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Pinter, Harold

PINTER, Harold

Writer. Nationality: British. Born: Hackney, London, 10 October 1930. Education: Attended Hackney Downs Grammar School, London; Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, London. Family: Married
1) the actress Vivien Merchant, 1956 (divorced 1980), one son; 2) the writer Lady Antonia Fraser, 1980. Career: 1950—professional debut as actor under name David Baron; 1957—first play produced—followed by a series of plays; 1963—first film as writer, The Servant; also stage director; 1973—first film as director, Butley; 1973—associate director, National Theatre, London. Awards: New York Film Critics Award, for The Servant, 1963; British Academy Award, for The Pumpkin Eater, 1964, and The Go-Between, 1971. Commander, Order of the British Empire, 1966. Address: c/o ACTAC Ltd., 16 Cadogan Lane, London S.W.1, England.

Films as Writer:


The Servant (Losey) (+ ro as society man); The Caretaker (The Guest) (Donner)


The Pumpkin Eater (Clayton)


The Quiller Memorandum (Anderson)


The Accident (Losey) (+ ro as Bell)


The Birthday Party (Friedkin)


The Go-Between (Losey)


The Homecoming (Hall)


The Last Tycoon (Kazan)


The French Lieutenant's Woman (Reisz)


Betrayal (D. Jones)


Turtle Diary (Irvin) (+ ro as man in bookshop)


The Room (Altman) (adapter); The Dumb Waiter (Altman); The Birthday Party (Ives—for TV) (+ ro)


Mountain Language (+ d—for TV)


L'ami retrouvé (Reunion; Der Wiedergefundene Freund) (Schatzberg); The Heat of the Day (Morahan—for TV)


The Handmaid's Tale (Schlöndorff)


The Comfort of Strangers (Schrader); The Lover (Kemp-Welch)


The Trial (D. Jones)


Bez pogovora (Jovanovic—for TV)


The Pickwick Papers

Films as Director:




Rear Column


The Hothouse

Films as Actor:


The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer (Billington) (as Steven Hench)


The Tamarind Seed (Edwards)


Doll's Eye (Worth)


Breaking the Code (Wise—for TV) (as John Smith)


Mojo (Butterworth) (as Sam Ross)


Ritratto di Harold Pinter (Andò) (as himself)


Mansfield Park (Rozema) (as Sir Thomas Bertram)


Catastrophe (for TV)


By PINTER: plays—

The Birthday Party and Other Plays, London, 1960.

The Caretaker, London, 1960.

A Slight Ache and Other Plays, London, 1961.

The Collection, London, 1962.

The Collection, and The Lover, 1963.

The Dwarfs and Eight Revue Sketches, New York, 1965.

The Homecoming, London, 1965.

Tea Party, London, 1965.

Tea Party and Other Plays, London, 1967.

Landscape, London, 1968.

Landscape, and Silence, London, 1969.

Five Screenplays (includes The Caretaker, The Pumpkin Eater, Accident, The Servant, The Quiller Memorandum), London, 1971; modified edition, omitting The Caretaker and including The Go-Between, London, 1971.

Old Times, London and New York, 1971.

Monologue, London, 1973.

No Man's Land, London and New York, 1975.

Plays, 4 vols., London, 1975–81; as Complete Works, New York, 4 vols., 1977–81.

The Proust Screenplay: À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, New York, 1977.

Betrayal, London, 1978.

The Hothouse, London and New York, 1980.

Family Voices, London and New York, 1981.

Other Places, London, 1983.

One for the Road, London, 1984.

Mountain Language, London, 1988.

The Heat of the Day, London, 1989.

Moonlight, New York, 1995.

Ashes to Ashes, New York, 1997.

The Proust Screenplay: A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, New York, 1999.

The Hothouse, New York, 1999.

By PINTER: other books—

Mac (nonfiction), 1968.

Poems, London, 1968.

Poems and Prose 1949–1977, London, 1978.

I Know the Place (poetry), London, 1979.

The Screenplay of The French Lieutenant's Woman, London, 1981.

The Comfort of Strangers and Other Screenplays, London, 1990.

The Dwarfs (fiction), London, 1990.

I Know the Place, New York, 1990.

Party Time & the New World Order, New York, 1993.

One Hundred Poems by One Hundred Poets, New York, 1995.

99 Poems in Translation, New York, 1997.

Various Voices: Prose, Poetry, Politics, 1948–1998, New York, 1999.

By PINTER: articles—

Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1966.

Positif (Paris), July/August 1985.

Film Comment (New York), May/June 1989.

On PINTER: books—

Hayman, Ronald, Harold Pinter, London, 1968.

Gordon, Lois, Strategems to Uncover Nakedness: The Dramas of Harold Pinter, Columbia, Missouri, 1969.

Taylor, John Russell, Harold Pinter, London, 1969.

Esslin, Martin, The Peopled Wound: The Plays of Harold Pinter, London, 1970, revised edition, London, 1977.

Hollis, James H., Harold Pinter, Carbondale, Illinois, 1970.

Sykes, Arlene, Harold Pinter, Brisbane, Queensland, 1970.

Burkman, Katherine H., The Dramatic World of Harold Pinter, Columbus, Ohio, 1971.

Ganz, Arthur, editor, Pinter: A Collection of Critical Essays, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1972.

Trussler, Simon, The Plays of Harold Pinter, London, 1973.

Quigley, Austin E., The Pinter Problem, Princeton, New Jersey, 1975.

Dukore, Bernard F., Where Laughter Stops: Pinter's Tragi-Comedy, Columbia, Missouri, 1977.

Gale, Steven H., Butter's Going Up: A Critical Analysis of Harold Pinter's Plays, Durham, North Carolina, 1977.

Bold, Alan, editor, Harold Pinter: You Never Heard Such Silence, London, 1984.

Klein, Joanne, Making Pictures: The Pinter Screenplay, Columbus, Ohio, 1985.

Cahn, Victor L., Gender and Power in the Plays of Harold Pinter, New York, 1993.

Hall, Ann. C., A Kind of Alaska: Women in the Plays of O'Neill, Pinter, and Shepard, Carbondale, Illinois, 1993.

Homan, Sidney, Pinter's Odd Man Out: Staging and Filming Old Times, Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, 1993.

Knowles, Ronald, Understanding Harold Pinter, Columbia, South Carolina, 1995.

Merritt, Susan H., Pinter in Play: Critical Strategies & the Plays of Harold Pinter, Durham, 1995.

Regal, Martin S., Harold Pinter: A Question of Timing, New York, 1995.

Gussow, Mel, Conversations with Pinter, New York, 1996.

Billington, Michael, The Life & Work of Harold Pinter, New York, 1997.

Peacock, D. Keith, Harold Pinter & the New British Theatre, Westport, 1997.

Armstrong, Raymond, Kafka & Pinter: Shadow-Boxing: The Struggle Between Father & Son, New York, 1999.

On PINTER: articles—

Cinema Nuovo (Turin), May/June 1967.

Cinema Nuovo (Turin), July/August 1967.

Imagen y Sonido, September 1967.

Roud, Richard, in Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1971.

Jones, Edward T., on The Go-Between in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), April 1973.

National Film Theatre Booklet (London), February 1978.

Avant-Scène (Paris), Autumn 1978.

Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), vol. 10, no. 1, 1982.

Skoop (Amsterdam), vol. 22, 4 June 1986.

Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), April and July 1988.

Chase, D., "The Pinter Principle," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), October 1990.

Films in Review (New York), vol. 43, July/August 1992.

Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), vol. 21, no. 1, 1993.

Tucker, Stephanie, "Despair Not, Neither to Presume," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), vol. 24, no. 1, January 1996.

Hudgins, Christopher C., "Lolita 1995: the Four Filmscripts," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), vol. 25, no. 1, January 1997.

Dodson, Mary Lynn, "The French Lieutenant's Woman: Pinter and Reisz's Adaptation of John Fowles's Adaptation," in Literature/ Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), vol. 26, no. 4, October 1998.

* * *

Harold Pinter began his professional career as an actor, touring the provinces with English and Irish repertory companies before achieving success as a major playwright and screenwriter. Although he has made subsequent acting appearances, generally in small roles in his own films (among them The Servant and Accident), and has acquired a strong reputation as a director of plays for the British stage, Pinter's fame owes much to his complex, nuance-charged writing for stage and screen.

In his early play The Birthday Party, filmed in 1968, two mysterious men terrorize a third named Stanley as he cowers in a tawdry English rooming house. The three enact a series of ritual games in an atmosphere of mounting menace, culminating in the utterly broken Stanley's removal to an unspecified destination—presumably an asylum. In post-absurdist fashion, Pinter denies his audience virtually all clarification of his characters' histories and likely futures, prompting one frustrated viewer to write: "I would be obliged if you would kindly explain to me the meaning of your play. These are the points which I do not understand: 1. Who are the two men? 2. Where did Stanley come from? 3. Were they all supposed to be normal? You will appreciate that without the answers to my questions, I cannot fully understand your play." Pinter replied: "Dear Madam: I would be obliged if you would kindly explain to me the meaning of your letter. These are the points which I do not understand: 1. Who are you? 2. Where do you come from? 3. Are you supposed to be normal? You will understand that without the answers to my questions, I cannot fully understand your letter." This interchange helps to define the characteristically elusive Pinter style and attitude. Both are based on familiarity with life's perpetual uncertainty. The little dramas we observe in life, sometimes as unwilling participants, tend to occur without benefit of sequential beginning, middle, or end. People say one thing and mean another. Strangers, casual acquaintances, close family members deny us information they prefer to withhold. Bizarre events unfold without preparation. Moods change with mercurial suddenness. To live is to be continually perplexed by others.

Pinter's dramatic methods seek to reenforce such a view of life. He rejects traditional story telling structures in favor of fractured chronology and elliptical dialogue. "The desire for verification on the part of all of us, with regard to our own experience and the experience of others, is understandable but cannot always be satisfied," he once wrote. "We are also faced with the immense difficulty, if not the impossibility of verifying the past. I don't mean merely years ago, but yesterday, this morning."

Time and memory thus serve as central Pinter subjects, functioning both technically and thematically to deny the audience the verification it instinctively desires. In Betrayal, for example, Pinter examines the romantic triangle that has developed among a married couple and the husband's best friend by reversing chronology and moving steadily backward in time, concluding the drama when the adulterous relationship first began, nine years before the start of the film. The backward telling of the tale radically alters the viewer's response and shifts attention from plot outcome to narrative point of view. The audience is mesmerized by its uncertainty, forced repeatedly to question who knew what about the relationship and when. Whose memory portrays events most accurately? The answer of course is no one's: "We all interpret a common experience quite differently," Pinter has said. "There's a common ground all right, but it's more like quicksand."

Time also figures prominently in Pinter's adaptation of three difficult novels whose narrative ambiguity he reinterprets in filmic terms. In The Go-Between (from L. P. Hartley's novel), the past is remembered as "a foreign country; they do things differently there." Here, the shifting narrative between past and present enables Pinter to emphasize the effects of cruelty so endemic to the British class system, a subject also explored in his adaptation of John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman, a novel whose dazzling narrative pyrotechnics would appear to have rendered it undramatizable. Pinter's controversial solution rests on an alternation between Fowles's Victorian England and the enactment of that world in a film being shot in contemporary London. Actors acting in a film within the film thus become an appropriate Pinter metaphor for the invisible line between illusion and reality, with one story implicitly commenting on the other.

Pinter's characters say less than they mean as a thin veneer of civilized restraint keeps threatening to erupt into violence. In Accident, Homecoming, Betrayal, and other screenplays, sexual power struggles are obliquely fought in language that mocks the comedy of manners. His dialogue reads as if it were meant to be spewed, not spoken, to be articulated in tones of innuendo and menace that suggest meaning underived from the words alone. In that respect, Pinter's experience as actor and director has made a substantial if unrecognized contribution to the dynamics of his language.

Pinter also wrote the screen adaptations of novels for several films which were released in the early 1990s, including Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, a feminist, Orwellian classic about a woman's ordeal under the authoritarian rule of the extreme right. He also wrote the screenplay for Ian McEwan's The Comfort of Strangers, the story of a young couple whose vacation in Venice evolves into a nightmare of sadomasochistic torture and murder.

Undoubtedly Pinter's greatest screenwriting challenge of the early 1990s was the offer to write the screenplay of Franz Kafka's The Trial. Pinter stated in 1992, that when he was first asked to adapt The Trial, "I immediately said yes, since I have, more or less, been waiting for this opportunity for 45 years." That Pinter was greatly inspired by Kafka would seem self-evident to anyone who had studied Pinter's early works. The Birthday Party in particular, has often been directly compared to The Trial by Pinter's critics. The Trial is, of course, the story of Joseph K., the senior bank clerk who awakens on his 30th birthday to find himself arrested by an unknown court, for an unknown crime, from which he can never be exonerated.

The Trial was released in 1993 by Angelika Films. It was filmed in Prague and was directed by David Jones who also directed the film version of Pinter's play Betrayal. Overall, Pinter's adaptation is quite faithful to the novel. The novel's famous chapter "The Cathedral" is noticeably abridged, but this is obviously necessary due to the time constraints of the filmic form.

The colorful and beautiful backdrop created for Joseph K.'s nightmarish world is a sharp contrast to Orson Welles's 1962, futuristic black-and-white adaptation of The Trial. Pinter explained in an interview that the film was intended to be "very plain without grotesqueries," unlike Welles's version which he described as being a "phantasmagoria."

The use of surreal special effects and lighting in The Trial would certainly have only detracted from this ultimate marriage of Kafka and Pinter. For Pinter is a dramatist and screenwriter whose gift it has been to make nightmarish worlds unfold by disrupting the ordinary, through the powers of language and silence.

—Mark W. Estrin, updated by Áine Doyle

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Harold Pinter

Harold Pinter

The English playwright Harold Pinter (born 1930) ranks among the foremost postwar British dramatists. A master of menace, he invested his plays with an atmosphere of fear, horror, and mystery.

Harold Pinter was born on Oct. 10, 1930, the only son of a Jewish tailor, in Hackney, East London. He won a scholarship to the local school, Hackney Downs Grammar School. In 1948 he entered the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and then joined a repertory company as an actor and toured England and Ireland. After marrying actress Vivien Merchant in 1956, he began writing plays, giving up the poetry, short stories, monologues, and an autobiographical novel, The Dwarfs, that he would eventually publish in 1990.

In 1957 Pinter completed two one-act plays, The Room and The Dumb Waiter, as well as the full-length play The Birthday Party. The relationship of villain and victim emerges gradually in all three of these plays. In The Dumb Waiter two hired gunmen experience strange terrors while receiving orders delivered via a dumb waiter shaft until one performs the assigned task by killing the other. In The Birthday Party impulse and instinct war with repression on many levels as Stanley fences with his companions—motherly Meg; luscious Lulu; apathetic Petey; and his tormentors, the irresistible instruments of conformity, Goldberg and McCann.

Pinter adapted his radio play A Slight Ache (1959), about a wife who exchanges a stranger for her husband, from his short story "The Examination" and later made it into a stage play. He next wrote two revue sketches, Pieces of Eight and One to Another. Another radio play, A Night Out (1960), followed.

Pinter's first West End success was The Caretaker in 1960 (adapted for film in 1962). In it, a devious old tramp is befriended and sheltered in his cluttered room by the kindly Aston until his calculating brother ousts the would-be caretaker. Night School appeared on radio the same year, depicting two aunts mothering Walter as he pursues a tart who has rented his room while he has been in prison.

The Dwarfs, derived from Pinter's novel, also first appeared on radio in 1960. It presents a pair of threatening figures cruelly descending upon the hapless Len with his disintegrating fantasies about ghoulish dwarfs. Pinter later adapted two television plays for the stage: The Collection (1961), which expresses a husband's fears of his wife's infidelity with one of a pair of men in an adjoining apartment; and The Lover (1963), in which a jaded married couple seek sexual stimulus in role playing. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) broadcast his short story "The Tea Party" in 1964 and televised it throughout Europe the following year.

In Pinter's full-length play The Homecoming (1965) the theme of sexual cruelty reappears. A professor teaching in an American university returns to his father's home in London on summer vacation with his wife. She stays on as the whore-mistress for his father and brothers, and he agrees to return to the United States alone.

BBC television produced Pinter's The Basement (originally a film script entitled The Compartment) in 1967. The following year he wrote three one-act plays: Landscape, an exchange of reminiscences in non-connecting monologues between two old people; Silence, which mixed a three-person monologue and dialogue in a kind of dramatic poem; and the funny sketch Night. His full-length drama Old Times (1971) has no plot; it is a play about the past. The three characters spend an evening reminiscing about events that may or may not have occurred.

In 1973 Pinter was made the Associate Director of the National Theatre, a post he would hold until 1983. Pinter's first marriage dissolved in 1980. In the same year he married Lady Antonia Fraser.

Pinter's early plays were labeled "comedies of menace" and occur in confining room sanctuaries, in which men, beset by robotizing social forces, surrender the remnants of their individuality. In his later plays he is especially concerned with what he regards as the nearly impossible task of verifying appearances. He creates images of the human condition that are despairing yet also comic in his deft handling of dialogue that attacks, evades communication, and shields privacy with debasing non sequiturs, pat clichés, repetitions, contradictions, and apt bad syntax. Pinter thinks of speech as "a constant stratagem to cover nakedness." This period of his life became one of his most prolific. He contributed many works, some of which are: No Man's Land (1975), Betrayal (1978), Poems And Prose 1949-1977 (1978), I Know The Place (1979), Family Voices (1981), Other Places (1982), One For The Road (1984), Mountain Language (1988), The Heat Of The Day (1989), Party Time (1991), Moonlight (1993), 99 Poems In Translation (1995), and Ashes To Ashes (1995).

Further Reading

The most thorough critical study of Pinter is Arnold P. Hinchliffe Harold Pinter (1967). Other studies are Walter Kerr Harold Pinter (1967); Ronald Hayman Harold Pinter (1968) in the "Contemporary Playwrights" series; Lois G. Gordon Stratagems to Uncover Nakedness (1969); James R. Hollis Harold Pinter: The Poetics of Silence (1970); and Victor L. Cahn Gender and Power in the Plays of Harold Pinter (1993). Recommended for general background are Martin Esslin The Theatre of the Absurd (1961); John Russell Taylor The Angry Theatre (1962; 2d rev. ed. 1969); Ruby Cohn Currents in Comtemporary Drama (1969); and Mel Gussow Conversations with Pinter (1994). Pinter is also listed in the 1997 edition of Who's Who.

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Pinter, Harold

Harold Pinter, 1930–2008, English dramatist. Born in Hackney in London's East End, the son of an English tailor of Eastern European Jewish ancestry, he studied at London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and Central School of Speech and Drama. One of the most important English playwrights of the last half of the 20th cent. and the most influential of his generation, Pinter wrote what have been called "comedies of menace." Using apparently commonplace characters and settings, he invests his plays with an atmosphere of fear, horror, and mystery. The peculiar tension he creates often derives as much from the long silences between speeches as from the often curt, ambiguous, yet vividly vernacular speeches themselves. His austere language is extremely distinctive, as is the ominous unease and sense of imminent violence that it provokes, and he is one of the few writers to have an adjective—Pinteresque—named for him. His plays frequently concern struggles for power in which the issues are obscure and the reasons for defeat and victory undefined. In the course of a career that spanned six decades, Pinter won many prestigious honors, the crowning of which was the 2005 Nobel Prize in Literature.

Pinter began his theatrical career as an actor, touring with provincial repertory companies. He continued to act throughout his career, working on stage, in films, and on radio and television. His first produced effort as a playwright, a one-act drama entitled The Room (1957), was followed by such plays as The Birthday Party (1957, film 1967), The Dumb Waiter (1957), A Slight Ache (1958), and The Dwarfs (1960). Pinter adapted several of these and later plays for film. The Caretaker (1959, film 1963) was his first great commercial and critical success and was followed by numerous plays, including The Collection (1961), The Homecoming (1964, film 1969), Landscape (1967), Old Times (1970), No Man's Land (1974), Betrayal (1978, film 1981), A Kind of Alaska (1982), One for the Road (1984), Mountain Language (1988), Moonlight (1993), Ashes to Ashes (1996), Celebration (1999), and Remembrance of Things Past (2000). By and large, Pinter's later dramas, often more overtly political than his previous works, were greeted with less critical acclaim than his earlier plays.

Pinter wrote the screenplays for a number of other highly praised motion pictures as well, among them The Servant (1963), The Pumpkin Eater (1964), Accident (1966), The Go-Between (1971), The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981), and The Handmaid's Tale (1987). His collected screenplays were published in 2000. He also wrote Mac—a Memoir (1969), several volumes of poetry, the novel The Dwarfs (1990), numerous essays, and a miscellany, Various Voices (1999). An active director of his own work and that of other contemporary dramatists, Pinter oversaw the productions of numerous plays as well as of several films and television dramas.

A longtime political activist, Pinter was a vigorous and vocal campaigner for human rights and an outspoken opponent of American and British involvement in the Iraq war. In 2005 he announced that he had retired from playwriting in order to focus on politics and his work for peace, but planned to continue writing poetry. He was married to the historian Lady Antonia Fraser.

See M. Gussow, Conversations with Pinter (1994); A. Fraser, Must You Go?: My Life with Harold Pinter (2010); critical biography by M. Billington (1996); studies by W. Kerr (1967), M. Esslin (1967, 1970, 1973, 1984 repr. 1992), W. Baker and S. E. Tabachnick (1974), S. Sahai (1981), J. Klein (1985), S. H. Gale (1986) and as ed. (1990), H. Bloom, ed. (1987), E. Sakellaridou (1987), L. Gordon, ed. (1990, 2001), C. Misra (1992), K. H. Burkman and J. L. Kundert-Gibbs, ed. (1993), R. Knowles (1995), M. S. Regal (1995), D. K. Peacock (1997), P. Prentice (2000), M. Batty (2001), and I. Smith (2003, 2005).

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Pinter, Harold

Pinter, Harold (1930– ) English dramatist. His elliptical dialogue and prolonged pauses induces a sense of unease and menace, often reinforced by a confined setting. His second play, The Birthday Party (1958), initially received adverse reviews. Pinter gained critical praise for his next play, The Caretaker (1960). Other major works include The Homecoming (1965), Old Times (1971), No Man's Land (1975), Betrayal (1978), and A Kind of Alaska (1982). Later plays, such as Mountain Language (1988) and Moonlighting (1993), are more explicitly political. His screenplays include The Servant (1963), The Go-Between (1969), and The French Lieutenant's Woman (1980).

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