We’ll Miss the Pinter Who Fought Oppression with Words
As we mourn the passing of one of the greatest playwrights of the 20th century, let’s not forget that the field of human rights has also lost a great defender of freedom of expression. During my time at PEN, Harold Pinter proved indispensable in helping to raise the profile of numerous, lesser well-known, writers in trouble for their work. He never let them down.
Much has been made about Pinter’s refusal to tolerate bullying at school. He also took on many of the world’s tyrants—however big or small—defending the rights of writers, journalists and human rights activists around the globe by lending his name or wielding his pen. He came to every single demonstration we mounted on behalf of Ken Saro-Wiwa, and when the international campaign to free the outspoken Nigerian writer failed, Pinter condemned his execution on the orders of dictator General Abacha in the strongest possible terms. Pinter and his wife, the author Antonia Fraser, also supported the campaign to free Iranian dissident Faraj Sarkohi—attending most of PEN´s weekly demonstrations—and Pinter the actor took part in a staged reading at the Almeida intended to raise Sarkohi’s profile.
When PEN sent petitions to governments protesting at the mistreatment of a writer, Pinter would, inevitably, be one of the first to sign. He remained a harsh critic of Turkey’s treatment of the Kurds and its imprisonment of dissident writers. Following Ayotallah Khomeini´s fatwa against Salman Rushdie calling for his death, Pinter led a delegation of British writers to Downing Street, demanding that Margaret Thatcher’s government take action over ”an intolerable and barbaric state of affairs.”
In recent years, he was a relentless critic of US government policy; as quick to denounce “American gulags” as he was to condemn the labour camps of Russia or China. As well as giving freely of his time, he was generous with his own writing to help a cause. He often gave PEN an evening during a run of one of his plays in order to raise funds for beleaguered writers. For his 70th birthday celebration at Soho theatre, which featured a host of theatre celebrities paying tribute to the great man, the money raised from tickets sales went to English PEN´s Writers in Prison programme. In his later years he used poetry to rage against injustices. Last year, without hesitation, he contributed his poem, “Death,” to the PEN anthology, Another Sky.
In return, Pinter expected very little. He did not suffer fools gladly and liked his white wine to be suitably chilled—to the extent that he contributed a fridge to PEN when they had a club bar in former premises.
We mourn a phenomenal playwright who contributed to and helped shape today’s theatre. But just as great is the loss of a foremost defender of freedom of expression who fought some of the world’s worst dictatorships with words and, more often than not, emerged the victor in the battle against human wrongs.