Harold Pinter

Nobel Prize Laureate for Literature

Harold Pinter is the Leading English Dramatist of the Post-War Period


This Knol written by Jon Hopwood

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Harold Pinter's dramas are so singular, they have given rise to the adjective "Pinteresque". According to Linda Ayres-Frederick in a review of a local revival of Pinter's 1962 play The Lover, "By definition Pinteresque means 'of or relating to Harold Pinter, resembling or characteristic of his plays', which are noted for their use of silence to increase tension, understatement, and cryptic small talk." (San Francisco Bay Times, October 6, 2006) Pinteresque also refers to an atmosphere pregnant with a high degree of menace in a world characterized as banality.

Harold Pinter, the 2005 Nobel Laureate for Literature, is -- as the Nobel Prize citation attests -- the greatest English dramatist of the post-World War II era. Pinter was born on October 10, 1930, in London's working-class Hackney district, to Hyman and Frances Pinter, Eastern European Jews who had immigrated to the United Kingdom from Portugal. Hyman (known as "Jack") was a tailor specializing in women's clothing and Frances was a homemaker. The Pinters, whose families hailed from Odessa and Poland in the Russian Empire, were part of a wave of Jewish emigration to the UK at the turn of the last century. It was a community that revered learning and culture. The Pinter family was close, and young Harold was traumatized when, at the outbreak of World War II, he was evacuated from London to Cornwall with other London children for a year to avoid becoming casualties of German aerial bombing during the Blitz.

Pinter has said that his encounter with anti-Semitism while growing up was the fuse that ignited the organic process leading him to becoming a playwright. The young Pinter studied acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and the Central School of Speech and Drama. In 1950, he published several poems and began working as a professional actor. Under the stage name David Baron, he toured the Republic of Ireland with Andrew McMaster's Shakespearean repertory company in 1951-52. Significantly for Pinter's future, 1951 not only marked the debut of his career as a professional actor but also marked the first performance of future Nobel Literature Laureate Samuel Beckett's absurdist masterpiece Waiting for Godot. Beckett would prove to be a major influence on Pinter, the playwright.

Pinter, as the actor David Baron, next appeared with Sir Donald Wolfit's theatrical company at the King's Theatre, Hammersmith, for the 1953- 54 season before becoming a player with various provincial repertory companies, including the Birmingham Rep, until he gave himself over full-time to playwriting in 1959. During his apprenticeship as an actor, he supported himself as a dishwasher, as a waiter, as a doorman at a dancehall, and as a door-to-door salesman of books.

Two significant events that would change Great Britain forever occurred during his apprenticeship in provincial rep: (1) the Suez Crisis of 1956 that shattered the UK's pretensions to empire in a post-colonial world and doomed the imperial generations represented by Prime Minister Anthony Eden and his predecessor as Tory Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill, and (2) the 1956 premiere of John Osborne's watershed play, Look Back in Anger, which revolutionized British theater, made its debut on May 8th, the 11th anniversary of V-E Day, at the Court Theatre.

The shattering of the United Kingdom's complacency over imperialism meant that many successful people of Pinter's generation, who normally would have become Tories upon achieving some modicum of success, were disillusioned and drifted towards Labour and the left. No longer would a working-class person, if he so chose, have to be ashamed or stymied if he should eschew becoming middle-class or bourgeois.

Osborne's play was the seminal work of the "kitchen-sink" school of drama that would dominate English theater for a decade, in which working-class life and struggles were dramatized. The hegemony of this school of theater was such that for the first time, a working-class or provincial accent became something treasured, something to be proud of, as the former world was set firmly upon its head. Even the great Laurence Olivier turned his back on the commercial theater to assay Osbourne's Archie Rice, a down-at-the-heels music hall performer, in The Entertainer (1957).

The kitchen-sink drama was a movement that Pinter would not be a part of, though it did open the doors for working-class writers who, unlike the working class-born Noel Coward, had no interest in becoming bourgeois balladeers.

The other major element in the cultural milieu that forged Pinter was the Cold War, the absurdity of facing doomsday every day under the threat of The Bomb. (The USSR had acquired the means to produce a bomb through its atomic spy ring that included the British citizen Karl Fuchs, and had exploded its first A-bomb in 1949, thus ending the US monopoly on nuclear weapons and making the Korean war, the suppression of an East Berlin uprising and the squashing of the Hungarian Revolution practical, if not possible).

The Cold War gave legitimacy to the rise of the police state, a manifestation limited not just to totalitarian countries, but which saw the use of police-state tactics against dissenters in the western industrial democracies. To quote American poet Charles Bukowski, this was an era marked by "War All The Time," not between two superpower behemoths but in everyday human relations, poisoned as they were by the Cold War climate of absurdity, paranoia and imminent holocaust.

In 1953, the accused "atomic spies" Julius Rosenberg and Ethel Rosenberg were executed in the United States when President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the man who had overseen the liberation of Europe as Supreme Allied Commander fighting the Nazi totalitarian menace, had refused clemency for even Ethel, the mother of two small boys. It was a domestic drama -- a woman's loyalty to her husband, her loss of not only her life but the Issac-like evocative sacrifice of any normal life for her two children when Eisenhower-Jehovah refused to stay the executioner's hand -- that had combined the felicities of affairs of state with world power politics. The question of whether they were guilty or innocent--not proven beyond a doubt in 1951, when they had been convicted in a trial that was compared by many to the Stalinist show-trials that had occurred in the Soviet Union and still occurred in the satellite countries of the Warsaw Pact after World War II - gave rise to an overwhelming fundamental question: What is real?

Reality, as Hannah Arendt had put it in her seminal work The Human Condition (1958), is socially defined; that is a given. But how about when that reality no longer makes sense, when the individual cannot partake of the consensus demanded of him in the 1950s, whether conservative, middle-class, haute bourgeoisie or radical left as dictated by some flaming Red party boss. What is real, in a time when the individual person is not struggling for his own life, which is in the hands of faceless bureaucrats in the government, police and military, is, in fact, struggling for his own identity if not his own sanity.

How does he answer the question: What is real? It is a question that Pinter took upon himself to answer, and answered by showing us there is no answer. In this quest, a genius arrived on the world stage in the form of a player who decided to craft his own words, for himself and his post-Holocaust, pre-or-never-to-be nuclear Holocaust audience.

When life stops making sense, as it did in the 1940s when the global war against fascism left 50 million dead and the modern industrial state was tasked with the exigencies of mass- murder, and as it did in the 1950s when, under the aegis of combating another totalitarian system, a domestic fascism in-kind if not degree arose in the Anglo-Saxon countries. Pinter felt that, despite the great centrifugal pull towards conformity within a shell of consumerism, it still behooved a human being to try to understand the human condition.

In 1957, Bristol University staged Pinter's first play The Room. He had told Henry Woolf, a friend who worked in Bristol University's drama department, an idea he had for a play. Woolf was so enamored of the idea that he commissioned the work, with the proviso that a script be ready within a week. Though he didn't believe he could meet his friend's demands, Pinter wrote the one-act play in four days.

The Room had all the hallmarks of what would become known as "Pinteresque," in that it had a mundane situation that gradually filled with menace and mystery through the author's deliberate omission of an explanation or motivation for the action on stage. It is ironic perhaps that an actor would rid his script of motivation as "motivation" is the Holy Grail of inwardly-directed actors such as those tutored in "The Method" in America, but it was emblematic of the times that stated motivations frequently masked other, starker, more id-like drives in people or in nation-states that were beyond human comprehension in terms of being rational. Modern society had become irrational, and motivations post-Freud could be understood as a manifestation of Thanatos, the Death Instinct. Imminent violence and power plays would become other leitmotifs of Pinter's oeuvre.

Harold Pinter wrote a second one-act play in 1957, The Dumb Waiter, an absurdist drama concerning two hit men employed by a secret organization to kill an unknown victim. It was with this play that Pinter added an element of black comedy, mostly through his brilliant use of dialog, which not only elucidated the killers' growing anxiety but underscored the very absurdity of their situation. The Dumb Waiter would not be performed until 1960, after the staging of his first two full-length plays, one a flop, the other a hit.

The Birthday Party, his first full-length play, debuted at the Arts Theatre in Cambridge in 1958. In the play, the apathetic Stanley, the denizen of a dilapidated boarding house, is visited by two men. The audience never learns their motivation, but knows that Stanley is terrified of them. They organize a birthday party for Stanley, who insists that it is not his birthday.

Pinter was following in the footsteps of the great absurdist Samuel Beckett in that he steadfastly refused to give clear motivations to his characters, or rational explanations for the sake of his audience (Pinter and fellow Nobel Literature-laureate Beckett eventually became friends). The play, now considered a masterpiece, flopped on its initial London run after being savaged by critics. It was revived after Pinter's second full-length play, 1960's The Caretaker, established him as a major force in the English-language theater.

Pinter's early plays were rooted in the absurdism that became the major theatrical paradigm on the European stage in the third quarter of the 20th century, after the horrors of the war and the Holocaust. The early plays that made his reputation such as The Homecoming (1964) and his middle-period work such as No Man's Land (1976) have been called "comedies of menace." Typically, they feature what at first seems to be an innocent situation that develops into an absurd and threatening environment through actions that usually are inexplicable to the audience and sometimes even to the other characters in the play.

A Pinter drama is dark and claustrophobic. His language is full of menacing pauses. The lives of Pinter's characters usually are revealed to be stunted by guilt and horror. The duality and absurdity of Pinter's theatrical world-view gave rise to the adjective "Pinteresque," which took its place next to "Kafkaesque," a product of the horrors of the first quarter of the century (Fittingly, Pinter would write the screenplay for an adaptation of Franz Kafka's The Trial.)

Beginning in the 1960s, Pinter further enhanced his reputation as a writer with his screenplays, particular his work with blacklisted, exiled American director Joseph Losey in The Servant (1963) and Accident (1967). (Losey had planned an adaptation of Marcel Proust's Le Temps Retrouve and commissioned Pinter to write the screenplay. The film was never made by Losey, but Pinter's screenplay was subsequently published to great acclaim). His later screenplays, including his last produced work with Losey, The Go-Between (1971), are, ironically, noted for their clarity.

He was twice nominated for the Academy Award as a screenwriter, for his adaptation of John Fowles' labyrinthine novel into the film The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981), and for Betrayed (1988), Pinter's adaptation of his own play. Such was the respect that Pinter was held that Elia Kazan, one of the great film directors, complained in his 1988 autobiography A Life that the movie adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's unfinished novel The Last Tycoon (1976) was hurt by Harold Pinter's participation. Kazan claimed that producer Sam Spiegel had such reverence for Pinter, he would not let Kazan change his script, which had a detrimental effect on the finished film.

After the great plays of his early and mid-period, Pinter became more overtly political. His later plays, which generally are shorter than the plays from the period in which he made his reputation, typically address political subjects and often are allegories on oppression. In the late 1970s, he became more outspoken on political issues.

In 2002, Pinter experienced what he described as a "personal nightmare" when he had to undergo chemotherapy to treat a case of cancer of the esophagus. The ordeal, which has been ongoing for five years, triggered a personal metamorphosis in the man. "I've been through the valley of the shadow of death," Pinter explained about his quickening. "While in many respects I have certain characteristics that I had, I'm also a very changed man."

Pinter published a volume of poetry, War (2003), that denounced the Iraq War in vulgar, raw and unrhythmic poetry that poses no threat to W.B. Yeats, or W.H. Auden or Ted Hughes. In early 2005, Pinter declared in a radio interview that he was retiring as a dramatist in favor of writing poetry: "I think I've stopped writing plays now, but I haven't stopped writing poems. I've written 29 plays. Isn't that enough?"

Harold Pinter decidedly is of the left, politically. He is passionately committed to human rights and is not shy about elucidating oppression practiced by the client states sponsored by the Anglo-Saxon democracies. A bitter critic of the U.S.-led intervention by N.A.T.O. against Slobodan Milosevic's Serbia during the Kosovo Crisis, he has proved an even harsher critic of the U.S.-led war in Iraq, and publicly denounced former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair's role in it. (Pinter was a member of the International Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic, an organization that appealed for the freedom of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic on the grounds that NATO's war against Milosevic's Yugoslavia was unjustified under international law. The organization became moot when the Serbian strongman died of a heart attack while incarcerated for crimes against humanity.)

The fiercely anti- war Pinter has accused President George W. Bush of being a "mass-murderer" and has called Blair a "deluded idiot" for supporting U.S. foreign policy. Pinter claimed immediately after the 9/11 attacks on New York City and the Pentagon that they were a requited revenge for the destruction wrought on Afghanistan and Iraq by U.S. imperialism and its anti-Taliban policies and sanctions on Iraq. Pinter publicly denounced the retaliatory U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and the unprovoked 2003 invasion of Iraq. Pinter likens the Bush administration and Bush's America to Adolph Hitler and Nazi Germany, claiming the US is bent on world hegemony. Controversially, he has declared that the only difference between Nazi Germany and the U.S is that the U.S. is more hypocritical and has better public relations.

The award of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Harold Pinter just after he celebrated his 75th birthday was completely unexpected by pundits handicapping the Prize. Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk (the Nobel Literature Laureate of 2006) and the Syrian poet Adonis were considered the front-runners, as European writers recently had dominated the award. (Pinter's Nobel Prize made it nine out of ten times in ten years that a European writer had won.) It was felt the Academy would recognize a writer from another continent, particularly one from Asia Minor. The Academy followed suit the following year. 

In light of the pressure for a non-European award and Pinter's renunciation of the form of which he was a master and his anointment of himself as a poet, one must consider that the Swedish Academy was giving the world's highest prize for literature at least in part to a poet whose latest work was fiercely anti-American and anti-imperialist. In this, the award can be seen as a not-so-veiled criticism of the United States in general and President George W. Bush in particular by the Swedish Academy. Thus, the Swedish Academy could be seen as following the example of the Norwegian Storting's Nobel Prize Committee, whose award of the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize to former President Jimmy Carter, a critic of George W. Bush whom Bush has deliberately snubbed, and the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize to Al Gore, who likely had beat Bush in the 2000 presidential election and should have been in the Oval Office instead but for the Supreme Court, in rebuking the sitting President of the United States.

Despite being highly controversial, Pinter -- who was appointed a Commander of the British Empire in 1966 (one step down from a knighthood, an honor he subsequently turned down) -- was named a Companion of Honour in 2002, an honor that does not carry a title. In addition to writing poetry, acting and directing in the theater, Pinter serves as the chairman of the Gaieties Cricket Club, an affiliate of he Club Cricket Conference. He also is active in the Cuba Solidarity Campaign, an organization that supports Fidel Castro, who remains the #1 bugaboo of the United States after Islamic terrorists, just slightly ahead of fellow hemispheric boogeyman 'Hugo Chavez, a recent arriviste on the world stage.

In 2006, Pinter returned to acting on stage and appeared in Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape at the Royal Court Theatre, the site of the revolution in the English theater touched off by John Osbourne fifty years earlier. His acting received rave reviews.

Harold Pinter has been married to his second wife, the hisorian Lady Antonia Fraser, since November 1980. He had been married to the actress Vivienne Merchant, who had starred in the original productions of many of his plays from 1956 through 1980. Pinter and Merchant had one son, Daniel.

While Harold Pinter no longer writes plays, he still is writing screenplays. The remake of Anthony Schaeffer's Sleuth, adapted by Pinter, debuted at the 64th annual Venice FIlm Festival in 2007.