Harold Pinter takes a pause

Playwright, Nobel Prize-winner, and peace activist Harold Pinter passed away yesterday. Pinter was most famous for the Pinter pause, a stage-directed delay which allowed actors to reorganize themselves, and for the audience to take in the events on stage. It also contributed to the disquieting nature of his pieces.

More recently, Pinter took a role as one of the great proponents of peace, both in his literary work and as a public intellectual. In his 2005 Nobel acceptance speech, he explored the importance of speaking truth, and confronting those in power with truth, true sentiment, true evidence, and a true accounting of where power lies. And as a playwright, he also understood the truths that silence can convey. In his speech, he described his role of the United States through the Cold War, and his part in applying pressure on Congress not to continue backing the Contras in their fight against the Nicaraguan government:

I was a member of a delegation speaking on behalf of Nicaragua, but the most important member of this delegation was a Father John Metcalf. The leader of the U.S. body was Raymond Seitz (then number two to the ambassador, later ambassador himself). Father Metcalf said: “Sir, I am in charge of a parish in the north of Nicaragua. My parishioners built a school, a health center, a cultural center. We have lived in peace. A few months ago a Contra force attacked the parish. They destroyed everything: the school, the health center, the cultural center. They raped nurses and teachers, slaughtered doctors, in the most brutal manner. They behaved like savages. Please demand that the U.S. government withdraw its support from this shocking terrorist activity.”

Raymond Seitz had a very good reputation as a rational, responsible and highly sophisticated man. He was greatly respected in diplomatic circles. He listened, paused and then spoke with some gravity. “Father,” he said, “let me tell you something. In war, innocent people always suffer.” There was a frozen silence. We stared at him. He did not flinch.

Innocent people, indeed, always suffer.

Pinter’s pauses did not refresh. They illuminated, they disturbed, and they menaced. They let us reflect on ourselves, and the reflections we saw weren’t always pretty.

This, his final pause as a great actor on the global stage, gives us time to review ourselves and our actions. Who knows what we’ll find.