Pinter, Harold (10 October 1930 - )
Harold Pinter (10 October 1930 - )
Steven H. Gale
Kentucky State University
SELECTED BOOKS: The Birthday Party (London: Encore, 1959);
The Birthday Party and Other Plays (London: Methuen, 1960); republished as The Birthday Party and The Room (New York: Grove, 1960)–includes The Birthday Party, The Room, and The Dumb Waiter;
The Caretaker (London: Methuen, 1960);
The Caretaker and The Birthday Party (Garden City, N.J.: Doubleday, 1960);
A Night Out (London: S. French, 1961);
A Slight Ache and Other Plays (London: Methuen, 1961)– comprises A Slight Ache, A Night Out, The Dwarfs, Trouble in the Works, The Black and White, Request Stop, Last to Go, and Applicant;
Three Plays: A Slight Ache, The Collection, The Dwarfs (New York: Grove, 1962);
The Collection and The Lover (London: Methuen, 1963)–includes “The Examination”;
The Dwarfs and Eight Revue Sketches (New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1965)–comprises The Dwarfs, Trouble in the Works, The Black and White, Request Stop, Last to Go, Applicant, Interview, That’s All, and That’s Your Trouble; augmented with The New World Order as The Dwarfs and Nine Revue Sketches (New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1999);
The Homecoming (London: Methuen, 1965; New York: Grove, 1967);
Tea Party (London: Methuen, 1965; New York: Grove, 1966);
Tea Party and Other Plays (London: Methuen, 1967)–comprises Tea Party, The Basement, and Night School;
The Lover, Tea Party, The Basement (New York: Grove, 1967);
Landscape (London: Pendragon, 1968);
Poems (London: Enitharmon, 1968);
A Night Out, Night School, Revue Sketches (New York: Grove, 1968);
Mac (London: Pendragon, 1968);
Landscape and Silence (London: Methuen, 1969; New York: Grove, 1970)–includes Night;
Five Screenplays (London: Methuen, 1971); republished as The Servant and Other Screenplays (London & Boston: Faber & Faber, 1991)–comprises The Servant, The Pumpkin Eater, The Quiller Memorandum, Accident, and The Go-Between;
Old Times (London: Methuen, 1971; New York: Grove, 1973);
Monologue (London: Covent Garden, 1973);
No Man’s Land (London: Eyre Methuen, 1975; New York: Grove, 1975);
The Proust Screenplay, adapted from Marcel Proust’s A la recherche de temps perdu (London: Eyre Methuen/ Chatto & Windus, 1978; New York: Grove, 1978);
Poems and Prose 1949-1977 (London: Eyre Methuen, 1978; New York: Grove, 1978); revised and republished as Collected Poems and Prose (London: Methuen, 1986; expanded edition, London: Faber & Faber, 1990; New York: Grove, 1996);
Betrayal (London: Eyre Methuen, 1978; New York: Grove, 1979);
I Know the Place: Poems (Warwick: Greville Press, 1979);
The Hothouse (London: Eyre Methuen, 1980; New York, Grove, 1980);
Family Voices (London: Next Editions/Faber & Faber, 1981; New York: Grove, 1981);
The Screenplay of The French Lieutenant’s Woman (London: Cape, 1981); republished as The French Lieutenant’s Woman: A Screenplay (New York: Little, Brown, 1981);
The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Other Screenplays (London: Methuen, 1982)–comprises The French Lieutenant’Woman, The Last Tycoon, and Langrishe, Go Down;
Other Places: Three Plays (London: Methuen, 1982; New York: Grove, 1983)–comprises Family Voices, Victoria Station, and A Kind of Alaska; augmented with One for the Road as Other Places: Four Plays (New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1984);
One for the Road (London: Methuen, 1984; augmented, 1985; New York: Grove, 1986);
Mountain Language (London & Boston: Faber & Faber, 1988);
The Heat of the Day (London & Boston: Faber & Faber, 1989);
The Comfort of Strangers and Other Screenplays (London & Boston: Faber & Faber, 1990)–comprises The Comfort of Strangers, Reunion, Turtle Diary, and Victory;
The Dwarfs: A Novel (London & Boston: Faber & Faber, 1990);
Party Time: A Screenplay (London & Boston: Faber & Faber, 1991);
Plays One (London: Faber & Faber, 1991; New York: Grove, 1991)–comprises “Writing for the Theatre,” The Birthday Party, The Room, The Dumb Waiter, A Slight Ache, The Hothouse, A Night Out, The Black and White, and “The Examination”;
Plays Two (London: Faber & Faber, 1991; New York: Grove, 1991)–comprises “Writing for Myself,” The Caretaker, The Dwarfs, The Collection, The Lover, Night School, Trouble in the Works, The Black and White, Request Stop, The Last to Go, and Special Offer;
Ten Early Poems (Warwick: Greville Press, 1992);
Party Time and The New World Order (New York: Grove, 1993);
The Trial: Adapted from the Novel by Franz Kafka (London & Boston: Faber & Faber, 1993);
Moonlight (London: Faber & Faber, 1993; New York: Grove, 1994);
Ashes to Ashes (London: Faber & Faber, 1996; New York: Grove, 1997);
Plays Three (London: Faber & Faber, 1997; New York: Grove, 1997)–comprises The Homecoming, Tea Party, The Basement, Landscape, Silence, Old Times, No Man’s Land, Night, That’s Your Trouble, That’s All, Applicant, Interview, Dialogue for Three, and “Tea Party” [story];
Plays Four (London: Faber & Faber, 1998; New York: Grove, 1998)–comprises Betrayal, Monologue, Family Voices, A Kind of Alaska, Victoria Station, One for the Road, Mountain Language, Party Time, Ashes to Ashes, Precisely, and The New World Order;
Various Voices: Poetry, Prose, Politics, 1948-1998 (London: Faber & Faber, 1998; New York: Grove, 1998); revised as Various Voices: Poetry, Prose, Politics, 1948-2005 (London: Faber & Faber, 2005);
Celebration and The Room (New York: Grove, 1999; London: Faber & Faber, 2000);
Remembrance of Things Past, adapted by Pinter and Di Trevis from Pinter’s The Proust Screenplay (London: Faber & Faber, 2000);
The Disappeared and Other Poems (London: Enitharmon, 2002);
Press Conference (London: Faber & Faber, 2002);
War (London: Faber & Faber, 2003);
Death etc. (New York: Grove, 2005).
PLAY PRODUCTIONS: The Room, Bristol, Bristol University Drama Studio, 15 May 1957; produced with The Dumb Waiter, London, Hampstead Theatre Club, 21 January 1960 (transferred to Royal Court Theatre, 8 March 1960); produced with A Slight Ache, New York, Writers Stage Theatre, 9 December 1964;
The Birthday Party, Cambridge, Arts Theatre, 28 April 1958; London, Lyric Theatre Hammersmith, 19 May 1958; New York, Booth Theatre, 3 October 1967;
The Dumb Waiter, translated into German by Willy H. Thiem, Frankfurt am Main, Kleines Haus, 28 February 1959; produced with The Room, London, Hampstead Theatre Club, 21 January 1960 (transferred to Royal Court Theatre, 8 March 1960); produced with The Collection, New York, Cherry Lane Theatre, 26 November 1962;
Trouble in the Works and The Black and White, in One to Another (revue), London, Lyric Theatre Hammersmith, 15 July 1959;
Request Stop, Last to Go, and Special Offer, in Pieces of Eight (revue), London, Apollo Theatre, 23 September 1959;
The Caretaker, London, Arts Theatre, 27 April 1960 (transferred to Duchess Theatre, 30 May 1960); New York, Lyceum Theatre, 4 October 1961;
A Slight Ache, London, Arts Theatre, 18 January 1961; produced with The Room, New York, Writers Stage Theatre, 9 December 1964;
A. Night Out, London, Comedy Theatre, 2 October 1961;
The Collection, London, Aldwych Theatre, 18 June 1962; produced with The Dumb Waiter, New York, Cherry Lane Theatre, 26 November 1962;
The Dwarfs, produced with Be Lover, London, New Arts Theatre, 18 September 1963; produced with The Dumb Waiter, New York, Abbey Theatre, 3 May 1974;
The Lover, produced with The Dwarfs, London, New Arts Theatre, 18 September 1963; New York, Cherry Lane Theatre, 4 January 1964;
The Homecoming, Cardiff, New Theatre, 22 March 1965; London, Aldwych Theatre, 3 June 1965; New York, Music Box Theatre, 5 January 1967;
Tea Party and The Basement, New York, Eastside Playhouse, 15 October 1968; London, Duchess Theatre, 17 September 1970;
Night, in We Who Are About To.., London, Hampstead Theatre Club, 6 February 1969; produced again in Mixed Doubles: An Entertainment on Marriage (revised version of We Who Are About To..), London, Comedy Theatre, 9 April 1969;
Landscape and Silence, London, Aldwych Theatre, 2 July 1969; New York, Forum Theatre, 2 April 1970;
Old Times, London, Aldwych Theatre, 1 June 1971; New York, Billy Rose Theatre, 16 November 1971;
Monologue, Hampstead, King’s Head Theatre, 29 August 1973;
No Man’s Land, London, Old Vic (National Theatre), 23 April 1975; New York, Longacre Theatre, 9 November 1976;
Betrayal, London, Lyttelton Theatre (National Theatre), 15 November 1978; New York, Trafalgar Theatre, 5 January 1980;
The Hothouse, London, Hampstead Theatre, 24 April 1980 (transferred to Ambassador Theatre, 25 June 1980); New York, Playhouse Theatre, 6 May 1982;
Family Voices, London, National Theatre, 13 February 1981;
A Kind of Alaska and Victoria Station, London, Cottesloe Theatre (National Theatre), 14 October 1982;
Precisely, London, Apollo Theatre, 19 December 1983;
One for the Road, London, Lyric Theatre Studio, 13 March 1984;
Mountain Language, London, Lyttelton Theatre (National Theatre), 20 October 1988;
The New World Order, London, Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, 19 July 1991;
Party Time, London, Almeida Theatre, 31 October 1991;
Moonlight, London, Almeida Theatre, 7 September 1993;
Ashes to Ashes, London, Ambassadors Theatre, 12 September 1996;
God’s Own District, London, Lyric Theatre Hammersmith, 27 March 1997;
Celebration, London, Almeida Theatre, 16 March 2000;
Remembrance of Things Past, adapted by Pinter and Di Trevis from Pinter’s The Proust Screenplay, London, Cottesloe Theatre (National Theatre), 23 November 2000;
Sketches, London, National Theatre, 8 and 11 February 2002–comprised That’s Your Trouble, The Black and White, Tess, Trouble in the Works, Last to Go, Special Offer, That’s All, Night, and Press Conference.
PRODUCED SCRIPTS: A Slight Ache, radio, BBC Third Programme, 29 July 1959;
A Night Out, radio, BBC Third Programme, 1 March 1960; television, ABC Weekend Television, 24 April 1960;
The Birthday Party, television, ITV, 22 March 1960;
The Dwarfs, radio, BBC Third Programme, 2 December 1960;
The Collection, television, Associated Rediffusion Television, 11 May 1961;
Night School, television, Associated Rediffusion Television, 21 July 1961;
The Lover, television, Associated Rediffusion Television, 28 March 1963;
Applicant, Dialogue for Three, Interview, That’s All, and That’s Your Trouble, radio, BBC Third Programme, 1963;
The Servant, adapted from Robin Maugham’s novel, motion picture, Springbok/Elstree, 1963;
The Guest (U.K. title, The Caretaker), motion picture, Janus, 1964;
The Pumpkin Eater, adapted from Penelope Mortimer’s novel, motion picture, Rank, 1964;
Tea Party, television, BBC, 25 March 1965;
The Quiller Memorandum, adapted from Elleston Trevor’s novel, motion picture, 20th Century-Fox, 1966;
The Basement, television, BBC, 20 February 1967;
Accident, adapted from Nicholas Mosley’s novel, motion picture, Cinema V, 1967;
Landscape, radio, BBC Third Programme, 25 April 1968;
The Birthday Party, motion picture, Continental, 1968;
The Go-Between, adapted from L. P. Hartley’s novel, motion picture, EMI, 1970;
Monologue, television, BBC, 13 April 1973;
The Homecoming, motion picture, American Film Theatre, 1973;
The Collection, television, Granada, 1976;
The Last Tycoon, adapted from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, motion picture, Paramount, 1976;
Langrishe, Go Down, adapted from Aidan Higgins’s novel, television, BBC, 20 September 1978; No Man ś Land, television, BBC Four,1978;
Family Voices, radio, BBC Radio Three, 22 January 1981;
The French Lieutenant’s Woman, adapted from John Fowles’s novel, motion picture, United Artists, 1981;
Betrayal, motion picture, 20th Century-Fox/Horizon, 1983;
Turtle Diary, adapted from Russell Hoban’s novel, motion picture, United British Artists/Britannic, 1985;
The Heat of the Day, adapted from Elizabeth Bowen’s novel, television, Granada, 1989;
Reunion, adapted from Fred Uhlman’s novel, motion picture, C.L.G. Films/France 3 Cinema/Les Films Ariane/NEF Diffusion, 1989;
The Comfort of Strangers, adapted from Ian McEwan’s novel, motion picture, Rank/Sovereign, 1990 [i.e., 1991];
The Handmaids Tale, adapted from Margaret Atwood’s novel, motion picture, Cinecom, 1990;
The Trial, adapted from Franz Kafka’s story, motion picture, BBC/Europanda, 1993;
The Proust Screenplay, radio, BBC Radio Three, 31 December 1995.
The 2005 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature was British dramatist Harold Pinter, “who in his plays uncovers the precipice under everyday prattle and forces entry into oppression’s closed rooms,” as the citation read. Through the course of his career, Pinter has written many good plays and several great plays, works that will stand the test of time. He changed the nature of stage language and also the nature of audience expectations, creating a notable impact on world drama. Playwrights not only in the United States and Great Britain but also throughout western Europe, indeed around the world, obviously have been influenced by his writing, and many of them admit so openly and with great reverence. He is an international force in the theater, as reflected in the broad spectrum of languages into which his plays have been translated, including Arabic, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Chinese, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Serbo-Croat, Slovak, Swedish, and Turkish.
Pinter’s playwriting is of a piece, but evolutionarily so. His thirty-two stage plays and thirteen published sketches fit loosely into four subject foci over four eras. Each of the subject categories is a natural outgrowth of the dramas that precede it, though at first blush they seem to be unconnected or even written by a different author. In the late 1950s through the mid 1960s, he wrote “comedies of menace,” so labeled by Irving Wardle in 1958 because the dramas were filled with characters confronted by menace; yet, the plays included a great deal of unconventional humor, some of it having the tang of Jewish theater. These plays were followed by a set of transitional dramas that led into dramas concerned with psychological need. His memory plays were written primarily in the late 1960s through the 1970s. His final works, from about 1984 through 2002, when he stopped writing plays, were essentially political in theme. His last published dramatic work was the sketch Press Conference (2002). There is occasionally some overlap in these divisions–the amusing Victoria Station in 1982 could have been included with his funny 1959 revue sketches, and the horrifically moving Ashes to Ashes (1996) could fit with the plays written ten years earlier–but generally speaking the plays fit into thematic and stylistic groupings.
Biographer Michael Billington and scholars such as Martin Esslin and Steven H. Gale have drawn connections between the playwright’s youth and the themes in his dramas, links that are especially obvious in those early comedies of menace. Pinter, born on 10 October 1930, was the only child of Hyman (Jack) Pinter and Frances Mann Pinter. He grew up in Hackney, a grim, rough, working-class neighborhood in London, where his father was a women’s tailor.
Two sets of events helped form the youngster’s worldview. The first was World War II and the German bombing blitz of London. Pinter remembers seeing his backyard in flames from the bombs, and he was evacuated to the countryside for the duration of the war when he was nine years old. When he was moved to the countryside, he took with him only his favorite cricket bat; cricket has remained a lifelong obsession. He followed the game closely and played on several cricket sides. He even became president of a local cricket club, The Gaities, and he and Tom Stoppard played on the same team for a while after both of them had achieved fame. He revealed his appreciation of the game by naming some of his characters in No Man’s Land (1975) after pre-1914 all-star cricketers George Hirst, R. H. Spooner, Frank Foster, and Johnny Briggs, and he inserted a cricket match into his motion-picture script for the award-winning The Go-Between (1970). In any case, the terrors of the bombings and the sense of isolation and desertion and uncertainty that accompanied the author-to-be’s evacuation out of London created in the young man’s mind an awareness of the ubiquitousness of menace, as is evidenced in his remembrance “Evacuees,” first published in The Pinter Review in 1994.
After the war, the concept of all-pervading menace was reenforced by Pinter’s schoolboy experiences. Walking through alleys on his way home from school, he was often confronted by gangs of neo-Nazis, young toughs looking for a fight. His wearing glasses and carrying schoolbooks were symbols that proved to the dim-witted junior gangsters that he must be either a Jew (which he was) or a Communist. Waiting for their victims, the gang members held broken milk bottles in their hands, prepared “to carve up” any Jew or Communist who came along. It is not surprising that the sense of all-pervading, inescapable menace became a preeminent and guiding theme in the writer’s earliest plays and poetry.
Another trademark of the author’s works grew out of his back-alley experience. His only defense was his ability to use words—as he walked through the blockade of hoodlums, he kept up a running conversation with them: ‘“Are you all right?’ ’Yes, I’m all right.’ ‘Well, that’s all right then, isn’t it?” It worked: he was never attacked. Understanding of the importance of words and the workings of language are part of the authorial persona that led to the Nobel Prize.
This understanding is reflected humorously and succinctly in two of the writer’s shorter plays. In Tea Party (first read as a short story on the BBC Third Programme, 2 June 1964 and acted on BBC television on 25 March 1965 before it premiered on stage in New York in 1968), two young brothers engage in a Lewis Carroll–style discussion:
JOHN. Children seem to mean a great deal to their parents, I’ve noticed. Though I’ve often wondered what ’a great deal’ means.
TOM. I’ve often wondered what ‘mean’ means.
Realizing that definitions can be slippery and that the same word can be used by different people in many different ways is important in comprehending how words can be used not only to communicate but to block communication as well.
In The Dwarfs (published in 1961, performed in 1963), which began as a novel about Pinter’s friends, Mark and Len are having a discussion during which Len asks Mark a question about his background, resulting in this exchange:
MARK: I see that butter’s going up.
LEN: I’m prepared to believe it, but it doesn’t answer my question.
That is exactly Mark’s point. Len’s questions have begun to hit too close to home, and he is not prepared to reveal any more of himself than he already has. In The Dumb Waiter (1960), Pinter had shown what happens when one of the characters asks too many questions: he ends up in front of his murderous partner’s gun. In the case of The Dwarfs, Pinter shows that asking questions is frowned upon, but he does so in a simple linguistic maneuver that deflects the questioner.
Certainly, some of Pinter’s understanding of the power of words also came from his school days at Hackney Downs Grammar School where he worked with English teacher Joe Brearley and learned about the theater. Interestingly, Pinter’s first efforts at creative writing were poems. In the August 1950 issue of Poetry London, his poems “New Year in the Midlands” and “Chandeliers and Shadows” were published. Three months later, “New Year in the Midlands” was reprinted in the same journal along with “Rural Idyll” and “European Revels.” The pieces were signed “Harold Pinta.” These poems, and most of those that have followed over the decades, are related to his dramaturgy in both style and content.
During the period at Hackney Downs, Pinter enjoyed his first theatergoing experience. He saw Sir Donald Wolfit playing King Lear. He was so enthralled that he returned five times and later acted the part of one of the king’s knights with Wolfit in a production of King Lear. Pinter wrote and acted under Brearley’s tutelage, and he met several boys at school who later became lifelong friends and business associates (including his accountant, actor Henry Woolf, and publisher Jimmy Wax).
Pinter soon turned to acting as a serious career. He won a grant to attend the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, but after about two terms he found that he “didn’t care for it very much.”The aspiring actor faked a nervous breakdown and left the academy, though for several months he pretended that he was still enrolled so as not to upset his parents. He wrote poems, he recalls in “Writing for Myself” (1961), hundreds of them, and with the help of Reggie Smith, who had helped him get the Royal Academy grant, he began acting small parts on the radio (his first was in the BBC Home Service Broadcast “Focus on Football Pools” on 19 September 1950, and he played Abergavenny in a BBC Third Programme production of William Shakespeare’s Henry VIII). Then Anew McMaster’s 1951 advertisement in Stage calling for actors for a Shakespearean tour of Ireland drew his attention. In Mac (1968), Pinter recounts his eighteen-month period with the repertory company with great fondness and admiration for McMaster and for friends he made in the company–Alun Owen, Patrick Magee, and Barry Foster.
In 1953 Pinter acted in As You Like It as part of Wolfit’s classical season at King’s Theatre in Hammersmith. There he met Vivien Merchant (real name Ada Thomson), an actress. The next year Pinter assumed the stage name David Baron and was involved in touring provincial England in repertory. He and Merchant married in 1956 and had a son, Daniel, in 1958. Merchant performed in many of her husband’s plays, and critics and scholars often suggest that the parts were written expressly for her.
Besides his stage experiences, which include performing in nine stage productions since 1960, Pinter has acted in thirteen radio programs between 1951 and 2000; he has performed on television ten times; and he has acted in seven movies. His knowledge of the stage from the actor’s point of view proved invaluable when he began writing plays. He knew how speeches and actions work on stage better than most dramatists do, and many famous actors who worked in his plays, including Alan Bates, Robert Shaw, Donald Pleasence, Cyril Cusack, Sir John Gielgud, Liv Ullman, and Sir Ralph Richardson, call him an “actor’s” playwright. In a related capacity, he has directed thirty-six theatrical productions, many of them being his own plays or those of fellow contemporary British playwright Simon Grey, and he has directed seven motion pictures and television productions. His lifelong success as a stage director surely derives from his acting experience as well. As a director he tolerates no stage “business.” An actor does what he or she is directed to do in the stage directions and nothing else. If the actor does not understand what a particular line means, Pinter’s advice is not to worry about it: just say the words as they are written, and they will take care of themselves.
In late 1956 Woolf was a graduate student at Bristol University when the president of the Green Room Society at the university decided to stage an evening of one-act plays. She asked him if he knew of any oneacters, and he suggested that Pinter might have something. Woolf wrote to Pinter asking if he could provide a play within a week. Pinter, who was acting in a repertory season in Torque, Devon, responded that he could not produce anything in less than six months. Then, in four days, working between morning rehearsals of one play and evening performances of another, Pinter wrote The Room, a play based on an image of two men whom he had seen in at a London party. A small man (the writer Quentin Crisp) kept popping pieces of bread into the mouth of a large, silent man who was sitting at a kitchen table. The play was first performed in the Drama Studio, a converted squash court, on 15 May 1957.
During the National Student Drama Festival in December 1957, the play was revived, and Harold Hobson, a prestigious drama critic for the London Sunday Times, lauded it in his review of the festival. Producer Michael Codron read the review and contacted Pinter to ask if he had any other plays. Pinter replied that he was working on one titled “The Party,” which became The Birthday Party. This play opened at the Arts Theatre in Cambridge on 28 April 1958, with Pinter assisting in the directing. On 19 May the play moved to the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, a suburb of London. The majority of the critics, excepting Hobson, lambasted the work, and it closed after a one-week run, making only £260, 11s., and 8d.
The Room offers the essence of Pinter’s comedies of menace dramas. A woman, Rose, virtually never leaves her room in a boardinghouse for fear of some unnamed menace that lurks outside her door. This situation sets the pattern for Pinter’s characters throughout his career. There is a room. It has a door. The person in the room is menaced by something snuffling about outside that door. When someone knocks, a need for verification of who or what is on the other side of the door is created. The inhabitant has to determine whether it is the omnipresent, ubiquitous menace or merely something harmless. This information can only be found out by communicating with whoever or whatever is on the other side of the door. But, in communicating, the inhabitant runs the danger of revealing his Achilles heel, some sort of weakness that will allow the menace to enter and destroy him. This situation enhances the menace, which reenforces the need for communication and verification, which increases the need for noncommunicative communication. This circular triad–menace, communication, verification–appears in one way or another in virtually all of the playwright’s plays. It is easy to see the influence of the young Pinter’s experiences during the war and in the alleys following the war on his perceptions of the world that surrounded him.
Another factor that literally may have influenced his view of the world is his need to wear eyeglasses. Especially in his early plays, the dramatist has a minor preoccupation with vision: Riley is blind and Rose loses her sight at the end of The Room; Stanley’s eyeglasses are purposely broken and he is accused of being “cockeyed” in The Birthday Party; Edward speaks of blinding the wasp in A Slight Ache (broadcast in 1959, published in 1961); Disson has problems with his sight in Ta Party. Woolf, Pinter’s lifelong friend, claims that the playwright’s poor vision is one of the reasons that he writes about perception, literal and figurative. Corners do not appear to have sharp edges to Pinter. Because of his difficulty focusing on peripheral objects, he is more aware of the shadowy borderlines of reality than are those with normal sight.
If The Room explores how menace can break into a sanctuary and destroy the person within, it is easy to see in his plays how Pinter arrived at the next step of his exploration of menace. What if one runs from the menace? That is what happens in The Birthday Party. In Pinter’s first play to be presented professionally, Stanley has run to a seaside boardinghouse. There, two intruders enter his life. Goldberg is a Jewish businessman; McCann is a defrocked Irish priest. In a short period of time they accuse him of a plethora of social faux pas, political indiscretions, and actual crimes. Under their constant barrage of accusations, Stanley breaks down, and the play ends with the pair of menacers taking him off to “meet” Monty, a horrifyingly suggestive end.
Another of the menace plays, The Dumb Waiter, offers the ultimate conundrum: two professional killers who are subjected to menace. Gus winds up in front of his partner’s gun because he asks too many questions (Who makes the arrangements to bring the victim to them? Who clears up the mess afterward?). When the curtain comes down at the end of the play, it is Ben who is menaced even though he holds the gun: Gus’s questions may have led him before his partner/executioner, but now Ben is faced with an impossible choice. On the one hand, if he shoots Gus, he will begin to ask questions, and he already knows what will happen to him if he does. On the other hand, if he does not murder his partner, surely those who arranged the murder will be after him too.
Pinter offers all of these possibilities in a presentation that is full of humor, which is one element of the dramatist’s technique that is too often overlooked or ignored. Besides the early review sketches that were broadcast on the BBC Third Programme in 1963 (Applicant, Dialogue for Three, Interview, That’s All, and That’s your Trouble), along with Last to Go and a series of contributions to six television comedy shows between 1963 and 1977, he includes amusing moments in most of his plays up to the political dramas, and even then there is occasional humor involved. Based on contradictions, Pinter’s humor frequently reenforces in the audience a sense that there are no right answers to any question. At the same time, Pinter’s humor is based on logical non sequiturs. The laughter comes because the question and the answer are not obviously connected, and this disconnect reveals something about those participating in the conversation. What that is, he leaves the audience to figure out, which is one of the reasons he is so appealing as a writer. He provides the clues but not the answers.
Another perspective on the writer’s humor is supplied by Pinter himself. Leonard Russell, the London Sunday Times literary editor, wrote in August 1960 about his reaction to The Caretaker, which had premiered in April. He complained about the audience’s “indiscriminate laughter which greeted the play.” Pinter replied in a letter on 14 August: “Certainly I laughed myself while writing “The Caretaker,’ but not all the time, not ‘indiscriminately.’ An element of the absurd is, I think, one of the features of the play, but at the same time I did not intend it to be merely a laughable farce. If there hadn’t been other issues at stake the play would not have been written.” He goes on to say that “everything is funny,” but “the point about tragedy is that it is no longer funny.”
Incidentally, Pinter’s introduction to the general public and the scholarly community focused on what Esslin labeled “the Absurd.” In his 1961 groundbreaking study, The Theatre of the Absurd, Esslin explained that his definition of absurd was related to its original use, meaning being out of harmony rather than ridiculous. According to Esslin, in absurdist plays one-dimensional characters show no development; there is virtually no plot; and language is devalued. While the label stuck to Pinter’s work for much of his career, its application is incorrect. Pinter’s characters are not one-dimensional–they are motivated and they show development during the course of a play. There is a plot, and quite clearly language is an essential component. In The Homecoming (1965), when Ruth rolls about on the front-room floor in a passionate embrace with her brother-in-law while her husband watches, her actions are not “absurd.” Marriage and her family have failed to satisfy her primary appetites, and from a psychological point of view her actions are perfectly legitimate in that they are designed to fulfill her personal needs. This psychological element of need is a key to understanding Pinter’s theater.
Around the turn of the twentieth century, Scandinavian playwrights such as Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg and the Russian author Anton Chekhov began writing about everyday matters that were experienced by ordinary people, and the language spoken in the plays was the language of the common people. The use of quotidian vocabularies and uneven rhythms began to reflect the language of the person on the street. These traits were picked up by English-language dramatists such as the Irish writers Sean O’Casey, Lady Isabella Augusta Persse Gregory, and John Millington Synge, but it was Samuel Beckett who truly broke new ground in the theater. Beckett took the language of stage characters in new directions with the use of such devices as pauses and repetitions.
Pinter was a great fan of Beckett’s work, and the two men became friends early in Pinter’s career. In fact, until Beckett’s death in 1989, Pinter sent copies of his plays-in-progress to the man who was almost his mentor and asked for his opinion. Invariably, Beckett would say that the play was fine, except for maybe one bit of dialogue or action here or there. Pinter usually thought about the suggestions that Beckett made to correct these minor lapses, but he also usually kept the plays as he had written them–until, that is, he saw them performed in rehearsals or tryouts. Invariably, he would agree with Beckett’s assessment, and the correction suggested by the older writer would be incorporated into the play.
Nevertheless, Pinter surpassed Beckett in replicating onstage the ordinary language of the common Britisher. From the earliest moments of his career, critics called attention to the author’s ability to capture everyday-sounding speech onstage. Like other elements in stage productions, actual speech does not sound real onstage. Pinter’s gift was capturing the essence of everyday speech so that it sounded real when spoken onstage; “tape recorder” speech, critics called it, as though he had used a machine to replicate the sounds and cadences of real people talking.
In Pinter’s dramas the realistic language serves to contrast with and underscore the events taking place on the stage. Typically, there is a current of realistic speech running through the play. The progression in the plays is a movement from reality (reading a newspaper) to absurdity (the protagonist, reduced to an inarticulate shambles, literally is taken for a ride). The underlying flow of realistic language persistently contrasts with the “unrealistic” context in which it is uttered, emphasizing the absurdity of the surrounding events so that they seem even more absurd than they might otherwise appear. The fact that the characters speak as though engaged in everyday conversation in the midst of these abnormal events heightens the dramatic effect of their outrageous aspects.
Language functions in other ways, too. It can be a way to structure the universe (as in The Room or The Dwarfs), create characterizations (as with Aston’s slow, careful articulation versus Mick’s quick, biting, carefully crafted pronunciations in The Caretaker), serve as a weapon of attack or a fortification for defense (as in The Homecoming), or provide a nebulous metaphor for the past (as in Landscape, which opened in 1969; Night, which premiered in 1969; and Old Times, first produced in 1971).
The dramatist’s linguistic techniques are many and varied, and they are sometimes the antithesis of what normally would be considered appropriate, standard speech. Among the techniques that he employs are the use of a common vocabulary, malapropisms, non sequiturs, clichés, jargon, tautology, repetition, illogic, imagery, phatic responses, the rhythms and patterns of everyday conversation, and pauses and silences. This last element has become one of Pinter’s signatures.
In most dramas, dialogue or action is virtually continuous. Such is not the case in Pinter’s theatrical works. According to Frank Marcus, once, when the author was attending the first reading of a one-hour television script that he had written, the producer asked his assistant for the time score. “Exactly 28 minutes 34 seconds,” she responded. There was an awkward silence. Then Pinter explained: “You see, there are a lot of pauses.” These breaks in spoken language are of such consequence, so vital in transmitting the writer’s meaning, that director Peter Hall held a “dot and pause” rehearsal for the original cast of The Homecoming. Beckett successfully includes these nonverbal elements in his plays, but Pinter takes them a step further, not only giving them import in re-creating realistic-sounding language but making them markers in terms of content and meaning.
While people do pause in their everyday conversations, it is normally because they are searching for something to say or to avoid saying something. In Pinter’s plays, the pause serves many purposes, from the kind of actual lapses that occur in normal conversation to an indicator of extreme emotional involvement. Most often, they are used to emphasize the subject matter. In The Homecoming, Ruth’s description of her home in America is not long in actual word count, but the time it takes her to relate it is drawn out by the pauses between her statements–pauses that make America sound more barren than her simple description would indicate. The pauses imply the obvious emotional effect that the sterility of her surroundings has imposed on her. Pauses, therefore, demonstrate a continuing thought process and contribute to developing tension by exposing the intensity of the thought that has not yet broken into a verbally communicable pattern.
A silence, Pinter explained to John Lahr, is entirely different: “a silence…means that something has happened to create the impossibility of anyone speaking for a certain amount of time–until they can recover from whatever happened before the silence.” Silences, then, signal the conclusion of one line of thinking and the beginning of a new subject of conversation. A pause says, “think about what I have just said.” It is the equivalent of the end of a scene. A silence is like the end of an act. It says that topic of conversation is closed. In an exchange in The Homecoming between Ruth and Lenny about how he knew a particular girl had the pox, Lenny pauses between Ruth’s question and his answer. The pause indicates that he is thinking about his answer. After he replies, there is a silence, and then he says, “You and my brother are newly-weds, are you?” The topic of diseased girls is closed, and a new topic is opened. The break is clear-cut, and the audience is thereby prepared to go on to something new.
Following the comedies of menace in which the playwright exposes the effects of omnipresent physical menace, Pinter began to explore the source of menace. In A Slight Ache, The Collection (1962), and The Lover (1963), for instance, his characters are no longer threatened by external forces. The full exploration of this new subject matter began with The Caretaker, considered by many critics to be the dramatist’s best early play. In this play the menace, a tramp named Davies, is invited into the room by the inhabitant, Aston. The tramp’s presence disrupts Aston’s life, but it is more threatening to Aston’s brother, Mick. The title of the play refers to Mick, who is the caretaker of his older brother because his brother has been brain-damaged by electroshock treatment approved by their mother because Aston’s thinking patterns do not fit her social norm. In this case, the menace is removed through a concerted effort by the two brothers, who reestablish their fraternal relationship, one that fits both of their needs. In some ways this play is transitional. What might be a menace is brought into the room and becomes the menaced as the brothers fight to meet their common needs in the face of an intruder.
There is no question that Pinter received the Nobel Prize for his playwriting. At the same time, the Nobel Committee also recognized his mastery of other fields of writing, most notably his screenwriting. Pinter wrote twenty-four screenplays between 1964 and 2000. Two were never filmed, and three were rewritten by other writers. In many ways, the movie scripts parallel his writing for the stage. The first of these was a cinematic adaptation of The Caretaker in 1964. The script captures the essence of the play and to some extent goes beyond its source, for it allows Pinter to “open out” the play–to show, as he says, that there is a world, a real world, outside the one-room setting of the drama. Pinter is seen as a man walking in the street in one of the early scenes, and he acted in several of the other motion pictures made from his scripts as well as in Mansfield Park (2000).
Most of the screenplays are adaptations of other people’s novels. The primary exceptions are the scripts for filmed versions of his own dramas: The Birthday Party in 1968, The Homecoming in 1973, and Betrayal (1978) in 1982. Gale contends (in a 2003 study) that the screenwriter’s primary genius is his ability to grasp the essence of the novel that he is adapting, expanding the kernel and focusing it in a way that is true to the original source but in the process creating a new work of art. This talent is evident from his first motion-picture script, The Servant, in 1962 to his unfilmed screenplay of King Lear in 2000.
The script for John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981) is considered Pinter’s major contribution to writing for the screen. In it he demonstrates his creative process at its best in condensing a literary masterpiece without diminishing it and actually enhancing it through his cleverly constructed movie-within-a-movie by dealing with the eighteenth-century world featured in the novel through the eyes of a twentieth-century actor and actress who are lovers both on film and in real/reel life (for even the contemporary couple are onscreen images). As might be expected, the techniques that he utilizes and the themes that he explores in his stage plays are evident in the movies made from his screenplays. The same is true of his work in television, in features such as Tea Party, shown on the BBC Third Programme in 1965, and The Basement, first televised by the BBC in 1967. Not surprisingly, over the years there definitely has been movement in the opposite direction, too, as he incorporates cinematic techniques into his stage dramas.
The Homecoming is one of Pinter’s two greatest plays, and it best demonstrates how the writer collapses menace into the human need for love. Of course, his definition of love is not the one found in a dictionary, “affection based on admiration or benevolence.” What Pinter calls “love” really amounts to an individual psychological need that must be fulfilled for the emotional well-being of the organism. It is a psychological primary appetite. The language of the play clearly reflects this view, but not in terms readily accepted by first-time audiences. How can a husband watch his wife roll around on the floor in a passionate embrace with his brother and not react, audiences asked. Because the individual needs of the characters in the play allowed, even demanded these actions, Pinter answers. It is a matter of “love and the lack of love,” the artist says.
To understand Pinter is to be able to set aside preconceptions and judgments, to let the work explain itself. In the opening scene of The Homecoming, Max, the father, and Lenny, his middle son, seem bent on killing each other. They cuss and argue, threaten physical harm, and say the most outrageous things. That these things are not the common dialogue in most families does not mean that they are beyond the pale. It is the exact opposite. When Lenny tells his father to “Plug it…you stupid sod,” his father replies, “Listen! I’ll chop your spine off, you talk to me like that!…Talking to your lousy filthy father like that!” The key to the meaning of this exchange is in the second half of Max’s retort. He calls himself a “lousy filthy father.” Would he say that if he meant it? What is happening is a kind of male bonding, a parallel with the kind of interaction common between ten-year-old boys who punch each other on the shoulder to show their affection for one another without seeming effeminate. There is no woman in the house to temper the men’s actions, and it is as though they are in an arrested stage of development. Men do not show affection for one another in a lower-class London butcher’s home the way they might in a middle- or upper-class home, but they love one another nonetheless.
When Teddy brings home his wife, Ruth, to meet the family, there is another confrontation. Lenny walks into the front room in the middle of the night to find a strange woman standing there. He does not question who she is or why she is there. He has needs that have no bearing on that information–her presence and his ability to control her are all that matter to him. When he offers her a drink and asks whether she would like it on the “rocks,” she responds, “What do you know about rocks?” This response makes little sense at this point. Later, when she is talking about her life in America as the wife of a philosophy professor who sees their life together as idyllic (“She’s a wonderful wife and mother.…She’s got lots of friends. It’s a great life.”), her description is “It’s all rock. And sand. It stretches…so far…everywhere you look. And there’s lots of insects there. Pause. And there’s lots of insects there.” This description is not the picture of an ideal life in a “stimulating environment.” The pauses and repetitions and the reference back to “What do you know about rocks?” capture the sterility of her life and her need for some kind of change.
In the final scene, Teddy prepares to return to America, his three sons, and the glorious life that he leads at the university. Ruth is left with his family, the men who have suggested that she become a prostitute to support them and that she might service them as well. Lenny even suggests that his brother have business cards printed to give to his colleagues so they can take advantage of Ruth’s services when they are in England. As Teddy moves to the front door to leave, Ruth calls to him: “Don’t become a stranger.” The use of a cliché in this circumstance is funny because it does not seem to fit, but it precisely condenses the meaning of the play into this trite expression. She means it. She has nothing against her husband; he simply does not fulfill her needs. So, off he goes, and she wishes him well as she stays behind. It is her homecoming, not his. She has shown during the course of the play that she can take control, and it is unlikely that she will become a prostitute, but she is staying because she is fulfilling her needs by taking care of the men in the household. The shift in what constitutes a home is indicative of the change in Pinter’s theme as he moves from the presentation of menace to a comment on psychological need as a source of menace.
Having determined that menace is a derivative of need, Pinter began to search out the source from which that need springs, and he came to the conclusion that it is in the human mind, which is why it is always a threat that cannot be escaped. This conclusion leads to the memory or mind plays, beginning unobtrusively with his short masterpiece Night. In Night, a husband and wife reminisce about their first meeting. In the beginning, their recollections match, but soon the memories diverge. According to their individual needs, they perceived things differently at the time of their meeting, and as time has gone by, their memories have changed to meet their changing needs, possibly to the extent that what they have to remember may never have happened–but they create a memory that fits their needs, not reality.
The shift in viewpoint is also an indicator of Pinter’s skill. The majority of authors write what is essentially the same play over and over, with new characters and settings. Pinter’s plays show a progression from the examination of one source of menace to another. They also incorporate a change in style that is dramatic and unexpected. Each time the playwright shifts his thematic emphasis, so too does he shift his style. Someone who knows that Pinter wrote Old Times would not guess that he also wrote The Caretaker. As he moves into the memory plays, his style becomes lyrical, as is befitting his new subject matter.
The culmination of Pinter’s examination of the workings of the human mind is his second great play, Old Times. The opening scene shows the playwright’s command of his dramatic tools. The curtain opens to reveal three people in a room. Two of them are engaged in conversation while the third stands in shadows looking out a window. The first two, Kate and her husband, Deeley, are talking about Anna, Kate’s former roommate, who is on her way to visit them. The woman at the window turns around and enters the conversation, talking about the wonderful casserole they had for dinner. Pinter wants the audience to see the third character, Anna, as being in the minds of the husband and wife, but he also wants to skip a scene change, the arrival of Anna at the couple’s door, and the dinner. This procedure is the equivalent of a cinematic jump cut.
What transpires from this point on is a battle to the death between the husband and the former roommate for the wife’s affections. But Pinter is not an ordinary dramatist, so the battle develops in ways that leaves the audience mystified about what is happening. Deeley and Anna share memories of their times with Kate and other people. Soon there is a contest going on, although again it is not clear at first that there is anything other than reminiscing. Quickly, the memories of each begin to incorporate the remembered actions of the other. Anna remembers Deeley at a party at which he looked up her dress. Deeley takes that memory and creates an offshoot of it by remembering Anna willingly sitting so as to let him look up her dress. All of these exchanges are both amusing and confusing until Deeley interrupts the dialogue between Anna and Kate to state, “My name is Orson Welles.” Since the audience knows that is untrue, suddenly everything that has been said is open to question.
The contest is over when Kate effectively decides that Anna is dead: “I remember you dead.” Anna says nothing else in the rest of the play. Kate is the strongest character because she is the object and can thus control who obtains the object. When she decides to stay with Deeley, she literally destroys Anna. For the last several minutes, not a word is said on stage. Anna stands and then sits down. Deeley gets up and sits down. Otherwise, there is no action. In many ways, Old Times is a dramatization of the opening lines of T. S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton”:
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
Pinter, who admires Eliot greatly, has brought the concept to life in a concrete manifestation.
At this point in his career the dramatist became a political activist not only in his everyday actions and letter writing but in his plays as well. Many scholars believe that Pinter’s more public stance was an offshoot of developments in his personal life. By 1975 Merchant had publicly denounced him for carrying on a longtime affair with the famous biographer Lady Antonia Fraser, a liaison well known in London literary circles but unknown by the general public. Pinter and Merchant divorced that year, and Merchant died in 1982, reportedly as a result of chronic alcoholism. Pinter and Fraser married in 1980. Fraser was from, and married into, a political family, and she was open and active in her politics. Many scholars are of the opinion that Fraser’s goading led to her new husband’s turn to the political. Up to that point, as television journalist Joan Bakewell told Killington, he “didn’t write about world politics. He wrote about personal violence.” Killington believes that the political ingredient in the dramatist’s personacame to the fore in the 1970s because of his close association with leftist artists such as American director Joseph Losey and English actress Dame Peggy Ashcroft, playwrights David Mercer and Joe Orton, along with Bakewell, whose affair with Pinter from 1962 to 1969 is the source for Betrayal, one of his most moving plays. Pinter claims that it was the military coup in Chile in 1973 that was the catalyst, when the legally elected socialist government was overthrown and unspeakable atrocities were committed on the Chilean people by their own government. In any case, he became highly active in a wide range of areas, a sampling of which includes working with American dramatist Arthur Miller for freedom of expression through the International PEN organization, speaking out on behalf of the Nicaraguan Contras in 1987, helping to bring together a group of like-minded artists under the rubric of the June 20 Society in 1988, and using every speaking and letter-writing opportunity, including his Nobel lecture, to bash the United States and Great Britain for their actions in Iraq.
The dramas from this period forward are harsh and bitter, politically pointed. The horrors of torture are related in a bone-chilling manner in One for the Road (1984) and Mountain Language (1988). Even Party Time (1991) and Celebration (1999) include undercurrents of bitter uneasiness and cruelty that break through the veneer of civilization, threatening the characters. Only Ashes to Ashes makes a political statement in the mood of the memory plays as Rebecca talks about her lost baby in terms of another woman’s loss of a child to a storm trooper. The Holocaust images might be out of Pinter’s Jewish background and human history, but the action takes place years after the war, so the holocaust being described is a statement about the continuation of such actions throughout time.
The Dwarfs, Pinter’s only novel, harbors the seeds of many of his dramatic subjects and techniques. Chapter 10 of the novel was first published in the Pinter Review in 1988, and the completed novel was published in 1990. In it the author traces the intertwining lives of four young Londoners, including Pete and Len from the play version.
It is also worth repeating that Pinter began writing poetry at a young age, and most of his early writing was in this genre. He has continued writing poetry throughout his life, publishing many individual poems in a variety of journals. Several volumes of his poetry (some including prose as well) have been published. Between 1987 and 2006, he also edited at least six volumes of his own essays and of other writers’ poetry. He received the Wilfred Owen Prize for poetry in 2004. He said in 2005 that while he will no longer write plays, he continues to write poetry. The reverence with which he holds this field of writing is reenforced by his concluding his Nobel lecture by quoting from his poem “Death.”
In October 2005 Pinter received the news that he had won the Nobel Prize in Literature. He was flabbergasted. He protested that he had had no expectation of winning this most prestigious of all literary awards and had not even known that he had been nominated.
Actually, Pinter had been officially nominated for the award at least eight years earlier. There were rumors that he was on the list of nominees for some years before that. Considering that his most prolific, best, and most influential writing was done in the 1960s through the 1980s, and that the list of important literary awards he had already won during his career was quite impressive, Francis X. Gillen, co-editor of The Pinter Review, and dramatist Donald Freed wrote letters to the Nobel committee nominating him in 1997. For a year or two afterward, each time the award was announced, it was assumed that his work was being ignored for one or both of two reasons. Either he was far too publicly political and too outspoken in his antipathy toward the American government, or his plays were considered too dark and bleakly negative (despite that they often include humor and that many of them end positively).
The postaward reaction is that Pinter won for one or two other reasons. Either the committee finally recognized his accomplishments and wanted to acknowledge his achievements and contributions to world drama by making the award before he died–he had been in bad health for several years, a survivor of cancer of the esophagus–or his outspokenly harsh political stance on behalf of world peace and human rights made him more attractive than if he were merely an outstanding writer. Pinter himself believes that his human rights activities, which were noted by the Nobel jury, might have played a part in his selection: “I’ve been writing plays for about 50 years, but I am also very politically engaged and I am not at all sure to what extent that factor had anything to do with this award,” he says. He also states that he will “certainly remain deeply engaged in the question of political structures in this world,” as he told the Times (London) in October 2005.
Pinter has been politically aware throughout his career. When he was eighteen he was taken to trial twice for shirking his National Service military obligation. He “was aware of the suffering and of the horror of war, and by no means was I going to subscribe to keep it going,” he said in a “Talk of the Town” interview in The New Yorker (25 February 1967). Both times the magistrate determined that he was truly a conscientious objector and released him. The second time he was tried, Pinter was so sure that he was going to go to jail for his beliefs that he took a toothbrush with him when he went to his trial. Still, early in his career he was asked why he did not write about social problems. His answer to interviewer Lawrence Bensky in 1966 was that social and political issues were secondary to coming to an understanding of the nature of being a human, to comprehend what it is to be human and to relate to other humans. Thus, he said, it is senseless to write about politics or social issues, although he shows his awareness of political matters in his plays even as early as The Birthday Party in McCann’s diatribes.
In England, dramatists Stoppard, Alan Ayckbourn, and David Hare praised Pinter’s selection for the Nobel. “It’s wholly deserved and I’m completely thrilled. As a writer, Harold has been unswerving for 50 years,” Stoppard told the Times (London). Ayckbourn said, “It’s a most fitting award.” In Hare’s opinion, “This is a brilliant choice. Not only has Harold Pinter written some of the outstanding plays of his time, he has also blown fresh air into the musty attic of conventional English literature by insisting that everything he does has a public and political dimension.”
Pinter’s health prevented him from attending the award ceremonies; his Nobel lecture was prerecorded and shown on video in Börssalen at the Swedish Academy in Stockholm on 7 December 2005. In his lecture, the dramatist begins by quoting from his own essays, talks, and interviews on the nature of reality and truth. He also discusses his own creative process, the images and words that start him to writing. Eventually, he says, the characters take on lives of their own: “finally you find that you have people of flesh and blood on your hands, people with will and an individual sensibility of their own, made out of component parts you are unable to change, manipulate or distort.” This point leads the writer to comment on “language in art,” which, he maintains, “remains a highly ambiguous transaction, a quicksand, a trampoline, a frozen pool which might give way…at any time.”
Reasserting that the “search for the truth can never stop,” Pinter comments on political theater and how it is different from regular theater. From this point on, however, the lecture turns into a diatribe, as Pinter castigates the United States for what he considers its atrocities and “tapestry of lies.” He berates England for following along as well. He concludes his speech by saying that “unflinching, unswerving, fierce intellectual determination, as citizens, to define the real truth of our lives and our societies is a crucial obligation which devolves upon us all. It is in fact mandatory. If such a determination is not embodied in our political vision we have no hope of restoring what is so early lost to us–the dignity of man.”
Pinter’s most startling and most impressive contribution to theater in the twentieth century was the effect of his plays on his audiences. When Pinter began writing dramas in the late 1950s, the paradigm was Shavian. George Bernard Shaw, the winner of the 1925 Nobel Prize in Literature, was the towering playwright of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Soon after the curtain went up on Shaw’s plays, the audience knew everything they needed to know about the characters: who they were, what their lineage was, what they did, how wealthy they were, what they believed, and anything else that might delineate them. In a Pinter play, just the opposite is the case. It is as though the audience gets on a bus and sits down behind two people who are engaged in a conversation. Viewers know nothing about the two people, nothing about who and what they are talking about, although the two conversing share all of this knowledge, and the audience has come into the middle of the conversation. What the audience is left with is a fleeting, unconnected discussion for which they have no referents. Nonetheless, they have to make sense of what they have overheard. That requires intelligence and acts of imagination and deduction for which Pinter’s first audiences were not prepared or equipped. Early audience reactions and critics’ reviews made it clear that they were perturbed, disturbed, and offended by the demands made upon them by the playwright. The box-office receipts for the Thursday matinee of the Birthday Party totaled L2 6s. On the opening night of The Caretaker in Düsseldorf, Pinter followed the Continental custom of taking a bow with the actors: “I was at once booed violently by what must have been the finest collection of booers in the world. I thought they were using megaphones, but it was pure mouth…we took thirty-four curtain calls, all to boos,” Pinter recalls in “Between the Lines” (published in The Sunday Times[London], 4 March 1962).
But, between the premieres of The Birthday Party and The Caretaker, audiences were already beginning to grasp what Pinter was doing. They were learning not to go into the theater with preformed expectations. Instead, they were becoming willing to open their minds and to accept what was given to them. This sea change is apparent in the awards that The Caretaker received: The Evening Standard Award in England and the Page 1 Award of the Newspaper Guild of New York. Without Pinter’s influence in this area, many of the plays and movies that present situations, allusions, unexplained motives, merging realities, conflicting truths, and assumptions that audiences now take for granted would not have been written. He created a new sense of stage reality. In so doing, he simultaneously produced a new set of standards and procedures for theaters worldwide.
Pinter received his first major award when he was made a Commander of the British Empire (C.B.E.) on Queen Elizabeth II’s Christmas list in 1966-“one year afterthe Beatles,” he noted. The Nobel Prize is the supreme validation of his work in the theater and other areas of literature. It represents worldwide recognition of his contributions, which are many, varied, influential, and lasting. On the practical side, the prize widens and enlarges the audience to whom he can express his political opinions. In the final analysis, Harold Pinter is one of the most imaginative and innovative dramatists of all time.
Lawrence Bensky, “Harold Pinter: An Interview,” Paris Review, 10 (Fall 1966): 13-37; republished in Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, third series (New York: Viking, 1967), pp. 347–368;
Mel Gussow, Conversations with Pinter (London: Nick Hern / New York: Limelight Editions, 1994).
David S. Palmer, “A Harold Pinter Checklist,” Twentieth Century Literature, 16 (1970): 287–296;
Herman T. Schroll, Harold Pinter: A Study of Ills Reputation (1958-1969) and a Checklist (Metuchen, NJ.: Scarecrow Press, 1971);
Rudiger Imhof, Pinter: A Bibliography (London & Los Angeles: TQ Publications, 1975) ;
Steven H. Gale, Harold Pinter: An Annotated Bibliography (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1978);
Francis X. Gillen and Gale, eds., Pinter Review: Collected Essays (Tampa: University of Tampa Press, 1987- );
Susan Hollis Merritt, “The Harold Pinter Archive in the British Library,” in Pinter Review: Collected Essays 1994 (Tampa: University of Tampa Press, 1994), pp. 14–53;
William Baker and John C. Ross, Harold Pinter: A Bibliographical History (New Castle, Del.: Oak Knoll Press, 2005).
Michael Billington, the Life and Work of Harold Pinter (London: Faber & Faber, 1996).
Guido Almansi and Simon Henderson, Harold Pinter (London: Methuen, 1983);
Raymond Armstrong, Kafka and Pinter: Shadow Boxing (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999);
Mark Batty, About Pinter: the Playwright and the Work (London: Faber & Faber, 2005);
Katherine H. Burkman and John L. Kundert-Gibbs, eds., Pinter at Sixty (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1993);
Martin Esslin, Pinter, the Playwright, sixth edition (London: Methuen, 2000);
Steven H. Gale, Butter ś Going Up: An Analysis of Harold Pinter’s Work (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1977);
Gale, Sharp Cut: Harold Pinter’s Screenplays and the Artistic Process (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2003);
Gale, ed., Critical Essays on Harold Pinter (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990);
Arthur Ganz, ed., Pinter: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs, NJ.: Prentice-Hall, 1972);
Lois Gordon, ed., Harold Pinter: A Casebook (New York & London: Garland, 1990); revised as Pinter at 70: A Casebook (New York: Routledge, 2001);
Charles Grimes, Harold Pinter’s Politics: A Silence Beyond Echo (Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2005);
Harold Pinter: A Celebration (London: Faber & Faber, 2000);
John Haynes, Taking the Stage: Twenty-One Vars of London Theatre. Photographs (New York: Thames & Hudson, 1986);
Leslie Kane, ed., The Art of Crime: The Plays and Films of Harold Pinter and David Mamet (New York: Rout-ledge, 2004);
Ronald Knowles, Understanding Harold Pinter (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995);
John Lahr, ed., A Casebook on Harold Pinter s The Homecoming (New York: Grove, 1971);
Frank Marcus, “Pinter: The Pause that Refreshes,” New York Times,12 July 1969, D8;
Susan Hollis Merritt, Pinter in Play: Critical Strategies and the Plays of Harold Pinter (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 1990);
Bill Naismith, Harold Pinter: The Caretaker, The Birthday Party, The Homecoming (London: Faber & Faber, 2000);
Peter Raby, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Harold Pinter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001);
Linda Renton, Pinter and the Object of Desire: An Approach Through the Screenplays (Oxford: Legenda, 2002);
Elizabeth Sakellaridou, Pinter’s Female Portraits (London & Totowa, NJ.: Macmillan, 1988);
Michael Scott, ed., Harold Pinter: The Birthday Party, The Caretaker, The Homecoming (Basingstoke, U.K.: Macmillan, 1986);
Marc Silverstein, Harold Pinter and the Language of Cultural Power (Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1993);
Ian Smith, ed., Pinter in the Theatre (London: Nick Hem, 2005).
The Harold Pinter Archive at the British Library is the most extensive collection of Pinter material, including manuscript and typescript drafts of plays, screenplays, poetry, and prose, donated by Pinter in September 1993. The Lilly Library, Indiana University, also has three drafts of The Caretaker.