Hamlet without the prince

The glittering ceremony to present Harold Pinter with a Nobel Prize had everything. Except the man himself
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Indy Politics

In the Stockholm Concert Hall, Sweden, yesterday, in front of 1,600 guests, the Nobel prizewinners for 2005 mounted the stage one by one to receive a medal and diploma from the King. The Nobel laureate for Literature was not present, owing to ill-health; he was represented by his publisher, Stephen Page of Faber & Faber, who pocketed the cheque for 10m kronor (£715,000).

Arrayed in splendour on the podium was a head-spinningly distinguished throng of former laureates, members of the Nobel Academy, the Royal Swedish Science Academy, the Nobel Foundation and some junior royals. In the stalls were gathered the new laureate's wife, Lady Antonia Fraser, her six children, 16 of her grandchildren and a friend, the American playwright Donald Freed. But without Harold Pinter in person, it was Hamlet without the prince.

Diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus in 2002, he seemed to recover, but has been struck down with mysterious illnesses later, affecting his mouth and legs. When he received the news about the Nobel Prize he was photographed nursing a head-wound from a fall. Against doctors' advice, he had planned to go to Stockholm last Wednesday to deliver his Nobel lecture. In the event, he was too unwell even for that - but the lecture went ahead, recorded in a BBC studio last Sunday. It was a blistering success.

For anyone who thought that age, infirmity and the satisfaction of receiving the world's top literary prize might muzzle or mollify Pinter, the speech reminded them never to underestimate the great polemicist. Age may wither him, but nothing, it seems, can stale his infinite desire to pour vilification on the US government and its allies, most especially the "pathetic and supine" British government.

Those who watched the Nobel lecture knew they were watching something more than a famously pissed-off playwright having another pop at the President. Lean, intense, skin-headed, furrowed of brow, with the white of his eyes seeming to emit an unearthly light, he spoke in a croaky whisper about "the vast tapestry of lies upon which we feed" and "the crimes of the United States ... systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless", and how "the invasion of Iraq was a bandit act, an act of blatant state terrorism, demonstrating absolute contempt for the concept of international law".

Seated in a wheelchair with a red tartan rug pulled over his knees, he looked not enfeebled, but like a character in a play - specifically Hamm in Beckett's Endgame, the bullying, patriarchal master of a post-nuclear family. From time to time he leaned forward, resettled his spectacles on his nose, and then resumed, as if determined to put his testimony across to the entire world, even if it took all night.

His speech was brilliant, capricious, rambling, savage, predictable, astonishing - a sustained philippic against United States foreign policy since 1945. But Pinter has had a mixed reception in his native land over the past decade. He has become, to some, a figure of fun, to others a strident, one-note Cassandra pronouncing over-simplistic attacks on President Bush, Tony Blair, the Iraq invasion, the WMD fiasco.

He turned down the offer of a knighthood from John Major, saying he could not accept an honour from a Conservative government. Well, bang go his chances of one from a Labour one. He should be in line for an Order of Merit, the ultimate award for national treasures, the prize that's the personal gift of the monarch - but you can bet that Queen Elizabeth will be advised by the Foreign Office that such a commendation would play havoc with the special relationship. Just when he is supposed to have settled down into sober retirement and a few early-evening retrospectives, Pinter has gone and delivered a howitzer assault on his enemies that seemed to pull together several years of restless campaigning, political indignation and visceral fury.

Critics tend to see his career as divided into two halves - the arty non-political plays about fractured relationships and households under threat from strangers , and the overtly political dramas featuring prisoners, torturers, interrogations. But there's a continuum between the two eras. His early plays such as The Birthday Party were full of interrogations, bullying, unanswerable questions, like the questions he now asks Western leaders.

His whole career has been a demonstration of the way humans use language to get power over each other. He's still doing it.