The Elite Pinter and the Pinter Elite

Hudson, James (2021) The Elite Pinter and the Pinter Elite. In: Harold Pinter: Stages, Networks, Collaborations. Bloomsbury Methuen, pp. 53-70. ISBN 9781350133624

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On 27 October 2017 a letter that Harold Pinter had written to Tom Stoppard in 2001 went ‘viral’ on Twitter, with Pinter’s rebuff that he would ‘rather die’ than attend a fundraising dinner at a ‘top London restaurant’. The tweet attracted over 18,000 ‘likes’. Though many clearly identified with his characteristic frankness, Pinter’s great success nevertheless did afford him access to privilege, the amplification of his voice and the opportunity to breathe rarefied social air; it is unlikely that his description of having lunch at Buckingham Palace, as recounted to Mel Gussow, would have resonated as strongly on social media. This article mounts a dual perspective upon Pinter and the notion of the elite: one that takes in both an analysis of the way that he represents elites within his art, and one that examines the dimensions of his own elite status as an artist and public figure. To date the nature of social class in the work of Pinter is undertheorized, with Peacock (1997) so far offering its most sustained articulation; this article reads Pinter’s work through Mills (1999) and Bourdieu (1999) to conduct a class analysis informed by sociological theories of elites. Relatedly, it extends and complicates an appreciation of Pinter as a public figure broached by Derbyshire (2001) that qualifies his political activism against an acknowledgement of the problematic contours of his elite status obtained by being a purveyor of elite art.
With the representation of class dynamics in Pinter’s theatrical oeuvre well-known as a gradual abandonment of lower-class scenarios for milieus of comfortable affluence, the first section of this article analyses the political, artistic and academic elites of Pinter’s plays. It suggests that Pinter’s conception of and portrayal of elites can be understood to be reflective of three contemporaneous theoretical paradigms of elite theory. Firstly, while Pinter’s earliest plays decline to foreground elites onstage, the Kafkaesque bureaucracies that lie behind the characters of The Birthday Party (1958) and The Dumb Waiter (1959) correspond with the sociologist C W Mills’s notions of the operation of elites as defined in his seminal work The Power Elite. Secondly, the article then reads Pinter’s mid-career plays through the lens of the sociological theories of Pierre Bourdieu, and transposes the notions of legitimation and authority bound up with class, professional merit and social prestige onto Bourdieu’s concept of habitus, drawing out the freighting and importance of cultural capital within The Homecoming (1965), No Man’s Land (1975) and Betrayal (1978). Thirdly, the article reads Pinter’s late, ‘more precisely political plays’ Party Time (1991), One for the Road (1984), The New World Order (1991) and Celebration (1999) as frank, searing portrayals of the ownership class of neoliberal elite society along with its intellectual assistants and adjutants.
While the first section of this article conducts an assessment of the way that Pinter’s various stages of writing can be loosely mapped onto contemporaneous conceptions of the nature and functioning of elite politics, the second applies those notions to the figure of Pinter himself. Working with Bourdieu’s concept habitus, this section examines Pinter’s elite status as artist and political activist and how these roles situated him within public discourse and codes of cultural appreciation. Unlike much Pinter scholarship, the article locates him within the co-ordinates of the material, discursive and institutional structures of theatre production within which he operated. This piece offers a way to do this by foregrounding the relationships Pinter maintained between the national companies, other prestige theatre institutions, fellow playwrights, actors and artists, with a focus on the way that his enmeshment within these fields afforded him privilege and patronage. Not only did this mean that his plays were unconditionally supported, but he was able to dispense patronage to the likes of David Mamet, Simon Gray, Di Trevis and others with almost autocratic impunity. This approach builds on Zarhy-Levo (2001) in demonstrating how Pinter’s stock rose through being associated with particular elite aesthetic movements, but extends this appreciation to Pinter’s status as a fixture in the commanding heights of Britain’s prestige national theatre institutions, primarily the RSC and the National Theatre. This facility to secure work for others contrasted with a steadily diminishing output which more and more was felt not to exhibit the refinement characteristic of ‘elite’ work. While the notion that the late Pinter’s work became thin and undemanding has been expertly redressed by Chiasson (2017), the article surveys the efficacy of Pinter’s public pronouncements in the context of this dispraisal of his art. As such it pays attention to both Pinter’s exercise of elite power within the theatrical establishment and contextualises his notorious anti-US adventurism in the press and public discourse within its material co-ordinates, emanating as they did from a quintessential member of the cultural establishment.

Keywords:Harold Pinter, elite theory, Bourdieu, C W Mills, neoliberalism
Subjects:W Creative Arts and Design > W440 Theatre studies
W Creative Arts and Design > W400 Drama
Divisions:College of Arts > School of Fine & Performing Arts > School of Fine & Performing Arts (Performing Arts)
ID Code:44062
Deposited On:26 Mar 2021 16:25

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