Harold Pinter

By: Michael Billington

Harold HinterHarold Pinter, who has died at the age of 78, was the most influential, provocative and poetic dramatist of his generation. He enjoyed parallel careers as actor, screenwriter and director and was also, especially in recent years, a vigorous political polemicist campaigning against abuses of human rights. But it is for his plays that he will be best remembered and for his ability to create dramatic poetry out of everyday speech. Among the dramatists of the last century, Beckett is his only serious rival in terms of theatrical influence; and it is a measure of Pinter's power that early on in his career he spawned the adjective "Pinteresque" suggesting a cryptically mysterious situation imbued with hidden menace.

Pinter was born into a Jewish family in the London borough of Hackney. His grandparents were Jews who had fled persecution in Poland and Odessa. His father, Jack, was a hard-working tailor whose own family had artistic leanings: his mother, Frances, came from a convivial, extrovert and spiritually sceptical clan. And it was not difficult to trace in Pinter's own complex personality elements from both sides of the family. He balanced his father's faintly authoritarian nature with his mother's instinctive generosity.

Pinter was an only child: as a boy, he conducted conversations in the back garden with imaginary friends. But such circumstances conspired to give him a sense of solitude, separation and loss: the perfect breeding-ground for a dramatist. He was evacuated to Cornwall at the age of nine where he became aware of the cruelty of schoolboys in isolation. Back in London during the Blitz, he also absorbed the dramatic nature of wartime life: the palpable fear, the sexual desperation, the genuine sense that everything could end tomorrow. All this fed into his work as a writer: his memories of wartime London led to a particularly vivid 1989 screen adaptation of Elizabeth Bowen's The Heat of the Day.

Always a wide reader, from his teens Pinter devoured Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Eliot, Lawrence, Woolf and Hemingway. He also had a gift for friendship: he became the centre of an itinerant, intellectually voracious Hackney clan - Henry Woolf, Mick Goldstein and Morris Wernick - who stayed in close touch for the rest of their lives. He also fell under the spell of a teacher, Joe Brearley, whose passion for poetry and drama fired his imagination. Under Brearley's direction, he played Romeo and Macbeth at Hackney Downs Grammar School; and he was a good enough actor to get a grant to study at RADA which he detested and which, with characteristic independence, he soon left.

But Pinter's suspicion of authority was manifested in an even more famous incident in the autumn of 1948. Receiving his call-up papers for National Service, he registered as a conscientious objector, thereby risking imprisonment. He was summoned before a series of increasingly Kafkaesque military tribunals, in the end escaping with a fine. The whole incident epitomised Pinter's nonconformity, truculent independence and suspicion of the state.

Pinter's early determination, however, was to be an actor. After a second spell at drama school, he joined Anew McMaster's Shakespearean Irish touring company in 1951 and later worked with Donald Wolfit's company in Hammersmith. From these two masters of the big effect, the young Pinter learned how to achieve maximum intensity through silence or gesture. But in the mid-1950s he found himself leading a strenuous double-life. On the one hand, there was the aspiring actor slogging round the weekly rep circuit and filling in with odd jobs as doorman, dishwasher, waiter and snow-shoveller. On the other hand, there was the closet writer penning poems, prose sketches and an autobiographical novel about Hackney life eventually published as The Dwarfs (1990). He was always hard up: the only consolation was that after 1956 his troubles were shared by his first wife, Vivien Merchant, a glamorous Manchester middle-class girl who was something of a star on the rep circuit.

The turning-point came in 1957 when one of Pinter's old Hackney friends, Henry Woolf, asked him to write a play for Bristol University's recently-established drama department. The result was The Room and it reveals Pinter, from the start, staking out his own particular territory: the play shows an anxious recluse reisisting the insidious pressures of the outside world and artfully blends comedy and menace.

It was a staggeringly confident debut which attracted the attention of a young producer, Michael Codron, who decided to present Pinter's next play, The Birthday Party, at the Lyric Hammersmith in 1958. The result was one of the most famous disasters in post-war British theatre. The play was roundly dismissed by the daily critics and taken off at the end of the week. Pinter's only consolation was that Harold Hobson in The Sunday Times wrote a glowing encomium claiming that Pinter possessed "the most original, disturbing and arresting talent in theatrical London."

Pinter not only survived the disaster of The Birthday Party. He showed that he had immediately found his voice as a dramatist. Using many of the devices of the rep thriller, he had produced a work that was comic, disturbing, strangely unresolved and deeply political in its plea for resistance to social conformity and inherited ideas. Despite its initial failure, it also brought Pinter a whole series of new commissions: he wrote revue-sketches for West End shows, for A Slight Ache and A Night Out for BBC radio and The Dumb Waiter as an accompaniment to The Room.

Although often bracketed with Absurdists like Beckett and Ionesco, Pinter was an instinctively political writer. Proof came with a play written in 1958 but not actually produced until 1980, The Hothouse: a savage farce set in a state-run "rest-home" which aims to turn the dissident inmates into model citizens.

The play that finally secured Pinter's reputation was The Caretaker first produced at the Arts Theatre in 1960 and eventually transferring to the West End. The same critics who had dismissed The Birthday Party as gibberish now found masterly technical skill and thunderstorm tension in The Caretaker. What was largely missed at the time, however, in all the tributes to his tape-recorder dialogue, was Pinter's ability to find the hidden poetry in everyday speech: arguably his greatest single contribution to modern drama. In all the games of hunt-the-symbol, people also overlooked the more obvious point. That this was both a deeply humane play about the universal need for pipe-dreams and a microcosmic study of power in which the tramp-hero, Davies, forms shifting alliances as part of his strategy for survival.

The Caretaker was a turning-point for Pinter in every way. It gave him fame and security. It prompted all sorts of exciting commissions. But it also, in time, led to the unravelling of his marriage. Like many of Pinter's plays, it was triggered by personal experience: in this case, that of living in a house in Chiswick owned by an absentee builder whose handyman brother one day brought back a vagrant who was eventually expelled. Vivien Merchant hated the play because she felt it was a betrayal of the brother who had shown the struggling Pinters a great kindness. She also realised that the success of The Caretaker meant a decisive shift in the balance of marital power. Nevertheless Vivien became, in the early sixties, the embodiment of a certain kind of Pinter woman, black-stockinged and high-heeled and combining external gentility and inner passion: a character seen, in various forms, in his Night School, The Collection, The Lover, Tea Party and reaching its fulfilment in Ruth in The Homecoming in 1965.

Pinter's attitude to women was always a source of debate. Some saw in his work a fetishistic exploitation of female sexuality: others regarded him a cryptic feminist who celebrated women's strength and resilience. Both arguments may be valid. Pinter certainly adored women and, as his marriage to Vivien declined, he engaged in a number of affairs. But Pinter's plays also constantly pit male weakness and insecurity against female strength and survival. No one can ever pin a decisive meaning on The Homecoming. But it seems clear that Ruth, in abandoning her husband to live with her in-laws and apparently work as a high-class prostitute, is making her own choice and feels personally empowered rather than enslaved.

Power and sex: these were always two of Pinter's classic themes. But in the sixties he explored them in cinema as much as theatre. Indeed, his greatness as a playwright has obscured his mastery of screenwriting; and just as in the theatre he had found the perfect interpreter in Peter Hall, so in the cinema he found a kindred spirit in director Joseph Losey who shared his appetite for economy and precision as well as a horrified fascination with the English class system.

The greatest of their collaborations remains The Servant (1963) in which Dirk Bogarde's working-class predator balefully exploits the infantile dependence and sexual ambivalence of James Fox's master. But in Accident (1967) Pinter explored a complex network of erotic relationships against the background of an Oxford summer. Sex and class again collide in The Go-Between (1968) in which Julie Christie's upper-class heroine pursues a clandestine affair with Alan Bates's tenant-farmer. All three films were based on novels; yet all three bear Pinter's unmistakeable imprint.

Pinter's immersion in cinema was one of several possible reasons for a major formal change that overtook his theatre work after The Homecoming: other reasons may have been the influence of Beckett and Pinter's growing sense of marital solitude. Whatever the cause, Pinter increasingly dispensed with the paraphernalia of realism: his plays became more distilled, direct and, in the case of Landscape and Silence in 1969, took the form of poetically interwoven monologues. The former, in particular, was a beautifully written play about the memory of past happiness in which a man vainly tries to communicate with a wife who has retreated into her own private world.

This was the start of Pinter's later period in which the plays not only became starker in setting and bleaker in tone but also more preoccupied with the theme of memory. Pinter had always been fascinated by the way we use an idealised past as a consolation for an unhappy present. But in Old Times (1971), memory became a weapon used by two competing characters to gain psychological dominance over a third. When Pinter came to adapt Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu for the cinema - published as The Proust Screenplay and never filmed although it was later staged - he was also to grapple with the greatest 20th century treatment of memory. And in No Man's Land, premiered at the National Theatre in 1975 with Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud, Pinter dramatised a collision between two desperate men: one haunted and cursed by past memories and the other constantly seeking to re-invent himself in the moment.

That same year Pinter's own life underwent an upheaval that was to have a profound effect on his work: his marriage broke up in a blaze of publicity and he went to live with the historian Antonia Fraser who in 1980 became his second wife. This wasn't, as many people assumed, the inspiration for his 1978 play, Betrayal, which dealt with the corrosive effect of infidelity: that was much more closely related to Pinter's earlier affair with the television presenter and journalist, Joan Bakewell. But Pinter's new life with Antonia Fraser, the wife of a Tory MP and the daughter of a celebrated Labour peer, undoubtedly helped to sharpen and intensify his fascination with politics.

His plays had always dealt with the intricacies of domestic power. But now his more secure private life enabled him to turn his attention to power-games in the wider public arena. Pinter had long been exercised by politics: his closest friends included the Marxist playwright, David Mercer, and the campaigning actress, Peggy Ashcroft, who in 1973 encouraged him to voice his opposition to American involvement in the overthrow of Chile's President Allende. But it was only in the mid-1980s that he started to express his strong feelings about torture, human rights and the double-standards of the Western democracies in dramatic form.

First in 1984 came One For The Road: a psychologically complex play about the tortured nature of the torturer and his unresolved craving for respect, admiration and even love. Four years later he wrote Mountain Language: inspired by the Turkish suppression of the Kurdish language but also reflecting Pinter's concern with the restrictions on speech and thought in Thatcher's Britain. In 1991 Pinter pursued the theme in Party Time showing an affluent, smugly insular, high-bourgeois world indifferent to the erosion of civil liberties. But the best of all Pinter's late political plays is Ashes to Ashes (1996): a hauntingly elusive play that starts with a man's nagging enquiries about a woman's lover but that almost imperceptibly opens up to admit Auschwitz, Bosnia and the whole landscape of 20th century atrocity.

In Britain Pinter's later political plays have generally been viewed with a bemused tolerance. When Pinter and Antonia Fraser hosted a series of private discussion groups in their Holland Park home in the late 1980s they were also subjected to a good deal of ridicule in the press: so much so that the group was eventually disbanded. But Pinter's political plays have enjoyed wide circulation around the globe, not least in countries like Russian or Spain that have emerged from Communist or Fascist rule.

Undeterred by mockery, Pinter in his later years also lost no opportunity, either in the press, on television or in public meetings, to attack what he saw as the cynicism and the double standards of the Western democracies and, in particular, the brutal pragmatism of US foreign policy. However unpopular his stance in Britain, Pinter lived up to the European idea of the writer as a committed figure free to speak out on public affairs and to express his moral repugnance at the conduct of government.

When he was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 2005, Pinter delivered his acceptance speech by video, sitting in a wheelchair, with a rug over his knees and framed by an image of his younger self. He made a passionate and astonishing speech attacking the United States - made all the more powerful because it was delivered in a husky, throat rasp. At one point, Pinter argued that "the United States supported and in many cases engendered every rightwing military dictatorship in the world after the end of the second world war". He then proceeded to reel off examples. But the clincher came when Pinter, with deadpan irony, said: "It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening, it wasn't happening. It didn't matter. It was of no interest." In a few sharp sentences, Pinter pinned down the willed indifference of the media to publicly recorded events.

Creatively, however, his later years were not entirely taken up by politics. He continued to write plays such as Moonlight (1993), which movingly explored the brutal battleground of family life, and Celebration (2000), which sharply satirised the moral coarseness of the super-rich. Pinter also renewed his earlier career as an actor appearing on stage, with a brutal muscular authority, in revivals of No Man's Land, The Collection and One For The Road and performing on screen in a wide variety of movies from Mojo to Mansfield Park. He was also a lifelong director of his own and other people's plays: a task to which he brought absolute clarity of vision and a total respect for actors and text.

No other dramatist of his generation proved as durable as Pinter. But he was also one of those rare writers who helps to shape and influence the medium in which they work. For a start he banished the idea of the omniscient author: after plays like The Birthday Party and The Caretaker, it was no longer de rigeur for dramatists to know the back-story or the future of their characters. As Pinter said in a much-quoted lecture to students in 1962: "My characters tell me so much and no more with reference to their experience, their aspirations, their motives, their history."

But, alongside that, Pinter showed that theatrical poetry is not some kind of ornate verbal appendage. He proved that it can be found in the banalities, the repetitions, the evasions and even the hiatuses of everyday speech. He became famous for his use of the pause: something he always claimed to have learned from the comedian Jack Benny. Yet for Pinter dramatic speech was also frequently a camouflage for the real, unexpressed, hidden emotion: "so often," as he said in Bristol, "below the word spoken is the thing known and unspoken."

As for the man himself, he was full of contradictions. He had a reputation for being short-tempered and angry; and it is perfectly true that he could flare up if he encountered some thoughtlessly expressed political opinion. But, in writing a critical biography of him, I was more struck by his iron loyalty, meticulous precision and innate capacity for friendship. Almost alone amongst famous dramatists, he remained close to the friends of his youth: in his case the Hackney gang.

He also listened to what other people said: the secret of his gift as a writer. And he had an immense zest for life: he loved poetry, wine, bridge-playing and just about every kind of sport, but most especially cricket. I often thought he was as proud of the cricket-team he first played for and then managed, the Gaieties, as of almost all his literary accomplishments.

His life had its tragedies: the chief amongst them was his estrangement from his son, Daniel, by his first marriage to Vivien Merchant. But his second marriage to Antonia Fraser, who survives him as do his son Daniel, six step-children and 16 grandchildren, was a source of great joy. It also, I believe, gave a new lease of his life to his writing and pricked and stimulated his passion for politics.

Pinter was an all-round man of the theatre of a kind we're unlikely to see again: a practical graduate of weekly rep and touring theatre who all the time nursed his own private vision of the universe. And that, in the end, was his great achievement.

Like all truly first-rate writers, he mapped out his own country with its own distinctive topography. It was a place haunted by the shifting ambivalence of memory, flecked by uncertainty, reeking of sex and echoing with strange, mordant laughter. It was, in short, Pinterland and it will induce recognition in audiences for as long as plays are still put on in theatres.

Harold Pinter, playwright, born 10 October 1930; died 24 December 2008

The Guardian
25 December 2008

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