Sunday, 28 December 2008

how playwrights tackle politics

The many tributes to Harold Pinter have been followed by a couple of dissenting views that have concentrated on the playwright's political views.

Johann Hari has written witheringly about Pinter's support for Milosevic and Minette Marin has proposed 'an odd natural law of literature: creative writers are often silly political commentators'. Her list of examples, other than Pinter, includes Tolstoy, Brecht, Jean-Paul Sartre, V.S. Naipaul and Martin Amis. Her example of someone sane who stayed out of politics is Chekhov.

But Chekhov's journey in 1890 to the prison colony in Sakhalin, which he wrote about in The Island: Journey to Sakhalin, was deeply political. Chekhov travelled 4,000 miles by boat and coach to report on the conditions. He wrote:

'We have sent millions of men to rot in prison, have destroyed them - casually without thinking, barbarously ... have depraved them, have multiplied criminals, and the blame for all this we have thrown upon the gaolers and red-nosed superintendents. Now all educated Europe knows that it is not the superintendents that are to blame, but all of us ...'

(quoted in V. S. Pritchett's Chekhov - A Spirit Set Free)

Chekhov makes a direct connection between lives that are lived in places that are thousands of miles apart. He backs this up with meticulous and exhausting research. It's an example of the role of empathy in politics, a subject that is central to any fuller grasp of the implications of climate change.

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