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Reticence or insincerity Rattigan or Pinter.

History is a seamless robe, of course, but there are nevertheless discernible tears in its fabric. One of these occurred in the 1950s, in the small world of the British theater. No doubt unimportant in itself, this quasi-revolution heralded, and perhaps even contributed to, a profound change in our culture.

The year in which the change started was 1956: the year, not coincidentally, of the Suez crisis, when it was unmistakably clear as never before that Britain, after two centuries of world influence, was now reduced to the status of a third-rate power, a kind of larger Belgium, which could disappear from the face of the earth without anyone beyond its shores noticing that anything very much had happened. Such abrupt losses of status are apt to result in a reduction of cultural self-confidence, both individually and collectively, as well as in a change of sensibility amounting to a gestalt switch. What previously appeared serf-evidently good now appeared self-evidently bad, and vice-versa: and in the process, babies were thrown out with bathwater.

It was in 1956 that John Osborne's play Look Back in Anger was produced at the Royal Court Theatre in London. The living playwright who until then had dominated the London stage, Terence Rattigan, recognized it at once as a threat not merely to his commercial supremacy, but to his whole conception of the drama. Having attended the first night, Rattigan was asked by a newspaper reporter what he thought of the play. He replied that he thought Osborne was trying to say, "Look, Ma, I'm not Terence Rattigan." Accustomed from the early age of twenty-five to theatrical success, his long night of critical disdain had begun. He died if not an embittered, at least a very much saddened, man.

Osborne was not by any means the only playwright at work transforming the London stage. A couple of years after his triumph, another playwright, a young actor named Harold Pinter, had emerged. Within ten years his was perhaps the dominating presence in the English theater. And so distinctive was his work that, in a very short time, a new adjective came to describe the menacing atmosphere, heavily laden silences, and deep incomprehension between characters that were the hallmark of his plays: "Pinteresque." No doubt his name was admirably suited to the formation of adjectives, as Rattigan's name was not: for "Rattiganesque" or "Rattiganish" are clumsy, ugly locutions. But the remarkable fact is that, after the production of a mere handful of plays, many people who had never seen or read a work by Pinter knew precisely what the word "Pinteresque" meant. Such implicit recognition is given to very few authors, and is a sign of their cultural significance.

A comparison of Rattigan with Pinter might help us understand, or at least pin-point, some of the enormous cultural changes that have occurred in England in the last half-century--and not only in England. It goes without saying that literary difference does not necessarily imply opposition: Chekhov is very different from Shakespeare, but in no sense opposed to him. And, despite their enormous differences, Rattigan and Pinter had a high regard for each other's work, which speaks well of them both. Among other things, they were united by a passion for cricket, that team sport so prolonged and subtle that there is little place for it in the modern world, except in India, where prolongation and subtlety remain in vogue.

Rattigan was the practitioner and advocate of "the well-made play," a phrase that came quite suddenly to bear precisely the opposite connotations from the ones a naive speaker of our language might have supposed. The opposite of a well-made play being a badly made play (something which no sensible person, surely, would wish to waste his time or money on), the naive speaker would conclude that the desirability of a play being well-made was unquestionable: but in fact, the phrase came to be code for trivial, facile, middlebrow entertainment, with a beginning, a middle, and an end, and with little that, in the words of Mr. Podsnap, could call a blush to the cheek of a young person. In short, the well-made play was a typical product of English bourgeois complacency, hypocrisy, moral cowardice, and intellectual laziness.

Unfortunately, Rattigan did not help his own case by his invention of Aunt Edna, the notional average playgoer for whom, in the preface to file second volume of his collected plays published in 1953, he said he wrote his plays. Aunt Edna, according to Rattigan, was the kind of person who predominated in theater audiences the world over, and always would predominate, and whom the playwright could therefore ill afford to ignore or offend. Mildly interested in the arts, but not excessively so, Aunt Edna knew what she liked and knew even better what she did not like: morbid concentration on the unpleasant aspects of life to the exclusion of all else, artistic experimentation, and cleverness for its own sake.

Rattigan could hardly have expressed himself worse. What he meant, of course, was that he saw no reason why serious drama should not also be entertaining and accessible to all those with a modicum of intelligence. Plays could and should have different levels of meaning, with moral or philosophical depth being embedded in a coherent narrative. It was of this layering that the playwright's skill consisted.

But just as Mrs. Thatcher was hated by millions for her strident enunciation of ideas that she never actually put into practice, so Rattigan was condemned for a compromise with shallowness and complacency that he never actually made. On the contrary, his best plays were subtle explorations of human dilemmas and of the tragically destructive power of passion. Capable of evoking the most visceral of emotions from the smallest of events, his vision was a tragic one. He would have laughed at the idea of the perfectibility of life or of man.

It is not difficult to find the biographical source of his tragic vision. He was born in 1911 into an upper-middle-class family of Irish origin, his father having been a charming but rakish diplomat and his grandfather the chief justice of the Punjab and a noted legal scholar and linguist. Rattigan received the traditional education of his class and time; handsome and talented, he seemed to have the world at his feet.

But he was homosexual, and, while homosexuality was scarcely unknown or unpracticed at that or any other time, it was still legally proscribed and socially unacceptable. Deeply desirous of social success, he was obliged to conceal his tree nature from the world: public revelation, he thought, would have been the ruin of his career. Moreover, he never told his much loved mother, who lived on well into his middle age, about his homosexuality, which she would have been unable to accept. He was therefore forced to lead a double life; he never allowed his homosexual lovers to live with him in case the mask slipped. Externally, therefore, he was the debonair and elegant English gentleman; internally, he was a man of unfulfilled longing for love and companionship. What he saw as a social obligation--the need to present a decorous facade to the world--frustrated his innermost desires. It was this personal experience of conflict between two powerful imperatives that gave him such insight into, and sympathy with, the broken human heart.

More recently, there have been attempts to turn Rattigan into a homosexual icon, as if his work were simply a disguised plea for homosexual liberation. Such a view of him is a symptom of the extreme balkanization of the imagination that has taken place since he wrote: as if the left-handed could really only understand the left-handed, and the blue-eyed speak only to the blue-eyed, et cetera. But while Rattigan's predicament was the psychological source of his tragic vision, his work was not dominated by resentment. His sympathies were not entirely with himself: for being a victim of circumstances was not yet a full-time occupation or a justification for having lived.

If he wasn't a campaigner for homosexual rights, exactly, Rattigan was made into a fierce social critic by an eminent British writer on the theater, Michael Billington, in his obituary of him in The Guardian. "His whole work," wrote Billington, "is a sustained assault on English middle class values: fear of emotional commitment, terror in the face of passion, apprehension about sex." This turns Rattigan into a theatrical advocate of sex education and a prophet of the Sixties sexual revolution, which is simply preposterous. The problem was that Billington, like most intellectuals, believed that all serious artistic work must, virtually by definition, assail middle-class values. (Could serious work assail proletarian values, for example, or uphold aristocratic ones?) Since Rattigan was, at his best, a serious artist, it followed therefore that he must have assailed middle-class values. But Rattigan was genuinely non-ideological: he believed that life was (or ought to be) too subtle and variable to be caught in the coarse-meshed net of theoretical principles.

Rattigan's plays do not lead to the conclusion that if only we could indulge in a little emotional incontinence everything would be all right. It is true that he once said, "Do you know what `le vice anglais' --the English vice--really is? Not flagellation, not pederasty--whatever the French believe it to be. It's our refusal to admit our emotions." But we have already seen that his declarative statements are not necessarily the best guide to his deepest thought; and his plays certainly do not suggest that he would have regarded our modern mania for emotional openness and explicitness either as a positive contribution to civilization or as conducive to happiness. Quite the contrary: he was the poet of insolubility, who saw passion as unavoidable, necessary, and destructive at the same time.

Rattigan was certainly not a believer in the kind of confessional frankness and literal-mindedness that has swept the English speaking world since his apogee, and which has exerted such a coarsening effect upon our sensibility. In Separate Tables, for example, he makes a quiet case for reticence as a precondition for true tolerance. This play takes place in the dining room of the Beauregard Private Hotel, one of those residential hotels for retired gentlefolk who have come down in the world financially, which were once so plentiful in market towns and on the South Coast of England, and which called forth an entire literature of their own, offering authors a ready-made metaphor for both personal and national decline.

The principal residents of the hotel are Mrs. Railton-Bell, Lady Matheson, Major Pollock, and Mr. Fowler. Mrs. Railton-Bell has a daughter, Sybil, a timid creature whom she dominates entirely, and is herself a woman of implacably conventional and rigid social views, which she assumes that Lady Matheson, who is too polite to contradict her, shares.

One day, through the pages of The West Hampshire Weekly News, Mrs. Railton-Bell discovers that Major Pollock is not a retired major at all, or a member of the upper middle class, but an impostor, a mere former lieutenant, and that he has appeared before the magistrates because he has indecently approached several women in a local cinema. It is clear that Mrs. Railton-Bell enjoys her righteous indignation as she makes her friend, Lady Matheson, read the item out loud:
 Lady Matheson (reading): Ex-officer bound over. Offence in cinema. (Looking
 up.) In cinema? Oh dear--do we really want to hear this?

 Mrs. Railton-Bell (grimly): Yes, we do. Go on.


Mrs. Railton-Bell says a little further on that she regards it as a stroke of luck that she had subscribed privately to The West Hampshire Weekly News.
 Lady Matheson: Luck, dear? Is it luck?

 Mrs. Railton-Bell: Of course it's luck. Otherwise we'd never have known.

 Lady Matheson: Wouldn't that have been better?


Lady Matheson's deceptively simple question implies a sophisticated understanding that a tolerable and tolerant life cannot be lived entirely in the open, and that civilized human relations cannot long survive an unwillingness to remain uninformed about the discreditable little episodes that mar each and every human lift.

Mrs. Railton-Bell, having publicly exposed the major, calls a meeting of the residents to demand that the manageress of the hotel, Miss Cooper, expel the Major forthwith. Mr. Fowler, a former teacher of classics, initially agrees with Mrs. Railton-Bell: "Tolerance is not necessarily good, you know. Tolerance of evil may itself be an evil." But he also later recognizes an uncomfortable truth. "The trouble about being on the side of right, as one sees it, is that one sometimes finds oneself in the company of such very questionable allies." In the event, however, the manageress of the Beauregard refuses to expel Major (now plain Mr.) Pollock, and all the residents--except Mrs. Railton-Bell--accept him back into the fold. To the presumed satisfaction of the audience, Mrs. Railton-Bell's moral absolutism is defeated.

Rattigan is pleading for tolerance within a certain code of behavior. He is not suggesting that the standards by which the major was judged were in themselves wrong--that it is right for a man to manufacture a completely fake persona for himself, tell lies about his past, and touch up women in cinemas. But he is asking for the constant exercise of judgment rather than the mechanical application of rules, and his tolerance emerges not from abstract ideas, being neither ideological nor strident, but from genuine understanding of and sympathy for human weakness. The major explains himself to Sybil who--in her timid and inhibited way--has entertained an affection for him:
 I'm not trying to defend it [his behavior]. You wouldn't guess, I know, but
 ever since school I've always been scared to death of women. Of everyone,
 in a way, I suppose, but mainly of women. I had a bad time at school--which
 wasn't Wellington, of course--just a Council school. Boys hate other boys
 to be timid and shy, and they gave it me good and proper. My father
 despised me, too. He was a sergeant-major. He made me join the Army, but I
 was always a bitter disappointment to him. He died before I got my
 commission. I only got that by a wangle. It wasn't difficult at the
 beginning of the war. But it meant everything to me, all the same. Being
 saluted, being called sir--I thought I'm someone, now, a real person.
 Perhaps some woman might even--(He stops.) But it didn't work. It never has
 worked. I'm made a certain way, and I can't change it. It has to be the
 dark, you see, and strangers, because--


Sybil asks him to stop: she cannot bear more of his raw-nerve confession. But what is quite clear is that the major is not talking modern psychobabble: that genuine confession requires painful self-knowledge and is not possible for people who talk about themselves incontinently, or only as an egotistical conversational gambit.

In Rattigan, the ability of his characters to respond to others with genuine and intense emotion is intimately connected with their reticence. Early in Separate Tables, Sybil asks the major, who is then still playing his part as a bluff former officer of an elite regiment, whether he will accompany her on her walk.
 Major Pollock (embarrassed): Well, Miss R.B. --jolly nice suggestion and
 all that--the only thing is I'm going to call on a friend --you see--and--

 Sibyl (more embarrassed than he): Oh yes, yes.

 Of course. I'm so sorry.


In this little speech there is, for those attuned to hear it, the longing, despair, and loneliness of a lifetime, all disciplined by the need to conduct oneself properly in a social world. And in all of Rattigan's best plays--The Deep Blue Sea, The Browning Version, The Window Boy--there are conflicts between passion and good sense, between what is good for the individual and what is good for the collectivity, between duty and inclination. These conflicts are presented both entertainingly and truthfully, so that one ends with an understanding that civilization depends upon an endless interplay of incompatible desiderata, and that even the good life cannot be lived without unhappiness.

It is not difficult, however, to see how and why, after Rattigan's world of gentility and polite understatement, Pinter's plays made such an immense impact. His characters (at least in the first few plays) were drawn mainly from a lower social stratum than Rattigan's: which was in tune with the nascent intellectual fashion for believing that the unpolished and the brutal were somehow more real and authentic than the refined and the civilized. Ugliness was also henceforth more real than beauty and impoverishment more real than wealth. Pinter's audiences--which were, after all, still overwhelmingly drawn from the supposedly inauthentic middle classes--were enabled to imagine that they were immersing themselves in the boue for which they apparently had such a nostalgie. This was both pleasurable and, in their own eyes, the fulfillment of a moral duty. They believed they were bravely facing life as it is.

It was assumed at once that Pinter's depiction of the lower orders, as totally inarticulate, uncomprehending and uncouth, was true to life. In fact, many in the old working classes of England shared the values of reticence, restraint, and good manners with their social superiors: values that still exist among the older folk. For example, recently in the hospital in which I work, I happened to see the husband of a working-class patient of mine in a waiting room. In his seventies, he had lost a lot of weight since I saw him last, and he was deeply jaundiced. I knew at once that he had secondaries in his liver. I greeted him, and, when I inquired after his health, he replied with the utmost lack of drama, "I'm here for tests. It might not be very good news, I'm afraid." I wished him well, and saw him again a few days later in the same place. "It's not very good news," he said, meaning that he would be (as in fact he was) dead in two weeks. I said that I was sorry to hear it. "Well, we must make the best of it," he replied. Our dialogue was straight out of Rattigan.

He understood that I felt for him all the sorrow it is possible and reasonable for a stranger to feel for a fellow being: it required nothing other than a few simple words to establish it. Moreover, I understood that he, even in his extremity, was trying to spare my feelings, by not making a fuss. To the very end of his life, he was a social being with social obligations, with a true humility that was part of a profound moral framework. It was this framework that once made the English, for all their many faults, an admirable and sometimes a noble people: and it is the destruction of this framework that has turned them into such savages.

Pinter recorded the turning point and perhaps contributed to the change. Because of his skill, his plays hold our attention in the theater; he creates an atmosphere with a minimum of words and stage effects, and his verbal skill gives to his dialogue the quality (sometimes) of poetry. But before long, a certain intellectual thinness is evident, and we come to the realization that not only is there no explicit meaning in Pinter's plays, but there is no implicit meaning either.

In Rattigan, people do not say all that they think for reasons of social inhibition, in Pinter, both because they lack the words and because communication is in any case impossible. There is no doubt, of course, that many people--more than there used to be, thanks to modern educational methods --are inarticulate or that many people cannot stick to the point. If you listen to barroom conversations, it becomes clear that they do not always progress like Socratic dialogues. Verbosity and incoherence are by no means opposites: and intelligent conversation is at least as much a matter of omission as of inclusion. But the characters in Pinter's plays are inarticulate for a deeper reason; life for them lacks meaning because one moment is unconnected with another and because lack of meaning is inherent in all existence. In other words, there is simply no possibility of meaning. His characters are creatures of desire but no intellect; and therefore if disputes arise among them, they are mere struggles for power. When there are events--for example, the arrival on the stage of two thugs in The Birthday Party, Pinter's first full-length play--they are completely arbitrary and without explanation. This arbitrariness is ontological; for Pinter admits that he has no explanation for the events he himself has put into his plays.

There is a celebrated passage in the early play entitled The Dumb Waiter that illustrates the Pinteresque view of disagreement as a mere struggle for supremacy between the people who disagree. The Dumb Waiter is a typical Pinter play in that it takes place in an impoverished environment with characters whose names are simple diminutives (Ben and Gus), who have no memorable distinguishing features (one never gives a damn what happens to any Pinter character), and who are plunged into an arbitrarily enigmatic situation. They are hired killers who have come to an unoccupied room to await their unknown victim, a room in which--as it happens--there is a dumb waiter that unexpectedly delivers orders to them for various dishes. Ben and Gus, while waiting for their victim, would like a cup of tea. Ben--the senior of the two men--orders Gus to make it.

Ben (powerfully): If I say go and light the kettle I mean go and light the kettle.

Gus: How can you light a kettle?

Ben: It's a figure of speech! Light the kettle. It's a figure of speech!

Gus: I've never heard it.

Ben: Light the kettle! It's common usage.

Gus: I think you've got it wrong.

Ben (menacing): What do you mean?

Gus: They say put on the kettle.

Ben (taut): Who says? (They stare at each other, breathing hard.) (deliberately): I've never in all my life heard anyone say put on the kettle.

Gus: I bet my mother used to say it.

Ben: Your mother? When did you last see your mother?

Gus: I don't know, about--

Ben: Well, what are you talking about your mother for?

(They stare.)

Gus, I'm not trying to be unreasonable. I'm just trying to point something out to you.

Gus: Yes, but--

Ben: Who's the senior partner here, you or me?

Gus: You.

Ben: I'm only looking after your interests, Gus. You've got to learn, mate.

Gus: Yes, but I've never heard--

Ben (vehemently): Nobody says light the gas! What does the gas light?

Gus: What does the gas-- Ben (grabbing him with two hands by the throat, at arms' length): THE KETTLE, YOU FOOL!

Clearly, the verbal disagreement--beautifully captured in rhythmical dialogue--is about nothing substantive. Ben is merely trying to crush Gus, to render him utterly subservient to him. This is a trick that Pinter often uses (one soon learns to recognize his devices that empty the world of meaning). In the first of his plays depicting educated middle-class people, A Slight Ache, an unhappily married couple argue over the question of whether a wasp bites or stings. The critic Martin Esslin used this play to illustrate Pinter's mastery not just of lower-class vernacular, but of educated middle-class speech also. In fact, it illustrates the opposite: his uncertain command at the time of middle-class speech. No educated middle-class person would maintain that wasps bite--to use such an expression would immediately establish one as an uneducated member of the lower classes. I checked that this was so with some friends, one of them a judge of the sharpest intellect. He immediately said, with legal precision, "Now if Pinter had used mosquitoes instead of wasps." The same kind of verbal power struggle appears in his late work, though suitably coarsened to appeal to the sensibility of the times: for example, whether a man should properly be called a cunt or a prick.

Obviously, verbal power struggles undoubtedly take place, and there is no reason why a playwright should not depict them. The problem with Pinter, however, is that this power struggle--verbal or otherwise --is almost all there is. His plays lack a moral dimension entirely. No situation poses a moral dilemma for any of the characters; no one speaks of any matter of principle. Everything in Pinter has the concreteness of the arbitrary.

Again, of course, there are people--alas, an increasing number of them, if my experience in medical practice is anything to go by--for whom life is like this. To take an example at random, I asked a young man recently who had smashed a man's skull with a fire extinguisher why he did it. "He was irritating me," he replied. "And how was he irritating you?," I asked. "He just was," replied the skull-crusher. He displayed no awareness that some people might think he had a duty to contain his irritation, and he likewise displayed no curiosity about the reasons that his victim had provoked so intense a reaction in him. As far as he was concerned, everything was as it was, and could have been no different from how it was. The givenness of the world was absolute and incontestable.

The exploration of this disastrous state of mind, that turns existence into a living hell, is a legitimate subject for literature. And Pinter's characters live in precisely this state. But there is something alarming about Pinter's use of them; he does not stand outside them, or criticize their brutally solipsistic world view. The lack of any other view in his plays suggests, indeed, that theirs is the only view possible.

Quite early on in his career, in 1962, Pinter gave a speech at the National Student Drama Festival in Bristol in which he explained the lack of moral content in his plays.
 Warnings, sermons, admonitions, ideological exhortations, moral judgements,
 defined problems with built-in solutions. The attitude behind this sort of
 thing might be summed up in one phrase: "I'm telling you!" If I were to
 state any moral precept it might be: beware of the writer who puts forward
 his concern for you to embrace, who leaves you in no doubt of his
 worthiness, his usefulness, his altruism, who declares that his heart is in
 the right place, and ensures it can be seen in full view, a pulsating mass
 where his characters ought to be. What is presented, so much of the time,
 as a body of active and positive thought is in fact a body lost in a prison
 of empty definition and cliche.


This is astonishingly crude, a mile away from the subtlety of Rattigan's moral sensibility. For Pinter, the choice is between Mr. Pecksniff and Elmer Gantry on the one hand and the kind of moral nihilism exhibited in his work on the other. But even if these were the only two possibilities in the world--which is quite clearly not the case --I would prefer Pecksniff to the nihilist; for if hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue, at least it recognizes that there is a difference between the two.

There is something even more profoundly terrible in Pinter's work: a sustained attack on the power of the human intellect to impose order on experience or to make sense of existence. Although Pinter began his speech to the drama festival by declaring baldly "I'm not a theorist" he later said:
 Apart from any other consideration, we are faced with the immense
 difficulty, if not the impossibility, of verifying the past. I don't mean
 merely years ago, but yesterday, this morning. What took place, what was
 the nature of what took place, what happened? If one can speak of the
 difficulty of knowing what in fact took place yesterday, one can I think
 treat the present in the same way. What's happening now? We won't know
 until tomorrow or in six months' time, and we won't know then, we'll have
 forgotten, or our imagination will have attributed quite false
 characteristics to today. A moment is sucked away and distorted, often even
 at the time of its birth.


Pinter is not a very good theorist perhaps, but he is a theorist nonetheless.

With this outlook, then, it is hardly surprising that his plays lack--indeed, deliberately eschew--a strong narrative line. And this cognitive nihilism is emphasized again and again in his work. Even in the dialogue quoted above, we can see it. Gus says not that his mother did say "Put the kettle on" but that he bets that she did, leaving open the distinct possibility that she did not. And if a son does not know his mother's verbal habits, who can know anything about anything?

In a world in which there is such radical uncertainty, such permanently shifting cognitive ground, such inescapable relativism, people behave psychopathically: they must do what they feel like at each successive instant not because it is right to do so, but because they could literally do no other. The question of right doesn't come into it. And there is little doubt that, during the period of Pinter's ascendance, our society has evolved according to such principles--if principles is quite the word I seek.

There is one further observation to make, however: on the complete dishonesty of it all. There is only one way to describe Pinter's philosophical outlook: that of a poseur. I refer not to the internal contradiction in his speech. (If we can't know the truth about any moment, how can we possibly say that any recollection of it is false?) Since we all commit errors of logic from time to time, Pinter may be forgiven on this count. What he cannot be forgiven for, in my opinion, is the brazenness of his insincerity. It is quite clear that he doesn't believe a word of what he says, and his reason for saying it must therefore be more concerned with self-advertisement and self-promotion that with a search for the truth. Pinter does not in the least believe it is impossible to know truths about the past. While many of his plays concern uncertainties about the events gone by--about the impossibility of knowing, for example, whether X really did commit adultery with Y--he exhibits no uncertainty about other aspects of the past. I doubt that he has ever been quite so sceptical about his royalty checks. And I now quote from an open letter by Pinter to Anthony Blair published in The Guardian on February 17, 1998.
 The US has supported, subsidized and, in a number of cases, engendered
 every right-wing military dictatorship in the world since 1945. I refer to
 Guatemala, Indonesia, Chile, Greece, Uruguay, the Philippines, Brazil,
 Paraguay, Haiti, Turkey, El Salvador, for example. Hundreds of thousands of
 people have been murdered by these regimes but the money, the resources,
 the equipment (all kinds), the advice, the moral support, as it were, has
 come from successive us administrations.

 The deaths really do mount up: 170,000 in Guatemala, 200,000 in East
 Timor, 80,000 in El Salvador, 30,000 in Nicaragua, 500,000 in
 Indonesia--and that's just to be going on with. They are, every single one
 of them, attributable to your ally's foreign policy.


The point here is not of course whether Pinter is right or wrong (though having lived for some time in Central America, I came to the conclusion that Guatemalan soldiers knew how to burn down straw huts with flame throwers without much in the way of American tuition, to say nothing of the opposing revolutionary intelligentsia's distinct lack of enthusiasm for intellectual, economic, or political liberty as conventionally conceived). The point is that Pinter's open letter does not suggest a man who has much difficulty deciphering the past or making moral judgments about it. If it is possible to know that precisely 170,000 people were killed in Guatemala, and that the American government was responsible for all those deaths, it is surely possible to discover whether X committed adultery with Y. It is also possible to make some reasonable moral assessment of the adultery, if it occurred.

The displacement of Rattigan by Pinter (notwithstanding their relative and distinct talents) as the dominant force in British theater therefore represented the following social trends, inter alia: a coarsening of sensibility, the triumph of irrationalism, a scepticism about the ability of the human mind to order experience, a loss of faith in the ability of language to deliver meaning, a belief that only relations of power are real and all else is illusion, a slide into intellectual dishonesty and attitudinizing, and a tolerance of psychopathy. To what extent Pinter merely recorded the trends, and to what extent he actually promoted them, I cannot say. I suspect the relationship is what our friends the Marxists (when there were any) used to call "dialectical."

Theodore Dalrymple is a doctor, an author, and a contributing editor of City Journal.
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