Harold Pinter

The English playwright Harold Pinter (born 1930) ranks among the foremost postwar British dramatists. A master of menace, he invested his plays with an atmosphere of fear, horror, and mystery.

Harold Pinter was born on Oct. 10, 1930, the only son of a Jewish tailor, in Hackney, East London. He won a scholarship to the local school, Hackney Downs Grammar School. In 1948 he entered the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and then joined a repertory company as an actor and toured England and Ireland. After marrying actress Vivien Merchant in 1956, he began writing plays, giving up the poetry, short stories, monologues, and an autobiographical novel, The Dwarfs, that he would eventually publish in 1990.

In 1957 Pinter completed two one-act plays, The Room and The Dumb Waiter, as well as the full-length play The Birthday Party. The relationship of villain and victim emerges gradually in all three of these plays. In The Dumb Waiter two hired gunmen experience strange terrors while receiving orders delivered via a dumb waiter shaft until one performs the assigned task by killing the other. In The Birthday Party impulse and instinct war with repression on many levels as Stanley fences with his companions—motherly Meg; luscious Lulu; apathetic Petey; and his tormentors, the irresistible instruments of conformity, Goldberg and McCann.

Pinter adapted his radio play A Slight Ache (1959), about a wife who exchanges a stranger for her husband, from his short story "The Examination" and later made it into a stage play. He next wrote two revue sketches, Pieces of Eight and One to Another. Another radio play, A Night Out (1960), followed.

Pinter's first West End success was The Caretaker in 1960 (adapted for film in 1962). In it, a devious old tramp is befriended and sheltered in his cluttered room by the kindly Aston until his calculating brother ousts the would-be caretaker. Night School appeared on radio the same year, depicting two aunts mothering Walter as he pursues a tart who has rented his room while he has been in prison.

The Dwarfs, derived from Pinter's novel, also first appeared on radio in 1960. It presents a pair of threatening figures cruelly descending upon the hapless Len with his disintegrating fantasies about ghoulish dwarfs. Pinter later adapted two television plays for the stage: The Collection (1961), which expresses a husband's fears of his wife's infidelity with one of a pair of men in an adjoining apartment; and The Lover (1963), in which a jaded married couple seek sexual stimulus in role playing. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) broadcast his short story "The Tea Party" in 1964 and televised it throughout Europe the following year.

In Pinter's full-length play The Homecoming (1965) the theme of sexual cruelty reappears. A professor teaching in an American university returns to his father's home in London on summer vacation with his wife. She stays on as the whore-mistress for his father and brothers, and he agrees to return to the United States alone.

BBC television produced Pinter's The Basement (originally a film script entitled The Compartment) in 1967. The following year he wrote three one-act plays: Landscape, an exchange of reminiscences in non-connecting monologues between two old people; Silence, which mixed a three-person monologue and dialogue in a kind of dramatic poem; and the funny sketch Night. His full-length drama Old Times (1971) has no plot; it is a play about the past. The three characters spend an evening reminiscing about events that may or may not have occurred.

In 1973 Pinter was made the Associate Director of the National Theatre, a post he would hold until 1983. Pinter's first marriage dissolved in 1980. In the same year he married Lady Antonia Fraser.

Pinter's early plays were labeled "comedies of menace" and occur in confining room sanctuaries, in which men, beset by robotizing social forces, surrender the remnants of their individuality. In his later plays he is especially concerned with what he regards as the nearly impossible task of verifying appearances. He creates images of the human condition that are despairing yet also comic in his deft handling of dialogue that attacks, evades communication, and shields privacy with debasing non sequiturs, pat clichés, repetitions, contradictions, and apt bad syntax. Pinter thinks of speech as "a constant stratagem to cover nakedness." This period of his life became one of his most prolific. He contributed many works, some of which are: No Man's Land (1975), Betrayal (1978), Poems And Prose 1949-1977 (1978), I Know The Place (1979), Family Voices (1981), Other Places (1982), One For The Road (1984), Mountain Language (1988), The Heat Of The Day (1989), Party Time (1991), Moonlight (1993), 99 Poems In Translation (1995), and Ashes To Ashes (1995).

Further Reading on Harold Pinter

The most thorough critical study of Pinter is Arnold P. Hinchliffe Harold Pinter (1967). Other studies are Walter Kerr Harold Pinter (1967); Ronald Hayman Harold Pinter (1968) in the "Contemporary Playwrights" series; Lois G. Gordon Stratagems to Uncover Nakedness (1969); James R. Hollis Harold Pinter: The Poetics of Silence (1970); and Victor L. Cahn Gender and Power in the Plays of Harold Pinter (1993). Recommended for general background are Martin Esslin The Theatre of the Absurd (1961); John Russell Taylor The Angry Theatre (1962; 2d rev. ed. 1969); Ruby Cohn Currents in Comtemporary Drama (1969); and Mel Gussow Conversations with Pinter (1994). Pinter is also listed in the 1997 edition of Who's Who.