Harold Pinter 1930–
English dramatist, scriptwriter, short story writer, poet, director, and actor.
Pinter is widely regarded as one of the foremost living dramatists. His earliest plays, including The Room (1957) and The Birthday Party (1958), display certain theatrical techniques and themes which commentators have described as "Pinteresque." This term generally refers to dramatic scenarios that take place in a fixed setting and involve a few characters whose motivations are obscure, no less to themselves than to the audience, but whose actions plainly illustrate both the subtle and overt violence of human relationships and convey a well-controlled atmosphere of psychological unease. While the ambiguities and enigmas of these "comedies of menace" have been the focus of derogation as well as praise, Pinter's exacting and complex use of language in these works is a major factor in his presently high repute.
The Birthday Party was Pinter's first full-length drama and the first to be professionally produced. It had a short, unprofitable run and received severe abuse from critics, the most extreme of whom viewed the action of the play as obscurity bordering on nonsense. Two years later Pinter's next full-length drama, The Caretaker (1960), became as successful with audiences and reviewers as his first had been unsuccessful, seemingly a response to the greater realism and comic emphasis of the later work, but also as an indication that the "obscurities" of Pinter's writing were now being recognized as integral to his art. With the 1965 presentation of The Homecoming, often considered his most important work, Pinter was discussed as a major English-language dramatist. Since that time he has continued to produce a number of notable works for the stage, cinema, radio, and television, including film adaptations of John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981), Marcel Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu (1977), and his own drama Betrayal (1978).
Pinter's early plays were written during the era of the Angry-Young-Man generation of British authors, whose works were typified by a sense of disillusionment, working-class characters, and by bleakly mundane settings that led one critic to describe them as "kitchen sink" dramas. The 1950s were also the years when a number of works appeared, including Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot and Eugene Ionesco's The Chairs, that have been grouped under the epithet Theatre of the Absurd and share certain defining traits: philosophical nihilism, unconcern for realistic character psychology, and abandonment of the cause-and-effect type plots of naturalistic drama. While Pinter's works have much in common with these theatrical trends, critics emphasize that it is a combination of the two styles, whether deliberate or unpremeditated on the author's part, that distinguishes his plays.
Unrealistic characters who exchange realistic dialogue and dreamlike sequences acted out in naturalistic settings are identifying features of Pinter's early comedies of menace: The Room, The Birthday Party, The Dumb Waiter (1960), and several radio plays including A Slight Ache (1959) and The Dwarfs (1960). The exact nature of the menace is unspecified and arises from the intrusion of one group of characters upon the enclosed security of another group, usually resulting in the upheaval or destruction of an isolated world within a room. The situation of Stanley, in The Birthday Party, is representative: he is a character with an indeterminate past life who becomes the sole renter at a seaside boardinghouse, where one day two men from an unidentified "organization" arrive, proceed to demoralize Stanley into a state of confused submission, and prepare to take him away for a "rest cure" at the end of the last act. Critics here observe the influence of Samuel Beckett and Franz Kafka, authors for whom Pinter has expressed high admiration. The Hothouse, first produced in 1980 but written around the time of The Birthday Party, has been described by Pinter as a "heavily satirical" play in which he was "trying to make a point, an explicit point." Despite the uncharacteristically explicit theme, this satirization of modern bureaucratic institutions and their dehumanizing effects has been appraised by critics as a worthy and representative example of Pinter's early work.
The Caretaker initiated Pinter's use of characters and backgrounds that are more recognizably realistic, in contrast to the absurdist atmosphere of his earlier plays. While the previous mood of menace is again present in this work, critics have found that Pinter now begins to examine its origins and workings more closely in the various gambits for dominance among the characters. According to its commentators, The Caretaker also introduces a number of themes developed in Pinter's later work, particularly those having to do with power, communication, personal identity, and the unreliability of memory and knowledge. Pinter's two subsequent full-length dramas, The Homecoming (1965) and Old Times (1970), are considered his most effective and artistic presentations of these concerns. The first play is often analyzed as a contest of manipulation in which the characters advance their positions as much by silence as by the multiple meanings of their speech; the second play, like much of Pinter's work, involves an intimate group of characters whose willingness to communicate with one another in the present is as questionable as the accuracy of their knowledge of the past.
In the more recent drama and film Betrayal, the truth about its characters is approached by reversing the chronological order—1977 to 1968—in which their actions are viewed, a stratagem that critics find apt, considering Pinter's concern with memory, but not one which brings this drama to the level of his earlier masterpieces. Among Pinter's current works are three short plays grouped under the title Other Places. The most highly praised of these is A Kind of Alaska, based on case histories of coma victims who have been restored to consciousness after spending years in an unconscious state. Examining, in the words of Martin Esslin, "time, reality, and the nature of the self," this work serves as the latest restatement, as well as extension, of "Pinteresque" subjects and the evolving styles in which they are treated.
(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 6, 9, 11, 15; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 13.)