Harold Pinter

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Harold Pinter Biography

Harold Pinter began his career as an actor, but he quickly turned his attention to writing and became one of the twentieth century’s most prolific and important playwrights. Pinter loved to play with words, and many of his works feature witty banter between characters interspersed with long pauses. Pinter did not originally want to be categorized as a political writer, but in the 1980s, his work took on a decidedly leftist tone. Pinter’s personal life was as stormy as that of many of his characters. He was married to actress Vivien Merchant for several years, and they had one son. He then embarked on several long affairs, which cost him his marriage and the love and respect of his son.

Facts and Trivia

  • Harold Pinter’s stage name as an actor was David Baron.
  • Pinter won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2005 and the Legion d’honneur in 2007.
  • Pinter was a huge cricket fan. He said, “One of my main obsessions in life is the game of cricket—I play and watch and read about it all the time.”
  • Pinter was vocal about his politics and was once thrown out of the U.S. embassy in Turkey.
  • Pinter publicly announced in 2005 that he was retiring from playwriting. Since then and his death in 2008, he wrote a screenplay, some short dramatic sketches, and a great deal of poetry.

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Harold Pinter was born October 10, 1930, in England, the son of a hardworking Jewish tailor whose business eventually failed. Pinter grew up in a rundown working-class area, full of railroad yards and bad-smelling factories. When World War II broke out in 1939, Pinter, like most London children, was evacuated to the countryside to be safe from the German bombing. Living in the countryside or by the sea was not, for Pinter, as idyllic as it might have been: “I was quite a morose little boy.” He returned to London before the end of the war and remembers seeing V-2 rockets flying overhead and his backyard in flames. After the war ended, the violence did not cease; anti-Semitism was strong in his neighborhood, and Jews were frequently threatened. Perhaps these early brushes with war and violence decided him; when he was eighteen and eligible for National Service, he declared himself a conscientious objector. He was afraid he would be jailed, but in fact, he was merely fined. In grammar school, he was a sprinter and set a record for the hundred-yard dash. He was also an actor in school plays, playing Macbeth and Romeo, and he received a grant in 1948 to study acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. He did not stay long, however, and spent the next year tramping the streets. He published a few poems in literary magazines (he was only nineteen when the first were published) and got an acting job with a Shakespearean company touring Ireland; other acting jobs followed. He met the actress Vivien Merchant and married her in 1956; she was to perform in a number of his plays. They were divorced in 1980, and in November of that year Pinter married Lady Antonia Fraser, a highly regarded writer of historical biographies and one of England’s great beauties. The match of the famous, working-class playwright and the beautiful, aristocratic biographer was the object of much attention in London literary circles and in the popular press. Pinter has one son, Daniel, from his first marriage.

In 1957, a friend of Pinter who was studying directing at Bristol University told him he needed a play, and Pinter wrote The Room for him in four afternoons. The play was performed and was favorably reviewed by Harold Hobson in the Sunday Times. Pinter seemed to have found himself. Immediately after writing The Room, he wrote The Birthday Party and The Dumb Waiter. The plays were performed, and though Harold Hobson continued to champion him, many drama critics gave the plays scathing reviews. The Birthday Party closed after a week. In the following years, though Pinter’s plays continued to be attacked, they also continued to be revived and performed, and his work began to receive considerable critical attention. After his play The Caretaker became his first commercial success, Pinter emerged as a productive and versatile writer for stage and screen, as well as a political activist and spokesperson for the arts in general.

In 1989, he came to the United States to direct his play Mountain Language. Directing his own and others’ work and acting in such touring shows as Old Times (with Liv Ullmann, in 1986), he has become very well respected in the theater community. His film work includes, in addition to adaptations of his plays, The Handmaid’s Tale (1990; adapted from Margaret Atwood’s novel), The Heat of the Day (1990; based on Elizabeth Bowen’s novel), and original works such as Reunion (1989).

Politically and culturally, Pinter protested the imprisonment of writers through his activities with the International Association of Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists, and Novelists (PEN Club), donated proceeds to Václav Havel, protested against the Margaret Thatcher government in Great Britain and U.S. involvement in Central and South America, founded the Arts for Nicaragua Fund, delivered a speech by Salman Rushdie while the writer was in hiding, and raised funds for famine relief in Ethiopia. In 1990, he organized a celebration in honor of Samuel Beckett at the National Theatre. Pinter was less active as a playwright during the 1990’s and officially announced his retirement from playwrighting in 2005. Pinter was first diagnosed with cancer in 2001, and died on December 24, 2008 in London, England.

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