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About the Playwright: Harold Pinter

About the Playwright: Harold Pinter

Harold Pinter was born in Hackney, in London's East End, in October of 1930. An only child, he was born to Jewish parents of very moderate means; his father, a tailor, and his mother, a homemaker, were first-generation descendants of Eastern European immigrants. Like many of his contemporaries, Pinter's childhood was shaped by the onslaught of World War II; at the age of nine, he was evacuated from London through Operation Pied Piper and resettled in a town in Cornwall. The sense of isolation he felt in Cornwall would come to influence his work, as would the changed London to which he returned during the Blitz, where he was witness to, as his 2008 Guardianobituary put it, "the dramatic nature of wartime life - the palpable fear, the sexual desperation, the genuine sense that everything could end tomorrow."

He was also witness, on a very personal level, to violence. As British fascist parties sparked back to life in post-war England, Pinter became a target of anti-Semitic aggression. In a 1967 Paris Review interview, he recounted the terrifying experience of walking through an alley near a Jewish club he frequented. "There were quite a lot of people often waiting with broken milk bottles," he remembered. "There were one or two ways of getting out of it-one was a purely physical way, 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." The quiet, pedestrian nature of such an exchange - and the threat that lurked beneath it - would crop up again and again in Pinter's work.

Pinter was 15 when World War II came to a close, and by that point the nonconformity and political skepticism that would eventually make its way into his writing had already begun to take root. When he was called, at the age of 18, to report for a period of mandatory military service, he refused. After two military tribunals and two trials, Pinter escaped a prison term but was fined thirty pounds for his conscientious objection.

A fairly apathetic student, Pinter had left school at 16, but his interest in literature (surpassed only by his love for cricket) belied the brevity of his education. He was a film fanatic as well, and a particular fan of surrealist cinema, but he rarely saw or read plays. Still, he had enough experience with drama (mainly acting in Shakespeare plays in grammar school) that he knew he wanted to be an actor. He eventually studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (which he hated and soon left) and the Central School of Speech and Drama. Though he was later quite dismissive of his time at both institutions, the schooling nonetheless prepared him to work as an actor, and he toured Ireland with a repertory company throughout his 20s. It was through this company that he met his first wife, actress Vivien Merchant, whom he wed in 1956.

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A young Harold Pinter

Pinter had been writing since the age of 12 or 13, when a romance with a neighborhood girl soured and he turned to poetry as a coping mechanism. (Later in his career, Pinter recalled his father stumbling upon him writing these poems at dawn; once he realized what his son was doing, he patted him on the head, said "Oh well, carry on," and left for work, a subdued reaction that, in a 2001 Progressive interview, Pinter said he'd "always loved him for.") By 1957, Pinter had already put hundreds of poems and numerous pieces of short fiction to paper, with a dozen or so published in magazines. In '57, he also wrote his first play, The Room, at the request of a friend, Henry Woolf, for the University of Bristol. Woolf asked for the play to be delivered within a week; Pinter, incredulous, told him he might be able to get it to him in six months, but ended up finishing the play within four days, a brief working period that would be repeated in other first drafts, including that of Old Times (which Pinter completed in three days). Pinter wrote two other plays in the same year: The Dumb Waiter and The Birthday Party.

When Merchant became pregnant, in 1958, Pinter decided to commit to writing full-time, and he and Merchant moved to London to see out the production of his first full-length play. Unfortunately, this play, The Birthday Party, did not deliver the security they had been hoping for. It was a flop, roundly dismissed by critics, and lasted only a week in the theatre. Pinter framed the box office's final statement: a total intake of 260 pounds, 140 of them on the play's opening night. But there was one bright spot in the failure: a review by Harold Hobson of The Sunday Times of London, who praised the play and proclaimed that "Mr. Pinter, on the evidence of this work, possesses the most original, disturbing and arresting talent in theatrical London."

The review marked a shift in Pinter's career. His next play, The Caretaker, was met with a frenzy of approval. The play premiered at the Arts Theatre in 1960 and quickly transferred to the West End, where it secured Pinter's reputation as a preeminent dramatist. Fame and commissions poured in, and Pinter, Merchant, and their son Daniel were able to upgrade to an apartment in the middle-class district of Kew. But a five-year hiatus followed Pinter's completion of The Caretaker, in which he struggled to write his next play. During this period, he wrote a draft of The Hothouse, his first stab at a more satirical, political play, but he was unsatisfied with the results and showed it to no one (it was eventually published and produced in 1980).

His next produced play, The Homecoming, premiered in London in 1965 and was a success. When the play transferred to Broadway in 1967, it garnered six Tony nominations and four wins, including the statue for Best Play. But the production was met with mixed reactions from both critics and audiences. Pinter recounted the tension-filled opening night in The Progressive, explaining that "the hostility towards the play was palpable. You could see it. The great thing was, the actors went on and felt it and hated the audience back even more. And they gave it everything they'd got. By the end of the evening, the audience was defeated." Pinter recalled the event as "one of the greatest theatrical nights of [his] life."

It comes as no surprise, then, that Pinter was quite comfortable with an antagonistic relationship to his audiences. In the Paris Review interview (conducted the same year as The Homecomingincident), he noted that his primary concern upon a first performance was always "whether the performance has expressed what one set out to express in writing the play," not whether the audience enjoyed the result.

And yet Pinter's audience was ever-widening. In 1963, he had written his first screenplay, an adaptation of his own The Caretaker. In the years following, he amassed numerous credits on both film and stage - the plays (among them: Landscape [1968], Silence [1969], Old Times [1971], No Man's Land [1975], and Betrayal [1978]) marking a shift towards a starker, bleaker tone, with memory and uncertainty at the fore; the films (among them: The Servant [1963], The Pumpkin Eater[1964], Accident [ 1967], The Birthday Party [1968], The Go-Between [1971], The Last Tycoon[1976], and The French Lieutenant's Woman [1981]) displaying a similar quiet directness, along with a keen eye for adaptation. Of Pinter's 25 produced screenplays, all are adaptations, either of his own work or the novels/plays of other writers. During this period, Pinter was also working as an actor (usually in his own work) and director (most frequently for playwright Simon Gray). One of the few playwrights to have success across mediums and disciplines, Pinter has an overwhelming list of credits to his name. Between 1957 and 2000, he wrote 31 plays; between 1963 and 2007, 27 screenplays.

In the period following The Homecoming, Pinter's personal life was also undergoing a transformation. No stranger to infidelity (he'd conducted an affair - rumored to be the basis ofBetrayal - with journalist and TV personality Joan Bakewell from 1962 - 1969), he began seeingLady Antonia Fraser, a biographer and historian, in 1975. Both she and Pinter were still married (he to Merchant; she to politician Sir Hugh Fraser). These marriages eventually broke up in a blaze of publicity, and Pinter and Fraser married in 1980. With the marriage, Pinter gained six stepchildren in addition to his son with Merchant (this son, Daniel, rarely saw Pinter in the 80s and cut off all contact in 1993, changing his surname to Brand).

<a href=Harold Pinter and Lady Antonia Fraser" bheight="300" src="http://blog.roundabouttheatre.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Pinter-and-Lady-Antonia-Fraser-1024x614.jpg" width="500" />

Harold Pinter and Lady Antonia Fraser

Pinter's marriage to Fraser was a happy one, lasting through his death in 2008. The marriage also marked the beginning of a shift in his political concerns. In his '67 Paris Review interview, he had denied any interest in writing political plays, saying that "Ultimately, politics do bore me, though I recognize they are responsible for a good deal of suffering." But in time, his tolerance for observing that suffering grew thin, and he became an outspoken critic of foreign and domestic policy in both Britain and America. The plays of this later period, One for the Road (1984), Mountain Language(1988), Party Time (1991) and Ashes to Ashes (1996) are among his more political works, touching on issues ranging from the psychology of torture to the insidiousness of totalitarian government.

As Pinter aged, he also began to acknowledge that the slippery power dynamics of his early plays were, in themselves, political. In the very same Paris Review interview in which he denied any political aspect to his writing, he also said, "The world is a pretty violent place, it's as simple as that, so any violence in the plays comes out quite naturally... The violence is really only an expression of the question of dominance and subservience, which is possibly a repeated theme in my plays... I wouldn't call this violence so much as a battle for positions; it's a very common, everyday thing." In later years, this battle took on a political tint, as Pinter expressed a growing hatred of what he perceived to be the hypocrisy of British and American democracy. In interviews of this period, he invokes everything from the US prison system to the British privatization of railways to the suppression of Margaret Thatcher's regime to the NATO bombing of Serbia as examples of power gone awry. In his 2001 Progressive interview, he was particularly rankled by the propagandistic language of the governments in question -- the blankets of rhetoric that implied everything was fine. "I'm always looking for those schisms between language and action, what you say and what you do," he explained. "This is where I find constant sources of curiosity and disgust." Indeed, it is where he found constant inspiration for his plays, in which everyday language can be both poetic and menacing and in which characters rarely say what they mean.

In 2005, Pinter was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Still recovering from a period of poor health (he had successfully beaten back esophageal cancer in 2002, but bouts of illness had followed), he accepted the award via video and used the opportunity to attack US foreign policy, particularly as embodied by the invasion of Iraq. Though Pinter also wrote less overtly political plays in his later career (notably 1993's Moonlight and 2000's Celebration, his last play), they remain, like all of Pinter's work, pieces of a larger puzzle. Pinter's plays have generally been split into three periods. The earliest, the "Comedies of Menace" (The Room, The Birthday Party, The Caretaker,The Homecoming), take place in run-down environments in which a sense of unease pervades, a strange outsider looms, and humor is both a veil for desperation and a protection against violence. The following period, called the "Memory Plays" (Old Times, No Man's Land, Betrayal) take place in more posh surroundings. These plays are propelled by uncertainty, by the ambiguities of love and sex and the unreliability of memory. The later plays, the "Political Plays," unmask the subtextual power battles of Pinter's earlier work and foreground them against broader settings.

Roundabout Theatre Company's production of OLD TIMES.

Roundabout Theatre Company's production of OLD TIMES.

But these periods are not inflexible categorizations; many elements of Pinter's work remain consistent through the vagaries of his subject matter. His emphasis on language (iconic for the rhythmic poetry within its colloquial simplicity), his impossible-to-pin-down characters (his work embraced evasiveness and refuted the notion that writers must hold authoritative knowledge of their characters), and even the stylistic tics of his writing (a habitual use of the "pause," for which he became notorious) are qualities so distinctive as to have spawned their own adjective, "Pinteresque." Pinter, who was often loathe to consider himself any sort of influence or icon, rejected the term, insisting that he didn't know what it meant. But to generations of theatergoers, it has come to represent, in the New York Times' succinct phrasing, the "ominous in the everyday and the noise within silence." Within these two realms, Pinter extracts lust, violence, fear, humor, nostalgia, and uncertainty from the most unassuming of ingredients. The result may be disorienting or invigorating, but it is always, very distinctly, Pinter.

In describing his work, Pinter once said that his plays were about "the weasel under the cocktail cabinet." He came to regret the remark ("Such are the dangers of speaking in public," he lamented to The Progressive), insisting that it was meant more to stymie the reporter than to provide some grand metaphor for his work. But the image is a useful one: a sense of something off-putting, menacing, or surprising - primal, even - hiding under the banal and civilized.

Pinter passed away in London in 2008, the result of liver cancer. He remained artistically active in his final years, penning his last screenplay (Sleuth) in 2007 and speaking, publishing, and performing throughout the aughts. One of his most iconic performances was also one of his last. In 2006, performing in Samuel Beckett's one-man show Krapp's Last Tape at the Royal Court Theatre, Pinter drew sold-out crowds to the show's weeklong run. Audiences were drawn in by Pinter's legacy, by his legendary friendship with Beckett, and by his encroaching ill health; the waning of his career (he had acknowledged, in 2005, that he would not write another play) brought a meta-awareness to the production that was both painful and profound. Then, and upon his death two years later, Pinter would be remembered as one of the most influential writers of his generation, an artist who challenged his audiences, contemporaries, and critics and whose characters will haunt and delight for decades to come.

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