Pinterland: The Life and Work of Harold Pinter

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

By Elspeth Sweatman

Bursting onto the theatrical scene in the 1950s, Pinter radically changed storytelling on the Western stage. In his 29 plays and 23 screenplays, he explored universal themes of loyalty, friendship, memory, communication, and the thin line between the personal and the political, transforming the language of east London into a unique poetry. He “took the narration out of theater,” says American playwright David Mamet, “and put the poetry back.”

Study for a portrait of Harold Pinter. Graphite drawing, 2008, by Reginald Gray. 
Photo by Reginald Gray. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons. 
Pinter was born on October 10, 1930, in Hackney, a working-class suburb in east London. Despite having a large extended family, he was an only child who could often be found daydreaming alone under the backyard lilac tree. This Eden came crashing down in 1939 with the outbreak of World War II. At the age of nine, Pinter found himself on a train to rural Cornwall with other children fleeing the Blitz. 

In 1951, Pinter dropped out of school to join actor-manager Anew McMaster’s repertory company. Under the stage name David Baron, Pinter acted in theaters from Bournemouth to Birmingham, playing killers, detectives, and romantic heroes. Between performances, Pinter was writing and submitting work to BBC radio and television, without success. Ironically, Pinter’s “big break” came about not via this institution, but thanks to his childhood Hackney friend Henry Woolf. In 1957, Woolf asked Pinter to write a play for Bristol University’s drama department. After initially responding that he couldn’t possibly write something in less than six months, Pinter sat down and created The Room in just four afternoons. It was a success with audiences and critics alike.

Based on the positive reception of The Room, Pinter moved ahead with plans to bring another of his plays, The Birthday Party, to the West End. The Birthday Party opened at London’s Lyric Theatre on Monday, May 19, 1958. The critical response took Pinter by surprise. Every British theater critic—save one—dismissed the play. London critics didn’t know what to make of Pinter’s tale with the pace of a whodunit but none of the clarity regarding who did what to whom and why. Where was the exposition? Where were the characters’ backstories? What was the play about? Only Harold Hobson of the Sunday Times got it, declaring Pinter to have “the most original, disturbing and arresting talent in theatrical London.” But Hobson’s review didn’t run until Sunday, and the producers had closed the production down the previous night.

Steven Anthony Jones, Marco Barricelli, and Diane Venora in A.C.T.'s production of The Room (2001).
Photo by Kevin Berne.
By the time Pinter’s next major play, The Caretaker, premiered in the West End in April 1960, theater critics had done a U-turn. They hailed the work as a resounding success and Pinter as British theater’s leading new voice. Pinter had risen far, fast by 1965. His work could be heard on the radio and seen on television and at the cinema, as well as in the West End and on Broadway. In 1966, Pinter was awarded a CBE (Commander of the British Empire) and the next year, The Homecoming won the Tony Award for Best Play. 

Although Pinter’s last major play premiered in 1999, he continued acting, directing, and writing—penning several sketches, directing No Man’s Land (2001) and Simon Gray’s The Old Masters (2004), and acting in Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape (2006) in London and New York. Always a political person, he frequently wrote letters to leading newspapers to criticize Prime Minister Tony Blair and his decision to send troops into Iraq and Afghanistan. Behind all this activity, however, Pinter’s health was deteriorating. When he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2005, he was too ill to attend the ceremony, but he left the hospital to record his lecture. In it, he talked about his work and, ever the nonconformist, he used the opportunity to rail against American foreign policy. Pinter continued to be vocal about current events until his death on Christmas Eve, 2008.

The Birthday Party
runs through February 4 at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets. Want to learn more about Harold Pinter and his work? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.
 
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