Harold Pinter 1930-
(Also has written under the pseudonym Harold Pinta) English playwright, screenwriter, poet, and novelist.
The following entry provides an overview of Pinter's career through 2003. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 3, 6, 9, 11, 15, 27, 58, and 73.
Regarded as one of the most influential English playwrights of the twentieth century, Pinter is credited with drawing on both the Theatre of the Absurd and the “angry young men” dramas of working-class social realism to bring English theatre into a new era. This distinct, innovative blending of absurdism and neo-realism has been widely recognized by scholars. Pinter's major themes include interpersonal power struggles, failed attempts at communication, psychological cruelty, antagonistic relationships, and the nature of memory. His dialogue, perhaps his most distinctive stylistic signature, is characterized by long pauses, non sequiturs, and silence. Among his most celebrated works are The Caretaker (1960), The Homecoming (1965), Betrayal (1978), A Kind of Alaska (1982), and Celebration (1999). Pinter has also authored screenplay adaptations for a number of films based on novels. The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981), The Handmaid's Tale (1990), and Lolita (1997) are among his most critically acclaimed adaptations. Pinter's far-reaching impact on late-twentieth-century theater and screenwriting is demonstrated by his influence on such playwrights as David Mamet, and filmmaker Peter Greenaway. In 1996 Pinter was bestowed the Laurence Olivier award for lifetime achievement in the theater. In the year 2000, Pinter's 70th birthday was celebrated with productions of many of his plays in England and the United States.
Pinter was born October 10, 1930, in Hackney, a working-class neighborhood in London's East End. Pinter cites the bombings of London during World War II, and the fear they inspired, as a formative experience of his childhood. A descendant of Portuguese Jews (according to Pinter family lore, their name is an anglicization of de Pinta), he was also subjected to the violence of neighborhood bullies who targeted Jews. Pinter acted in high school productions and was encouraged by his successful portrayals of Macbeth and Romeo. Upon graduating from high school, he worked a variety of odd jobs, including waiter, dishwasher, and salesman. A conscientious objector, he resisted being drafted into the army, for which he was punished with a small fine. Pursuing a career as an actor, Pinter studied at several drama schools, including the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. From 1948 to 1958 he worked as an actor in various repertory theaters under the stage name David Baron. The Room (1957), Pinter's first play to be produced, was staged by the Bristol University drama department. Based on favorable reviews of The Room, Pinter was asked to write a play for professional production. His second play, The Birthday Party (1958), was his first to be professionally staged. In 1973, Pinter became director of the National Theatre in London. In addition to his twenty-nine plays, Pinter has written many screenplays and a number of radio dramas and teleplays. His novel, Dwarfs, adapted as a drama and staged in 1960, was written in the mid-1950s but not published until 1990. Pinter's Various Voices (1998) is a collection of his poetry and prose written throughout his career.
Pinter's plays are characterized by a number of distinctive stylistic elements. Influenced by the “kitchen sink” school of realism, Pinter draws on casual, colloquial, working-class speech patterns for his dialogue. He is also known for his use of non sequiturs and sparse or elliptical dialogue, expressive of failures of interpersonal communication. The most notable quality of his dialogue, however, is the frequent use of pauses and silences, leading to the coining of the term “Pinter pause.” The frequent use of long pauses followed by non sequiturs has given rise to the term “Pinter moment.” Pinter is also regarded as a master of atmosphere, characterized by the sinister or menacing tone of the interactions between his characters. Verbal abuse, psychological cruelty, and the threat of impending or past violence is in the air as his characters engage in antagonistic interpersonal power struggles. Because Pinter's works often include an element of humor in the midst of these dark themes, his has been termed a “comedy of menace.” Pervading this atmosphere is a sense of existential malaise that deadens the spirit of the lonely, alienated characters. The overall effect of the world in which Pinter's characters struggle has been referred to as “Pinterland.” While critics differ on the exact characteristics of the “Pinteresque,” it has come into common usage as a term capturing the essence of Pinter's unique, innovative, and highly influential theatrical style.
Pinter often places his characters in the circumstance of a stranger or estranged family member intruding upon a household and disrupting the status quo of interpersonal dynamics. Vicious verbal and psychological power struggles emerge from the disruption caused by the intruder. In The Caretaker, Pinter's first popular and critical success, Aston brings Davies, an opportunistic vagrant, to the home of his brother Mick, urging Mick to hire Davies as a caretaker. But Mick responds hostilely toward Davies, and the two men engage in a mutually antagonistic verbal and psychological sparring match. The Homecoming, considered one of Pinter's most important works, concerns the interpersonal power struggles within a working-class family in London. Teddy, a philosophy professor, returns from the United States with his wife, Ruth, after a six-year absence, to the home of his father and brothers, where he grew up. Upon their arrival, Ruth and Teddy enter a world of verbal and psychological abuse. While Teddy fails to take control of the household, Ruth becomes a focal point for all of the men in the family, who regard her with both reverence and disdain. In the end, Teddy decides to return to the United States, while Ruth chooses to stay behind, acting as both wife and mother within the household, while supporting the family by working as a prostitute. Pinter received the Antoinette Perry (“Tony”) Award and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for The Homecoming. Pinter's plays since the 1970s are considered more accessible to general audiences than were his earlier works. In Old Times (1971) Kate and her husband, Deeley, are visited by Kate's former roommate, Anna, whom she hasn't seen in twenty years. Kate and Anna were lovers in the past, and Anna's presence presents a threat to Kate's husband, who competes with her for Kate's love and attention. Extramarital affairs, and their effect on all parties involved, are a recurring theme in Pinter's dramas. Betrayal narrates the events of an extramarital affair in reverse chronological order, starting with the ending of the affair and tracing it back to its beginning. During the 1980s, Pinter became increasingly interested in addressing political and social issues through his plays. Mountain Language (1988), perhaps his most overtly political play, was inspired by his sympathy for Turkey's Kurdish population. The story concerns Kurdish women, visiting their husbands in prison, who are forbidden to speak their native “mountain language” during these visits. A number of Pinter's more recent plays, however, remain in the domestic sphere of conflicted relationships between family members. A Kind of Alaska was inspired by the nonfiction work Awakenings, by Oliver Sachs, which presents case histories of people who have recovered from catatonic states. In Pinter's play, Deborah, stricken at the age of sixteen with a severe case of sleeping sickness, awakens twenty-nine years later with the help of a newly-developed drug. Having slept through much of her life, Deborah struggles to reconcile her sense of loss and disorientation with the expectations of both her sister and her doctor. Moonlight (1993) takes place at the deathbed of a dying man who must contend with interpersonal family dynamics while confronting his own mortality. Ashes to Ashes (1997), a one-act play, consists of a dialogue between a man and a woman, apparently a married couple, with intimations of past imprisonment, torture, and abuse. Celebration is set in an upscale restaurant and focuses on the interactions between the waitstaff and the diners at two separate tables. One couple celebrates their anniversary while another couple discusses an extramarital affair. Meanwhile, an overzealous waiter frequently interrupts the diners to talk at length about the fabulously eventful life of his grandfather.
Pinter has been widely regarded as the most influential playwright of his generation. The coining of terms and phrases such as Pinteresque, the Pinter pause, the Pinter moment, and Pinterland is a testament to the lasting impact of his innovative theatrical style. He is consistently recognized for his innovations in dialogue. Roger Copeland, among the commentators who have praised Pinter's dialogue for its realistic replication of the rhythms of everyday speech, stated that “No playwright has ever possessed a better ear for the way people actually speak than Harold Pinter.” Critics have applauded Pinter's masterful use of pauses, silence, and non sequiturs for their expression of modern alienation and lack of genuine connection between human beings. Evelyn Schreiber argued that Pinter's dialogue reveals the unconscious thought-processes of his characters. Schreiber commented, “By stripping his characters and drama to bare essentials, Pinter reaches unconscious levels, capturing an essence of human thought and, consequently, a basis of human interaction that often goes unrecognized.” Neal R. Norrick and William Baker observed that much of the humor in Pinter's plays derives from his representation of the communication breakdowns that occur in everyday conversation. Norrick and Baker argued that, in his early plays, “Many of the strategies Pinter used most effectively to create humor revolve around the contradictions, non sequiturs, and misunderstandings typical of everyday talk.” Some critics, however, fault Pinter for dialogue that is so obscure as to be ultimately meaningless. He has also been criticized for banal, unlikable, and undeveloped characters. Several reviewers have suggested that Pinter's theatrical style, highly innovative in the 1950s and 1960s, has not significantly changed in over four decades, and that, therefore, what was once innovative has become merely a tired self-parody. In a highly critical stance toward Pinter's theatrical oeuvre, Michael Vestey commented that his own associations with the term “Pinteresque” are characterized by “boredom, misogyny, frustrated rage, repetition, monotony, bleakness, graceless and unsympathetic characters and a form of drama that never seems to have gone quite beyond the experimental phase.”