Pinter, Harold

views updated May 21 2018

PINTER, Harold

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

Films as Writer:


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


The Pumpkin Eater (Clayton)


The Quiller Memorandum (Anderson)


The Accident (Losey) (+ ro as Bell)


The Birthday Party (Friedkin)


The Go-Between (Losey)


The Homecoming (Hall)


The Last Tycoon (Kazan)


The French Lieutenant's Woman (Reisz)


Betrayal (D. Jones)


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


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


Mountain Language (+ d—for TV)


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


The Handmaid's Tale (Schlöndorff)


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


The Trial (D. Jones)


Bez pogovora (Jovanovic—for TV)


The Pickwick Papers

Films as Director:




Rear Column


The Hothouse

Films as Actor:


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


The Tamarind Seed (Edwards)


Doll's Eye (Worth)


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


Mojo (Butterworth) (as Sam Ross)


Ritratto di Harold Pinter (Andò) (as himself)


Mansfield Park (Rozema) (as Sir Thomas Bertram)


Catastrophe (for TV)


By PINTER: plays—

The Birthday Party and Other Plays, London, 1960.

The Caretaker, London, 1960.

A Slight Ache and Other Plays, London, 1961.

The Collection, London, 1962.

The Collection, and The Lover, 1963.

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

The Homecoming, London, 1965.

Tea Party, London, 1965.

Tea Party and Other Plays, London, 1967.

Landscape, London, 1968.

Landscape, and Silence, London, 1969.

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

Old Times, London and New York, 1971.

Monologue, London, 1973.

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

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

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

Betrayal, London, 1978.

The Hothouse, London and New York, 1980.

Family Voices, London and New York, 1981.

Other Places, London, 1983.

One for the Road, London, 1984.

Mountain Language, London, 1988.

The Heat of the Day, London, 1989.

Moonlight, New York, 1995.

Ashes to Ashes, New York, 1997.

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

The Hothouse, New York, 1999.

By PINTER: other books—

Mac (nonfiction), 1968.

Poems, London, 1968.

Poems and Prose 1949–1977, London, 1978.

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

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

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

The Dwarfs (fiction), London, 1990.

I Know the Place, New York, 1990.

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

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

99 Poems in Translation, New York, 1997.

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

By PINTER: articles—

Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1966.

Positif (Paris), July/August 1985.

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

On PINTER: books—

Hayman, Ronald, Harold Pinter, London, 1968.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On PINTER: articles—

Cinema Nuovo (Turin), May/June 1967.

Cinema Nuovo (Turin), July/August 1967.

Imagen y Sonido, September 1967.

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

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

National Film Theatre Booklet (London), February 1978.

Avant-Scène (Paris), Autumn 1978.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Mark W. Estrin, updated by Áine Doyle

Pinter, Harold

views updated May 23 2018

Harold Pinter

BORN: 1930, London, England


GENRE: Drama, fiction, poetry, screenplays

The Birthday Party (1957)
The Caretaker (1959)
The Homecoming (1964)
Landscape (1967)
Betrayal (1978)


English playwright Harold Pinter ranks among the fore-most postwar British dramatists. He invested his plays with an atmosphere of fear, horror, and mystery. These plays continue to encourage scrutiny and reexamination from not only the author himself, but from scholars as well. Pinter's works remain among the most respected plays written for the modern stage.

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Working-Class London Roots Harold Pinter was born October 30, 1930, in Hackney, East London, England, the only son of a Jewish tailor, Jack, and mother Frances. He grew up in a working-class neighborhood that, despite dilapidated housing, railway yards, and a dirty canal, he remembers fondly. However, like other English children who grew up in London during the German air raids of World War II, he learned firsthand about living with imminent and omnipresent terror, a theme that appears in much of his work. Relocation in 1940 and 1941—from London to Cornwall and Reading,

as part of the evacuation of civilians from bombing targets during the war—would also affect his writing.

Early Theatrical Work Pinter's theatrical career started early. While attending Hackney Downs Grammar School on scholarship, he won title roles in Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet. Reviews of these early performances point to Pinter's gift for the dramatic.

Also appearing early was his skill with words, which not only launched his career as a writer, but also helped him survive the streets and alleys of the East End. He recalled in a Paris Review interview with Lawrence M. Bensky, “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.”

Pinter left grammar school in 1947, having earned a grant to study acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) the following year. At RADA, a place he detested, he cut classes, faked a nervous breakdown, and after two terms, finally dropped out in 1949. At the same time, Pinter was called to National Service, but instead registered as a conscientious objector. For this he was taken to trial and fined.

In 1951, after another grueling six months at the Central School of Speech and Drama, he joined the Anew McMaster repertory company, touring England and Ireland and performing in over a dozen roles. The next year he took regional acting jobs in England, followed by work for the Donald Wolfit Company, which continued from 1953 through 1954. Under the stage name David Baron (after his grandmother, whose maiden name was Baron), Pinter supplemented his meager income for the next five years by waiting tables, making postal deliveries, working as a bouncer, and shoveling snow.

From Stage to Radio, Radio to Big Screen During this time, in 1956, Pinter married actress Vivian Merchant. He gave up writing poetry and began writing the plays that would, by 1957, establish his career. That year he completed two one-act plays, The Room and The Dumb Waiter, as well as the full-length play The Birthday Party. All three plays would lend themselves to future adaptations, several awards and accolades, and the tormenting-villain-versus-tormented-victim dynamic present in many of Pinter's works.

Pinter had his first real success with The Caretaker (1960), which ran for twelve months in London's West End and in October 1961 opened on Broadway to critical, even though not commercial, success. Subsequent plays and themes—invasion, cruelty, infidelity, threat—would contribute to Pinter's acclaim with The Dwarfs (derived from his novel and appearing on radio in 1960); two television plays for the stage, The Collection (1961) and The Lover (1963); and the full-length play The Homecoming (1965). Those same years also saw his work being produced by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). His story “The Tea Party” premiered in 1964 and was televised throughout Europe the following year. The Basement aired in 1967.

In 1973 Pinter was made the Associate Director of the National Theatre, a post he would hold until 1983. After his first marriage dissolved, in 1980 he married British historian and novelist Lady Antonia Fraser. It was also during this period that he was at his most prolific. Between 1975 and 1995, Pinter wrote nine full-length plays for stage and television, a dramatic sketch, four prose works, four poetry collections, and eleven screenplays, including the screenplay for John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman, which earned Pinter several award nominations and won him the David Di Donatello (the Italian Academy Award) for Best Foreign Screenplay.

Over the ensuing decade, a winner of nine film awards and a double-digit nominee, Pinter's writing has evolved, from verbal indulgence to a greater emphasis on scene-setting. This increasing influence of scenery play-writing is apparently due to his increased involvement in film. After writing several plays that were subsequently filmed, he wrote screenplays that have garnered continued acclaim. These have made use of his linguistic skills and devices and have addressed his own penchant for themes such as adultery, duplicity, artistic stasis, and homosexuality.

Pinter's screenplays along with his poetry and letters, thrillers, and stage plays have earned him a major place in drama. Critics and scholars alike consider many of his full-length plays to be among the most important plays of the mid-twentieth century. He has been the recipient of numerous awards and honors for his lifetime achievement, including the 2005 Nobel Prize for Literature. He has remained active in the worlds of publishing, theater, and film, even after his announced retirement in 2005. Pinter continues to be applauded by everyone, from the British Library, which has purchased his literary archive, to Pinter scholars and fans who appreciate his rigorous scrutiny of the common, the comic, and the classes.


Pinter's famous contemporaries include:

Clifford Brown (1930–1956): American jazz trumpeter who died young, leaving a brief but remarkable recording legacy.

Ingmar Bergman (1918–2007): Influential Swedish screenwriter and film and stage director known for such films as Wild Strawberries (1957) and The Seventh Seal (1958).

Philip Larkin (1922–1985): Twentieth-century English poet who was once deemed by readers the nation's best-loved poet.

Timothy Leary (1920–1996): An American psychologist and countercultural phenomenon who famously experimented with and wrote about his use of hallucinogenic drugs like LSD.

Works in Literary Context

Intrusion and Conflict What Pinter learned as a young actor, he turned into his writing. His characters—making up the largest part of dramatic tension in the plays—are at their most compelling when their conflicts are “inner” and “mental,” unseeable and therefore frequently unnameable. Often, because the past is unverifiable in a Pinter play, all that viewers can know about a Pinter character is what they themselves discern. The plots, despite their surface calm, are often spiked by what audiences find equally disturbing: the unexpected intruder who enters the rooms or houses of Pinter's characters and in some way disrupts the residents' lives.

The Comedy of Menace Pinter's first few plays, labeled “comedies of menace,” occur in confining spaces and bleak settings and feature lower-class characters with their Cockney idiom who surrender what is left of their individuality. In Pinter's later plays he is especially concerned with what he regards as the nearly impossible task of verifying appearances. He creates images of the human condition that are despairing yet also comic in his deft handling of dialogue that attacks, evades communication, and shields privacy with debasing non sequiturs, pat clichés, repetitions, contradictions, and bad syntax.

Influences It has been said that epic theater appeared to have the least influence on Pinter, who shunned such Bertolt Brecht conventions as having his characters and themes make implied social and political statements. In one or two plays, he does touch on social commentary, in an epiclike fashion, appealing to his audience's intellect rather than to its emotions. This is where Pinter shows multiple influences. Examining the private rather than the social sphere, Pinter's work shows the particular absurdist influence of, for example, Irish playwright and novelist Samuel Beckett. He also displays a similarity with Kafka and other existential writers, exposing, as he does in several plays, the fragmentation of attitude, thinking, and, therefore, the self. Considered to belong to no single school, Pinter has instead 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 silence.

Pinter has been thought to take some influence from renowned writers Wilfred Owen, Marcel Proust, and William Shakespeare. In turn, Pinter's work unquestionably influenced a number of contemporary dramatists, from realists to international surrealists, from English playwrights Michael Frayn and Patrick Marber and American playwright David Mamet to Irish dramatist Martin McDonagh and Czech writer Vàclav Havel.

Works in Critical Context

While some have praised Pinter's work for its originality, others have dismissed it as willfully obscure. Such responses have been 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, including its silences. Pinter plays, these critics have determined, recall the social, psychological, and linguistic verisimilitude (realism) found in “kitchen sink” drama, yet are of a surface realism. 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.”

Enthusiastic dramatic criticism was plentiful for Pinter, especially with such plays as The Caretaker.

The Caretaker (1959) Pinter's second full-length play received high accolades, but only in the context of his first. After The Birthday Party's lackluster debut (running for only one week), for example, Observer critic Kenneth Tynan commented 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 … considerably abated; and the symbols have mostly retired to the background. What remains is a play about people.”

The Caretaker—which ran for twelve months in London's West End and in October 1961 opened on Broadway to critical acclaim—prompted New York Times writer Howard Taubman to report that it “proclaims its young English author as one of the important playwrights of our day.”


Many of Pinter's plays attempt to portray working-class characters in realistic situations using natural speech patterns. Other dramas about working-class characters include:

Look Back in Anger (1956), a play by John Osborne. A lower-class husband and his upper-class wife get disturbingly ensnared in a triangle with a third protagonist.

A Taste of Honey (1958), a play by Shelagh Delaney. This drama features the dynamics of a working-class teen and her sexually promiscuous and neglectful mother who abandons her.

A View from the Bridge (1955), a play by Arthur Miller. Italian-American longshoreman Eddie Carbone suffers profound betrayals and conflicts with family and friends in this stage drama.

Responses to Literature

  1. While reading The Dumb Waiter, make note of all the props (objects) that appear in the play as well as any response you have to their appearance. Using your list of props, discuss what you associate with each. Name any associations at all, no matter how simple. For example, sheets may make you think of bed, laundry hanging on the line, or toga parties. Once you have cited all possible connections you have to each item, consider how each has meaning for the play. Pinter's props have been said to “resonate symbolically.” What do you think these items represent? Feelings? Tone? Memories? Attitudes?
  2. Pinter's language is notably and intentionally provocative. His style is actually tactical, in that language becomes almost like a weapon, probing his audience. Using the play The Homecoming, find several instances of such passages and discuss whether these tactics would be equally provocative with a contemporary audience. How are audiences different today from Pinter's time, which is actually quite recent?



Billington, Michael. The Life and Work of Harold Pinter. London: Faber & Faber, 2001.

Esslin, Martin. Pinter the Playwright. London: Methuen, 1984.

Gordon, Lois. Pinter at 70. New York: Routledge, 2001.

Web Sites

Harold Pinter Bibliography. Retrieved February 14, 2008, from

Harold Harold Pinter Official Website. Retrieved February 14, 2008, from

Valencia Community College, West Campus. Author Pathfinders. “Pinter, Harold, (1930–).” Retrieved February 14, 2008, from

Pinter, Harold

views updated Jun 11 2018

PINTER, Harold

Nationality: British. Born: Hackney, London, 10 October 1930. Education: Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, 1948. Military Service: Conscientious objector. Family: Married 1) Vivien Merchant in 1956 (divorced 1980), one son; 2) Lady Antonia Fraser in 1980. Career: Poet and playwright. Has worked as a waiter, National Liberal Club; dishwasher; and salesman. Actor, using stage name David Baron, 1948-58, performing with Shakespearean repertory company, Ireland, 1950-52, with Bournemouth Repertory Company and other repertory companies, 1952-58. Since 1970 director of plays, and since 1973 associate director, National Theatre, London. Awards: Evening Standard drama award, 1961, and Newspaper Guild of New York award, 1962, both for The Caretaker; Italia prize for television play, 1963, for The Lover; two Screenwriters Guild awards, for television play and for screenplay, both 1963; New York Film Critics award, 1964, for The Servant; British Film Academy award, 1965 and 1971; New York Drama Critics Circle award, Whitbread Anglo-American Theater award, and Antoinette Perry 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 Antoinette Perry 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, for drama; David Cohen British Literature prize, 1995. Honorary degrees from many institutions in the United Kingdom and the United States, including 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, University of Sofia (Bulgaria), 1995, and an honorary fellowship from Queen Mary College, 1987. Commander, Order of the British Empire, 1966. Member: League of Dramatists; Modern Language Association (honorary fellow). Agent: Judy Daish Associates, 2 St. Charles Place, London W10 6EG, England.



The Birthday Party and Other Plays (includes The Birthday Party; The Room; The Dumb Waiter ). 1960; as The Birthday Party and The Room, 1961.

A Slight Ache and Other Plays (includes A Slight Ache; A Night Out; The Dwarfs; Trouble in the Works; The Black and White; Request Stop; Last to Go; Applicant ). 1961.

The Caretaker and The Dumb Waiter. 1961.

Three Plays: A Slight Ache, The Collection, The Dwarfs. 1962.

The Collection and The Lover (includes a prose piece, The Examination ). 1963.

The Dwarfs and Eight Review Sketches (includes The Dwarfs; Trouble in the Works; The Black and White; Request Stop; Last to Go; Applicant; Interview; That's All; That's Your Trouble ). 1965.

Tea Party and Other Plays (includes Tea Party; The Basement; Night School ). 1967.

The Lover, Tea Party, The Basement: Two Plays and a Film Script. 1967.

A Night Out, Night School, Revue Sketches: Early Plays. 1968.

Landscape and Silence (includes Landscape; Silence; Night ). 1969.

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

Plays (4 vols.). 1976-81; as Complete Works, 1977-81.

The French Lieutenant's Woman and Other Screenplays (includes The French Lieutenant's Woman; Langrishe; Go Down; The Last Tycoon ). 1982.

Other Places: Three Plays (includes A Kind of Alaska; Victoria Station; Family Voices ). 1983.


The Room (produced Bristol, England, 1957; with The Dumb Waiter, London, 1960; San Francisco, 1960; with A Slight Ache, New York, 1964).

The Birthday Party: A Play in Three Acts (produced Cambridge, England, 1958; New York, 1967). 1959; second revised edition, 1981.

The Dumb Waiter (produced in German translation, Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany, 1959; with The Room, London, 1960; with The Collection, New York, 1962).

Trouble in the Works [and] The Black and White (produced as part of One to Another, Hammersmith, England, 1959; London, 1959).

Request Stop, Last to Go, Special Offer, [and] Getting Acquainted (produced as part of Pieces of Eight, London, 1959).

The Caretaker: A Play in Three Acts (produced London, 1960; New Haven, Connecticut, 1961; New York, 1961). 1960.

A Night Out (produced London, 1961).

A Slight Ache (London, 1961; with The Room, New York, 1964).

The Collection (produced London, 1962; with The Dumb Waiter, New York, 1962).

The Dwarfs (produced with The Lover, London, 1963; with The Dumb Waiter, New York, 1974). 1990.

The Lover (produced with The Dwarfs, London, 1963; New York, 1964).

The Homecoming: A Play in Two Acts (produced Cardiff, Wales, England, 1965; London, 1965; New York, 1967). 1965; revised edition, 1968.

Tea Party (produced with The Basement, New York, 1968). 1965.

The Basement (produced with Tea Party, New York, 1968).

Landscape (radio play). 1968.

Night (produced as part of We Who Are about To …, London, 1969).

Landscape [and] Silence (produced London, 1969; New York, 1970).

Sketches (produced New York, 1969).

Old Times (produced London, 1971; New York, 1971). 1971.

Monologue (television play). 1973.

No Man's Land (produced London, 1975). 1975.

Betrayal (produced London, 1978; New York, 1980). 1978; revised edition, 1980.

Other Pinter Pauses (revue; produced New York, 1979).

The Hothouse (produced London, 1980; New York, 1982). 1980; revised edition, 1982.

Family Voices: A Play for Radio (produced London, 1981). 1981.

The French Lieutenant's Woman (screenplay). As The French Lieutenant's Woman: A Screenplay, 1981.

A Kind of Alaska: A Play (produced London, 1982). 1981.

Victoria Station. 1982.

Other Places (triple bill, includes Family Voices, A Kind of Alaska, and Victoria Station; produced London, 1982). 1982; revised edition, omitting Family Voices and including One for the Road, 1983 (produced New York, 1984; London, 1985).

Precisely (sketch; produced as part of The Big One, London, 1983).

One for the Road: A Play (produced Hammersmith, 1984). 1984; revised edition, 1985.

Mountain Language (produced London, 1988; with The Birthday Party, New York, 1989). 1988.

Party Time & The New World Order. 1993. Moonlight: A Play. 1993.

Ashes to Ashes. 1996.

Celebration (produced with The Room, New York, 2001).


The Servant, 1963; The Guest, adaptation of his The Caretaker, 1964; The Pumpkin Eater, 1964; The Quiller Memorandum, 1967; Accident, 1967; The Birthday Party, 1968; The Go-Between, 1971; The Homecoming, 1971; The Last Tycoon, 1975; The French Lieutenant's Woman, 1981; Betrayal, 1983; Turtle Diary, 1986; The Handmaid's Tale, adaptation of the novel by Margaret Atwood, 1990; Lolita, 1997. Also adapted Fred Uhlman's novel Reunion, 1989.

Television Plays:

Night School, 1960; The Collection, 1961; The Lover, 1963; Tea Party, 1965; The Basement, 1967; Pinter People, 1968; Monologue, 1973.

Radio Plays:

A Slight Ache, 1959; A Night Out, 1960; The Dwarfs, 1960; Dialogue for Three, 1964; That's Your Trouble, 1964; That's All, 1964; Applicant, 1964; Interview, 1964; Landscape, 1968; Family Voices: A Play for Radio, 1981.


Poems. 1968.

Poems and Prose 1949-1977. 1978; revised edition, as Collected Poems and Prose, 1986.

I Know the Place: Poems. 1979.

Ten Early Poems. 1990.

Collected Poems and Prose. 1996.


The Compartment, with Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco (unreleased screenplay). Published in Project 1, 1963.

Mac. 1968.

The Proust Screenplay: A la recherche du temps perdu, with Joseph Losey and Barbara Bray. 1978.

The Heat of the Day. 1989.

Various Voices: Prose, Poetry, Politics. 1998.

Editor, with John Fuller and Peter Redgrove, New Poems 1967: A P.E.N. Anthology. 1968.

Editor, with Geoffrey Godbert and Anthony Astbury, A Hundred Poems by a Hundred Poets: An Anthology. 1986.

Editor, with Godbert and Astbury, Ninety-Nine Poems in Translation: An Anthology. 1994.



Harold Pinter: An Annotated Bibliography by Steven H. Gale, 1978.

Critical Studies:

Harold Pinter by Walter Kerr, 1967; "' … Apart from the Known and the Unknown': The Unreconciled Worlds of Harold Pinter's Characters" by Francis Gillen, in Arizona Quarterly, 26(1), Spring 1970, pp. 17-24; "Harold Pinter: Action and Control: The Homecoming and Other Plays" by John Russell Brown, in his Theatre Language: A Study of Arden, Osborne, Pinter and Wesker, 1972; "Who Can Afford to Live in the Past?: The Homecoming" by William Baker and Stephen Ely Tabachnick, in their Harold Pinter, 1973; "Pinter As a Radio Dramatist" by Mary Jane Miller, in Modern Drama, XVII(4), December 1974, pp. 403-12; "A Pattern of Need" by Steven H. Gale, in his Butter's Going Up: A Critical Analysis of Harold Pinter's Work, 1977; "Harold Pinter: A Retrospect" by Peter Thomson, in Critical Quarterly, 20(4), Winter 1978, pp. 21-28; Pinter the Playwright by Martin Esslin, 1984; The Pinter Ethic: The Erotic Aesthetic by Penelope Prentice, 1994; Harold Pinter: A Question of Timing by Martin S. Regal, 1995; Understanding Harold Pinter by Ronald Knowles, 1995..

Theatrical Activities:

Actor: Plays—several of his own plays.

* * *

At the end of the twentieth century Harold Pinter was generally acknowledged as Britain's finest living playwright. He was born on 11 October 1930 in the East End of London, the son of a Jewish tailor. Following World War II he experienced a rise in anti-Semitic activity in London and politically classified himself as a conscientious objector opposed to performing military service for his country. At the age of 19 he dropped out of college and began a career as an actor in a touring Shakespearean company in Ireland.

Pinter's playwriting career began with a one-act play, The Room (1957), in which he explored some of the themes and styles that would become associated with his later work. It is a mysterious play about a middle-aged woman, Rose, who anxiously dwells in a room with her brutal, racist younger husband and who is commanded by a blind black stranger to remember the past. In this play and in others Pinter uses a circuitous structure that shies from specific explanation, preferring to make its points through implication. An early critic and biographer, Martin Esslin, described Pinter's plays as comedies of menace, in which protagonists are filled with anxiety, awaiting some brutal downfall. Many of his plays and film scripts also explore marriages and friendships as states of persecution, as competitions over memory, and as contests for language. Control or power becomes the central motivating force in human interchanges; whoever controls the language controls memory and controls both the present and the future.

These themes have been consistently present from The Birthday Party (1958) and The Dumb Waiter (1959) through The Caretaker (1960), The Homecoming (1965), Old Times (1971), and No Man's Land (1975). Pinter earlier eschewed precise political readings of his plays, preferring ambiguity to statement, even though his plays were peppered with clues. In the 1980s, however, he began openly expressing his political views in such works as One for the Road (1984), Mountain Language (1988), The New World Order (1993), and Ashes to Ashes (1996). Again, Pinter has shied away from specifically identifying his plays, especially as Holocaust or post-Holocaust theater. While the subject of Mountain Language— an ethnic group is denied not only all political rights but also its own language—was inspired by the actions of Turkey against its Kurd population, the play's unstated locale also allows the reader or viewer to infer the condition of Jews under the Third Reich in the 1930s and 1940s. Likewise, Ashes to Ashes utilizes images from the Jewish experience of being selected at railway stations, separations of families, and large groups being led to their deaths while carrying their personal belongings.

In only one script, his screen adaptation of Fred Uhlman's novel Reunion (1989), has Pinter directly confronted the Holocaust. In the script an elderly Jewish-American businessman named Henry Strauss returns to the Germany of his youth, where he lived before he was sent away by his parents to escape the escalating anti-Semitic violence of the 1930s. While he is in his hotel room, he watches a film clip of Laurence Olivier as Henry V giving the Saint Crispin's day speech to his troops. Henry's issue is the necessity for those who were present at the event to remember the past, a remembrance challenged by a television intellectual contesting the king's sincerity. Yet Strauss's visit to his childhood home is predicated on his need to confront his own conflicting memories and to discover what has happened to a former childhood friend who had abandoned him for the Nazis.

Pinter's place within Holocaust literature may be found in his exploration of the modes of persecution and in his analysis of the uses of language and its ability to control the past by refashioning memory. Although he did not personally experience the loss of the Holocaust, he has continued, with considerable power and imagination, to open discussion on these issues to a post-Holocaust generation.

—Steven Dedalus Burch

See the essay on Ashes to Ashes.

Harold Pinter

views updated Jun 08 2018

Harold Pinter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading

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

Pinter, Harold

views updated Jun 11 2018


PINTER, HAROLD (1930–2005), English playwright, Nobel laureate. Born in Hackney, London, the son of a tailor, Pinter was on the stage from 1949 to 1957 under the name of David Baron, acting chiefly in repertory and with touring companies in Ireland. His first plays to become known were written for radio, a medium admirably suited to the rather sinister ambiguity of his early work. To this period belong The Room, The Dumb Waiter, and The Birthday Party (1958). The last play is symbolic of the universal guilt of man, with the central figure as a scapegoat. Pinter's subsequent plays include The Caretaker, produced in 1960, which is generally classed as a tragicomedy belonging to the genre of the "theater of the absurd." It shows a homeless tramp billeting himself upon two brothers, under the pretense of taking care of their home. He emerges, however, as a type of suffering humanity, making what may be felt to be excessive claims upon men's charity. The Caretaker was an outstanding success on stage, screen, and television. The plays Pinter wrote in the 1960s were dominated by the husband-wife relationship and several were acted by his wife, Vivien Merchant. The Lover (1963) depicts a marriage which can only function if both partners pretend that it is an illicit love affair. The Homecoming (1964), which won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best new play in 1967, is about an English intellectual who brings a new wife back from the U.S. to meet his crude, working-class family. In this phase of his writing, Pinter was concerned with the frailty of marital relationships, with the potential violence of family life, and with the impossibility of ever knowing or possessing a woman. His other plays include A Night Out (1960), The Collection (1961), Tea Party (1964), and Old Times (1971).

Pinter first became involved in writing screenplays when he adapted The Caretaker for the screen as The Guest in 1963. After that he earned two Academy Award nominations for best screenplay, for his adaptation of John Fowles' novel The French Lieutenant's Woman in 1981 and for his adaptation of his own play, Betrayal, in 1983. His adaptation of L.P. Hartley's novel The Go-Between won him a bafta award in 1971. Other screenplays include his 1968 version of The Birthday Party for the screen, Reunion (1989), The Handmaid's Tale (1990, based on a novel by Margaret Atwood), and The Trial (1993, based on Kafka's novel).

Pinter's later plays saw him shifting his focus away from the sinister underbelly of urban society and onto an upper-middle-class setting that more closely reflected his own milieu. In addition to Betrayal (1978), they include No Man's Land (1975). Pinter is also an occasional contributor of poetry to certain London journals, where he uses the pen name Harold Pinta.

In 2002 Pinter was made a Companion of Honour (ch). In later years he became well-known as a left-wing political activist over a range of international issues including Chile, Yugoslavia, and the 2003 Iraq War. After his divorce from Vivien Merchant in 1980, Pinter married the best-selling historian Lady Antonia Fraser. One of the most famous of all modern British playwrights, Pinter has attracted many biographical and critical studies, among them biographies by R. Hayman (1975), Michael Billington (1997), Martin S. Rega (1995), and Volker Strunk (1998). In 2005 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.


M. Esslin, Theater of the Absurd (1961); idem, The People Wound: The Work of Harold Pinter (1970); J.R. Taylor, Anger and After (1960).

[Philip D. Hobsbaum /

Rohan Saxena]

Pinter, Harold

views updated May 23 2018

PINTER, Harold

PINTER, Harold. British, b. 1930. Genres: Plays/Screenplays, Poetry. Career: Professional actor, 1949-60, also a director: Associate Director, National Theatre, London, 1973-83; screenwriter. Publications: The Birthday Party, 1958; The Caretaker, 1960; The Birthday Party and Other Plays, 1960, in US as The Birthday Party, and The Room (includes The Dumb Waiter), 1961; A Slight Ache and The Dumb Waiter, 1961; Three Plays: A Slight Ache, The Collection, The Dwarfs, 1962; The Collection, 1962; The Collection, and The Lover, 1963, The Lover, 1965; Tea Party, 1965; The Homecoming, 1965; The Dwarfs and Eight Revue Sketches, 1965; Tea Party and Other Plays, 1967; The Lover, The Tea Party, The Basement, 1967; Mac, 1968; Landscape, 1968; Landscape and Silence (includes Night), 1969; Five Screenplays, 1971; Old Times, 1971; Monologue, 1973; The Last Tycoon, 1974; No Man's Land, 1975; Plays, 3 vols, 1975-78; The Proust Screenplay: A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, 1977; Poems and Prose 1949-1977, 1978; Betrayal, 1978; I Know the Place (poetry), 1979; The French Lieutenant's Woman (screenplay), 1980; The Hothouse, 1980; Family Voices, 1981; Other Places (Family Voices, Victoria Station, A Kind of Alaska), 1982; Victory, 1982; Turtle Diary, 1984; One for the Road, 1985; Collected Poems and Prose, 1986; The Handmaid's Tale, 1987; Reunion, 1988; Mountain Language, 1988; The Heat of the Day, 1988; The Comfort of Strangers (screenplay), 1989; The Trial, 1989; Reunion and Other Screenplays, 1990; The New World Order, 1991; Party Time, 1991; Moonlight, 1993; (ed.) 99 Poems in Translation, 1994; Conversations with Pinter, 1994; Ashes to Ashes, 1995; Various Voices: Prose, Poetry, Politics, 1998; Celebration, 1999; Remembrance of Things Past, 2000. Address: c/o Judy Daish Assocs, 2 St. Charles Place, London W10 6EG, England. Online address:

Pinter, Harold

views updated May 29 2018

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