The Life and Work of Harold Pinter

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In the consistently illuminating study THE LIFE AND WORK OF HAROLD PINTER, Pinter’s large body of work for stage and screen properly takes precedence over his life. The grandson of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, during his formative years in Hackney (in London’s East End), he was evacuated to the country several times during the blitz; confronted the anti-Semitism of fascist gangs; became a conscientious objector; and studied acting before touring Ireland performing Shakespeare. Since the late 1950’s, Pinter has written such major dramas as THE BIRTHDAY PARTY (pr. 1958, pb. 1959), THE HOMECOMING (pr., pb. 1965), OLD TIMES (pr., pb. 1971), and NO MAN’S LAND (pr., pb. 1975), as well as such filmscripts as THE SERVANT (1963) and ACCIDENT (1967), all of which biographer Michael Billington analyzes with intelligence and sensitivity.

Noting how frequently a visual image triggered Pinter’s plays, Billington traces many motifs that thread through them—the threat to a secure space; language/silence as control; the subjectivity of memory. He emphasizes other patterns that too often have gone umexplored, such as distress over lost Edens, and male camaraderie and homoeroticism. In particular, he unearths the strongly autobiographical impetus for several works, including THE CARETAKER (pr., pb. 1960), BETRAYAL (pr., pb. 1978), and MONOLOGUE (pr., pb. 1973), that might before have seemed coldly impersonal.

Billington argues as well that the overtly political plays of the 1980’s, rather than mark a radical shift, form a continuation of Pinter’s longstanding anger and resistance against any oppressive authority that distorts truth and abuses power. Finally, he convincingly situates Pinter as a feminist dramatist, whose women characters, resilient and unpossessable, call the shots in sexual relationships. Billington’s subjective approach, one that acknowledges the biographer’s presence, demystifies Pinter’s enigmatic and morally ambiguous plays without reducing their complexity, resulting in a book equally valuable to both the scholar/teacher and the general theatre-goer.