnam War. “I am not a direct writer,” Williams replied, “I am always an oblique writer, if I can be; I want to be allusive; I don’t want to be one of those people who hit the nail on the head all the time” (qut. In conversations, 129). This did not mean, however, that the important political events of his time had no interest for him. He had interview with Watergate and Nixon’s in Vietnam. (Michael, Paller, 2009).

They have turned into feminists, directly or indirectly. They are trying to bring about a change in the social setting so that women are accepted as equal as or better than the males in all social as well as familial responsibilities, rights and situations. But Harold Pinter thrusts a different point of view. In a typically Pinteresque tongue-in-cheek manner, he seems to be suggestively discarding the popular view that women are inferior to men and, hence, are tortured by them (Bhatnagar, Manmohan Krishna, 2002).  He seems to be breaching the dead wall of complacency as his plays set up the situations which involve the male-female contention. Mostly, the contention in his plays is for superiority, dominance and possession and almost, invariably, it is the female in his plays who imposes her authority over fellow males and assumes the position of superiority and dominance.

The dominance of Pinter’s female characters continues even in his works like Old Times. However, in contrast to the pattern of The Homecoming, wherein there are many men fighting for one women, here it is found that one woman and man fighting for another woman. The object of contention here is Kate and those who fight over her are her husband Deeley and her friend Anna. The play, however, achieves greater amount of dishonesty, slyness and complexity as the characters move more deceitfully than they did in The Homecoming. The characters here attempt to invent and rearrange the past to suit their own ends (Hughes, 1974). Nevertheless, the core of the play lies in the battle for possession, supremacy and dominance among Pinter’s males and females and quite like A Slight Ache and The Homecoming. The success of these plays lies with its female characters.

In the beginning itself, Deeley, the only male in the play Old Times, is shown to be “slumped in arm chair”, which, in itself suggests his defeat even before the struggle begins. Kate is “curled on sofa” while Anna is “Standing at the window, looking out” (Pinter, Harold, 1986 pp.25). Clearly the posture of Kate indicates her security and repose, whereas that of Anna suggests her emotional detachment. But surely married woman, Kate can no longer live with her. But Deeley’s very necessity to ask questions and seek clarifications indicates his weakness and the consequent superiority of Kate over him. Anna is quick to gauge this weakness of Deeley. Sensing very much his possible alienation from Kate, she starts pledging her claims for her and immediately relates herself to Kate with an intimate recollection of their escapade in London: “We sat hardly breathing with our coffee, heads bent, so as not to be seen, so as not disturb, so as not to distract and listened to all those words”. (Pinter, 1986 pp. 14). Deeley tries to belittle the importance of their relationship by derogating the place itself: “We rarely get to London” (Pinter, 1986 pp.25). But Kate aligns herself with Anna as she confirms her recollection: “Yes, I remember” (Pinter, 1986 pp.14). The observation suggests the realistic and close relation of Anna with Kate in contrast to that of Deeley which indicates his isolation and too romantic an approach for his positions of superiority, dominance and control towards the end. In a suggestive manner thus, Pinter provides an anti-thesis to the popular feminist question and indicates the meaninglessness of such talk (Bhatnagar, Manmohan Krishna, 2002).

According to Marc Silverstein develops this argument to examine how language is used by male character in Pinter’s plays as a way to dominate the female characters. The early year plays of Pinter Old Times (1971), which supplementary material from The Homecoming; in these two plays which focus on the dominant female within an overwhelmingly powerful patriarchy. Pinter uses two women character in the play Old Times, is his way of articulating his response to the burgeoning feminist politics of the day. In these plays, Pinter fuses the personal with the political again through a highly symbolic exploration of world politics.

4. Conclusion
 Political commitment may be identified in a work of art in two different contexts. Firstly, an author understands the political happening around him and brings out his understanding in his plays or any form of art, where he uses his work of art as his discourse tool. Secondly, an author brings out a work of art in which the influence of the political happenings can be identified, but without the author’s intention. In case of Pinter, he falls in the first category. Pinter is a critique of his society (Gussow, 1994). He clearly understands his society and the reason for the happening as political based. He views the power, society and its culture in his plays through gender issues, where he identifies the suppression of women. He universalizes the politics for the reader to have proximity.

Beck, Glenn. 2010. The Revolutionary Holocaust: Live Free or Die. Fox News. Retrieved 31 October, 2011.
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Brenton, Howard. 1975.  Petrol Bombs Through the Proscenium Arch. Theatre Quarterly 5, 4-20
 Derbyshire, Harry. 2001. Pinter as celebrity in The Cambridge Companion to Harold Pinter Peter Raby. (ed.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Gussow, Mel. 1994. Conversations with Pinter. London: Nick Hern Books.
Grebowicz,  Margret. 2008. Gender after Lyotard. New York: State University of New York Press.
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Vanden Heuvel, Michael. 1994. Gender and Power in the Plays of Harold PinterContemporary Literature. Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press.
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