Harold Pinter Pinter, Harold (Vol. 27)

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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...

(The entire section is 16,617 words.)