Pinter, Harold 1930–
Pinter, Harold 1930–
(David Baron, Harold Pinta)
PERSONAL: Born October 10, 1930, in Hackney, London, England; son of Hyman (a tailor) and Frances (Mann) Pinter; married Vivien Merchant (an actress), September 14, 1956 (divorced, 1980); married Antonia Fraser (a writer), November, 1980; children: (first marriage) Daniel. Education: Attended several drama schools, including Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, 1948.
ADDRESSES: Agent—Judy Daish Associates, 2 St. Charles Pl., London W10 6EG, England.
CAREER: Poet and playwright. Worked variously as a "chucker-out" in a dance hall, a waiter, a dishwasher, and a salesman; actor, under stage name David Baron, from 1948–58; performed with Shakespearean repertory company in Ireland, 1950–52, with Donald Wolfit's Bournemouth Repertory Company, and with other repertory companies, 1952–58, and infrequently in other roles, beginning 1960s, including as Mich, in The Caretaker, 1961, and as Interrogator, in One for the Road, 2001. Director of plays, 1970–; National Theatre, London, England, associate director, 1973–.
MEMBER: League of Dramatists, Modern Language Association (honorary fellow).
AWARDS, HONORS: London Evening Standard drama award, 1961, Antoinette Perry ("Tony") Award nomination for Best Play and Newspaper Guild of New York award, both 1962, all for The Caretaker; Italia Prize, 1963, for television play The Lover; two Screenwriters Guild Awards, for television play and for screenplay, both 1963; New York Film Critics Award, 1964, for The Servant; British Academy of Film and Television Artists (BAFTA) Award, 1965 and 1971; Commander, Order of the British Empire, 1966; New York Drama Critics Circle Award, Whitbread Anglo-American Theater Award, and Tony Award, all 1967, all for The Homecoming; Shakespeare Prize (Hamburg, West Germany [now Germany]), 1970; Writers Guild Award, 1971; Best New Play award, Plays & Players, 1971, and Tony Award nomination, 1972, both for Old Times; Austrian State Prize in Literature, 1973; New York Drama Critics Circle Award, 1980; Pirandello prize, 1980; Common Wealth Award, Bank of Delaware, 1981; Elmer Holmes Bobst Award for Arts and Letters, 1985; David Cohen British Literature prize, 1995; Nobel Prize in Literature, Swedish Academy, 2005. Honorary degrees include University of Reading, 1970, University of Birmingham, 1971, University of Glasgow, 1974, University of East Anglia, 1974, University of Stirling, 1979, Brown University, 1982, University of Hull, 1986, University of Sussex, 1990, University of East London, 1994, and University of Sofia (Bulgaria), 1995; honorary fellowship from Queen Mary College, 1987.
PLAYS AND SCREENPLAYS
The Room (also see below), first produced in Bristol, England, 1957; produced on Broadway at Booth Theatre, 1967.
The Birthday Party: A Play in Three Acts (first produced in Cambridge, England, 1958; produced in New York, NY at Booth Theatre, 1967; also see below), Encore (London, England), 1959, Samuel French (New York, NY), 1960, 2nd revised edition, Eyre Methuen (London, England), 1981.
The Dumb Waiter (also see below), first produced in German translation by Willy H. Thiem in Frankfurt-am-Main, West Germany, 1959; produced Off-Broadway with The Collection at Cherry Lane Theatre, 1962.
A Slight Ache (also see below), produced for BBC-Radio Third Programme, 1959; produced on stage in London, England, 1961.
Trouble in the Works [and] The Black and White (also see below), produced as part of One to Another (revue), in Hammersmith, England, 1959.
Request Stop, Last to Go, Special Offer, [and] Getting Acquainted (also see below), produced on the West End as part of Pieces of Eight (revue), 1959.
A Night Out (also see below), produced for BBC-Radio Third Programme, 1960; produced on stage on the West End, 1961.
The Caretaker: A Play in Three Acts (produced in London, England, 1960; produced on Broadway, 1961; also see below), Methuen (London, England), 1960, 2nd edition, 1962, reprinted, 1982.
Night School (television drama; also see below), Associated Rediffusion Television, 1960.
The Dwarfs (also see below; produced BBC-Radio Third Programme, 1960; produced on stage with The Lover in London, England, 1963), Grove (New York, NY), 1990.
The Collection (television drama; also see below), Associated Rediffusion Television, 1961; produced on stage on the West End, 1962; produced Off-Broadway with The Dumb Waiter, 1962.
The Lover (television drama; also see below), Associated Rediffusion Television, 1963; produced on stage with The Dwarfs in London, England, 1963.
The Servant (screenplay), Springbok-Elstree, 1963.
Dialogue for Three (radio drama; BBC-Radio Third Programme, 1964), published in Stand, Volume 6, number 3, 1963.
That's Your Trouble (radio drama; also see below), BBC-Radio Third Programme, 1964.
That's All (radio drama; also see below), BBC-Radio Third Programme, 1964.
Applicant (radio drama; also see below), BBC-Radio Third Programme, 1964.
Interview (radio drama; also see below), BBC-Radio Third Programme, 1964.
The Guest (screenplay; adapted from The Caretaker), Janus (London, England), 1964.
The Pumpkin Eater (screenplay; also see below), Rank, 1964.
The Homecoming: A Play in Two Acts (also see below; produced in Cardiff, Wales, 1965), Samuel French (New York, NY), 1965, revised edition, Karnac (London, England), 1968.
Tea Party (television drama; produced on BBC-Television, 1965; produced Off-Broadway with The Basement, 1968; also see below), Methuen (London, England), 1965, Grove (New York, NY), 1966.
The Basement (television drama; also see below), BBC-Television, 1967; produced Off-Broadway with Tea Party, 1968.
The Quiller Memorandum (screenplay; also see below), Twentieth Century-Fox, 1967.
Accident (screenplay; also see below), Cinema V, 1967.
Pinter People (television interview and sketches), National Broadcast Service (NBC-TV), 1968.
The Birthday Party (screenplay), Continental, 1968.
Landscape (radio drama; produced for BBC-Radio Third Programme, 1968; also see below), Pen-dragon Press (London, England), 1968.
Night (also see below), produced on West End as part of We Who Are about To … (later revised as Mixed Doubles: An Entertainment on Marriage), 1969.
Landscape [and] Silence (also see below), produced on the West End, 1969.
Sketches, produced in New York, NY, 1969.
Old Times (produced on the West End, 1971), Grove (New York, NY), 1971.
The Go-Between (screenplay; also see below), World Film Services, 1971.
The Homecoming (screenplay), American Film Theatre, 1971.
Monologue (television drama; produced for BBC-Television, 1973, then on stage), Covent Garden Press (London, England), 1973.
No Man's Land (produced on the West End, 1975), Grove (New York, NY), 1975.
The Last Tycoon (screenplay; also see below), Paramount, 1975.
Betrayal (produced on the West End, 1978), Eyre Methuen (London, England), 1978, Grove (New York, NY), 1979.
Other Pinter Pauses (revue), produced in New York, NY, 1979.
The Hothouse (produced in London, England, 1980), Grove (New York, NY), 1980.
Family Voices: A Play for Radio (produced for BBC-Radio Third Programme, 1981; produced on stage at the West End, 1981; also see below), Grove (New York, NY), 1981.
(Adaptor) The French Lieutenant's Woman (screenplay; based on the novel by John Fowles; also see below), United Artists, 1981, published as The French Lieutenant's Woman: A Screenplay, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1981.
A Kind of Alaska (produced on West End, 1982; also see below), Samuel French (New York, NY), 1981.
Victoria Station (also see below), Samuel French (New York, NY), 1982.
Other Places (triple bill; includes Family Voices, A Kind of Alaska, and Victoria Station; produced in London, England, 1982; also see below), Methuen (London, England), 1982, Grove (New York, NY), 1983, revised version replacing Family Voices with One for the Road produced in New York, NY, 1984.
Betrayal (screenplay), Twentieth Century-Fox/International Classics, 1983.
Precisely (sketch), produced in London, England, as part of The Big One, 1983.
One for the Road (produced in Hammersmith, England, 1984), Samuel French (New York, NY), 1984.
Turtle Diary (screenplay), United British Artists/Britannic, 1986.
Mountain Language (produced on the West End, 1988), Faber & Faber (London, England), 1988.
The Handmaid's Tale (screenplay; based on the novel by Margaret Atwood), Cinecom Entertainment, 1990.
The Comfort of Strangers (screenplay; based on the novel by Ian McEwan; also see below), Erre Produzioni/Sovereign Pictures, 1990.
Party Time & The New World Order, Grove/Atlantic (New York, NY), 1993.
Moonlight (play), Grove (New York, NY), 1993.
Also author of Langrishe, Go Down (also see below), 1977. Contributor to Seven Plays of the Modern Theater, edited by Harold Clarman, Grove (New York, NY), 1962.
The Birthday Party and Other Plays (includes The Room and The Dumb Waiter), Methuen (London, England), 1960, published as The Birthday Party and The Room, Grove (New York, NY), 1961.
A Slight Ache and Other Plays (includes A Night Out, The Dwarfs, Trouble in the Works, The Black and White, Request Stop, Last to Go, and Applicant), Methuen (London, England), 1961.
The Caretaker and The Dumb Waiter, Grove (New York, NY), 1961.
Three Plays: A Slight Ache, The Collection, The Dwarfs, Grove (New York, NY), 1962.
The Collection and The Lover (includes prose piece "The Examination"), Methuen (London, England), 1963.
The Dwarfs and Eight Review Sketches (includes Trouble in the Works, The Black and White, Request Stop, Last to Go, Applicant, Interview, That's All, and That's Your Trouble), Dramatists Play Service (New York, NY), 1965.
Tea Party and Other Plays (includes The Basement and Night School), Methuen (London, England), 1967.
The Lover, Tea Party, The Basement: Two Plays and a Film Script, Grove (New York, NY), 1967.
A Night Out, Night School, Revue Sketches: Early Plays, Grove (New York, NY), 1968.
Landscape and Silence (includes Night), Methuen (London, England), 1969, Grove (New York, NY), 1970.
Five Screenplays (includes Accident, The Caretaker, The Pumpkin Eater, The Quiller Memorandum, and The Servant), Methuen (London, England), 1971, revised version, replacing The Caretaker with The Go-Between, Karnac (London, England), 1971, Grove (New York, NY), 1973.
Plays, four volumes, Methuen (London, England), 1975–81, published with essay "Writing for the Theatre" as Complete Works, four volumes, Grove (New York, NY), 1977–81.
The French Lieutenant's Woman and Other Screenplays (includes Langrishe, Go Down and The Last Tycoon), Methuen (London, England), 1982.
Other Places: Three Plays (includes A Kind of Alaska, Victoria Station, and Family Voices), Grove (New York, NY), 1983.
The Comfort of Strangers, and Other Screenplays, Faber & Faber (Boston, MA), 1990.
Celebration; and, The Room, Grove (New York, NY), 1999.
Collected Screenplays, three volumes, Faber & Faber (London, England), 2000.
Mac (on Anew McMaster), Pendragon Press (London, England), 1968.
(Editor, with John Fuller and Peter Redgrove) New Poems 1967: A P.E.N. Anthology, Hutchinson (London, England), 1968.
Poems, edited by Alan Clodd, Enitharmon (London, England), 1968, 2nd edition, 1971.
Poems and Prose, 1949–1977, Grove (New York, NY), 1978, revised edition published as Collected Poems and Prose, Methuen (London, England), 1986, Grove (New York, NY), 1996.
I Know the Place: Poems, Greville Press (Warwick, England), 1979.
(Editor, with Geoffrey Godbert and Anthony Astbury) A Hundred Poems by a Hundred Poets: An Anthology, Methuen (London, England), 1986.
The Heat of the Day, Faber & Faber (London, England), 1989.
Ten Early Poems, State Mutual Book & Periodical Service (Bridgehampton, NY), 1990.
(Editor, with Anthony Astbury and Geoffrey Godbert) Ninety-nine Poems in Translation: An Anthology, Grove (New York, NY), 1994.
Various Voices: Prose, Poetry, Politics, 1948–1998, Grove (New York, NY), 1998.
Contributor of poems, under pseudonym Harold Pinta, to Poetry London.
SIDELIGHTS: In an interview with a New Yorker contributor, Harold Pinter, one of the foremost British dramatists of the twentieth century, cryptically explained the geneses of three of his early plays: "I went into a room and saw one person standing up and one person sitting down, and a few weeks later I wrote The Room. I went into another room and saw two people sitting down, and a few years later I wrote The Birthday Party. I looked through a door into a third room, and saw two people standing up and I wrote The Caretaker." Since The Room opened in 1957, Pinter's work has excited, puzzled, and frustrated audiences and academicians alike. While some have praised his work for its originality, others have dismissed it as willfully obscure—responses evoked by the plays' unconventional plots and character development, their inexplicable logic and inconclusive resolutions, and their distinctive dialogue, echoing the inanities of everyday speech as well as its silences. In spite of their disparagers, Pinter's plays are frequently produced—in English and in translation—and continue to attract popular and scholarly attention.
Born October 30, 1930, in Hackney, East London, England, Pinter grew up in a working-class neighborhood, which, despite some dilapidated housing, railway yards, and a dirty canal, he remembers fondly. However, like other English children who grew up in London during the air raids of World War II, he learned first hand about living with imminent and omnipresent terror, a theme that appears in much of his work.
Pinter's theatrical career started early. While attending Hackney Downs Grammar School he won title roles in Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet. Hackney Downs School Magazine recorded his dramatic debuts. Of young Pinter's Macbeth, the magazine's critic wrote in the summer of 1947: "Word-perfect, full-voiced, Pinter took the tragic hero through all the stages of temptation, hesitation, concentration, damnation. He gave us both Macbeth's conflicts, inner and outer, mental and military, with vigour, insight, and remarkable acting resource." The summer 1948 review of Pinter's Romeo, if somewhat less laudatory, pointed nonetheless to the young actor's flair for the dramatic: "Pinter again bore the heat and burden of the evening with unfailing vitality…. Perhaps he excelled where strong action reinforces the words—as where he flung himself on the floor of the Friar's cell in passionate histrionic abandon."
Both these reviews are remarkably prescient: what the young actor apparently learned, in part at least from playing Macbeth and Romeo, Pinter the playwright uses. His characters are at their most compelling when their conflicts are "inner" and "mental," unseeable and therefore frequently unnameable; his plots, despite their surface calm and minimal physical action, nonetheless demonstrate "histrionic abandon," the result of verbal brilliance and stunning visual imagery.
Along with acting, young Pinter displayed a talent for athletics: in 1948 he broke the school record for running 220 yards and equaled the record for running 100 yards. His continued interest in cricket and squash is reflected in his work: the characters in No Man's Land are named after famous cricket players, while in Betrayal the game of squash is symbolically important to the play's meaning. In Pinter's screenplays, sports and sports imagery are similarly illuminating.
Besides his successes at play—both on field and on stage—Hackney Downs School Magazine also recorded those of a literary bent: an essay and two poems which attest to the young artist's sensitivity to language. In his essay, "James Joyce," published in the winter, 1946, issue, Pinter discusses the novelist's poetic use of language: "and slowly the words subside into softness, softly drifting." His juvenile poetry features the alliteration, repetition, and play with language that appears in his adult work, drama and poetry alike.
Pinter's verbal acumen was also rewarded outside the world of belles lettres: it helped the young man ward off East End thugs. As Pinter recalled in a Paris Review interview with Lawrence M. Bensky: "I did encounter [violence] in quite an extreme form…. If you looked remotely like a Jew you might be in trouble. Also, I went to a Jewish club, by an old railway arch, and there were quite a lot of people often waiting with broken milk bottles in a particular alley we used to walk through. There were one or two ways of getting out of it—one was purely physical, of course, but you couldn't do anything about the milk bottles—we didn't have any milk bottles. The best way was to talk to them, you know, sort of 'Are you all right?' 'Yes, I'm all right.' 'Well, that's all right then, isn't it?' and all the time keep walking toward the lights of the main road." Manipulating language in order to shield oneself from physical or emotional harm without conveying rational information is a skill possessed by many of Pinter's dramatic characters.
Pinter left grammar school in 1947 and, although he earned a grant to study acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) the following year, he only remained there for a few months. As he explained in his New Yorker interview, Pinter spent the next ten years writing—"Not plays. Hundreds of poems … and short prose pieces"—and acting: "My experience as an actor has influenced my plays…. I think I certainly developed some feeling for construction … and for speakable dialogue." As an actor Pinter grew intimately familiar with the dramatic properties of the stage and the spoken word, while as a poet he explored the emotive possibilities of language.
In 1950 Poetry London published several of his poems under the pseudonym "Harold Pinta," and the poet began work as a professional radio and television actor. In Poems and Prose, 1949–1977 Pinter declares that in 1951 he began a two-year stint with Anew McMaster's touring company in Ireland, his "first job proper on the stage;" after returning from Ireland, he acted in repertory companies under the stage name of David Baron. In 1957 Pinta the poet and Baron the actor collaborated on a one-act play, The Room, the writing of which took Pinter the playwright "four days, working in the afternoons," he told New Yorker.
After The Room, Pinter's plays came fast. During 1957 he wrote The Dumb Waiter, a one-act play, and The Birthday Party, his first full-length play, which ran for only one week and got terrible reviews, with one notable exception—Harold Hobson's appraisal in the London Sunday Times: "Now I am well aware that Mr. Pinter's play received extremely bad notices last Thursday morning. At the moment I write these lines it is uncertain even whether the play will still be in the bill when they appear, though it is probable it will soon be seen elsewhere. Deliberately, I am willing to risk whatever reputation I have as a judge of plays by saying that The Birthday Party is … a First, and that Mr. Pinter, on the evidence of this work, possesses the most original, disturbing and arresting talent in theatrical London."
Despite The Birthday Party's lackluster debut, during 1958 and 1959 Pinter continued to write plays for radio and stage: A Slight Ache; The Hothouse (which was not produced until 1980); revue sketches; and A Night Out. With his second full-length play, The Caretaker, the playwright received critical accolades. Kenneth Tynan commented in the Observer that with The Caretaker "Pinter has begun to fulfill the promise that I signally failed to see in The Birthday Party two years ago. The latter play was a clever fragment grown dropsical with symbolic content…. In The Caretaker symptoms of paranoia are still detectable … but their intensity is considerably abated; and the symbols have mostly retired to the background. What remains is a play about people." The Caretaker ran for twelve months in London's West End and in October, 1961, opened on Broadway, again to critical, but not commercial, success. In New York Times, Howard Taubman wrote that the play "proclaims its young English author as one of the important playwrights of our day."
Important and prolific, Pinter continued to write plays; short ones, including Night School and The Dwarfs, The Collection and The Lover, Tea Party; and full-length ones, such as Old Times, No Man's Land, Betrayal, and The Homecoming, the last which established Pinter's reputation as a major dramatist. More recently he has concentrated on short but intriguing theatrical pieces: Family Voices, Victoria Station, A Kind of Alaska, and One for the Road.
Although they cannot be easily classified according to dramatic schools, Pinter's plays nonetheless reflect movements in the British theatre of the second half of the twentieth century, including realism, epic theatre, and absurdism. Early critics perceived the author of The Room and The Birthday Party to be a member of the "kitchen sink" school of realism, joining the works of John Osborne, Shelagh Delaney, and other British playwrights who drew characters from the working class and their dialogue from regional speech. Especially in his first few plays, Pinter's lower-class characters with their Cockney idiom and their bleak settings recall the social, psychological, and linguistic verisimilitude found in "kitchen sink" drama. However, his is a surface realism. He is not essentially, as Martin Esslin pointed out in Pinter the Playwright, a realistic dramatist: "This is the paradox of his artistic personality. The dialogue and the characters are real, but the over-all effect is one of mystery, of uncertainty, of poetic ambiguity." Nor does Pinter regard himself as belonging to this dramatic school: "I'd say what goes on in my plays is realistic, but what I'm doing is not realism," he declared in Paris Review interview.
Epic theater appeared to have the least influence on Pinter. Unlike such contemporaries as John Arden, Arnold Wesher, and Edmund Bond who were greatly influenced by German playwright Bertolt Brecht, Pinter has, for the most part, eschewed such Brechtian conventions as protagonists who represent the working class or themes that are socially and politically timely. However, in The Hothouse, a farcical play set in a mental institution, and in One for the Road, a disturbing one-act play that takes place in a government retaining home, Pinter touches on social commentary—the insidious inanity of bureaucracies and the mechanistic sadism of totalitarianism—and, epic-like, appeals primarily to his audience's intellect rather than to its emotions.
In its characteristic predilection for examining the private rather than the social sphere, Pinter's work is perhaps most clearly influenced by the absurdists, particularly by Irish playwright and novelist Samuel Beckett. Admittedly, the world of Pinter's Betrayal is not that of Beckett's Endgame; the disjunction within the former results from marital discord, within the latter from existential fragmentation. Nevertheless, as Esslin noted in Pinter the Playwright: "Existential adjustment, coming to terms with one's own being, precedes, and necessarily predetermines, one's attitude to society, politics, and general ideas. Like Beckett and [Franz] Kafka Pinter's attitude … is that of an existentialist: the mode of a man's being determines his thinking. Hence, to come to grips with the true sources of their attitudes, the playwright must catch his characters at the decisive points in their lives, when they are confronted with the crisis of adjustment to themselves." As in much of absurdist drama, the names and behaviors of Pinter's characters, the plays' props and sets, resonate symbolically: "Riley" in The Room and Family Voices, the matchseller in A Slight Ache, the statue of Buddha in The Caretaker, vases and olives in The Collection, for example. Although Stanley in The Birthday Party is not Endgame's Hamm or Clov, he contains elements of both—blindness and entrapment—and his fate is similarly and existentially capricious.
Belonging to no single school, Pinter has drawn from each to create a body of work idiosyncratically and recognizably his own. Those dramatic elements that are identifiably "Pinteresque" include his characters' mysterious pasts, his theme of the intruder, and his use of language—textual and subtextual—and of silence. In Pinter the Playwright Esslin quoted a letter received by Pinter shortly after The Birthday Party opened: "Dear Sir, I would be obliged if you would kindly explain to me the meaning of your play The Birthday Party. These are the points 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 is said to have 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 appreciate that without the answers to my questions I cannot fully understand your letter." Both query and response are telling. Traditional dramatic exposition and character development have accustomed theater audiences to expect playwrights to provide enough information about the past to make the characters' present situations and motivations explicable. Like the inquisitive letter writer, playgoers request of dramatic art the logic and order that life outside the theater denies. Pinter, along with many other twentieth-century dramatists, refuses his audience this luxury.
In The Birthday Party, for example, Stanley Webber lives as the only boarder in Meg and Petey Boles's boarding house. The play's central mystery, and therefore a large part of its dramatic tension, evolves from the relationship between Stanley and the two men, Goldberg and McCann, who arrive at the boarding house. From the start, questions about the past arise and remain unanswered. Who is Stanley Webber? Why is he vegetating at the Boles's? What is his relationship with Meg? With the promiscuous neighbor, Lulu? Is it, or is it not, his birthday? Is he, or is he not, a pianist? Why do Goldberg and McCann want to find him? Why do they take him, dressed "in a dark well cut suit and white collar," to Monty? Who is Monty? The more information the audience receives the more confused it becomes.
Because the past is unverifiable, all that viewers can know about a Pinter character is what they themselves discern. And this source or caliber of information often does not satisfy audiences familiar primarily with conventional dramatic exposition, especially since Pinter's characters confuse viewers with contradiction. Consequently, audiences remain uncertain of motivations and are unable to verify what little they can surmise, a predicament that coincides with life outside the theater. How can we know, Esslin asked in Pinter the Playwright, with "any semblance of certainty, what motivates our own wives, parents, our own children?" We cannot. And Pinter's drama impedes all our attempts to know, despite (or perhaps because of) the anxiety that this raising of unanswerable questions creates.
Equally unsettling both to audiences and the plays' central figures is the theme of the intruder who invariably enters the rooms, basements, flats, and houses of Pinter's characters and in some way disrupts the residents. At times the intruder is a stranger, such as Riley, who enters Rose's haven in The Room; the matchseller whom Flora and Edward invite into their home in A Slight Ache; Spooner, whom Hirst picks up at a pub in No Man's Land. At other times the intruder is a friend or family member; in The Homecoming, for example, Teddy returns with his wife to his father's home; in The Basement, Stott takes his lover to visit an old friend; and in Old Times, Anna visits her former roommate.
In an unsigned insert to the program brochure of a 1960 performance of The Room and The Dumb Waiter Pinter addresses the theme of the inevitability of an intruder: "Given a man in a room and he will sooner or later receive a visitor. A visitor entering the room will enter with intent. If two people inhabit the room the visitor will not be the same man for both. A man in a room who receives a visit is likely to be illuminated or horrified by it. The visitor himself might as easily be horrified or illuminated…. A man in a room and no one entering lives in expectation of a visit." Physical, psychological, or emotional disruption caused by the intruder provides the dramatic tension of most of Pinter's plays. For example, in Betrayal Jerry intrudes into Robert and Emma's marriage by initiating an affair with his best friend's wife. In Family Voices Voice 1 intrudes as a roomer upon the Withers family, and he, in turn, is intruded upon—although he appears not to realize it—by Voice 2, his mother, who entreats him to return home, and by Voice 3, his dead father, who intrudes upon life. Deborah, the central character in A Kind of Alaska, also intrudes upon life by awakening after twenty-nine years: in a sense, she becomes an intrusion to herself—a middle-aged woman imposing herself upon the young girl who was afflicted with sleeping sickness those many years before. In a Pinter play, intrusion inevitably will occur.
The dramatist's uncannily realistic sounding dialogue, replete with the linguistic inanities—pauses, tautologies, nonverbal sounds, disjunctive responses—and the verbal acts—defense, acquiescence, coercion, aggression—of everyday conversation, is also typically "Pinteresque." Yet despite its surface realism, Pinter crafts his dialogue with a poet's tools, including the caesurae, or silences. Although it is often parodied by his detractors and imitated by his admirers, the explicitly assigned "Pinter-pause" is invariably meaningful, reflecting a number of responses including puzzle-ment—Gus's pondering over the mysterious menu in The Dumb Waiter—illumination—Aston's finally realizing that Davies will not allow him to remain as caretaker or boarder in The Caretaker—and retrenchment—Ruth and Lenny's engaging in a verbal duel for control in The Homecoming. Pinter's pauses comprise lines without words, lines that frequently speak as loudly as, or sometimes louder than, words.
Another silence—a noisy one—exists in Pinter's plays. In a speech delivered at the 1962 National Student Drama Festival in Bristol and published as the introduction to the first volume of the Complete Works, the playwright addresses this form of verbal hiatus: "There are two silences. One when no word is spoken. The other when perhaps a torrent of language is being employed. This speech is speaking of a language locked beneath it. That is its continual reference. The speech we hear is an indication of that which we don't hear. It is a necessary avoidance, a violent, sly, anguished or mocking smoke screen which keeps the other in its place. When true silence falls we are still left with echo but are nearer nakedness. One way of looking at speech is to say that it is a constant stratagem to cover nakedness." In order to cover their nakedness, Pinter's characters frequently discuss topics that have little to do with what is really on their minds: for instance, Rose in The Room chatters on about the weather and the apartment house in her attempt to reassure herself of the sanctuary of her room; Deeley, in Old Times, describes Kate's bathing habits to Anna in order to establish his intimacy with his wife and belittle the relationship between the two friends; and Robert, in Betrayal, discusses squash and lunch in a veiled assault on his wife. In instances such as these, language functions primarily on a subtextual level; it is not the meaning of the words that is essential, but how the characters use speech to bring about their different ends: to hide the pain of a relationship gone awry, the desperation of being lonely and homeless, the fear of relinquishing control. Unheard melodies in Pinter's language are often far less sweet than those heard.
Yet melodies heard can indeed be sweet. Lexical associations, double entendre, puns, exotic diction, onomatopoeia, and repetition—all poetic devices—call at-tention to the playwright's use of language. An early play written originally for radio and therefore dependent upon words alone to convey meaning, A Slight Ache, exemplifies Pinter's language at its most brilliant and meaningful. Language becomes this play's central theme: the character who possesses verbal acumen survives unscathed—as did young Pinter en route to his club in London's East End—while those who lose control over language are doomed.
Rich in sensory appeal and dense with imagery, A Slight Ache has little action. A married couple, Edward and Flora, spend "the longest day of the year" at their country house. After breakfast, Edward notices a match-seller, who has apparently been there for "weeks," standing by the back gate. This day, however, Edward decides to invite the matchseller in to determine why he persists in remaining by the gate while making no attempt to sell his wares. The matchseller, who remains mute throughout the play, tacitly accepts the invitation, and Edward and Flora take turns playing host and hostess to their silent guest. During the course of the play, Edward grows increasingly weak and finally collapses on the floor; the matchseller, on the other hand, appears progressively rejuvenated. At play's end, Flora passes the tray of wet, useless matches to her prostrate husband and leaves with her new partner, the matchseller.
Of the names of Pinter's characters, Bernard Dukore wrote in Theatre Journal: "Namesakes provide important clues that warrant attention, especially of a writer like Pinter, who carefully and precisely measures every aspect of his plays, including varying lengths and pauses. It is unlikely that he would be less sensitive to or painstaking with his character's name." Sometimes the names of Pinter's characters straightforwardly suggest personality traits—Bert Hudd, the monosyllabic, sadistic trucker of The Room, for example—but more often they signify allusively, often ironically—Dakore noted the "ruth-less" Ruth of The Homecoming returning to her husband's people as does the Old Testament Ruth before her. Flora's name suggests benevolent and fecund nature but her actions point to manipulative emasculation. She orchestrates her husband's demise.
Early in the play Flora establishes her supremacy over Edward by acting the part of an indulgent parent, "calmly" correcting her husband while teaching him the plants' proper names: "Edward—you know that shrub outside the toolshed…. That's convolvulus." As though speaking to a small child, Flora also explains to her husband the need for the canopy, "To shade you from the sun." To label elements within one's environment is, in a sense, to control those elements and that environment. By naming the plants in her garden, Flora establishes dominance over her immediate environment. She also "names" Edward: she refers to him by his given name an inordinate number of times—considering they are the only two speakers in the play—and uses the faintly scatological sobriquet, "Weddie. Beddie Weddie." She also christens the matchseller: "I'm going to … call you Barnabas."
In contrast to his wife, Edward is unable to name the plants in his garden, a shortcoming Pinter points to in the play's opening dialogue: "You know perfectly well what grows in your garden," Flora states, and Edward replies, "Quite the contrary. It is clear that I don't." Nor can Edward recall the name of the squire's red-headed daughter, with whom he was enamored: "The youngest one was the best of the bunch. Sally. No, no, wait a minute, no, it wasn't Sally, it was … Fanny." Moreover, he calls lunch petit dejeuner (French for "breakfast") and rants at his guest for consuming "duck," although Flora has invited the matchseller to share a midday goose. Her husband's inability to label and thereby control his environment—garden or dining room—dooms him before his more able wife; he is fated to succumb to Flora and her new ally, the matchseller, who remains nameless to her husband.
As Edward grows weaker he grows even less able to use language effectively. Early in the play he attempts fastidiousness in his choice of words: "It will not bite you! Wasps don't bite…. They sting. It's snakes … that bite…. Horseflies suck." Later he haltingly differentiates between a road and a lane: "It's not a road at all. What is it? It's a lane." Despite his efforts at linguistic precision, Edward loses control when confronted by the matchseller to whom he offers an inappropriately discriminating choice of drinks: "Now look, what will you have to drink? A glass of ale? Curacao Fockink Orange? Ginger beer? Tia Maria? A Wachenheimer Fuchsmantel Reisling Beeren Auslese? Gin and it? Chateauneuf-du-Pape? A little Asti Spumanti? Or what do you say to a straightforward Piesporter Gold-tropfschen Feine Auslese (Reichsgraf von Kesselstaff)?" Like the provocatively named plants—honeysuckle, convolvulus, clematis—in Edward and Flora's garden, these drinks amuse in the sexual suggestiveness and continental inclusiveness. Less comically, the list reflects Edward's growing anxiety. The language through which he earlier attempts denotative exactness in reference to wasps and lanes carries him away—from one exotic beverage to another. Toward the play's end, Edward is reduced to nonverbal communication: "Aaaaah-hhh." Flora retains control over language. She endures.
In his work since No Man's Land, Pinter has relied less on verbal indulgence and more on elements of design to evoke meaning. The poet-playwright seems to be increasingly influenced by the scenarist-playwright, a change resulting perhaps from the requirements and possibilities of cinema. Over the years, four of Pinter's plays have been filmed: The Caretaker, The Birthday Party, The Homecoming, and Betrayal. He has also written ten screenplays based on other writers' novels: The Servant, The Pumpkin Eater, The Quiller Memorandum, Accident, The Go-Between, Langrishe, Go Down, The Last Tycoon, The French Lieutenant's Woman, Turtle Diary, The Handmaid's Tale, and The Comfort of Strangers. Although this list appears disparate, it possesses internal logic. The playwright scenarist adapts fiction whose themes and subjects are those of his own dramatic art: adultery; role reversal or role confusion; duplicity; physical, psychological and emotional cruelty; artistic stasis; homosexuality; and perverted birthday celebrations, to mention only a few of these motifs. Furthermore, like his plays, the novels he has adapted for the screen focus predominantly on character rather than on plot. Even in a spy thriller like The Quiller Memorandum, assassinations, attempted murders, and scenes of torture fade from memory more rapidly than do the characters. Another denominator common to the stage plays and screenplays is Pinter's exploration of time and memory, topics he has dealt with frequently since writing Old Times in 1970. Simple flashback accommodates the characters' memories in the screenplay versions of The Pumpkin Eater and Accident; but The Go-Between and The French Lieutenant's Woman require more innovative techniques to deal with their sophisticated examinations of time. A technique Pinter uses in the screenplays—flashbacks interwoven with flashforwards—reappears in his play Betrayal. In short, Pinter's work in film expands upon the interests he explores on the stage.
Although Pinter is not essentially a comic writer, he does write very funny dialogue. When characters posture, as when Edward lists the contents of his liquor cabinet for the matchseller's benefit in A Slight Ache, Deeley flaunts his familiarity with the past to denigrate his houseguest in Old Times, or when Robert recounts his experience at the American Express office where he has just learned of his wife's affair with his best friend in Betrayal, their speeches are frequently comic, often extravagantly so. In Pinter the Playwright, Esslin reprinted Pinter's 1960 response to an open letter "deploring the gales of laughter about the unhappy plight of the old tramp" in The Caretaker: "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 laugh-able farce. If there hadn't been other issues at stake the play would not have been written…. Where the comic and the tragic (for want of a better word) are closely interwoven, certain members of the audience will always give emphasis to the comic as opposed to the other, for by doing so they rationalize the other out of existence…. Where … indiscriminate mirth is found, I feel it represents a cheerful patronage of the characters on the part of the merrymakers, and thus participation is avoided. This laughter is in fact a mode of precaution, a smoke-screen, a refusal to accept what is happening as recognizable…. From this kind of uneasy jollification I must, of course, disassociate myself…. As far as I'm concerned, The Caretaker is funny, up to a point. Beyond that point it ceases to be funny, and it was because of that point that I wrote it."
In The Caretaker, as in all of Pinter's plays, comic elements illuminate non-comic ones. On one hand, humor serves as a balm, easing audience discomfort at witnessing the characters' pain; on the other, it intensifies the discomfort by forcing pain into contiguity with laughter so that the distinctions between the two disappear, and the audience is left precariously straddling the fine line that separates the comic from the noncomic. In his best work, Pinter leaves his audiences at that moment when the plays cease altogether to be funny—when bright lights "photograph" the silent threesome in the final tableau of Old Times or fade as Hirst takes one last drink in No Man's Land, when the curtain falls on Max imploring Ruth to kiss him in The Homecoming or on Meg blissfully unaware that Stanley has been taken away in The Birthday Party. Ultimately, Pinter's plays emphasize that which is not comic, and despite their considerable humor, his vision is not a comic one.
Though best known for his dramatic works, Pinter has also published several volumes of poetry and edited collections of world poetry, including Ninety-nine Poems in Translation, a companion volume to A Hundred Poems by a Hundred Poets: An Anthology. Ninety-nine Poems in Translation contains diverse selections by Antiphanes, Guillaume Apollinaire, Paul Eluard, Henri Michaux, Pablo Neruda, and Cesar Vallejo, among many others. Considered a rather conservative and idiosyncratic assemblage of poetry, including a large percentage of European men and no representatives from Africa or India, Pinter along with his coeditors attempts to draw attention to the art of translation. While the editors seek to remain faithful to the original, Josephine Balmer noted in an Observer review, "the editors were searching more for 'a verifiable accuracy of feeling' than crude linguistic equivalence." A Publishers Weekly reviewer concluded that "the cacophony of voices … makes this an immensely enjoyable anthology."
Unquestionably, Pinter's work has greatly influenced a number of contemporary dramatists on both sides of the Atlantic; critics and scholars alike consider his full-length works The Birthday Party, The Caretaker, The Homecoming, Old Times, No Man's Land, and Betrayal to be among the most important plays of the mid-twentieth century. His more recent work has been more sparse, although in it Pinter continues to experiment with the possibilities of theater, to search for the exact verbal and visual image, and to strive for theatrical economy. However, by the late 1990s, he had become, according to Contemporary Review contributor Michael Karwowski, an increasingly political playwright. As Karwowski noted, the playwright's continued "celebrity has depended more on his politics than on his plays. The master of the dramatic pause now seems more of a rebel without a pause, taking almost every opportunity to make moral pronouncements on current affairs." Those pronouncements, however, have taken the form of poetry and essays, as collected in his 1998 anthology Various Voices: Prose, Poetry, Politics, 1948–1998. While Karwowski disagreed with Pinter's efforts at rewriting the intent underlying his writings, the critic explained that "Pinter has also been prepared to reinterpret his greatest stage plays [The Birthday Party and The Caretaker] in political terms, as an incipient expression of his moral condemnation of injustice." As the critic concluded: "'Never trust the artist. Trust the tale.'"
Although Pinter's body of work continues to encourage scrutiny and reexamination from not only the author, but from scholars as well, it remains among the most respected work written for the modern stage. In a speech published in the fourth volume of the Complete Works, the playwright declared: "The image must be pursued with the greatest vigilance, calmly, and once found, must be sharpened, graded, accurately focused and maintained, and the key word is economy, economy of movement and gesture, of emotion and its expression … so there is no wastage and no mess." Whether a woman clutches her eyes (The Room), a man drinks to stasis (No Man's Land), or a cabby sits silently in his taxi (Victoria Station), Pinter's dramatic images and the vision they embody remain in his audience's memories long after the stage lights have faded.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Billington, Michael, The Life and Work of Harold Pinter, [London, England], 1996.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 1, 1973, Volume 3, 1975, Volume 6, 1976, Volume 9, 1978, Volume 11, 1979, Volume 15, 1980, Volume 27, 1984, Volume 58, 1990, Volume 73, 1993.
Contemporary Theatre, Film, and Television, Volume 20, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1999.
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Encyclopedia of World Literature in the Twentieth Century, 3rd edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Esslin, Martin, Pinter the Playwright, Methuen (London, England), 1984.
Gale, Steven H., Harold Pinter: An Annotated Bibliography, G.K. Hall (Boston, MA), 1978.
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Spectator, October 31, 1998, review of Various Voices, p. 50.
Sunday Times (London, England), May 25, 1958, Harold Hobson, review of The Birthday Party.
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Pegasos Authors' Calendar, http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/ (April 28, 2004), "Harold Pinter."