Jennifer Loewenstein Archive


If you read only one thing this week, read this. -J
Harold Pinter - Nobel Lecture
Art, Truth & Politics
In 1958 I wrote the following:
'There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what
is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A
thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both
true and false.'
I believe that these assertions still make sense and do still
apply to the exploration of reality through art. So as a
writer I stand by them but as a citizen I cannot. As a
citizen I must ask: What is true? What is false?
Truth in drama is forever elusive. You never quite find it
but the search for it is compulsive. The search is clearly
what drives the endeavour. The search is your task. More
often than not you stumble upon the truth in the dark,
colliding with it or just glimpsing an image or a shape which
seems to correspond to the truth, often without realising
that you have done so. But the real truth is that there never
is any such thing as one truth to be found in dramatic art.
There are many. These truths challenge each other, recoil
from each other, reflect each other, ignore each other, tease
each other, are blind to each other. Sometimes you feel you
have the truth of a moment in your hand, then it slips
through your fingers and is lost.
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
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
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.
So language in art remains a highly ambiguous transaction, a
quicksand, a trampoline, a frozen pool which might give way
under you, the author, at any time.
But as I have said, the search for the truth can never stop.
It cannot be adjourned, it cannot be postponed. It has to be
faced, right there, on the spot.
Political theatre presents an entirely different set of
problems. Sermonising has to be avoided at all cost.
Objectivity is essential. The characters must be allowed to
breathe their own air. The author cannot confine and
constrict them to satisfy his own taste or disposition or
prejudice. He must be prepared to approach them from a
variety of angles, from a full and uninhibited range of
perspectives, take them by surprise, perhaps, occasionally,
but nevertheless give them the freedom to go which way they
will. This does not always work. And political satire, of
course, adheres to none of these precepts, in fact does
precisely the opposite, which is its proper function.
In my play The Birthday Party I think I allow a whole range
of options to operate in a dense forest of possibility before
finally focussing on an act of subjugation.
Mountain Language pretends to no such range of operation. It
remains brutal, short and ugly. But the soldiers in the play
do get some fun out of it. One sometimes forgets that
torturers become easily bored. They need a bit of a laugh to
keep their spirits up. This has been confirmed of course by
the events at Abu Ghraib in Baghdad. Mountain Language lasts
only 20 minutes, but it could go on for hour after hour, on
and on and on, the same pattern repeated over and over again,
on and on, hour after hour.
Ashes to Ashes, on the other hand, seems to me to be taking
place under water. A drowning woman, her hand reaching up
through the waves, dropping down out of sight, reaching for
others, but finding nobody there, either above or under the
water, finding only shadows, reflections, floating; the woman
a lost figure in a drowning landscape, a woman unable to
escape the doom that seemed to belong only to others.
But as they died, she must die too.
Political language, as used by politicians, does not venture
into any of this territory since the majority of politicians,
on the evidence available to us, are interested not in truth
but in power and in the maintenance of that power. To
maintain that power it is essential that people remain in
ignorance, that they live in ignorance of the truth, even the
truth of their own lives. What surrounds us therefore is a
vast tapestry of lies, upon which we feed.
As every single person here knows, the justification for the
invasion of Iraq was that Saddam Hussein possessed a highly
dangerous body of weapons of mass destruction, some of which
could be fired in 45 minutes, bringing about appalling
devastation. We were assured that was true. It was not true.
We were told that Iraq had a relationship with Al Quaeda and
shared responsibility for the atrocity in New York of
September 11th 2001. We were assured that this was true. It
was not true. We were told that Iraq threatened the security
of the world. We were assured it was true. It was not true.
The truth is something entirely different. The truth is to do
with how the United States understands its role in the world
and how it chooses to embody it.
But before I come back to the present I would like to look at
the recent past, by which I mean United States foreign policy
since the end of the Second World War. I believe it is
obligatory upon us to subject this period to at least some
kind of even limited scrutiny, which is all that time will
allow here.
Everyone knows what happened in the Soviet Union and
throughout Eastern Europe during the post-war period: the
systematic brutality, the widespread atrocities, the ruthless
suppression of independent thought. All this has been fully
documented and verified.
But my contention here is that the US crimes in the same
period have only been superficially recorded, let alone
documented, let alone acknowledged, let alone recognised as
crimes at all. I believe this must be addressed and that the
truth has considerable bearing on where the world stands now.
Although constrained, to a certain extent, by the existence
of the Soviet Union, the United States' actions throughout
the world made it clear that it had concluded it had carte
blanche to do what it liked.
Direct invasion of a sovereign state has never in fact been
America's favoured method. In the main, it has preferred what
it has described as 'low intensity conflict'. Low intensity
conflict means that thousands of people die but slower than
if you dropped a bomb on them in one fell swoop. It means
that you infect the heart of the country, that you establish
a malignant growth and watch the gangrene bloom. When the
populace has been subdued - or beaten to death - the same
thing - and your own friends, the military and the great
corporations, sit comfortably in power, you go before the
camera and say that democracy has prevailed. This was a
commonplace in US foreign policy in the years to which I
The tragedy of Nicaragua was a highly significant case. I
choose to offer it here as a potent example of America's view
of its role in the world, both then and now.
I was present at a meeting at the US embassy in London in the
late 1980s.
The United States Congress was about to decide whether to
give more money to the Contras in their campaign against the
state of Nicaragua. I was a member of a delegation speaking
on behalf of Nicaragua but the most important member of this
delegation was a Father John Metcalf. The leader of the US
body was Raymond Seitz (then number two to the ambassador,
later ambassador himself). Father Metcalf said: 'Sir, I am in
charge of a parish in the north of Nicaragua. My parishioners
built a school, a health centre, a cultural centre. We have
lived in peace. A few months ago a Contra force attacked the
parish. They destroyed everything: the school, the health
centre, the cultural centre. They raped nurses and teachers,
slaughtered doctors, in the most brutal manner. They behaved
like savages. Please demand that the US government withdraw
its support from this shocking terrorist activity.'
Raymond Seitz had a very good reputation as a rational,
responsible and highly sophisticated man. He was greatly
respected in diplomatic circles. He listened, paused and then
spoke with some gravity. 'Father,' he said, 'let me tell you
something. In war, innocent people always suffer.' There was
a frozen silence. We stared at him. He did not flinch.
Innocent people, indeed, always suffer.
Finally somebody said: 'But in this case 'innocent people'
were the victims of a gruesome atrocity subsidised by your
government, one among many. If Congress allows the Contras
more money further atrocities of this kind will take place.
Is this not the case? Is your government not therefore guilty
of supporting acts of murder and destruction upon the
citizens of a sovereign state?'
Seitz was imperturbable. 'I don't agree that the facts as
presented support your assertions,' he said.
As we were leaving the Embassy a US aide told me that he
enjoyed my plays. I did not reply.
I should remind you that at the time President Reagan made
the following statement: 'The Contras are the moral
equivalent of our Founding Fathers.'
The United States supported the brutal Somoza dictatorship in
Nicaragua for over 40 years. The Nicaraguan people, led by
the Sandinistas, overthrew this regime in 1979, a
breathtaking popular revolution.
The Sandinistas weren't perfect. They possessed their fair
share of arrogance and their political philosophy contained a
number of contradictory elements. But they were intelligent,
rational and civilised. They set out to establish a stable,
decent, pluralistic society. The death penalty was abolished.
Hundreds of thousands of poverty-stricken peasants were
brought back from the dead. Over 100,000 families were given
title to land. Two thousand schools were built. A quite
remarkable literacy campaign reduced illiteracy in the
country to less than one seventh. Free education was
established and a free health service. Infant mortality was
reduced by a third. Polio was eradicated.
The United States denounced these achievements as
Marxist/Leninist subversion. In the view of the US
government, a dangerous example was being set. If Nicaragua
was allowed to establish basic norms of social and economic
justice, if it was allowed to raise the standards of health
care and education and achieve social unity and national self
respect, neighbouring countries would ask the same questions
and do the same things. There was of course at the time
fierce resistance to the status quo in El Salvador.
I spoke earlier about 'a tapestry of lies' which surrounds
us. President Reagan commonly described Nicaragua as a
'totalitarian dungeon'. This was taken generally by the
media, and certainly by the British government, as accurate
and fair comment. But there was in fact no record of death
squads under the Sandinista government. There was no record
of torture. There was no record of systematic or official
military brutality. No priests were ever murdered in
Nicaragua. There were in fact three priests in the
government, two Jesuits and a Maryknoll missionary. The
totalitarian dungeons were actually next door, in El Salvador
and Guatemala. The United States had brought down the
democratically elected government of Guatemala in 1954 and it
is estimated that over 200,000 people had been victims of
successive military dictatorships.
Six of the most distinguished Jesuits in the world were
viciously murdered at the Central American University in San
Salvador in 1989 by a battalion of the Alcatl regiment
trained at Fort Benning, Georgia, USA. That extremely brave
man Archbishop Romero was assassinated while saying mass. It
is estimated that 75,000 people died. Why were they killed?
They were killed because they believed a better life was
possible and should be achieved. That belief immediately
qualified them as communists. They died because they dared to
question the status quo, the endless plateau of poverty,
disease, degradation and oppression, which had been their
The United States finally brought down the Sandinista
government. It took some years and considerable resistance
but relentless economic persecution and 30,000 dead finally
undermined the spirit of the Nicaraguan people. They were
exhausted and poverty stricken once again. The casinos moved
back into the country. Free health and free education were
over. Big business returned with a vengeance. 'Democracy' had
But this 'policy' was by no means restricted to Central
America. It was conducted throughout the world. It was never-
ending. And it is as if it never happened.
The United States supported and in many cases engendered
every right wing military dictatorship in the world after the
end of the Second World War. I refer to Indonesia, Greece,
Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay, Haiti, Turkey, the Philippines,
Guatemala, El Salvador, and, of course, Chile. The horror the
United States inflicted upon Chile in 1973 can never be
purged and can never be forgiven.
Hundreds of thousands of deaths took place throughout these
countries. Did they take place? And are they in all cases
attributable to US foreign policy? The answer is yes they did
take place and they are attributable to American foreign
policy. But you wouldn't know it.
It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was
happening it wasn't happening. It didn't matter. It was of no
interest. The crimes of the United States have been
systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless, but very few
people have actually talked about them. You have to hand it
to America. It has exercised a quite clinical manipulation of
power worldwide while masquerading as a force for universal
good. It's a brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of
I put to you that the United States is without doubt the
greatest show on the road. Brutal, indifferent, scornful and
ruthless it may be but it is also very clever. As a salesman
it is out on its own and its most saleable commodity is self
love. It's a winner. Listen to all American presidents on
television say the words, 'the American people', as in the
sentence, 'I say to the American people it is time to pray
and to defend the rights of the American people and I ask the
American people to trust their president in the action he is
about to take on behalf of the American people.'
It's a scintillating stratagem. Language is actually employed
to keep thought at bay. The words 'the American people'
provide a truly voluptuous cushion of reassurance. You don't
need to think. Just lie back on the cushion. The cushion may
be suffocating your intelligence and your critical faculties
but it's very comfortable. This does not apply of course to
the 40 million people living below the poverty line and the 2
million men and women imprisoned in the vast gulag of
prisons, which extends across the US.
The United States no longer bothers about low intensity
conflict. It no longer sees any point in being reticent or
even devious. It puts its cards on the table without fear or
favour. It quite simply doesn't give a damn about the United
Nations, international law or critical dissent, which it
regards as impotent and irrelevant. It also has its own
bleating little lamb tagging behind it on a lead, the
pathetic and supine Great Britain.
What has happened to our moral sensibility? Did we ever have
any? What do these words mean? Do they refer to a term very
rarely employed these days * conscience? A conscience to do
not only with our own acts but to do with our shared
responsibility in the acts of others? Is all this dead? Look
at Guantanamo Bay. Hundreds of people detained without charge
for over three years, with no legal representation or due
process, technically detained forever. This totally
illegitimate structure is maintained in defiance of the
Geneva Convention. It is not only tolerated but hardly
thought about by what's called the 'international community'.
This criminal outrage is being committed by a country, which
declares itself to be 'the leader of the free world'. Do we
think about the inhabitants of Guantanamo Bay? What does the
media say about them? They pop up occasionally * a small item
on page six. They have been consigned to a no man's land from
which indeed they may never return. At present many are on
hunger strike, being force-fed, including British residents.
No niceties in these force-feeding procedures. No sedative or
anaesthetic. Just a tube stuck up your nose and into your
throat. You vomit blood. This is torture. What has the
British Foreign Secretary said about this? Nothing. What has
the British Prime Minister said about this? Nothing. Why not?
Because the United States has said: to criticise our conduct
in Guantanamo Bay constitutes an unfriendly act. You're
either with us or against us. So Blair shuts up.
The invasion of Iraq was a bandit act, an act of blatant
state terrorism, demonstrating absolute contempt for the
concept of international law. The invasion was an arbitrary
military action inspired by a series of lies upon lies and
gross manipulation of the media and therefore of the public;
an act intended to consolidate American military and economic
control of the Middle East masquerading - as a last resort -
all other justifications having failed to justify themselves
- as liberation. A formidable assertion of military force
responsible for the death and mutilation of thousands and
thousands of innocent people.
We have brought torture, cluster bombs, depleted uranium,
innumerable acts of random murder, misery, degradation and
death to the Iraqi people and call it 'bringing freedom and
democracy to the Middle East'.
How many people do you have to kill before you qualify to be
described as a mass murderer and a war criminal? One hundred
thousand? More than enough, I would have thought. Therefore
it is just that Bush and Blair be arraigned before the
International Criminal Court of Justice. But Bush has been
clever. He has not ratified the International Criminal Court
of Justice. Therefore if any American soldier or for that
matter politician finds himself in the dock Bush has warned
that he will send in the marines. But Tony Blair has ratified
the Court and is therefore available for prosecution. We can
let the Court have his address if they're interested. It is
Number 10, Downing Street, London.
Death in this context is irrelevant. Both Bush and Blair
place death well away on the back burner. At least 100,000
Iraqis were killed by American bombs and missiles before the
Iraq insurgency began. These people are of no moment. Their
deaths don't exist. They are blank. They are not even
recorded as being dead. 'We don't do body counts,' said the
American general Tommy Franks.
Early in the invasion there was a photograph published on the
front page of British newspapers of Tony Blair kissing the
cheek of a little Iraqi boy. 'A grateful child,' said the
caption. A few days later there was a story and photograph,
on an inside page, of another four-year-old boy with no arms.
His family had been blown up by a missile. He was the only
survivor. 'When do I get my arms back?' he asked. The story
was dropped. Well, Tony Blair wasn't holding him in his arms,
nor the body of any other mutilated child, nor the body of
any bloody corpse. Blood is dirty. It dirties your shirt and
tie when you're making a sincere speech on television.
The 2,000 American dead are an embarrassment. They are
transported to their graves in the dark. Funerals are
unobtrusive, out of harm's way. The mutilated rot in their
beds, some for the rest of their lives. So the dead and the
mutilated both rot, in different kinds of graves.
Here is an extract from a poem by Pablo Neruda, 'I'm
Explaining a Few Things':
And one morning all that was burning, one morning the
bonfires leapt out of the earth devouring human beings
and from then on fire, gunpowder from then on, and from
then on blood. Bandits with planes and Moors, bandits
with finger-rings and duchesses, bandits with black
friars spattering blessings came through the sky to kill
children and the blood of children ran through the
streets without fuss, like children's blood.
Jackals that the jackals would despise stones that the
dry thistle would bite on and spit out, vipers that the
vipers would abominate.
Face to face with you I have seen the blood of Spain
tower like a tide to drown you in one wave of pride and
Treacherous generals: see my dead house, look at broken
Spain: from every house burning metal flows instead of
flowers from every socket of Spain Spain emerges and from
every dead child a rifle with eyes and from every crime
bullets are born which will one day find the bull's eye
of your hearts.
And you will ask: why doesn't his poetry speak of dreams
and leaves and the great volcanoes of his native land.
Come and see the blood in the streets. Come and see the
blood in the streets. Come and see the blood in the
Let me make it quite clear that in quoting from Neruda's poem
I am in no way comparing Republican Spain to Saddam Hussein's
Iraq. I quote Neruda because nowhere in contemporary poetry
have I read such a powerful visceral description of the
bombing of civilians.
I have said earlier that the United States is now totally
frank about putting its cards on the table. That is the case.
Its official declared policy is now defined as 'full spectrum
dominance'. That is not my term, it is theirs. 'Full spectrum
dominance' means control of land, sea, air and space and all
attendant resources.
The United States now occupies 702 military installations
throughout the world in 132 countries, with the honourable
exception of Sweden, of course. We don't quite know how they
got there but they are there all right.
The United States possesses 8,000 active and operational
nuclear warheads. Two thousand are on hair trigger alert,
ready to be launched with 15 minutes warning. It is
developing new systems of nuclear force, known as bunker
busters. The British, ever cooperative, are intending to
replace their own nuclear missile, Trident. Who, I wonder,
are they aiming at? Osama bin Laden? You? Me? Joe Dokes?
China? Paris? Who knows? What we do know is that this
infantile insanity * the possession and threatened use of
nuclear weapons * is at the heart of present American
political philosophy. We must remind ourselves that the
United States is on a permanent military footing and shows no
sign of relaxing it.
Many thousands, if not millions, of people in the United
States itself are demonstrably sickened, shamed and angered
by their government's actions, but as things stand they are
not a coherent political force * yet. But the anxiety,
uncertainty and fear which we can see growing daily in the
United States is unlikely to diminish.
I know that President Bush has many extremely competent
speech writers but I would like to volunteer for the job
myself. I propose the following short address which he can
make on television to the nation. I see him grave, hair
carefully combed, serious, winning, sincere, often beguiling,
sometimes employing a wry smile, curiously attractive, a
man's man.
'God is good. God is great. God is good. My God is good. Bin
Laden's God is bad. His is a bad God. Saddam's God was bad,
except he didn't have one. He was a barbarian. We are not
barbarians. We don't chop people's heads off. We believe in
freedom. So does God. I am not a barbarian. I am the
democratically elected leader of a freedom-loving democracy.
We are a compassionate society. We give compassionate
electrocution and compassionate lethal injection. We are a
great nation. I am not a dictator. He is. I am not a
barbarian. He is. And he is. They all are. I possess moral
authority. You see this fist? This is my moral authority. And
don't you forget it.'
A writer's life is a highly vulnerable, almost naked
activity. We don't have to weep about that. The writer makes
his choice and is stuck with it. But it is true to say that
you are open to all the winds, some of them icy indeed. You
are out on your own, out on a limb. You find no shelter, no
protection - unless you lie - in which case of course you
have constructed your own protection and, it could be argued,
become a politician.
I have referred to death quite a few times this evening. I
shall now quote a poem of my own called 'Death'.
Where was the dead body found? Who found the dead body?
Was the dead body dead when found? How was the dead body
Who was the dead body?
Who was the father or daughter or brother Or uncle or
sister or mother or son Of the dead and abandoned body?
Was the body dead when abandoned? Was the body abandoned?
By whom had it been abandoned?
Was the dead body naked or dressed for a journey?
What made you declare the dead body dead? Did you declare
the dead body dead? How well did you know the dead body?
How did you know the dead body was dead?
Did you wash the dead body Did you close both its eyes
Did you bury the body Did you leave it abandoned Did you
kiss the dead body
When we look into a mirror we think the image that confronts
us is accurate. But move a millimetre and the image changes.
We are actually looking at a never-ending range of
reflections. But sometimes a writer has to smash the mirror -
for it is on the other side of that mirror that the truth
stares at us.
I believe that despite the enormous odds which exist,
unflinching, unswerving, fierce intellectual determination,
as citizens, to define the real truth of our lives and our
societies is a crucial obligation which devolves upon us all.
It is in fact mandatory.
If such a determination is not embodied in our political
vision we have no hope of restoring what is so nearly lost to
us - the dignity of man.
* Extract from "I'm Explaining a Few Things" translated by
Nathaniel Tarn, from Pablo Neruda: Selected Poems, published
by Jonathan Cape, London 1970. Used by permission of The
Random House Group Limited.
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Jennifer Loewenstein