26 December 2008

The Purr and the Pause

My single encounter with Eartha Kitt consists entirely of a hurried backstage introduction, in the course of a commemoration of the March on Washington, in 1993. My encounter with Harold Pinter was even less direct: I happened to be in Sayles Hall when Brown University bestowed on him an honorary degree, a decade earlier. There was considerable question at the time whether Mr. Pinter would address us formally, his nose being out of joint over some public controversy. The inevitable joke was that he would offer instead an especially prolonged and pregnant Pinter Pause.

In all likelihood, I’d never have thought of them in the same breath, if their obituaries hadn’t appeared on the same day. Yet as artists they both achieved the highest goal: the creation and maintenance of a distinctive and durable, immediately recognizable and ultimately influential voice. As Pinter had his pause, so Kitt had her purr. You could no more mistake a Terrence Rattigan play for Pinter’s than a Pearl Bailey recording for Kitt’s. (And that’s no insult to Rattigan or to Bailey.) In the theater, each artist applied the voice to disparate ends, but each voice was heard in the outside world, too, speaking out on matters that had slight connection to conventional art. In matters of politics and social injustice, the purr and the pause were not without claws.

The most notorious story of Eartha Kitt is that of her cornering Lady Bird Johnson at a White House function and upbraiding her for the Vietnam War. Kitt brought the First Lady to tears, and she was convinced that LBJ picked up the telephone that very day and blacklisted her. A black list is of course a conspiracy: it requires both instigation and complicity. I can black list George Lucas, and I have done so, but no one else cooperates, and so he continues to earn a handsome living and to do as he pleases. In Kitt’s case, we can’t be sure of a conspiracy, since no one admitted such a thing, and since the sudden decline in her performing engagements coincided with the rise and dominance of rock, an art form for which she showed scant affinity. As a self-styled sex kitten, she was already long in the tooth. In short, as others have observed, she might have had trouble finding work even if she hadn’t spoken out at the White House that day.

But speak she did, despite the professional risks, which were considerable. She presents a striking contrast to Barbra Streisand, who with atypical demureness and hardly a cross word accepted a Kennedy Center Honor this year from the hand of George Bush. Kitt at the top of her game might have accepted such an award — but to a President who stood for everything she opposed, she’d have given a scorching, seething piece of her mind in return.

The case of Pinter is different. Associated first with the “Angry Young Men,” British playwrights who blasted through the hoary gentility of English theater in the 1950s; and then established as a public intellectual, Pinter could speak out with the backing of likeminded friends and committees, and with little risk to his career. Receiving a Nobel Prize during the Bush years has been tantamount to an invitation to denounce the American President, and Pinter accepted readily.

Victor Hugo and Emile Zola suffered exile for their political views. Pinter did not, and yet he showed a certain kind of courage, and defied a certain risk. To write, even for the stage, is an introverted process, and one sits alone in a room to do it. To engage in the affairs of the outside world requires propulsive gumption and the recognition that, by attending the protest rally, you will miss the boat of your inspiration and never complete, or begin, the scene that might have hoisted you toward Parnassus.

The character of Pinter’s work is less clearly linked than Hugo’s or Zola’s to progressive social beliefs; he more nearly resembles Samuel Beckett, his friend, whose politics remain stubbornly submerged in all but one play. Pinter may be a transatlantic descendant of Mark Twain, whose work betrays little hint of his fervent, outspoken anti-imperialism. (American culture ignores Twain on every social issue but race, and with rare exceptions — Susan Sontag, John Kenneth Galbraith — it doesn’t admit public intellectuals at all; perhaps for that reason I was late to grasp the concept.) Yet despite the relative comfort of the platforms from which he spoke out, Pinter serves as a reminder: it is not enough to write.

One could argue that neither Eartha Kitt nor Harold Pinter managed to change the world. But I would argue that it’s too soon to tell — and that, in any case, there’s no reason not to try, as they did.

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