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Censorship and conflict: inside the Harold Pinter archive

This article is over 16 years, 2 months old
Simon Basketter took a tour round the British Library’s new exhibition devoted to Harold Pinter
Issue 2084
A selection of papers from the British Library’s latest literary acquisition (Pic: British Library)
A selection of papers from the British Library’s latest literary acquisition (Pic: British Library)

“Stan, don’t let them tell you what to do.” This, according to the Nobel Prize winning writer Harold Pinter, was “one of the most important lines I’ve ever written… I’ve lived that line all my damn life”.

The line is taken from Pinter’s first professionally staged play, The Birthday Party (1958), in which the banal existence of Stanley, a boarding house lodger, is ripped apart by arbitrary psychological torture.

At that time the Lord Chamberlain had the power to censor stage productions. Pinter was furious at having to hand his scripts to the government for approval – and he inserted the line into the play after it had come back from the Lord Chamberlain’s office.

This is just one small revelation about Pinter’s work that emerges from the archive of the writer’s papers, which was bought for £1.1 million by the British Library last month.

Some of the documents are on display at the library in an exhibition, His Own Domain – Harold Pinter, A Life In Theatre, which runs until 13 April.

Petty minded

The exhibition shows evidence of another spat with the Lord Chamberlain in 1967 over Pinter’s play Landscape. A letter from the censors’ office displays a bizarre combination of bureaucratic petty mindedness and crass attempts at artistic criticism.

“The nearer to [writer Samuel] Beckett, the more portentous Pinter gets,” the letter reads. “This is a long one-act play without any plot or development… a lot of useless information about the treatment of beer… And of course, there have to be the ornamental indecencies.” The letter demands the removal of these “indecencies” (swear words). Pinter refused to do so – and the play was banned.

Despite the relatively small number of documents on display, the exhibition manages to integrate Pinter’s literary work with his lifelong political commitment to the left.

Throughout Pinter’s theatre, the complexities of human relations and memories carry political implications. His early plays explore the repressive politics of sex and domesticity. Later he explores the personal consequences of political attitudes.

Pinter revolutionised British drama at the end of the 1950s, using language that was often oblique – but also sharp and savagely funny. No exchange is ever innocent in his dialogue – there is always a battle for power being conducted under the surface.

Pinter revels in revealing the insecurity, panic and hypocrisy that lie behind masks of authority. “How can you write a happy play?” he once said. “Drama is about conflict and general degrees of perturbation, disarray.”

The exhibition also charts some of Pinter’s later brushes with authority. In 1985 he went to Turkey on a human rights mission alongside his friend and fellow playwright, Arthur Miller.

The resulting play, Mountain Language (1988), and the letters between Miller and Pinter discussing it, are shown in the exhibition.

During the trip Pinter caused trouble for the Turkish state with his blunt questions about its dubious legal processes, torture of suspected political opponents and oppression of the Kurdish people.

Thrown out

Pinter was thrown out of a reception for asking why they put electrodes on people’s genitals. He apparently caused offence for mentioning genitals rather than for mentioning torture.

Repressive regimes and their use of political violence are a regular feature in his work. The abuse of language is another central concern – particularly words such as “freedom” and “democracy”. For politicians, “language is actually employed to keep thought at bay”, he once said.

Also on display at the British Library is the first draft of Pinter’s poem Death, written about the first Gulf War of 1990-91.

Pinter read out this poem during his 2005 acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Literature as a protest against the invasion of Iraq.

The harsh passion of Pinter’s

words – “Where was the dead body found? Who found the dead body?” – clashes with the fact that it is written on headed notepaper from a Brighton hotel.

As Pinter has said, “The search for the truth can never stop. It cannot be adjourned, it cannot be postponed. It has to be faced, right there, on the spot.”

Pared down style combines violence and observation

Pinter’s work is not all as intense as his anti-war poem Death. The British Library exhibition also includes an unpublished manuscript titled Queen Of All The Fairies (Chanson Populaire).

It sketches the places and people of the east London neighbourhood where Pinter grew up. He describes a borough that “brimmed over with milk bars, Italian cafes, 50 shilling tailors and barbers”.

Jamie Andrews, head of modern literary manuscripts at the British Library, spoke to Socialist Worker about the archive.

“Pinter’s writing is much more florid at that time and it was eventually pared down,” he says. “But you get a sense of the themes of Pinter – the violence and the acute observation of what goes on beneath the surface.”

Pinter describes his own writing process as follows: “Most of the plays are engendered by a line, a word, or an image. The given word is often shortly followed by the image. I always start a play by calling the characters A, B and C.”

Manuscripts in the exhibition show the process of how these starting points develop into a play.

A first draft of Pinter’s 1978 play Betrayal, written on a yellow pad, features a dialogue between A and B – although halfway down the first page in the margin, one of the characters suddenly acquires a name: Emma.


“The archive shows how the work isn’t born fully-formed,” says Jamie. “Their drafts always start from the image. Hopefully we can throw a light on that process.

“The archive should open up questions. People take the published text as the finished thing, but it’s far more fluid than that. It could have been otherwise. Texts show how deadlines of productions and so on all affect what is produced.”

Jamie adds that the show tries to put Pinter in context by showing the extent of collaboration in his work.

“Pinter’s theatre relates closely to the plays of his friend and mentor, Samuel Beckett. There is a wonderful note from Beckett on reading Betrayal, which describes the end of the play as ‘The first last look in the shadows all after curtain of curtains’.

“We’ve tried to give a sense of Pinter’s utter engagement with the theatre in all its aspects. He is involved as an actor, director and writer.

“And we have tried to integrate Pinter’s political commitment rather than separate it off.

“This is not about putting documents in glass cases – rather the exhibition and archive overall is about opening out to people how the creative process works.”

His Own Domain – Harold Pinter, A Life In Theatre is at the British Library, central London, until 13 April. For more details go to »

The young Harold Pinter
The young Harold Pinter

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