This paper is the result of my research on the British dramatist, Harold Pinter. There is so much material available on Pinter that it was sometimes hard to decide exactly what to use, so I have limited my source texts to two authoritative reference books. As well as giving biographical information, I have tied to trace his contribution to the theatre, but even that was slightly problematic, since he did so much – he directed, acted and wrote for the theatre. Even if we concentrate on his writing, we are dealing potentially with a huge amount since he wrote plays, poems, short stories, one novel, radio plays, newspaper articles, screenplays – the list goes on. I have sometimes mentioned these other writing activities, but have concentrated on his writing for the stage.
Harold Pinter was born on October 10, 1930 and became the most influential writer in British theatre in the second half of the twentieth century. He was born into a relatively humble Jewish family in London’s East End and was evacuated from the capital during the Second World War. After the war he was educated at Hackney Downs Grammar School, this was a formative period in his life: he made friends at school with other male students to whom he was to remain emotionally close to for the rest of their adult lives. He also came under the influence of an English teacher at the school who encouraged Pinter to act in school productions and to write for the school magazine, needless to say, perhaps, Pinter shone at English. His first published poem appeared in the school magazine when he was seventeen and at the age of twenty several poems appeared in the poetry magazine Poetry London. School also gave him a lifelong passion for sport, especially cricket.
His entry into the world of the theatre was rather chaotic and haphazard. He spent two terms at Rada, but dropped out and was then fined of refusing to do compulsory military service: Pinter registered as a conscientious objector and spent most of the fifties taking small acting roles, but also working at other jobs – postman, waiter, bouncer – while continuing to dabble with writing. In 1957 his first play, The Room, was written and performed at Bristol University; Pinter wrote it in three days so that his friend from school, Henry Woolf, could have a play to direct to complete his PhD. The play was a great success and caught the attention of Michael Codron, a leading British producer and director, who was keen to put on Pinter’s next play, The Birthday Party, which opened at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith in 1958. The play was a flop – commercially and critically. However, the influential Sunday Times theatre critic Harold Hobson gave it a superb review, hailing Pinter as the most original talent working in the theatre in London – although the production had already stopped by the time the review appeared.
The next ten years of play writing cemented Pinter’s reputation with a string of successful productions. Pinter’s work is credited with introducing Absurdist drama into British theatre and his lays also had an air of menace and threat, often arising from the most ordinary of situations. In this earl period of his work an element of animalistic violence always runs beneath he civilized façade of his scenes. (Drabble, 2000, p. 793) Even the most mundane objects carry a threat of danger, such as the vacuum cleaner in The Caretaker. Plays such as The Birthday Party (1958), The Caretaker (1960), The Lover (1963) and The Homecoming (1965) had turned Pinter into a celebrity and he was also continuing to act, to write plays for the radio and to write poems and, increasingly, film scripts. (Alexander 364)
In 1956 he had married an English actress Vivien Merchant and they had a son born in 1958 called Daniel. However, the marriage was troubled: Pinter had a series of clandestine affairs, although Merchant acted to great acclaim in most of his plays up until the mid seventies. Pinter’s 1978 play Betrayal is based on this period of his life. Pinter was increasingly a public figure, actively involved in left-wing politics and campaigns against nuclear weapons and the system of apartheid in South Africa. In 1975 he and Merchant finally separated after Pinter admitted to having an affair with Lady Antonia Frazier, an eminent British historian. Pinter and Frazier married in 1980. One sad fact is that Pinter’s son changed his name to Daniel Brand and remained completely unreconciled with his father, not attending the funeral.
From the late sixties onwards Pinter write lots of plays dealing with memories and the uncertainty and ambiguity of our relationship with the past – plays such as No Man’s Land (1975), Betrayal (1978) and A Kind of Alaska (1982), but after 1980 his dramatic output became increasingly radical and pollicised. This was partly a reaction to the right-wing neo-conservatism of the Thatcher government, but also reflected his stance on foreign wars and Western interference in the Third World. He was a passionate advocate for freedom of speech and the importance of the arts and often lent his very public support to left-wing causes at home and abroad. It is also said that his increased political engagement was due to his new-found domestic happiness.
As he grew older his output decreased but his contribution to literature and to the theatre was increasingly celebrated and recognized with a string of awards, honorary degrees and revivals of his plays. This culminated in 2005 with the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Pinter continued to be active, appearing on stage for the last time in Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape at the Royal Court Theatre in London in October 2006 – very appropriately since he had always acknowledged Beckett as a key influence on his own work. He died on Christmas Eve 2008 during a revival of No Man’s Land in London.
Well before his death the word ‘Pinteresque’ had been coined. According to Alexander (2000) it means two things in particular:
Inconsequential cross-talk, less logical than Beckett’s, with pauses and silences, gives way occasionally, as also in Beckett, to operatic arias of banality expressing the loneliness of the speaker. (p. 364)
… undefined ominousness. The neurosis of Beckett’s speakers has a metaphysical dimension, a fear of death, eternity, nothingness. Pinter’s are scared of being found out or beaten up. (p. 364)
Drabble (2000) puts his appeal down to his themes: “nameless menace, erotic fantasy, obsession and jealousy, family hatreds, and mental disturbance.” (p. 793)
Alexander, Michael. (2000). A History of English Literature. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Drabble, Margaret (ed). (2000). The Oxford Companion to English Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.