Harold Pinter’s speech and the creative arts

Playwright Harold Pinter gave his Nobel Prize for Literature acceptance speech to the Swedish Academy on December 7, 2005. Because he has been operated for throat cancer and is not well, he delivered the televised speech from England. His voice was hoarse and he was in a wheelchair but the speech was riveting. It was a lesson in how to give a great talk with the minimum of motion, and people who are interested in developing good rhetorical skills could learn a lot from him. You see a master of words and pauses and inflection, the trademarks of his success on the stage, use them here to brilliant effect as he stares at the camera, occasionally gestures with one hand, and moves easily between art and politics. Once I started listening to his forty-five minute speech, I was riveted. (You can read the text of his speech or watch it here but I strongly recommend watching it.)

The title of his talk was Art, Truth, and Politics and I will comment on each aspect in sequence. Today I want to reflect on the way that he said he creates his plays. Tomorrow will deal with the role that truth plays in art and politics and science and the day after I will write about his blistering analysis of US foreign policy since World War II and Britain’s complicity in it, later. This starts about ten minutes into his speech. There was a lot of meaty stuff in his presentation, much food for thought, and much to be admired about his skill with words.

I have always been intrigued by the way extremely creative people, artists such as novelists, playwrights, painters, and sculptors especially, envisage and create entire works of art out of nothing. I am particularly intrigued by the works of novelists and playwrights, because they use words to achieve their ends.

I have read some writers say that they start by simply creating a few characters and a rudimentary plot and that the characters and novel develop a life of their own and the story evolves along with them. The writers say that they cannot predict how events will end. Pinter seems to start with even less. He seems to start with just a word or phrase or image, and take it from there. He says:

I have often been asked how my plays come about. I cannot say. Nor can I ever sum up my plays, except to say that this is what happened. That is what they said. That is what they did.

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 shall give two examples of two lines which came right out of the blue into my head, followed by an image, followed by me.

The plays are The Homecoming and Old Times. The first line of The Homecoming is ‘What have you done with the scissors?’ The first line of Old Times is ‘Dark.’

In each case I had no further information.

In the first case someone was obviously looking for a pair of scissors and was demanding their whereabouts of someone else he suspected had probably stolen them. But I somehow knew that the person addressed didn’t give a damn about the scissors or about the questioner either, for that matter.

‘Dark’ I took to be a description of someone’s hair, the hair of a woman, and was the answer to a question. In each case I found myself compelled to pursue the matter. This happened visually, a very slow fade, through shadow into light.

I always start a play by calling the characters A, B and C.

In the play that became The Homecoming I saw a man enter a stark room and ask his question of a younger man sitting on an ugly sofa reading a racing paper. I somehow suspected that A was a father and that B was his son, but I had no proof. This was however confirmed a short time later when B (later to become Lenny) says to A (later to become Max), ‘Dad, do you mind if I change the subject? I want to ask you something. The dinner we had before, what was the name of it? What do you call it? Why don’t you buy a dog? You’re a dog cook. Honest. You think you’re cooking for a lot of dogs.’ So since B calls A ‘Dad’ it seemed to me reasonable to assume that they were father and son. A was also clearly the cook and his cooking did not seem to be held in high regard. Did this mean that there was no mother? I didn’t know. But, as I told myself at the time, our beginnings never know our ends.

‘Dark.’ A large window. Evening sky. A man, A (later to become Deeley), and a woman, B (later to become Kate), sitting with drinks. ‘Fat or thin?’ the man asks. Who are they talking about? But I then see, standing at the window, a woman, C (later to become Anna), in another condition of light, her back to them, her hair dark.

It’s a strange moment, the moment of creating characters who up to that moment have had no existence. What follows is fitful, uncertain, even hallucinatory, although sometimes it can be an unstoppable avalanche. The author’s position is an odd one. In a sense he is not welcomed by the characters. The characters resist him, they are not easy to live with, they are impossible to define. You certainly can’t dictate to them. To a certain extent you play a never-ending game with them, cat and mouse, blind man’s buff, hide and seek. But finally you find that you have people of flesh and blood on your hands, people with will and an individual sensibility of their own, made out of component parts you are unable to change, manipulate or distort.

This approach to writing totally boggles my mind because when I write I always have more or less the whole thing planned before I even start. Of course, the very act of writing and seeing your words on paper influences the work, but in my case all it does is perhaps change the order of things to make things clearer, choose words and sentences to make the points better or suggest new avenues to explore to fill in gaps in the sequence of the argument.

Of course, all my writing is non-fiction, and I have felt that my inability to start without such a clear map is why I have felt that I could never be a fiction writer. But why do I think I am unable to be one? Do I think that the world of writers is divided by some intrinsic qualities into those who can write without a map and those who can’t? I used to think so but a little reflection persuades me that I am not being consistent in this view.

When I teach physics, I often find students not even begin to try and solve a problem if they cannot see all the way to the end. If after staring at a problem for about five minutes and not see a solution leap into their mind, many give up, feeling the problem is impossible for them. As a result, students often feel that they can either do physics or they can’t, as if it is an intrinsic quality. I tell them that I don’t think physicists are born like that. Instead they have learned that when confronted with a problem, they need to start out tentatively trying out an idea, seeing where it goes, backtracking, trying new avenues, and so on, until they arrive at a solution. The form that the final solution takes may be a surprise to them. In other words, it is important to start even if you cannot see the end.

If that is what I tell students who are learning physics, why am I not applying that same lesson to my own fiction writing? The reason is that with physics, I have done it and know it can be done but with fiction, I have no such successful experience to draw upon. And the reason for my lack of success is because I have never tried. In this respect, I am just like my physics students. Perhaps what I need to do is simply start a work of fiction and see where it goes, to take that leap into the unknown, and develop the experience.

I am reminded of the words of Gordon Parks (photojournalist, cinematographer, movie director, novelist, poet, music and ballet composer, quoted on his 88th birthday in 2000.)

I think most people can do a whole awful lot more if they just try. They just don’t have the confidence that they can write a novel or they can write poetry or they can take pictures or paint or whatever, and so they don’t do it, and they leave the planet dissatisfied with themselves.

I think Parks is right. We have to learn to be unafraid to take that first step into the unknown.


  1. says

    With regard to the visual arts, there is an interesting book by Betty Edwards “Drawing on the right side of the brain”. Teh author points out that anybody can learn to draw. However, one’s left brain can curtail one’s right from taking a shot at making a sketch. It may start criticizing your efforts even before you have made a drawing. Edwards has several interesting techniques to overcome these intial hiccups.

    Feynman, the great physicist, tried his hand at sketching to prove that anyone can learn to draw and even sold some of his works!

    I am also reminded of Natalie Goldberg’s “Wild Mind” that talks about 10 minute timed writing which can help you to jump start your creative output.

  2. Erin says

    As a psychologist I feel obligated to say that I think that whole right brain vs. left brain thing is nearly total hooey.

    Not that there isn’t some evidence for differentiation of the roles of the cerebral hemispheres for certain tasks, but as far as I can tell, the real differences do not overlap much with what is portrayed in the popular press, which is IMO too simplistic and draws wider conclusions than the research I know about actually warrants.

    Also, Mano, I empathize with you here. When I was a kid, I loved to draw, but I realized in high school that I had a tough time drawing from real life, where the outlines weren’t already present and fixed. On the other hand, I took a drawing class while I was at Case and certainly saw some improvement. 🙂

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