Monday 29 December 2008

Harold and Eartha

Thanks, everybody, for your cheering Christmas messages. I am now back from my five-day silent tribute to the late Harold Pinter...
Harold Pinter... (the ... is a quote, of course) - was he half as good as he was cracked up to be? I've always suspected he might have owed his success to mastering a particular clever trick of suggesting everything, stating nothing, and using it to the hilt - to good theatrical effect, creating tension and menace galore. But really was there anything much there? His plays feel hollow and unsatisfactory - trivial even - compared to those of Beckett (from whom, clearly, Pinter learned a lot). Of course, when it comes to theatre (and, indeed, new 'literary' novels), critical standards are pretty indulgent, coloured by a conviction that theatre (like the 'literary' novel) is somehow a Good Thing - and helped along, in the case of theatre, by the determination of a paying audience to convince themselves they haven't wasted their money. In the hothouse atmosphere of the theatrical world, adulation - whether merited or not - thrives. As for Pinter's 'poetry' - had it been written by anyone else, it would surely never have been taken seriously for a moment, would it?
Eartha Kitt also died over Christmas. Here was a woman who had a remarkable life - outlined here. I remember she gave an extraordinarily emotional interview to Anthony Clare in his radio series In The Psychiatrist's Chair, in which she looked back over her traumatic early years and the frequent wrong turns and catastrophes of her later life. Was there, Clare asked the sobbing Eartha towards the end, one man she truly loved and could have been happy with? Yes, she replied, Arthur Lowe. For years afterwards, I cherished the image of a passionate affair between the feline, ultra-sexy Eartha and Captain Mainwaring - but alas, it turned out to be a Hollywood studio executive of the same name. Another illusion gone...


  1. See what happens when you don't turn the tv or pc on over Christmas. You have no idea who has died or what countries are newly killing each other.

    I like the idea of 'our' Arthur Lowe and Eartha together. I did find her irritating though - those clips of her dressed in leopard skin and doing that purring thing she did - nope, not for me. As for HP, I always muddle him up with Arnold Wesker - didn't they both have pretty similar backgrounds?

  2. Pinter was a writer I could never connected with. I remember enjoying reading 'The Caretaker' but I always found his poems risible and perhaps that's what discouraged me from going out to discover more about him. I recently watched 'Sleuth', for which he'd apparently written the screenplay, and thought it beyond dreadful. Now, watching the news, the last few days, I'm beginning to suspect that I've missed out on something special. I am, however, remarkably shallow. Which is proved by the fact that Ertha Kitt will always be Catwoman to me.

  3. Well, Nige, you and I are in agreement on Pinter. As I said on Frank's blog, I think Pinter was mostly admired by actors. The idea of banal dialogue being given a sinister and unsettling spin (and let's face it, that's what his plays were always doing) appeals to thespians. Really gives 'em something to do, a chance to show how THEY can interpret the words and affect the audience's understanding. But, frankly, his plays were an utter snore for the audience and not up to his mentor's (Beckett).

    The greatest English playwright of the 20th century is not Pinter, and not Beckett, but Tom Stoppard. His plays show a love of language, ideas, wit, and just effervescent joie de vivre. He's the one students will be writing their dissertations on in a century -- there's meat there. Pinter's plays, when you read them, are about as satisfying as a cardboard sandwich. Stoppard's are incandescent: He's as good (or better) on the page as on the stage. The actors don't get to do too much interpreting, but they get to be the vehicles who carry the tenor of his unbelievable voice.

    And dat's all I've got to say...time for more coffee!

  4. Hello French F! I think Eartha had that cartoon female sexuality that appeals to an iconically minded gay audience (and what gay audience isn't?). Wesker a similar background to HP, I think, but gritty realism his thing - Chips With Everything ('including shoulders,' as a critic remarked).
    Hello David! Right again - and ignore the obits. Theatrical obits are especially prone to gush.
    Hello Susan! Quite right about HP being an actors' writer - that explains everything. And probably right about Stoppard - I'd like to think so anyway. Beckett's surely greater all in all, but then he's hardly an 'English playwright', more like a French one, and he'd be great if he'd never written a play...

  5. Pinter produced some great works which will stand the test of time, but of course he made such a fool of himself whenever he opened his ignorant gob on political matters, which was much too often.

    This will hang over any retrospective of his life and work, just as Satre's disgrace hangs over his.