Harold Pinter Pinter, Harold (Vol. 188) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.”

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Room (play) 1957

The Birthday Party (play) 1958

The Dumb Waiter (play) 1959

Last to Go (play) 1959

A Slight Ache (radio play) 1959

Trouble in the Works (play) 1959

The Caretaker (play) 1960

*The Dwarfs (radio play) 1960

A Night Out (radio play) 1960

Night School (teleplay) 1960

The Collection (teleplay) 1961

The Lover (teleplay) 1963

The Servant (screenplay) 1963

The Pumpkin Eater...

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Evelyn Schreiber (essay date 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Schreiber, Evelyn. “Stream-of-Consciousness and Freud's Primary Process: Comprehending Pinter's Old Times.Literature and Psychology (1994): 71-80.

[In the following essay, Schreiber discusses Pinter's use of dialogue in Old Times in terms of Freudian psychoanalytic theories of the unconscious mind. Schreiber asserts that Pinter's dialogue resembles the stream-of-consciousness flow of private internal thoughts.]

Harold Pinter's plays, with their weighted pauses, sparse, dreamlike action, and bare dialogue, present a challenge in interpretation. In Old Times, two mechanisms explain much of the play's puzzling nature: literary...

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Kenneth Bernard (essay date winter 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bernard, Kenneth. “Pinter's The Homecoming.Explicator 52, no. 2 (winter 1994): 116-19.

[In the following essay, Bernard comments that Pinter's The Homecoming is structured around a contrast between America and England, according to which America represents a fantasized promised land and England represents the harsh realities of life.]

Harold Pinter's The Homecoming derives much of its impact from its calculated assault on the viewer's normal expectations about family life. Pinter's lower-class English family is in no usual sense a family. Instead of a home, the house is a cage in which the inmates snarl and scratch at one another;...

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Stefan Kanfer (review date 17-31 January 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kanfer, Stefan. “Two Quartets.” New Leader 77, no. 1 (17-31 January 1994): 22-3.

[In the following review, Kanfer praises Pinter's No Man's Land for its fresh humor, but criticizes the play for its use of ambiguities that seem to be merely gimmicks.]

no' man's' land': n. 1. a piece of land, usually wasteland, to which no one has a recognized title. 2. the area on a battlefield separating the combatants. 3. an indefinite area of operation, involvement, jurisdiction, etc.

Webster's New World Dictionary

All of Harold Pinter's plays could be grouped under the heading...

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Mel Gussow (essay date March 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Gussow, Mel. “The Prime of Harold Pinter.” American Theatre 11, no. 3 (March 1994): 14-21.

[In the following essay, Gussow provides an overview of Pinter's life and career.]

Harold Pinter has always been able to surprise himself as well as his audience. Several years ago, he said with an air of resignation, “My attitude towards my own playwriting has changed. The whole idea of a narrative, of a broad canvas stretching over two hours, I think I've gone away from that forever.” Fifteen years after Betrayal, he wrote Moonlight. Although it runs only 75 minutes without intermission, it is a complete, richly textured play. As his body of work...

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James Campbell (review date 25 March 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Campbell, James. “The Slow Unbaffling of the Pinterwatchers.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4747 (25 March 1994): 18.

[In the following review, Campbell praises The Birthday Party for its effective humor and tone of menace. Campbell comments that The Birthday Party is “seen as one of the defining plays of post-war theatre.”]

The Birthday Party brought the Theatre of the Absurd into the English living-room, introducing Vladimir and Estragon to Jimmy Porter. Its original London run, at the Lyric, Hammersmith in 1958, lasted less than a week, but now it is seen as one of the defining plays of the post-war theatre, and the new...

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Charles Edelman (essay date spring 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Edelman, Charles. “Pinter's The Birthday Party.Explicator 52, no. 3 (spring 1994): 176-79.

[In the following essay, Edelman explicates a one-line reference to the game of cricket in Pinter's The Birthday Party.]

Goldberg and McCann's interrogation of Stanley, in Harold Pinter's first full-length work, The Birthday Party, is to many an exemplar of what came to be called the comedy of menace. Within a ferocious few minutes of stage time, Stanley is subjected to a bombardment of accusations and questions:

I'm telling you, Webber. You're a washout. Why are you getting on everybody's wick? … When did you...

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Mark Ford (review date 9 December 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Ford, Mark. “Oh My True Love.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4784 (9 December 1994): 21.

[In the following review, Ford praises Landscape as “one of the most resonant of Harold Pinter's shorter pieces.”]

Landscape is one of the most resonant of Harold Pinter's shorter pieces. Although written for the stage, it was originally performed on the radio in 1968 because the censors of the about-to-be-dissolved Lord Chamberlain's office objected to the play's language—in particular Pinter's use of the phrase “Fuck-all”. In fact, Landscape is one of Pinter's dreamier performances, and is certainly less viscerally shocking than...

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Neal R. Norrick and William Baker (essay date May 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Norrick, Neal R., and William Baker. “Metalingual Humor in Pinter's Early Plays.” English Studies 76, no. 3 (May 1995): 253-63.

[In the following essay, Norrick and Baker assert that much of the humor in Pinter's early plays derives from his masterful use of typical, everyday speech.]

In his “Writing for Myself,” Pinter says, ‘I had a pretty good notion in my earlier plays of what would shut an audience up; not so much what would make them laugh; that I had no ideas about’. If we assume that Pinter is not simply being coy here, he certainly stumbled onto some effective ideas about ‘what would make them laugh’ early, and developed them into a...

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Mark Ford (review date 4 August 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Ford, Mark. Review of Old Times, by Harold Pinter. Times Literary Supplement, no. 4818 (4 August 1995): 18.

[In the following review, Ford asserts that Pinter's Old Times is ultimately an unsuccessful play.]

Old Times, written in 1970, is Harold Pinter's most recessed and uncertain full-length play. It is concerned—like much of his drama—with a triangular relationship, in this case between a man and two women. The characters are all in their early forties. Deeley and Kate are married, and live in a converted farmhouse in the country; here they are visited by Anna, with whom Kate shared a room in London twenty years before. It is the...

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Sheridan Morley (review date 2 September 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Morley, Sheridan. “Squeak and Bubble.” Spectator 275, no. 8721 (2 September 1995): 35.

[In the following review, Morley asserts that a central theme of Hothouse is a triangular power struggle between the characters. Morley comments that Hothouse is both sinister and hilarious.]

Certain Broadway musicals have, on this side of the Atlantic, always been more honoured in the breach than in the observance. Sondheim's Anyone Can Whistle (never seen in London), Herman's Mack and Mabel (about to open this autumn for the first time, some 21 years after it was first seen in New York), and Stephen Schwartz's Pippin (now in the...

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Bert Cardullo (essay date fall 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Cardullo, Bert. “Pinter's The Homecoming.Explicator 54, no. 1 (fall 1995): 45-6.

[In the following essay, Cardullo explicates the significance of Teddy's Uncle Sam in Pinter's The Homecoming.]

At the end of Harold Pinter's The Homecoming, right before Teddy leaves, his uncle Sam, with whom he seems to have a good relationship, “croaks and collapses” (78). Sam is not dead, yet no one does anything to help him, not even Teddy. Max, Lenny, and Joey, Teddy's father and brothers respectively, are more interested in whether Teddy's wife Ruth will really be remaining with them as their mother-whore (she finally agrees to terms of...

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Sean Abbott (review date January 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Abbott, Sean. “Echoes in the Moonlight.” American Theatre 13, no. 1 (January 1996): 8-9.

[In the following review, Abbott offers high praise for Pinter's Moonlight, and discusses its central themes of living versus dead and past versus present.]

Let's get one question out of the way right away. Is Bridget dead? Many have wondered about the corporeality of the spectral 16-year-old whose eerie soliloquies open and close Moonlight, Harold Pinter's first full-length play since 1978, which was given its U.S. premiere by New York's Roundabout Theatre Company in October. The playwright who famously declared in 1962 that “there are at least...

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Ronald Knowles (essay date spring 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Knowles, Ronald. “A Kind of Alaska: Pinter and Pygmalion.” Classical and Modern Literature 16, no. 3 (spring 1996): 231-40.

[In the following essay, Knowles discusses references to the ancient myth of Pygmalion in A Kind of Alaska, as well as several of Pinter's other plays. Knowles asserts that Pinter's references to Pygmalion function as an allegory for the creative process.]

The printed text of A Kind of Alaska1 is preceded by a note indicating the source for the play. Dr. Oliver Sacks's book Awakenings, published in 1973. Awakenings records case histories of sufferers of sleeping sickness, encephalitis...

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A. A. Gill (review date 28 September 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Gill, A. A. “Harold Pauses, Antonia Is Silent.” Spectator 277, no. 8776 (28 September 1996): 31.

[In the following review, Gill asserts that Pinter's Ashes to Ashes ultimately does not make sense.]

On first nights, the Ivy—that communal greenroom for the boulevard arts—always has a particular atmosphere. Last Wednesday, there was a definite frisson, a froideur. The room was minding its p's and q's, sotto voce. As I sat down, I saw why. There, two tables away in a corner, was Harold Pinter—a theatrical lion at the watering-hole. Pinter is not one of those one-encore Wizard of Oz lions; not a...

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Susan Rusinko (review date autumn 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Rusinko, Susan. Review of Collected Poems and Prose, by Harold Pinter. World Literature Today 70, no. 4 (autumn 1996): 965.

[In the following review, Rusinko asserts that Collected Poems and Prose demonstrates that Pinter is an accomplished poet, as well as a dramatist.]

Of the twenty-eight poems that appeared in the first collection of Harold Pinter's verse (1968), all but one, “European Revels,” constitute the majority of the poems in his latest collection [Collected Poems & Prose]. These have been added to in subsequent publications in 1978, 1986, 1991, and 1996, bringing the total number to forty-six. Three poems are published...

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Hal Jensen (review date 4 October 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Jensen, Hal. “Buried Alive.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4879 (4 October 1996): 23.

[In the following review, Jensen discusses the theme of the confusion of memory and desire in Pinter's Ashes to Ashes.]

Two armchairs, two side-tables, two lamps and a large window; a man and a woman, in their forties, enter; there is silence. This is the most that can be stated categorically about Harold Pinter's new play, Ashes to Ashes. We are given information sufficient to make the situation as unremarkable as possible. The woman (Lindsay Duncan) is called Rebecca, and the man (Stephen Rea) is called Devlin, although we know this only if we look at the script....

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Mark Steyn (essay date November 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Steyn, Mark. “Politics & the ‘Pinteresque.’” New Criterion 15, no. 3 (November 1996): 32-6.

[In the following essay, Steyn discusses elements of political commentary in Pinter's plays.]

Harold Pinter likes to tell a story against himself. A year or two back, he was flying to Miami and, as a ferocious scourge of the United States government, expected trouble at immigration. “But I was ready for them, I was ready for them,” he says. He handed over his British passport and the immigration officer examined it intently. “Pinter,” he said, slowly, and paused. “Would that be the dramatist Pinter?”

“Yes!” snapped Pinter,...

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Sheridan Morley (review date 1 February 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Morley, Sheridan. “Territorial Imperative.” Spectator 278, no. 8792 (1 February 1997): 42-3.

[In the following review, Morley praises Pinter's The Homecoming as a magnificently plotted drama that is both comic and sinister.]

Why were we always so afraid to laugh at, or at any rate with, Harold Pinter? When The Homecoming first opened in 1965 at the Aldwych, I seem to remember reverent silences both on stage and in the auditorium, and a willing suspension of disbelief that this was the same dramatist who, only a few years earlier, had been writing hilariously sinister revue sketches for comics like Kenneth Williams and Peter Cook, not that...

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Herb Greer (essay date 30 June 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Greer, Herb. “Down and Out in London.” National Review 49, no. 12 (30 June 1997): 52-3.

[In the following essay, Greer offers a brief, negative assessment of Pinter's career and reputation as a dramatist.]

The London theater has been passing through a persistent scarcity of good new plays. A prominent symptom was Harold Pinter's latest gnomic, and incredibly tedious, Ashes to Ashes. It quickly expired in the West End, leaving the English stage hungrier than it has been for some time. As always, this pinched condition has provoked a scattering of hopeful revivals, including a good one of Pinter's The Homecoming. The startling contrast with...

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Michael Barnwell (review date September 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Barnwell, Michael. “The Plots Behind the Plots.” American Theatre (September 1997): 57-8.

[In the following review of The Life and Works of Harold Pinter, by Michael Billington, Barnwell criticizes the author for providing an overly laudatory biography of Pinter.]

In the mid-1950s, an English repertory actor going by the stage name of David Baron [Harold Pinter] wrote an enigmatic short play about an unusual couple living as recluses in their spare one-room apartment. The couple, a woman who chatters incessantly and a man who is portentously reticent, are beset by any number of imagined—or are they real?—terrors. Despite their best efforts to...

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Mary Lynn Dodson (essay date 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Dodson, Mary Lynn. “The French Lieutenant's Woman: Pinter and Reisz's Adaptation of John Fowles's Adaptation.” Film/Literature Quarterly 26, no. 4 (1998): 296-302.

[In the following essay, Dodson compares the novel The French Lieutenant's Woman, by John Fowles, with its film adaptation, by Pinter. Dodson concludes that Pinter's screenplay is a brilliantly structured, highly faithful adaptation.]

Fowles's first novel, The Collector, sold extremely well. With the success of this novel behind him, John Fowles felt secure enough to publish The Aristos, his “self-made opinion on all that concerns us” (8). He admits that this book...

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Kate Kellaway (review date 22 May 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kellaway, Kate. “Harold's Hat Trick.” New Statesman 127, no. 4386 (22 May 1998): 50-1.

[In the following review, Kellaway offers praise for Pinter's plays A Kind of Alaska, The Collection, and The Lover.]

The three short plays by Harold Pinter now at the Donmar all lead to the same question: how do we know what our lives contain, and how can we trust the contents? In A Kind of Alaska, a 1982 piece inspired by Oliver Sacks' Awakenings, a woman who has been dead to the world for 29 years wakes to find herself middle aged. She still thinks like a child, recalling balloons, a favourite dog, blue lilac wallpaper, her father's diversions, her...

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Sheridan Morley (review date 23 May 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Morley, Sheridan. “Man and the Arms.” Spectator 280, no. 8859 (23 May 1998): 49-50.

[In the following review of Three by Harold Pinter, Morley praises A Kind of Alaska, The Collection, and The Lover, asserting that this “Pinter treble of unresolved menace is a remarkable tribute to his unique stagecraft over the last thirty or forty years.”]

In a week when dubious arms deals are back in the headlines, the everlasting topicality of Shaw's masterly Major Barbara once again reinforces my belief that Peter Hall's financially embattled resident company is still far and away the best classical repertoire in London this decade....

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William Scammell (review date 31 October 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Scammell, William. “Words and Silences.” Spectator 281, no. 8882 (31 October 1998): 50-1.

[In the following review of Various Voices, Scammell asserts that Pinter is England's greatest living playwright.]

Harold Pinter is far and away our greatest living playwright. What the plays tell us is that wherever two or more are gathered together there will be a top dog and a bottom dog, a seven-stone weakling and a king of the castle, a torrent of words and a club of silence. Down below liberty, equality, fraternity—ideals espoused by citizen Pinter in private life—there are ravenous appetites and power games, clenched fists and bovver boots, beaks that...

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Sheridan Morley (review date 5 December 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Morley, Sheridan. “Pinter Power.” Spectator 281, no. 8887 (5 December 1998): 60.

[In the following review, Morley comments that Pinter's Betrayal is stylish but ultimately empty.]

Of all Harold Pinter's plays, his 1978 Betrayal about a three-cornered affair, loosely based on his own with the broadcaster Joan Bakewell, is perhaps the most familiar and easily revivable in the commercial theatre. As so often this season, one could have wished that Trevor Nunn, director of both play and theatre, had opted for one of the many Pinters that are more difficult to stage without subsidy, while anyone cast in this one has necessarily to compete not only...

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Norman Stone (essay date 27 February 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Stone, Norman. “Midnight Excess.” Spectator 282, no. 8899 (27 February 1999): 13-14.

[In the following essay, Stone argues against Pinter's vocal public support for Kurdish nationalism in Turkey.]

Trouble in Turkey? All aboard for Midnight Express. What damage that film has done. It is regularly shown on British television, and has impregnated the mind of a whole generation, to the point at which Turkey is permanently on the defensive—her police vilified, her courts regarded as kangaroo, even her children as rather on the fat side.

This is currently being reflected in the reporting of the Abdullah Ocalan affair. He will not get a...

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Mick Imlah (review date 5 March 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Imlah, Mick. “One More Go.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5005 (5 March 1999): 25.

[In the following review of Various Voices, a collection of Pinter's poems and prose, Imlah observes that its principal value is as a companion to Pinter's plays.]

Assured of his standing as his country's greatest living playwright, Harold Pinter has also liked to keep his less essential writings in print. Various Voices: Prose, Poetry, Politics 1948-1998 is an enlargement of the 1986 Collected Poems and Prose, which itself updated Poems and Prose 1949-77 (1978). Yet if we exclude his experimental novel The Dwarfs (written by 1956;...

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Eric Sterling (review date autumn 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Sterling, Eric. Review of Various Voices, by Harold Pinter. World Literature Today 73, no. 4 (autumn 1999): 750-51.

[In the following review, Sterling asserts that Various Voices provides valuable insight into Pinter's work and is essential reading for scholars and students of British drama. He further observes that Pinter's prose is intelligent, insightful, creative, thought-provoking, and enjoyable to read.]

Harold Pinter, known primarily as a playwright who authored many excellent absurdist dramas, divides his book Various Voices into four sections: prose, prose fiction, poetry, and politics. His prose writings, like his plays, are...

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Fintan O'Toole (review date 7 October 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: O'Toole, Fintan. “Our Own Jacobean.” New York Review of Books 46, no. 15 (7 October 1999): 28-32.

[In the following review, O'Toole discusses the development of Pinter's political commitments as expressed in his plays.]


In early-seventeenth-century England, in the midst of what was supposed to be a golden age, young playwrights sounded a note of harsh discord. Against the myth of Elizabethan glory, they placed increasingly violent images of torture, of the abuse of power, and of profound psychological and political disturbance. Cyril Tourneur, John Webster, and others combined melodramatic action with brilliantly concentrated...

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Harold Pinter and Mary Riddell (interview date 8 November 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Pinter, Harold, and Mary Riddell. “Harold Pinter: The Odd Dissenter, a Professional Mr. Angry Who Is More Victor Meldrew Than Vaclav Havel.” New Statesman 128, no. 4461 (8 November 1999): 18-19.

[In the following interview, Riddell discusses Pinter's polemical stance on many political issues.]

As Harold Pinter wrote recently, in an open letter to the Prime Minister, he was “chuffed to the bollocks” by the advent of the Blair government. This variant of the feel-good factor—first articulated by Lenny in The Homecoming—has long since dissipated. War in Kosovo, sanctions on Iraq and bellicose foreign policy elsewhere have rendered Pinter as...

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Anne-Marie Cusac (review date January 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Cusac, Anne-Marie. Review of Various Voices, by Harold Pinter. Progressive 64, no. 1 (January 2000): 37-8.

[In the following review, Cusac applauds Various Voices, observing that it provides valuable insight about Pinter and his plays.]

I have a confession to make. Well, “confession” may be the wrong word, since I am proud of this trait: I love young adult novels.

Want a well-written, entertaining, spirited, perceptive critique of society? The best young adult novels are the place to go. They are clever, rebellious, playful. They question the norm.

Like Alice in Wonderland, many of these books reveal...

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Sheridan Morley (review date 1 April 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Morley, Sheridan. “Pinter Double.” Spectator 284, no. 8956 (1 April 2000): 65-6.

[In the following review of Pinter's The Room and Celebration, produced as a double-bill, Morley observes that both plays, like much of Pinter's work, explore themes of sexual jealousy, nameless terrors, and violence. Morley asserts that Celebration is Pinter's “funniest script in years.”]

It is not often you get to see the first and the most recent plays by a major dramatist on the same double bill, and rarer still when these plays are separated by more than 40 years. But at the Almeida we currently get just that: Harold Pinter's The Room (1957)...

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Kate Kellaway (review date 3 April 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kellaway, Kate. “A Party for Pinter.” New Statesman 129, no. 4480 (3 April 2000): 43-4.

[In the following review, Kellaway asserts that Pinter's The Room and Celebration, produced as a double-bill, are marvelous companion pieces.]

Here it is—a showcase of Harold Pinter's career. His first play, The Room, written in 1957, and his new play, Celebration, are at the Almeida Theatre together, directed by the man himself. But would it prove a celebration? “I am so glad not to be reviewing this,” someone murmured behind me, “because you could never say what you really thought of it.” The implication was clear: Pinter has put...

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Michael Vestey (review date 21 October 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Vestey, Michael. “Plugging Pinter.” Spectator 285, no. 8985 (21 October 2000): 68.

[In the following review of several radio broadcasts of plays by Pinter, Vestey asserts that Pinter's dramas are deeply unsatisfying.]

I've never forgotten a remark the director Bryan Forbes made to me many years ago when I went to interview him about a film he was making at the time. We got on to the subject of critics and their fanciful interpretations of what a film or play might mean, and he mentioned the last scene of his POW film King Rat. It ends, if my memory is correct, with the leading character (I think James Fox) facing the camera and standing upright in...

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David Jays (essay date 30 October 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Jays, David. “Missing.” New Statesman 129, no. 4510 (30 October 2000): 42-4.

[In the following essay, Jays laments the neglect of Jewish writing in British theater. Jays comments that Pinter's Jewish background is rarely mentioned in critical discussion of his plays.]

Harold Pinter has just turned 70, and theatrical celebrations continue throughout the winter. They include not only Michael Gambon in a revival of The Caretaker, but also an adaptation at the National Theatre of an unfilmed screenplay based on Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. Faber & Faber's birthday present gathers together affectionate, wary tributes from friends...

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Sheridan Morley (review date 25 November 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Morley, Sheridan. “Pinter Surprise.” Spectator 285, no. 8990 (25 November 2000): 69-70.

[In the following review, Morley applauds a production of Pinter's The Caretaker that emphasizes the comic elements of the play.]

Now here's a funny thing, and it happens rather surprisingly to be Harold Pinter's The Caretaker. In celebration of the dramatist's 70th birthday, and indeed the 40th birthday of the play itself, Pinter's first international hit is back with us in a new staging by the playwright Patrick Marber, who also knows a thing or two about menace and minimalism.

But the surprise is in the tone of the playing, notably that...

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Ingrid Wassenaar (review date 8 December 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wassenaar, Ingrid. “Plying the Little Phrase.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5097 (8 December 2000): 19.

[In the following review, Wassenaar applauds Pinter's stage adaptation of Marcel Proust's novel À la recherche du temps perdu. Wassenaar discusses the themes of snobbery and sexuality in both works.]

Harold Pinter first wrote a screenplay version of A la recherche du temps perdu at the request of Joseph Losey, in 1972, but the film was never made. Now it has been staged, at the Royal National Theatre (in the Cottesloe), under the inspired direction of Di Trevis. The production deserves high praise. Remembrance of Things Past is a...

(The entire section is 905 words.)

Harold Pinter and Anne-Marie Cusac (interview date March 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Pinter, Harold, and Anne-Marie Cusac. “Harold Pinter.” Progressive 65, no. 3 (March 2001): 32-8.

[In the following interview, Pinter discusses his political orientation and his treatment of the themes of power and powerlessness in his plays.]

Several months back, a colleague handed me a copy of the British journal The New Internationalist. The issue would interest me, she said, because it included a special section on U.S. prisons and because Harold Pinter had written an essay for it. (She knew I had long admired Pinter's plays.) I read the Pinter essay, finding to my surprise that it mentioned the stun belt and the restraint chair, two subjects I...

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Roger Copeland (essay date October 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Copeland, Roger. “A Room of His Own.” American Theatre 18, no. 8 (October 2001): 23-6, 130-33.

[In the following essay, Copeland asserts that the time has come for a major reevaluation of Pinter's career and of his legacy to British theater.]

The essential ingredients rarely change: A room, a safe enclosed space of some sort. Characters who feel not only secure, but “at home” in that space. An unexpected visitor whose very presence evokes a sense of dread, of inexplicable threat—a fear that seems at first, unfounded, even paranoid. Then … almost imperceptibly, an “invasion” begins; and the boundaries between inside/outside, familiar/unfamiliar,...

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Harold Pinter and Carey Perloff (interview date October 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Pinter, Harold, and Carey Perloff. “My Lunches with Harold.” American Theatre 18, no. 8 (October 2001): 24-6.

[In the following interview, Pinter discusses his work with Carey Perloff, a director of several of Pinter's plays.]

Harold Pinter is telling me about the characters in his extraordinary new satire Celebration. “I don't know what you'd call their particular accent, but I do know they all enjoy words and using words. They love it, and that's it.” Pause. He grins. “One also has to remember, of course—and this is all a question of balance and degree—that they're all very drunk.”

Pinter and I are sharing a long,...

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Daniel Mendelsohn (review date 4 October 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Mendelsohn, Daniel. “Harold Pinter's Celebration.” New York Review of Books 48, no. 15 (4 October 2001): 28-32.

[In the following review, Mendelsohn provides an overview of theater festivals paying tribute to Pinter, asserting that the Harold Pinter Festival ultimately “exposed Pinter's weaknesses and pretensions as much as it did his strengths.” Mendelsohn applauds Pinter's most recent work, Celebration, as both the funniest play he's ever written and his first “deeply and movingly political” play.]


At the climax of the 1990 Paul Schrader film The Comfort of Strangers, a young Englishwoman is forced to...

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Ann C. Hall (review date December 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hall, Ann C. Review of The Lover, by Harold Pinter. Theatre Journal 53, no. 4 (December 2001): 659-61.

[In the following review, Hall applauds Pinter's The Lover as a comedy of sexual manners.]

Like all theatres across the country, Actor's Theatre of Louisville (ATL) must provide exciting plays and still turn a profit. For many theatres, the choice is simple—avoid the unusual. Given its Humana Festival, it is clear that ATL takes the road less traveled, offering new works every spring. But the artistic staff felt that many theatre classics, those under-produced gems that do not appeal to American audiences, were being ignored. At their...

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Robert L. King (review date March-April 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: King, Robert L. “New Plays and a Modern Master.” North American Review 287, no. 2 (March-April 2002): 45-9.

[In the following review, King applauds recent productions of Pinter's One for the Road, Mountain Language, and Ashes to Ashes.]

Eve Ensler's Necessary Targets, in its world premiere at Hartford Stage, opened to the thump of helicopter blades followed by the muted complaint of a siren—the sounds of conflict, the first one of violence and the second of potential relief. The lights came up on J. S., a fiftyish psychiatrist, and Melissa, a young journalist working on a book based on the stories of women victimized by war. In the comfort...

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David Jays (essay date October 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Jays, David. “Face Off.” Sight and Sound 12, no. 10 (October 2002): 4-5.

[In the following essay, Jays offers a brief overview of Pinter's screenplays.]

“I'll tell you what I am,” snarls Dirk Bogarde. “I'm a gentleman's gentleman. And you're no bloody gentleman!” In his second screenplay The Servant (1963) Harold Pinter introduces an idiom that was to become wholly characteristic of his cinematic career. Pinter, with his startling verbal precision and interest in temporal fuzz, was a perfect match for director Joseph Losey, on the run from McCarthy's America into an oddly antediluvian Britain. And The Servant launched a cinematic body...

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Sheridan Morley (review date 12 May 2003)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Morley, Sheridan. “Top Hats and No Trousers.” New Statesman 132, no. 4637 (12 May 2003): 46.

[In the following review, Morley comments that the stage adaptation of Pinter's novel The Dwarfs doesn't really work as a play.]

“Farce,” the late Ben Travers once told me, “is all about doors. They have to open and close at embarrassing moments, and the wrong people have to keep coming through them.” Nobody, at least in this country, has ever known more about farce than “Big Ben”. It is therefore courageous of Sam Walters to produce and direct Georges Feydeau's The Game Hunter on the Orange Tree's open stage, without so much as a...

(The entire section is 764 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Billington, Michael. The Life and Work of Harold Pinter. London: Faber and Faber, 1996, 414 p.

Presents biographical and critical essays on Pinter.


Cahn, Victor L. Gender and Power in the Plays of Harold Pinter. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993, 148 p.

Offers critical analysis of constructions of sex and gender in Pinter's plays.

Gale, Steven H., ed. The Films of Harold Pinter. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001, 188 p.

Presents essays by various authors on Pinter's original screenplays and screenplay...

(The entire section is 489 words.)