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by Bamber Gascoigne

Harold Pinter (1930-2008)


English playwright who achieved international success as one of the most complex post-World War II dramatists. Harold Pinter's plays are noted for their use of silence to increase tension, understatement, and cryptic small talk. Equally recognizable are the 'Pinteresque' themes – nameless menace, erotic fantasy, obsession and jealousy, family hatred and mental disturbance. In 2005, Pinter was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.

"I don't know how music can influence writing, but it has been very important for me, both jazz and classical music. I feel a sense of music continually in writing, which is a different matter from having been influenced by it." (Harold Pinter in Playwrights at Work, ed. by George Plimpton, 2000)

Harold Pinter was born in Hackney, a working-class neighborhood in London's East End, the son of a tailor. Both of his parents were Jewish, born in England. As a child Pinter got on well with his mother, who was more secular, but he didn’t get on well with his father, rather Orthodox and a strong disciplinarian. On the outbreak of World War II, Pinter was evacuated from the city to Cornwall; to be wrenched from his parents was a traumatic event for Pinter. He lived with 26 other boys in a castle on the coast. At the age of 14, he returned to London. "The condition of being bombed has never left me," Pinter later said.

Pinter was educated at Hackney Downs Grammar School, where he acted in school productions. At school one of Pinter's main intellectual interests was English literature, particularly poetry. He also read works of Franz Kafka and Ernest Hemingway.

After two unhappy years, Pinter left his studies at London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. In 1949 he was fined by magistrates for having, as a conscientious objector, refused to do his national service. Pinter had two trials. "I could have gone to prison – I took my toothbrush to the trials – but it so happened that the magistrate was slightly sympathetic, so I was fined instead, thirty pounds in all. Perhaps I'll be called up again in the next war, but I won't go." (from Playwrights at Work) Pinter's father paid the fine in the end, a substantial sum of money.

In 1950, Pinter started to publish poems in Poetry (London) under the name Harold Pinta. He also worked as a bit-part actor on a BBC Radio program, Focus on Football Pools. Following studies at the Central School of Speech and Drama he toured Ireland from 1951 to 1952 with a Shakespearean troupe. During Donald Wolfit's season he appeared in 1953 at the King's Theatre in Hammersmith. When Pinter was once asked what influence his acting had on his plays he replied, "I had a pretty good notion in my earlier plays of what would shut an audience up; not so much what would make them laugh; that I had no idea about." He read Beckett a great deal before the author gained fame and also formed a friendship with him.

After four more years in provincial repertory theatre under the pseudonym David Baron, Pinter began to write for the stage. The Room (1957), originally assigned for Bristol University's drama department, was finished in four days. A Slight Ache, Pinter's first radio piece, was broadcast on the BBC in 1959. His first full-length play, The Birthday Party, was first performed by Bristol University's drama department in 1957 and produced in 1958 in the West End. The play, which closed with disastrous reviews after one week, dealt in a Kafkaesque manner with an apparently ordinary man who is threatened by strangers for an unknown reason. He tries to run away but is tracked down. Although most reviewers were hostile, Pinter produced in rapid succession the body of work which made him the master of the comedy of menace. "I find critics on the whole a pretty unnecessary bunch of people," Pinter said decades later in an interview. "We don't need critics to tell the audiences what to think."

Pinter's major plays originate often from a single, powerful visual image. They are usually set in a single room, whose occupants are threatened by forces or people whose precise intentions neither the characters nor the audience can define. The struggle for survival or identity dominates the action of his characters. Language is not only used as a means of communication but as a weapon. Beneth the words, there is a silence of fear, rage and domination, fear of intimacy. Especially Pinter's early plays had traits and characteristics familiar from the absurdist theatre.

"Pinter's dialogue is as tightly – perhaps more tightly – controlled than verse," Martin Esslin wrote in The People Wound (1970). "Every syllable, every inflection, the succession of long and short sounds, words and sentences, is calculated to nicety. And precisely the repetitiousness, the discontinuity, the circularity of ordinary vernacular speech are here used as formal elements with which the poet can compose his linguistic ballet." Pinter refuses to provide rational justifications for action, but offers existential glimpses of bizarre or terrible moments in people's lives. By making the spectators uncomfortable, Pinter also secured that they remain glued to what happens next. Practicality was the guiding principle: "A rehearsal period that consists of philosophical discourse or political treatise does not get the curtain up at eight o'clock," he said. Despite declaring that he is not committed as a writer, either religiously or politically, Pinter had strong feelings about politicians: "The other night I watched some politicians on television talking about Viet Nam. I wanted very much to burst through the screen with a flamethrower and burn their eyes out and their balls of and the inquire from them how they would assess this action from a political point of view." (Harold Pinter's Politics: A Silence Beyond Echo by Charles Grime, 2005, p. 18)

With his second full-length play, The Caretaker (1960), Pinter made his breakthrough as a major modern talent, although in Düsseldorf the audience booed at the performance. The English actor Donald Pleasence compared his experience of playing Davies, the tramp in the play, to "being in the first performance of Chekhov's The Three Sisters or The Cherry Orchard". Perhaps the most enigmatic of all Pinter's early works, The Homecoming (1965), won a Tony Award, the Whitbread Anglo-American Theater Award, and the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award. In the story an estranged son, Teddy, brings his wife Ruth home to London to meet his family, his father Max, a nagging, aggressive ex-butcher, and other tough members of the all-male household. At the end Teddy returns alone to his university job in America. Ruth stays as a mother or whore to his family. Everyone needs her. Similar motifs – the battle for domination in a sexual context – recur in Landscape and Silence (both 1969), and in Old Times (1971), in which the key line is "Normal, what's normal?" After The Homecoming Pinter said that he "couldn't any longer stay in the room with this bunch of people who opened doors and came in and went out."

Several of Pinter's plays were originally written for British radio or TV. In the 1960s he also directed several of his dramas. After Betrayal (1978) Pinter wrote no new full-length plays until Moonlight (1994). His short plays included the much performed A Dumb Waiter (1960) and A Kind of Alaska (1982), inspired by the case histories in Oliver Sack's Awakenings (1973).

From the beginning of the 1970s, Pinter directed a number of stage plays and the American Film Theatre production of Butler (1974). In 1977 he published a screenplay based on Marcel Proust's A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. Closely associated with the director Peter Hall, he became an associate director of the National Theatre after Hall was nominated as the successor of Sir Lawrence Olivier. Besides the Nobel Prize, Pinter received during his career many awards, including the Berlin Film Festival Silver Bear in 1963, BAFTA awards in 1965 and in 1971, the Hamburg Shakespeare Prize in 1970, the Cannes Film Festival Palme d'Or in 1971, and the Commonwealth Award in 1981. He was awarded a CBE in 1966, but he later turned down John Major's offer of a knighthood. In 1996 he was given the Laurence Olivier Award for a lifetime's achievement in the theatre. In 2002 he was made a Companion of Honour for services to literature. His other loves in art and music included a passion for the paintings of Francis Bacon and an appreciation of jazz, the Beatles, Bach, Boulez and Webern.

Pinter was married from 1956 to the actress Vivien Merchant. For a time, they lived in Notting Hill Gate in a slum. Eventually Pinter managed to borrow some money and move away. Although Pinter said in an interview in 1966, that he never has written any part for any actor, his wife Vivien frequently appeared in his plays. After his first marriage dissolved in 1980, Pinter married the biographer Lady Antonia Fraser, whose former husband was the ­Conservative MP Hugh Fraser. The divorce separated Pinter from his son Daniel, a writer and musician. Vivien Merchant died in 1982. Antonia Fraser's account of her married life with Pinter, Must You Go? came out in 2010.

In addition to plays, Pinter wrote a number of screenplays, including The Servant (1963), The Accident (1967), The Go-Between (1971), The Last Tycoon (1974, dir. by Elia Kazan), The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981, novel by John Fowles), Betrayal (1982), Turtle Diary (1985), Reunion (1989), The Handmaid's Tale (1990), The Comfort of Strangers (1990), and The Trial by Franz Kafka (1990). In the 1990s Pinter became more active as a director than as a playwright. He oversaw David Mamet's Oleanna and several works by Simon Gray.

Since the overthrow of Chile's President Allende in 1973, Pinter was active in human rights issues. During the early 1980s, his output became to a great extent political. One for the Road (1984), about psychological and physical torture, left spectators silent and caused the original actors such distress that they "couldn't face the idea of doing the play again forr anything but a very short run" (The Pinter Ethic: The Erotic Aesthetic by Penelope Prentice, 2002, p. 276).  Pinter also helped Salman Rushdie, who had been "sentenced to death" by Ayatollah Khomeini. Because Rushdie was living with the threat of murder, Pinter read his colleagues Herbert Read Memorial Lecture, entitled 'Is Nothing Sacred' (1990), at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London. Rushdie argued that in an open society no ideas, texts, even people could be ring-fenced and  given the immunity from challenges of all sorts. The lecture was televised on the BBC Late Show. The first Muslim responses were negative.

Pinter's opinions were often controversial. During the Kosovo crisis in 1999, Pinter condemned Nato's intervention, and said it will "only aggravate the misery and the horror and devastate the country". In 2001 Pinter joined The International Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic, which also included former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark. Milosevic was arrested by the U.N. war crimes tribunal. In January 2002 Pinter was diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus. In his speech to an anti-war meeting at the House of Commons in November 2002 Pinter joined the world-wide debate over the so-called "preventive war" against Iraq: "Bush has said: "We will not allow the world's worst weapons to remain in the hands of the world's worst leaders." Quite right. Look in the mirror chum. That's you." In February 2005 Pinter announced in an interview that he has decided to abandon his career as a playwright and put all his energy into politics. "I've written 29 plays. Isn't that enough?" Harold Pinted died on December 24, 2008, in London.

For further reading: Harold Pinter: Stages, Networks, Collaborations, edited by Basil Chiasson and Catriona Fallow (2021); Harold Pinter's Shakespeare: Shakespeare's Influence on the Work of Harold Pinter by Charles Morton (2023); Harold Pinter by Graham Saunders (2023) The Late Harold Pinter: Political Dramatist, Poet and Activist by Basil Chiasson (2017); The Plays of Harold Pinter by Andrew Wyllie and Catherine Rees (2016); Harold Pinter: the Theatre of Power by Robert Gordon (2012);  Must You Go?: My Life with Harold Pinter by Antonia Fraser (2010); Harold Pinter's Politics: A Silence Beyond Echo by Charles Grime (2005); The Pinter Ethic: The Erotic Aesthetic by Penelope Prentice (2002); Kafka and Pinter by Raymond Armstrong (1999); The Life and Work of Harold Pinter by Michael Billington (1997); Harold Pinter and the New British Theatre by D. Keith Peacock (1997); Harold Pinter: A Question of Timing by Martin S. Regal (1995); The Pinter Ethic by Penelope Prentice (1994); Harold Pinter and the Language of Cultural Power by Marc Silverstein (1993); Harold Pinter by Chittanranjan Misra (1993); Critical Essays on Harold Pinter by Steven H. Gale (1990); Pinter in Play by Susan Hollis Merritt (1990); Harold Pinter by Volker Strunk (1989); Pinter's Female Portraits by Elizabeth Sakellaridou (1988); Harold Pinter, ed. by Stephen H. Gale (1986); Making Pictures by Joanne Klein (1985); Harold Pinter, ed. by Alan Bold (1985); The Dream Structure of Pinter's Plays by Lucina Paquet Gabard (1977); Harold Pinter by R. Hayman (1975); The Dramatic World of Harold Pinter by Jatherine H. Burkman (1971); Harold Pinter by W. Kerr (1968); Harold Pinter by W. Baker and S.E. Tabachnik (1973); Theatre and Anti-Theatre by R. Hayman (1979); The Peopled Wound by Martin Esslin (1970); Anger and After by J.R. Taylor (1969) - see also The Pinter Review, ed. by Francis X. Gillen, Steven H- Gale

Selected works:

  • The Room, 1957 - Huone (suom. Auli Tarkka, 1963) - TV film 1961 (ITV Television Playhouse), dir. Alvin Rakoff; Rommet, TV film 1968, dir. Lars Löfgren
  • The Birthday Party, 1957 - Syntymäpäiväjuhlat (suom. Terttu Savola, 1971) - Die Geburtstagsfeier, TV play 1961, prod. Tribüne Berlin, dir. Wolfgang Spier; Het Verjaardagsfeest, TV drama 1966, prod. Belgische Radio en Televisie (BRT), dir. Ton Lensink; The Birthday Party, prod. American Broadcasting Company (ABC), dir. William Friedkin, starring Robert Shaw, Patrick Magee, Dandy Nichols; TV film 1986, dir. Kenneth Ives
  • The Black and White - Musta ja valkoinen (suom. Terttu Savola, 1963)
  • Trouble in the Works, 1959
  • One to Another, 1959
  • A Slight Ache, 1959 - Lievää särkyä (suom. Terttu Savola, 1963)
  • Pieces of Eight, 1959 (includes Last to Go, Request Stop, Special Offer) - Viimeinen (suom. Terttu Savola, 1963); Linja-autopysäkki (suom. Terttu Savola, 1965)
  • The Applicant, 1959 - Paikanhakija (suom. Terttu Savola, 1963)
  • The Dumb Waiter, 1960 - Ruokahissi (suom. Lauri Sipari, 1987) / Mykkä tarjoilija (suom. Lauri Sipari) - De Dienstlift, TV film 1969, prod. Belgische Radio en Televisie (BRT), dir. Luc Philips; The Dumb Waiter, TV film 1985, prod. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), dir. Kenneth Ives; Bez pogovora, TV film 1999, prod. Radiotelevizija Beograd (Federal Republic of Yugoslavia), dir. Slobodan Z. Jovanovic
  • The Caretaker, 1960 - Talonmies (suom. Kurt Nuotio, 1963) - film adaptations: 1963, dir. by Clive Donner, starring Alan Bates, Robert Shaw, Donald Pleasence (two brothers, Aston and Mick, invite a revolting tramp, Mac, to share their attic.); Viceværten, TV play 1971, prod. Danmarks Radio (DR), dir. Palle Wolfsberg; De Huisbewaarder, TV film 1984, prod. ARCA-N.E.T. Theater aan de Lieve, dir. Vincent Rouffaer, Walter Tillemans; Le Gardien, TV film 1984, dir. Yves-André Hubert, adapation Eric Kahane; Fastighetsskötaren, TV film 2004, prod. SVT Drama, dir. Thommy Berggren
  • A Night Out, 1960 - Ilta ulkona (suom. Kaarina Naski, 1982)
  • The Dwarfs, 1960 (from his novel)
  • Night School, 1961
  • The Collection, 1961 - Muotinäytös (suom. Seppo Virtanen, 1964; Juha Siltanen, 2004) - film adaptations: Muotinäytös, TV play 1962, prod. Yleisradio (YLE), dir. Seppo Wallin; Kollektionen, TV play 1962, prod. Danmarks Radio (DR), dir. Palle Kjærulff-Schmidt; Kollektionen, TV play 1962, dir. Bengt Lagerkvist; De modeshow, 1969, prod. Belgische Radio en Televisie (BRT), dir. Kris Betz; The Collection, TV film 1976, prod. Granada Television, dir. Michael Apted, starring Laurence Olivier, Alan Bates, Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren
  • One To Another, 1961 (with J. Mortimer, N.F. Simpson)
  • A Slight Ache and Other Plays, 1961
  • The Lover, 1963 - Rakastaja (suom. Juha Siltanen, 1991) - TV play 1963, prod. Associated-Rediffusion Television, dir. Joan Kemp-Welch; Elskeren, TV play 1964, prod. Danmarks Radio (DR), dir. Palle Kjærulff-Schmidt; Älskaren, TV play 1964, dir. Bengt Lagerkvist, cast: Gerd Hagman, Curt Masreliez, Eric Stolpe
  • The Servant, 1963 (screenplay from R. Maugham's novel) - film 1963, prod. Springbok Productions, dir. Joseph Losey, starring Dirk Bogarde, Sarah Miles, James Fox, Wendy Craig
  • The Pumpkin Eater, 1964 (screenplay from P. Mortimer's novel) - film prod. Romulus Films, dir. Jack Clayton, starring Anne Bancroft, Peter Finch, James Mason
  • The Homecoming, 1965 - Kotiinpaluu (suom. Seppo Loponen, 1965) - film 1973, prod. Cinévision Ltée, dir. Peter Hall, screenplay Harold Pinter
  • Tea Party, 1965 - film adaptations: Teekutsut, TV play 1965, prod. Yleisradio (YLE), dir. Seppo Wallin; En kopp te, TV play 1965, dir. Håkan Ersgård; Tea Party, 1965, prod. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), dir. Charles Jarrott
  • The Quiller Memorandum, 1966 (screenplay from Adam Hall's The Berlin Memorandum) - film prod. Ivan Foxwell Productions, dir. Michael Anderson, starring George Segal, Alec Guinness, Max von Sydow, Senta Berger, George Sanders
  • The Party and Other Plays, 1967
  • Accident, 1967 (screenplay from N. Mosley's novel) - film prod. by Royal Avenue Chelsea, dir. Joseph Losey, starring Dirk Bogarde, Stanley Baker, Jacqueline Sassard, Michael York, Vivien Merchant
  • New Poems, 1997 (ed.)
  • A PEN Anthology, 1967 (ed. with J. Fuller, P. Redgrave)
  • Poems, 1968
  • Mac, 1968
  • Landscape, 1968
  • Silence, 1969
  • Night, 1969 - Yö (suom. Lauri Sipari, 1987)
  • The Go-Between, 1970 (screenplay from L.P. Hartley's novel) - film prod. by EMI Films, dir. Joseph Losey, starring Julie Christie, Alan Bates, Michael Redgrave, Dominic Guard, Edward Fox
  • Old Times, 1971 - Silloin ennen (suom. Liisa Ryömä, 1971; Juha Siltanen, 1997) - Gamle dage, TV drama 1974, prod. Danmarks Radio (DR), dir. Søren Melson; TV film 1991, prod. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), dir. Simon Curtis, starring John Malkovich, Kate Nelligan, Miranda Richardson
  • Monologue, 1973
  • The Proust Screenplay, 1977 (with B. Bray, J. Losey)
  • No Man's Land, 1975 - Ei kenenkään maa (suom. Arto af Hällström, 1990) - TV film 1978, prod. BBC Four, starring John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Michael Kitchen, Terence Rigby; Niemandsland, TV film 1978, dir. Hans Lietzau, Heribert Wenk
  • The Last Tycoon, 1976 (screenplay, from F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel) - film prod. by Academy Pictures Corporation, dir. Elia Kazan, starring Robert De Niro, Tony Curtis, Jeanne Moreau, Robert Mitchum, Jack Nicholson, Donald Pleasence, Ray Milland, Dana Andrews
  • Betrayal, 1978 - Petos (suom. Lauri Sipari, 1990; Arto af Hällström, 2014) - film 1983, prod. Horizon Pictures (II), dir. David Hugh Jones, starring Jeremy Irons, Ben Kingsley, Patricia Hodge, Avril Elgar
  • Poems and Prose 1941-1977, 1978
  • Langrishe, Go Dowm, 1978 (from A. Higgins)
  • I Know thew Place, 1979
  • The Hothouse, 1980 - Kasvihuone (suom Liisa Ryömä ja Daniel Katz, 1981)
  • Family Voices, 1981 - Ääniä eräästä perheestä (suom. Juha Siltanen)
  • The French Lieutenant's Woman, 1981 (screenplay from J. Fowles's novel) - film prod. Juniper Films, dir. Karel Reisz, starring Meryl Streep, Jeremy Irons, Hilton McRae, Emily Morgan
  • A Kind of Alaska, 1982 - Vähän niin kuin Alaskassa (suom. Juha Siltanen)
  • The French Lieutenant's Woman and Other Screenplays, 1982
  • Other Places, 1982
  • Victoria Station, 1982 - Victoria Station (suom. Juha Siltanen, 1986) - short film 2003, prod. Swanny Productions, dir. Douglas Hodge
  • The Big One, 1983
  • Players, 1983
  • One for the Road, 1984 - Kerta kiellon päälle (suom. Lauri Sipari, 1987)
  • Players, 1985
  • Turtle Diary, 1985 (screenplay, from Russell Hoban's novel) - film dir. John Irvin, starring Glenda Jackson, Ben Kingsley, Richard Johnson, Michael Gambon (Harold Pinter does a cameo as a bookstore customer)
  • 100 Poems by 100 Poets, 1986 (ed. with A. Astbury, G. Godbert)
  • Mountain Language, 1988 - Vuoristokieli (suom. Michael Baran, 1993)
  • Heat of the Day, 1989 (screenplay, from E. Bowen's novel) - film dir. by Christopher Motahan, starring Patricia Hodge, Michael Gambon, Michael York
  • Reunion, 1989 (script, from Fred Uhlman's story) - film prod. Arbo, dir. by Jerry Schatzberg, starring Jason Robards, Christien Anholt, Samuel W est
  • The Comfort of Strangers and Other Screenplays, 1990
  • The Comfort of Strangers, 1990 (screenplay, from Ian McEwan's novel) - film prod. Erre Produzioni, dir. Paul Schrader, starring Christopher Walken, Rupert Everett, Natasha Richardson, Helen Mirren
  • Victory, 1990 (from J. Conrad's novel)
  • The Handmaid's Tale, 1990 (screenplay from M. Atwood's novel) - film prod. Bioskop Film, dir. Volker Schlöndorff, starring Natasha Richardson, Faye Dunaway, Aidan Quinn, Elizabeth McGovern, Robert Duvall, Victoria Tennant, Blanche Baker
  • The Dwarfs, 1990
  • Complete Works, 1990
  • Party Time, 1991
  • Plays, 1991
  • The Trial, 1991 (adaptation, from F. Kafka's novel) - film prod. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), dir. David Hugh Jones, starring Kyle MacLachlan, Anthony Hopkins, Jason Robards, Juliet Stevenson
  • Ten Early Poems, 1992
  • Moonlight, 1993 - Kuun valo (suom. Kristiina Lyytinen, 1994)
  • Pinter At Sixty, 1993 (ed. by K.H. Burkman, J.L. Kundert-Gibbs)
  • 99 Poems in Translation, 1994 (ed. with A. Astbury, G.Godbert)
  • Party Time, 1994
  • Ashes to Ashes, 1996
  • Various Voices: Prose, Poetry, Politics 1948-1998, 1999
  • Celebration, 1999
  • Collected Screenplays 1-2, 2000
  • Celebration & The Room, 2000
  • adaptation: Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust, 2000 (with Di Trevis)
  • War, 2003
  • Death etc., 2005
  • The Essential Pinter: Selections from the Work of Harold Pinter, 2006
  • Sleuth, 2007 (screenplay, from Anthony Shaffer's play) - film prod. Sony Pictures Classics, dir. Kenneth Branagh, starring Michael Caine, Jude Law
  • Ashes to Ashes and Other Plays, 2008
  • Various Voices: Sixty Years of Prose, Poetry, Politics, 1948-2008, 2009 (rev. ed.)
  • The Short Plays, 2018 (with a foreword by Antonia Fraser - The Room; The Dumb Waiter; A Slight Ache; A Night Out; Night School; The Dwarfs; The Collection; The Lover; Tea Party; The Basement; Landscape; Silence; Monologue; Family Voices; A kind of Alaska; Victoria Station; One for the Road; Mountain Language; The New World Order; Party Time; Moonlight; Ashes to Ashes; Celebration)

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