From Jan ’06 Spotlight: On December 10, Harold Pinter became the eleventh Jewish writer to receive a Nobel Prize for literature, joining a distinguished list that includes Saul Bellow and Isaac Bashevis Singer. I called Tel Aviv University Professor Linda Ben-Zvi, a contributor to the recently published PINTER AT 70: A CASEBOOK, to ask what, if anything, made Pinter’s work “Jewish.” “Pinter’s plays reveal elements of his Jewish upbringing in two ways,” she replied. “First, the sense of fear and menace that pervades most of the works may well have sprung from the World War II years. Second, his characters often speak using cadences and rhythms associated with Jews, and he has his characters answer questions with questions, a trait of Jewish dialect and humor.”
In BETRAYAL, for instance, there are seventy-five questions just in the first scene alone. BETRAYAL has three main characters, a woman named Emma, her husband Robert, and her lover Jerry (who is Robert’s best friend). Here’s a quintessential Pinter exchange that exemplifies Professor Ben-Zvi’s point.
Jerry: How’s Robert?
Emma: When did you last see him?
Jerry: I haven’t seen him for months. Don’t know why. Why?
Emma: Why what?
Jerry: Why did you ask when I last saw him?
Considered one of Pinter’s masterpieces, BETRAYAL was made into a brilliant film in 1983 starring Patricia Hodge as Emma, Jeremy Irons as Jerry, and Ben Kingsley as Robert. “In BETRAYAL, said Professor Ben-Zvi, “the banal is no longer merely a cover or pretext for some more menacing reality. The banal has become the menace.”