Harold Pinter was born on
October 10, 1930 to Jewish parents at Hackney, a working-class neighbourhood in . It was a difficult time for Jews in London . Hitler's rise to power had begun and the fascism he championed had its British sympathisers. In 1939, England entered World War II. During the Blitz, Hitler's intense bombing of Britain , Pinter, like many other young people, was evacuated to the countryside, which was considered safer. Later, Pinter returned to London and experienced the terror of the Blitz firsthand. After the war, difficulties for the British Jews continued; they were attacked in the streets. Pinter later recalled his own involvement in a number of altercations. London
Background and Parentage
Pinter's father was a tailor, who owned a house on the Clapton side of hackney
Downs. Pinter spent the first nine years of his life there. He has described his environment thus:
I lived in a brick house on Thistle Waits Road, near Clapton Pond, which had a few ducts in it. It was a working-class area—some big, run-down Victorian houses and a soap factory with a terrible smell and a lot of railway yards. And shops, it had a lot of shops. But down the road a bit from the house there was a river, the
, which is tributary of the Lee River Thames, and if you go up the river two miles you find yourself in a marsh. And near a filthy canal as well. There is a terrible factory of some kind, with an enormous dirty chimney, that shows things down to this canal.
Pinter's father worked hard, sometimes twelve hours a day, to ward off financial insecurity. Eventually, however, he lost his business and had to work for someone else. Pinter never forgot this grim situation early in life, and his writing reflects it. For instance, it is Hackney that provides the characters in his plays with their ambitions, hopes, desires and frustrations. The attitudes and occupations of the people, infuse his work. In the Hackney of Pinter's youth were the dichotomies which have made their way into his plays: the brooding sense of danger under the surface calm, the sense of unreal gentility, the cockney intermingled with ordinary speech. The disturbing events of the 1930s and World War II with their latent violence, actual violence and retribution left an indelible mark on his psyche. They find an echo in The Birthday Party and other plays.
Pinter has described his experience of the evacuation of Jews during the bombing of
I went to a castle in
owned by a Mrs. Williams—with twenty-four other boys. It had marvellous grounds. And it was on the sea. It looked out on the Cornwall English Channel and it had kitchen gardens. All that. But it wasn't quite so idyllic as it sounds, because I was quite a morose little boy. My parents came down occasionally from . It was over five hundred miles there and back, and I don't know how they made it. It was terribly expensive and they had no money. I came home after a year or so, and then I went away again, this time with my mother, to a place closer to London . London
Experience of a Flying Bomb
Pinter has recorded his first experience of a flying bomb when he returned to
in 1944. There were times when he saw the garden behind his home in London in flames. The house, however, escaped damage. But the family had to evacuate several times from their London home. "Every time we evacuated," he writes, "I took my cricket bat with me." Cricket had become for the young Pinter a symbol of continuity and peace at a time of change, turmoil and mass murder of his people in London . Germany
Pinter attended the
, where he led an active, vigorous life. His passion for cricket made him captain of the school team. He never lost interest in the game, which became for him a symbol of security and tranquillity. In his plays, there are allusions to the game. Hackney Grammar School
At school, Pinter played football, besides cricket; he ran races; wrote verse; and he acted. His education at Hackney Down Grammar brought him into a lively minded group of energetic and intellectually adventurous teachers and fellow students in which both theatre and anti-fascism seem to have been important influences. Against this stimulating background, however, their was a reality of the threat of anti-Semitic violence in
in the post-war years. Both the intensity of his theatrical voice and the menace that stalks and indeed characterises his early plays owe something to this environment. In 1948, he received a grant to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art but soon dropped out. Shortly afterwards, he started reading the works of the Samuel Beckett (Waiting for Godot), who exercised a great influence on his work. In 1949 he was twice fined for refusing National (Military) Service, an early indication of Pinter's determined oppositionalism, which has marked his statements over the years as well as characterising the subject matter of many of his plays. London
Early Literary Attempts
At the age of sixteen Pinter wrote an essay on James Joyce having gone The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake. He described Portrait as "typical Joyce, startlingly honest, true and forthright", and as a work of great lyrical beauty. Of Ulysses, he wrote that “this enormous work stands supreme among 20th century literature." Pinter also contributed to the school magazine and took an active part in the debating society.
Career as an Actor
Pinter's major school activities included acting which he was to take up professionally after leaving school. He played a leading part in Macbeth (1947) and Romeo and Juliet (1948). His performance in Macbeth was thus:
Word-perfect, full-voiced Pinter took the tragic hero through all the stages of temptation, hesitation, concentration, damnation. He gave us both Macbeth's conflicts, inner and outer, mental and military, with vigour, insight and remarkable acting resources.
As Macbeth, perhaps Pinter was acting out personal fears and nightmares. In Romeo and Juliet as Romeo, he acted out the role of victim in a world beyond his control. Fight and pursuit, strength and soft lyricism, day dream and reality—these fill Pinter's early life and form the basis of his work.
In 1950 a literary magazine, Poetry London published two poems by Pinter. He also now started efforts to obtain work as an actor. He got a couple of roles in radio features and, then in 1951, became a professional actor for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). In September 1951, he joined McMaster's touring theatrical company in
and toured Ireland for a few months. He wrote: Ireland
Ireland wasn't gold always, but it was golden sometimes and in 1951, it was, all in all, a golden age for me and others.
Pinter met actress Vivien Merchant in 1953. In the same year he became friendly with actor Elvin Owen, who afterwards emerged as an important dramatist. In 1956, Pinter married Vivien Merchant. A son, Daniel, was born to them in 1958. The same year the family took up residence in
. Pinter and Vivien were divorced in 1980, and she died in 1982. She had performed in many of his works: although he did not write parts specifically for her, "she has ... proved to be very good in my plays" (he said in 1971), because she had what he called "a wonderful instinct for [the] roles". Since their partnership ended he has not written a good play, indeed no play of any length or substance: his great period extends from 1960, when The Caretaker was produced to 1978, the year when Betrayal was put on. Betrayal, a play about marital infidelity, contained the first major female role not created for Vivien Merchant, and this happened to coincide with public knowledge that Pinter had left his wife for another person. Future biographers will no doubt either confirm or invalidate the assumption made by audiences at the time that the two events were connected; but rather that Pinter's greatness as a dramatist rests on the production of the last eighteen years or so he spent under the influence or the wife-muse Vivien Merchant. London
Pinter the Playwright
However, the phenomenon of Pinter the playwright soon began to make itself evident. First, The Room was produced by the Bristol University Drama Department in May 1957. The notoriously catastrophic first
production of The Birthday Party took place in May 1958 at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith. This London opening followed a short but reasonably successful provincial run, but the London reviews were almost universally dreadful. The one exception was Harold Hobson's review in The Sunday Times, which only appeared after the decision had been taken to close the show after one week. A combination of the positive impact of Hobson's review, and a reaction against the crucifyingly negative tone of the other reviews of The Birthday Party contributed to a change in Pinter's fortunes from 1958 onwards. Over the next two years, revivals of The Birthday Party and The Room took place, The Dumb Waiter had its first production (in Germany in 1959), and the first production of The Caretaker in April 1960 was enthusiastically received. London
From the start of the 1960s, then, Pinter's career as a playwright had taken off, though his other careers as actor and director—not to mention poet and polemicist—had continued in parallel.
The Comedy of Menace
Pinter is widely regarded as one of the two or three most important Anglophone playwrights of the second half of the 20th century, and is probably the subject of more academic commentary than any other living playwright. He is credited with the invention of a new dramatic style known as "the comedy of menace", and his name has been adopted as descriptive of a type of theatre under the blanket term "Pinteresque". Pinteresque theatre has often been described as belonging to the theatre of the absurd, although it is more accurately considered sui generis. It is a kind of psychological drama in which supposedly secure space is contested by characters who may or may not be the embodiment of each other's fears, insecurities or latent sexuality. Pinter's oeuvre is heterogeneous, however, and only a minority of his own plays—almost all dating from the early part of his career—can be said to conform to the characteristics of the Pinteresque. In the main, these can be identified by the presence in the title of an initial definite article, although the flexibility of the term means that this cannot be invoked as a "rule". Of these plays, The Birthday Party (1958), The Caretaker (1960) and The Homecoming (1965) are probably the most highly regarded, frequently revived, and most often included in the curricula of English Departments. In many quarters this early phase is regarded as having largely come to a close with No Man’s Land (1975). Some critics identify a more lyrical second phase of his work as existing alongside and subsequent to the first phase, characterised by Landscape and Silence (both 1969), before a third, more overtly political style became evident in plays such as One for the Road (1984) and Mountain Language (1988). Among Pinter's later plays, Ashes to Ashes (1996) represents a successful marriage of the first and third of these phases.
Pinter is celebrated for possessing an ear for everyday speech. Instead of merely reproducing such speech, however, Pinter shapes it and makes poetry out of it. As he does so, he imbues this language with a deep meaning, which can be read as representing two fundamental facets of the human condition. The first of these is the inevitability of non-communication. Many of Pinter's characters, while exchanging remarks apparently on a common topic, and using mutually comprehensible vocabulary, are revealed as experiencing a profound failure to communicate with one another. The second is our capacity to fail to say certain things to one another: this unspoken substance comes across as a raw animal struggle for power. Personal violence rather than public politics is a theme that runs through the early plays. Typically, these power struggles and feats of non-communication take place in enclosed spaces, detached from the real world. Pinter's most characteristic stage represents a shabby retreat, vulnerable to the arrival of an alien, threatening presence. His is the theatre of sad boarding-houses and strangely unlocated rooms. In much of the more overtly political work of his later years, however, more clues are given, as the source of the violence that hovers in the wings of most of his plays is transferred from the interior lumber-room of the psyche to the exterior world of totalitarian politics.
Themes of Early Plays: Vulnerability
and Linguistic Failure
and Linguistic Failure
The themes of frangible identity, uncertain menace and vulnerable space can be traced in the major plays. For example, The Room is set in the archetypical Pinteresque unlocated interior. Occupying it are Rose and Bert, role-playing the strong, silent husband being ministered to by his attentive chattering wife. Rose's room is her safeguard, and, following Bert's departure on an unspecified mission, The Room's vulnerability is exposed as it is serially invaded by characters who pose an increasing threat to Rose's security, culminating in Riley, a blind black man. Bert returns to The Room, and assaults Riley, perhaps killing him, whereupon the blindness transfers itself to Rose, and the play ends with her cry "Can't see. I can't see. I can't see." The uncertainty of quite what it is that we are seeing, especially in terms of causes and effects, is reprised in The Birthday Party, probably Pinter's most famous play. Here, the characteristically seedy space represented on stage is a seaside boarding house, run by a comically scatty woman, Meg, and her husband Petey, and initially catering to only one boarder, Stanley. The space is invaded by Goldberg and McCann, respectively a Jew and an Irishman, who, it becomes clear, have arrived to seize and possess
's persona. Numerous different readings of The Birthday Party are possible. Goldberg and McCann may be the agents of some conventionally totalitarian state or of a criminal organisation, come to reclaim one of their own or to squash an opponent. Given the visual clues of Stanley 's blinding and laming, however, it seems more convincing to regard Goldberg and McCann as agents of a society determined to restore Stanley to sexual orthodoxy from an Oedipal byway into which he has strayed, with Meg as an Eastbourne Jocasta. The Birthday Party is also a great exemplar of Pinter's light comic touch, as he highlights the sheer futility of many of the exchanges that go to make up our quotidian conversation. Stanley
Both the themes of linguistic failure and the vulnerability of space return in The Dumb Waiter and The Caretaker. Ben and Gus, in The Dumb Waiter, engage in the orthodox ritualised exchanges of tabloid news and football, until Gus questions Ben's use of the idiom "light the kettle". But it is Gus's unorthodoxy, and the squalid violence of the men's calling that is exposed as the play proceeds. In the mean time, the seclusion of The Room that the two men occupy is increasingly interrupted by demands sent down in The Dumb Waiter that occupies the middle of the upstage. The play ends with Gus's punishment for allowing himself to stray from the ritualised obedience and violence of their everyday lives.
Personal Power and Occupation of Space
In The Caretaker, personal power and the occupation of space are contested between Davies, the old tramp who is seeking to insinuate himself into The Room in which the psychiatrically damaged Aston lives, Aston’s brother Mick. Davies embodies the wheedling incompetence of a man who has spent too much of his life assuming that he is being done down—a retreat into a psychological space equivalent to the seedy and vulnerable physical spaces portrayed in some of the other major plays. His refusal to expose any aspect of his personality to outside scrutiny has rsadered him incapable; it seems, of engaging with his own reality, or of conversing in any terms other than those of evasion. Pathos is evident in the characters of Aston and his apparently powerful brother, Mick, as they fantasise about transforming their seedy and chaotic flat into some palatial apartment. In the end, it is Davies's attempts to exploit what he perceives as differences between the brothers that causes his expulsion from this
. The power struggles and seedy interiors of Pinter's early plays are given perrons their most engaging and traumatic outing in The Homecoming. Here Pinter engages with gender politics as well, however, which gives The Homecoming a socio-theatrical significance all of its own. The play is concerned with the return of Teddy, a professor of philosophy at an American college, to the Eden North London house occupied by his father, uncle and brothers, all of whom seem to operate on the fringes of working-class society. Teddy is accompanied by his wife, Ruth, who then finds herself at the centre of a series of Pinteresque power-struggles. Gradually, attempts by the men to dominate Ruth are turned by her to her advantage, and she emerges as probably the most powerful figure in the play. At the end, Teddy has left the house, and a tableau on stage has Ruth seated at its centre, apparently willing to become a prostitute while role-playing the maternal figure at the middle of the house. Around her, the men—apart from the inscrutable and powerful Lenny—lie or kneel, beseeching her favour.
Some commentators in the past have sought to characterise Pinter as being obsessed with pauses in his plays, as a result of which the pauses have acquired a significance that Pinter himself has tried to moderate. What is true is that Pinter writes pauses of varying lengths into his dialogue, a characteristic which he shares with other playwrights. Some of these pauses can be exploited to great effect, and one such occurs in The Homecoming. Max, the pater familias in decline, has a sinister past relationship with his sons evoked when his eldest son Lenny says: "You used to tuck me up in bed every night. He tucked you up, too, didn't he, Joey?” Pause "He used to like tucking up his sons." If ever Pinter used a pause to powerful effect, it is this pause. It heightens the suggestiveness of Lenny's last line, with its possible overtones of sexual abuse.
In the later plays, Pinter overtly examines the threat that the powerful exert over the less powerful. The oppressors in Mountain Language both are and are not the Turkish Government, and their victims both are and are not the Kurds. The ambiguity, however, is much less than in, for example, The Birthday Party, and the result is that the play is given a political burden which both concretises its impact and distances it. Mountain Language presents a powerful image, however, of the suffering imposed by authoritarian regimes out of their paranoia. One for the Road is a shorter play, less polemical than Mountain Language, but with powerful imagery, conveyed in a deceptively simple form. In a series of dialogues with the head of the secret police, Nicolas, it becomes apparent that dissidents Victor, Gila, and their seven-year-old son Nicky have respectively been tortured, raped and killed. Throughout, Nicolas does the vast majority of the talking, and through this his own neediness becomes apparent. The kind of violence depicted in these plays is explored further in Ashes to Ashes. Here, however, Pinter returns to the linguistic disjointedness of the earlier plays, and—perhaps by those means—to a level of ambiguity that makes for a variety of interpretations of the play. At the heart of the play, however, is a disconcerting identity between violence and sexuality. Rebecca, in conversation with Devlin, describes what seems to have been sexual intimidation or torture at the hands of someone in the same mould as Nicolas in One for the Road. Gradually Devlin assumes the identity of this torturer, and the nature of the sexual intimidation is called into question in a way that is reminiscent of a similar trick played by Pinter on his audience in The Lover (1962). This time, however, the play concludes with a shattering recollection from Rebecca that evokes the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. Perhaps Ashes to Ashes continues a move away from the more overtly political themes of Mountain Language and One for the Road—a move that had started with Moonlight (1993). In Celebration (2000), Pinter uses the setting of an expensive restaurant to counterpoise the vulgar materialism, sexism and barely suppressed violence of the principal diners with the waiter's comic elegy for the passing of 20th-century culture. While this is not exactly a return to comedy of menace or the classic Pinteresque, it does constitute social comedy and commentary of a high order.
Setting of Major Plays
Pinter's major plays are usually set in a single room, where occupants are threatened by forces or people whose precise intentions neither the characters nor the audience can define. Often they are engaged in a struggle for survival or identity. "Pinter's dialogue is as tightly—perhaps more tightly—controlled than verse," Martin Esslin writes 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. In Monologue (1973) and No Man’s Land (1975) the character use words as their weapons in their struggles, not only for survival for sanity.
Aston: You said you wanted me to get you up.
Davies: What for?
Aston: You said you were thinking of going to Sidcup.
Davies: Ay, that'd be a good thing, if I got here.
Aston: Doesn't look like much of a day.
Davies: Ay, well, that's shot it, en't it?
Pinter's great strengths, then, lie in his ability to evoke the fears that lie at various levels of our individual psyches. These range from the quite explicit terrors of political oppression in a play like Mountain Language to quiet evoked by the arrival of Riley in The Room. The ambiguity of his play, coupled with Pinter's extraordinary demolition of conventional linguistic use and abuse, leaves a sense that his plays are bringing to the fore things that we have known but have chosen to forget. The universalism of the fears that he conjures up couple with the sheer brilliance of his theatricality and his sense of comedy to justify the position that he holds at the apex of theatrical reputation. His plays have been translated and produced in numerous different countries, the best known of them being among the most often revived of any living playwright in the world.
Human Rights Issues
Since the overthrow of
's President Allende in 1973, Pinter has been active in human rights issues, but his opinions have often been 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 against Humanity. 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 worldwide 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?" Chile