And by way of a neat segue from the last post, a new staging of Harold Pinter’s play The Hothouse has opened in London to rave reviews this week. The history of The Hothouse is that Pinter wrote it in 1958, put it to one side and only rescued it from oblivion in 1980. What is special about it? Well it is eerily prophetic in its vision of a world where psychiatric hospitals are used as a means of curing social dissidents. He said of it 1982
It was fantasy when I wrote it, but now it has become, I think, far more relevant. Reality has overtaken it.
In a world where torture of ‘political’ prisoners still takes place – think Guantanamo Bay, think Belarus, think Iran…..the list is endless, The Hothouse has many resonances. You can read a couple of the reviews here and here.
However, what I really want to share with you is an edited version of an article commissioned for the play’s programme (or play-bill). It is written by Shami Chakrabarti who is director of The National Council of Civil Liberties (better known as Liberty) in the UK which is a leading voice in the world of human rights.
Pinter’s Hothouse will never cool down
How Harold Pinter’s play about the connection between mind-control and torture is more prescient now than ever
“It was fantasy when I wrote it, but now it has become, I think, far more relevant. Reality has overtaken it.” So said Harold Pinter of The Hothouse, his dark exploration of Kafkaesque incarceration and torture, during a 1982 interview. He was presumably referring to the renewed significance of the play – presciently written in 1958, but shelved until 1980 – given subsequent revelations regarding the political abuse of psychiatry to silence dissidents in the Soviet Union.
But more than three decades on, the work’s pertinence remains, and on a much wider footing than those original links with the Brezhnev period. The Hothouse is set in a mysteriously undefined institution, obscurely referred to as both “rest home” and “sanatorium”. The “residents” or “patients”, known only as numbers, are regularly electronically tortured. We never actually see their suffering, but we do witness that of a young member of staff.
When he has electrodes attached to his wrists and unbearable sounds blasted into his ears, we get the picture. This isn’t compassionate confinement. The control exercised; the “treatment” administered – it’s all so absolute and inhuman. What’s essentially satire is given a chilling new dimension.
Such subject matter should strike a chord with anyone engaged by the movement for fundamental rights and freedoms. Torture is more than the calculated infliction of pain: it also symbolises state power. Governments turn to brutality to reassert authority; to quell opposition and enforce policies. They use torture to convince victims of their strength and protect their supremacy. But in The Hothouse there’s more to it. While the nightmare seems superficially targeted towards humanitarian concerns, in reality this institution seeks to enter “troublesome” people’s minds and “improve” them; thereby creating a “better society”.
Quite how torture can ever lay the foundations for a society superior to one where it remains outlawed is anyone’s guess. We will likely always face evils, but we must not lose sight of what our actions say about us. Society has to be better than the individual, in both the goals it sets itself and how far it will go to achieve them. It’s by these efforts that society should be judged; not some mythical state of perfection. To shrug and offer that the end justifies the means when it comes to torture is unacceptable. Without its prohibition, how can any decent society prevail?
The use of inhuman treatment – whether to punish, gain intelligence or, as The Hothouse examines, exert control – has many consequences. The initial impact upon an individual is extreme; likely to result in various social issues. It also muddies the water as to when it’s legitimate to employ torture. For which causes should it be used? Who makes that call? Can cruelty be the solution to every crisis? If so, what does that mean for society?
When torture becomes normalised, other forms of social control, such as the rule of law, diminish. This is fatal for democracy and human rights, which depend not only on public engagement, but also the crucial constitutional principle that no one – including the state – is above the law. These notions might be idealistic, but they remain worth pursuing. As the late Lord Bingham articulated, in a world often divided by nationality, race and religion, respect for fundamental freedoms is the strongest unifying notion there is; the closest we are likely to get to a truly universal secular religion.
These are the values which separate democrat from dictator. They are the essence of the Britishness which unites people of all parties and faiths. And the antithesis of this human rights philosophy is surely the idea of pursuing causes by “whatever means necessary”. It is this sweeping licence for authoritarianism and brutality – two of the themes The Hothouse interrogates – that is the catalyst for tyranny. Pinter’s understanding of the risks of unchecked state power was obviously profound.
Cruelty is still used the world over. In many nations, torture and detention are routine, and there is no adequate judicial system to address violations. Over the last decade or so, democrats have shamefully resorted to kidnap and torture in freedom’s name. Guantánamo Bay, one of the most striking manifestations of post-9/11 policy, remains open, and reports of “systematic torture” are rife. Closer to home, the authorities have hidden behind the “War on Terror” to sidestep, ignore and undermine our legal and moral obligations to prevent torture. In the fight to defend our values and promote our way of life, we have compromised many of the traditions making it worthy of commendation at the outset.
Which brings us back to The Hothouse, where the institution’s staff are so consumed by their desire for control that they are now the “troublesome” party – apparent in their bizarre behaviour and obsession with hierarchy. Perhaps the workers truly think they are creating a “better” society, as democratic institutions undoubtedly believe they are protecting their populations. But so abhorrent are the staff’s methods that their objective is meaningless. Similarly, when governments turn to torture the “ends justifying means” contagion has infected the democratic patient. Previously uniting values are lost; ironically creating a corrosive landscape in which those most likely to thrive are “troublesome” tyrants and terrorists.
Perhaps on this Pinter and I might agree, for much of his later political work focused on abuses of power. And just like the proud human rights framework we now treasure, his fascination with totalitarianism was also inspired by the second world war. “I am aware of the sufferings and the horror of war, and by no means was I going to subscribe to keeping it going,” he once said. As sentiments go, that’s pretty difficult to argue with.
In addition there is a really interesting interview with the director and actors here which I have also tweeted.