by Denis Campbell --
Britons call him “THE” playwright. Americans recognise her more as television’s Catwoman than the sexy singer who turned heads long into her 70s. Nobel laureate ‘Sir’ Harold Pinter and music legend Eartha Kitt passed away within hours of each other Christmas Day. We are all the poorer.
Some would argue because he turned down his Knighthood in 1996 his awarding of a CBE in 2002 means he technically cannot be called ‘Sir’ (only GBE or KBE can use that title) but he was always a grand knight of the modern theatre. His body of work included plays The Room and The Birthday Party and film’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman. They were filled with arching dialogue and gripping characters. An actor himself, he enjoyed honing his craft on the live stage.
His massive body of work (some 30 West End plays) and fervent anti-war activism, earned him a Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005 for his collection ‘Death, etc.’ Pinter’s precision of language is immensely political. Twist words like “democracy” and “freedom”, as he believes Blair and Bush have done over Iraq, and hundreds of thousands of people die. When he was presented with the European Theatre Prize in Turin in early 2006, Pinter said he intended to spend the rest of his life railing against the United States.
“Surely,” asked chair Ramona Koval, he was “doomed to fail?”
“Oh yes – me against the United States!” he said, laughing along with the audience at the absurdity, before adding: “But I can’t stop reacting to what is done in our name; and what is being done in the name of freedom and democracy is disgusting.”
Eartha Kitt grew up on a cotton plantation in segregated Columbia, South Carolina. Orson Welles called her “the most exciting woman in the world” and this writer concurs. All it ever took was one deep, sultry, throaty note and you knew you were about to called into the seductive musical world of Ms. Kitt. She teased men and women alike with a blend of raw sexuality that was as unexpected as it was forbidden on stage and television in the 50s and 60s. When she donned the skin-tight Catwoman suit, she literally became a cat with her entire being and brought an otherwise staid cartoon character to life.
As a mixed-race child in the South, her father was German/Dutch and Ms. Kitt claimed her mother was indeed raped, she did not belong and so was ostracised and segregated from both black and white cultures growing up in the 30s and 40s. If there was anyone who understood the confusion Barack Obama experienced during the early Presidential race, it was Ms. Kitt. During the campaign she confessed a fondness for Barack Obama: “He’s Afro-American and seems rather intelligent.” But experienced enough to be prez? “All those guys in the White House now were experienced, and what are they doing?”
Ms Kitt vaulted to prominence during an appearance on Broadway in Orson Welles’ Time Runs. She played Helen of Troy and that performance (not to mention a torrid affair with Mr. Welles), saw her tapped for the Broadway Review New Faces of 1952, where her number “Monotonous” stole the show. A record contract with RCA Victor soon followed and her career was off like a rocket.
Harold Pinter’s body of work was long, deep and steady. He rose to amazing heights and his movie The French Lieutenant’s Woman won him a BAFTA’s but, sadly, he was closed out of his best chance for Oscar’s statue won that year by another British entry, Chariots of Fire. While Pinter has seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, his work on one of my personal favourites, Reunion with Jason Robards, was deserving of awards but, like his other works, always seemed just a hair over the heads of the Academy.
Even his 2007 remake of the Peter Shaffer’s play Sleuth as a film left many folks scratching their heads. The story line features a millionaire detective novelist who matches wits with the unemployed actor (who also ran off with his wife) in a deadly serious twisted game. Unlike the original, it was much darker and contained sparse, cryptic language… significant pauses and, as always, a hint of menace beneath the surface.
In 1968 Ms. Kitt was essentially blacklisted by Lyndon Johnson. She was invited by Lady Bird to a celebrity women’s luncheon at the White House and asked to offer her views on inner-city youth. Taking the event seriously, not as a publicity stunt, Kitt pointedly criticized the Vietnam War and its impact on poor minorities.
An infuriated Johnson put out the word that Kitt’s rudeness had reduced the First Lady to tears, and Kitt found herself essentially blacklisted across the country. Afraid to incur the government’s wrath, venues simply refused to book her. It was later revealed Kitt was the subject of a secret federal investigation; her house bugged, and she was tailed by Secret Service agents. When the FBI failed to find evidence Kitt was a subversive, the CIA compiled a highly speculative dossier that attempted to portray her as a nymphomaniac. Unable to find work in America, Kitt moved to Europe, where she would spend most of the following decade.
I was blessed to meet both of them briefly after standing patiently outside a stage door in London in 1978 and New York a few years earlier where two long since lost Playbills were signed by two very gracious and patiently exhausted people. Raise a glass of Wassail to the memory of two legends, dancing now together and, as fate would have it, two passionately progressive antiwar voices on two sides of the Atlantic silenced.
Rest in the peace that you always stayed true to yourselves and therefore, to the rest of us who will miss you.
Denis Campbell is a US journalist based in the United Kingdom. He contributes to newspapers and magazines, is a BBC Radio election commentator and publishes the daily e-magazine The Vadimus Post from the Latin Quo Vadimus – where are we headed and do we know why?
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