Harold Pinter is a
serious candidate for the greatest British playwright of the
last two centuries. And that he was also a proficient poet,
composer of short stories, screen writer, director, and actor
can only serve to enhance his already enviable
He even lent his name to an adjective, Pinteresque, implying typical of his style. A style which while indebted to several traditions existent within the literary avant-garde prior to his initial success, yet remains enormously distinctive. And among those traditions one might include the Dadaist, Surrealist and Absurdist movements in the arts, all of which were birthed in Paris. But these were preceded by a kind of snickering nihilistic humour that thrived in Parisian avant garde circles towards the end of the 19th Century, and which has been termed "L'Esprit fumiste", of which Alfred Jarry, author of the infamous King Ubu (1896) was perhaps the quintessence.
Although even this spirit didn't just spring out of nowhere; having been arguably evident, for example, in the defiantly anti-bourgeois attitudes of the Bousingots, a band of extreme Romantics that came together in the Paris of the 1830s. Just as these turbulent young rebels passed the baton to Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Jarry, Artaud and so on...all the way to the Theatre of the Absurd of the late 1950s, which is widely considered to include Pinter. And which was perforce an outgrowth of Absurdist fiction, which could be said to have reached an apogee in two works by Camus, namely The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus, both from 1942.
So, what does Pinteresque - a term Pinter himself found altogether meaningless - actually signify?
In providing a response to this question, mention could be made of the almost high poetic inventiveness and verbal virtuosity lurking beneath a veneer of banality. As well as the rich dark surreal wit laced with a constant sense of impending violence characteristic of his earliest plays of the so-called "Comedy of Menace". But doing so does little to elucidate precisely what it is that makes his work so unique. So perhaps a return to his early years might be in order.
Pinteresque (A Controversial Artistic Legacy)
Harold Pinter was born -
in October 1930 - in Hackney, East London, to Ashkenazi Jewish
parents, and first attempted to make his way in life on the
stage, learning his trade both at the Royal Academy of Dramatic
Art, and the Central School of Speech and Drama...and as a
jobbing actor in the early to mid 1950s.
But an initial step towards success as a dramatist came in 1957 when his play The Room was performed at Bristol University in the South West of England under the directorship of his close childhood friend Henry Woolf.
By this time he'd been married for a year to the young Yorkshire-born actress Vivien Merchant (1929-1982), who would go on to illumine some of his most famous productions for television with a uniquely attractive screen presence.
The following year, their son Daniel was born. While his second play The Birthday Party was produced at the Lyric Studio in the West London district of Hammersmith, and was both a critical and financial failure, closing after only a handful of performances.
And yet, once it had done so, it received a review in the Sunday Times by drama critic Harold Hobson, who described Pinter as possessing "the most original, disturbing and arresting talent in theatrical London", which all but salvaged his career.
He followed The Birthday Party with The Hothouse, which would not be seen on the London stage until 1980, and The Dumb Waiter, which was produced as part of a double bill with The Room. But it would take The Caretaker to make Pinter's name in Britain on the eve of the most fêted decade since the twenties, during which he became increasingly involved with television and the cinema. While The Collection followed a year later.
And the first of his works to be broadcast on TV was the one-act play A Night Out, featuring himself and his wife Vivien, to be followed by Night School, while A Slight Ache and The Dwarfs also date from this period, although neither was televised. Unlike The Lover, which was broadcast in March 1963, the totemic year the Beatles ascended to fame in the UK, and in which the '60s could truly be said to have begun in a cultural sense.
It featured Alan Badel and Vivien Merchant as a suburban couple seeking to spice up a stale marriage with role-playing games. And although it was tame by contemporary standards, it chimed perfectly with the times, and thence could be said to be part of the first stirrings of the Swinging Sixties social revolution, together with the Pop explosion spearheaded by the Beatles, the first Bond movies, and such trendily sophisticated TV series' as The Avengers.
In that same year, Pinter wrote the screenplay for the film version of Robin Maugham's The Servant, which kick-started a lasting artistic relationship with director Joseph Losey. Starring matinee idol Dirk Bogarde in the titular role, its themes of darkness and decadence, which were becoming increasingly prevalent in the cinema at the time, still have the power to astound and disturb today.
Also in this year of Beatlemania and the first stirrings of Swinging London as the world's cultural epicentre, a celluloid version of The Caretaker was produced under the direction of Clive Donner, and starring Alan Bates, Donald Pleasance and Robert Shaw. While in '64, the year of the Beatles' invasion of America, Pinter provided a screenplay for a second seminal sixties movie after The Servant, which is to say The Pumpkin Eater, directed by Jack Clayton from the novel by Penelope Mortimer, and starring Peter Finch and Anne Bancroft. While a third would emerge two years later in the form of The Quiller Memorandum, directed by Michael Anderson.
And the following year of '65, it could be said that Rock started to seek an independent existence apart from Pop...while the Sixties' more innocent phase came to a close; and Tea Party, based on one of Pinter's short stories, was broadcast on TV under the direction of Charles Jarrott, and again featuring his wife Vivien in the lead female role.
Vivien also featured in Accident, whose screenplay was the second Pinter wrote for Joseph Losey, this time from the novel by Nicholas Mosley, and again starring Dirk Bogarde. And in the same year - of 1967 - Peter Hall's production of The Collection reached Broadway, winning four Tony awards in the process, and turning Pinter into an international celebrity.
Also in '67, The Basement had its première on BBC TV, again directed by Jarrott; and the following year, American director William Friedkin made a film version of The Birthday Party, featuring Robert Shaw in the lead role of the beleaguered Stanley.
While Pinter himself moved beyond the Comedy of Menace to the so-called Memory Plays of 1968-1982, which went on to include Landscape (1968), Silence (1969), Night (1969), Old Times (1971), No Man's Land (1975), The Proust Screenplay (1977), Betrayal (1977), Family Voices (1981), Victoria Station (1982) and A Kind of Alaska (1982).
1970 saw Pinter produce a screenplay for yet another classic British movie in the shape of The Go-Between. Based on the novel by L.P Hartley, and starring sixties beautiful people Julie Christie and Alan Bates, as well as a youthful Dominic Guard in the title role, it was the last of his fruitful three-picture collaboration with Joseph Losey.
And further into the decade, 1973 to be precise, Peter Hall directed a film version of The Homecoming starring Ian Holm, Paul Rogers and Cyril Cusack. While in '76, a second Scott Fitzgerald novel was made into a movie, this time with a screenplay by Pinter. Yet while Jack Clayton's The Great Gatsby (1974) was a box office success despite receiving merely average reviews, Elia Kazan's The Last Tycoon was a commercial failure, despite being considered an artistic triumph by some critics.
A year later, with Punk Rock raging through Britain, another television version of The Lover appeared as a visitor from an earlier more innocent age with Patrick Allen replacing Alan Badel as the eponymous Lover; while Vivien Merchant reprised her original role as The Mistress.
While in '78, a television version of the original Old Vic production of No Man's Land, directed by Sir Peter Hall and featuring theatrical giants Sir John Gielgud and Sir Ralph Richardson was broadcast by the BBC.
In 1980, Pinter married his second wife, the historian and novelist Lady Antonia Fraser, with whom he'd remain for the rest of his life.
And a year later, he produced what was perhaps his most famous ever screenplay for The French Lieutenant's Woman, directed by Karel Reisz from the novel by John Fowles, and featuring Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep in star-making performances.
In 1983, another Pinter screenplay was made into a major motion picture, which was the critically acclaimed Betrayal, based on his own play under the directorship of David Hugh Jones, and starring Jeremy Irons, Ben Kingsley and Patricia Hodge.
By this time, Pinter was moving into the final phase of his writing career, during which his plays would become more flagrantly critical of injustice and repression. While this period would be preceded by the revival of The Hothouse in 1980 (once allegedly shelved for being too political), its first full fruit was One for the Road, which premièred at the Lyric Studio, Hammersmith in 1984 under the directorship of Pinter himself.
It would be succeeded by Mountain Language (1988), Party Time (1991), Moonlight (1993), Ashes to Ashes (1993), and his final play, Celebration, from the first year of the new millennium.
At the same time, his screenwriting life proceeded apace, and he'd continue producing notable work for the cinema, such as his 1990 screenplays for The Handmaid's Tale, directed by Volker Schlondorff and The Comfort of Strangers, directed by Paul Schrader, both dark and disturbing pieces based on highly acclaimed contemporary novels, by Margaret Atwood and Ian McEwan respectively. While his final contribution to the cinema came in 2007, when the celebrated British actor Jude Law commissioned him to write a screenplay for a second movie version of Anthony Schaeffer's Sleuth to be directed by Kenneth Branagh, and starring Law and Michael Caine.
By this time Pinter had been involved in political issues for some fifteen years at the very least, having forcefully opposed the Gulf War of 1991; as well as the Kosovo Conflict of 1998-'99, the 2001 War in Afghanistan, and the 2003 Invasion of Iraq.
By the time he died in December 2008, Harold Pinter had left a quite phenomenal - if controversial - artistic legacy, which ensured he was liberally garlanded with multiple awards, including the CBE in 1966, and the Nobel Prize for Literature for 1995; although he refused a knighthood in 1996.
And enthusiasm for his work show no signs of abating, despite the fact that it could be seen as very much of its time by virtue of its admirable lack of what could be termed flagrant outrageousness, in comparison, that is, to so much of the theatre produced in the wake of his breakthrough as a playwright in 1957...when the West stood on the brink of a cultural revolution which would see it changed arguably beyond all recognition.
Afterword: Descent into the Hothouse
In September 1994, I
successfully auditioned for a newly formed fringe theatre group
called Grip based at the Rose and Crown pub in Kingston for the
role of Roote in Harold Pinter's then relatively unknown play,
Written in 1958, it wasn't performed until 1980, when it was directed by Pinter himself for London's Hampstead and Ambassador Theatres.
From the auditions onwards, I gelled with the director because while most of those I'd attended up to this point had hinged on the time-honoured method of the actor performing a piece from memory before a panel of interviewers, he had us reading from the play in small groups, which enabled us to attain a basic sense of character, and so feel like we were actually acting rather than coldly reciting. For me, this is the only way to audition.
Once he'd told me the part of Roote was mine, I devoted myself to his vision of a pompous yet deranged director of an unnamed English psychiatric hospital: the Hothouse of the title. He demanded of me an interpretation of Roote which was deeply at odds with my usual highly Method-oriented, subtle, intense, introspective and yet somehow also emotionally vehement approach to acting, but his directorial instincts were spot-on, as his production went on to receive spectacular reviews not just in the local press, but in the international listings magazine Time Out. An amazing triumph for a humble fringe show.
I'd become a Christian the previous January, so struggled a little with the play's darker aspects, despite the fact that by contemporary standards, it's mild indeed.
Yet in later years there was nothing even remotely mild about Pinter in terms of his political beliefs, which were distinguished by an intensity of conviction which stood in marked contrast to the restraint he manifested as an artist.
And I've no desire to discuss the source of this intensity, nor whether I believe it to have been justified or otherwise. But what I will say is that as a Christian, I believe the only true lasting solution to the evils of the world lies not in art or philosophy, science or politics, or whatever other field of human endeavour one might care to consider, but a change of heart, or repentance, born of faith in Christ, and faith in Christ alone.
And until such a change occurs, the world may seem a place of total absurdity to those whose extreme intellectual brilliance draws them inexorably towards examining it with a laser-like eye, an eye which can produce such magnificent works of art as Camus' The Stranger, Beckett's Waiting for Godot, and the earliest plays of Harold Pinter...all unassailable masterpieces of Absurdism...and yet all ultimately so tragic as such. At least how I see it.
Photo of CH by Jane Whitton, 1993.