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A CurtainUp Feature: Playwrights Album
An Overview of Harold Pinter's Career
by Elyse Sommer
12/24/08 Update: On this day, Harold Pinter succumbed to a long battle with cancer. 4/13/05 Update: The Swedish Academy awarded the 75-year-old playwright the Nobel Prize for literature declaring that he was an author "who in his plays uncovers the precipice under everyday prattle and forces entry into oppression's closed rooms."
Chronology of Produced Plays
Trademarks of Pinter's Plays
Links To Reviews, Books, Plays
Quotes by and About Pinter
Harold Pinter was one of England's or, to be more exact, one of the world's, most renowned living playwrights. His complex themes and distinctive cryptic style have added the terms Pinteresque and Pinter Pauses to our contemporary lexicon. His career encompassed stage, screen and radio and his accomplishments include acting and directing as well as writing.
Pinter was born in October 10, 1930 (died December 24, 2008) in Hackney a working-class neighborhood in London's East End, the son of a Jewish tailor. Growing up in this largely non-Jewish area influenced the feelings of alienation that pervade much of his work, as did the advent of World War II when he was an early adolescent. He went to Hackney Downs Grammar School
He received a grant to study at the London Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts but left after two years. When called to do his national service in 1949, he risked jail as a conscientious objector (but was fined instead). A year later he started to publish poems under the name Harold Pinta and began working as a bit-part actor on a BBC Radio program. He resumed formal studies for a short time at the Central School of Speech and Drama. His strongest early literary influences were Kafka and Hemingway (the former quite evident in some of his writing, and another Nobel winner, Samuel Beckett, who was his friend and mentor. Though often tagged, like Beckett, as a practitioner of Theater of the Absurd, Pinter considered himself a realist and always stood by his declaration that the context of his plays was always "concrete and particular."
It wasn't until after four years of acting in provincial repertory theatre under the pseudonym David Baron, that Pinter began his playwriting career with The Room which he finished in just four days.
His first full-length play, The Birthday Party , drew on his memories of touring as an actor and was produced in 1960 in the West End. It closed after one week despite a rave review from The Sunday Times of London critic Harold Hobson, that declared that Pinter, "on the evidence of this work, possesses the most original, disturbing and arresting talent in theatrical London" (other critics weren't as impressed). This brief run notwithstanding, the young playwright rapidly produced a body of work in which he achieved mastery over his particular brand of what some called "the comedy of menace." It was a half a decade later, with The Caretaker, that Pinter became established as one of our major and most original men of the stage.
The Pinter' canon now includes 29 plays, not counting a variety of sketches and radio works. His cross-over to film began in 1963, and he now has over twenty screenplays to his credit including many for other directors--such as The Pumpkin Eater, The Last Tycoon, The French Lieutenant's Woman. He has also been quite active politically, and a number of his plays reflect these concerns, particularly in the human rights area. Pinter has steadfastly refused to provide any motivation for his plays, or explanation of their meaning.
While writing and directing are primary in the Pinter scheme of things, Pinter, the actor, continues to be seen in the occasional film. Recent roles include Uncle Benny in The Tailor of Panama (2001), Vivian Bearing's father in Wit (2001) and as Sir Thomas Betram in Mansfield Park (1999).
Pinter's first marriage to actress Vivien Merchant, (who also appeared in many of his works), ended in divorce in 1980 - the same year he married Lady Antonia Fraser, a well-known biographer.
On October 13, 2005 Pinter's career was capped with a Nobel Prize for literature which he accepted from a wheelchair (he was diagnosed with cancer in 2001)-- a speech that was typical of his long-standing anti-war views and political activism. He died on Christmas Eve of 2008, survived by his second wife, the writer Antonia Fraser, his son Daniel from his first marriage, and his stepchildren, Benjamin, Damian, Orlando, Rebecca, Flora and Natasha. Update January 29, 2010: A memoir by Antonia Fraser Must You Go? My Life with Harold Pinter was published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. It sheds a new light on Pinter as a romantic lover but is by no means a kiss and tell memoir. Back to the top
Chronology of Produced Plays
The Room, 1957
The Birthday Party ,1957
The Dumb Waiter, 1957
The Hothouse, 1959
The Caretaker, 1959
A Night Out, 1959
Night School, 1960
The Dwarfs, 1960
The Collection, 1961
A Slight Ache, 1961
The Lover, 1962
The Tea Party, 1964
The Homecoming, 1964
The Basement, 1966
Old Times, 1970
No Man's Land, 1974
Family Voices, 1980
Other Places , 1982
A Kind of Alaska, 1982
Victoria Station, 1982
One for the Road, 1984
Mountain Language, 1988
The New World Order, 1991
Party Time, 1991
Ashes to Ashes, 1996
Remembrance of Things Past , 2000
The Caretaker (1963)
The Servant (1963)
The Pumpkin Eater (1963)
The Quiller Memorandum (1965)
The Birthday Party (1967)
The Go-Between (1969)
Langrishe Go Down (1970) (adapted for TV 1978)
The Romantic Englishwoman>, 1975
The French Lieutenant's Woman (1980)
The Victory (1982)
Turtle Diary (1984)
The Handmaid's Tale (1987) Reunion (1988)
Heat of the Day (1988)The Comfort of Strangers (1989)
The Trial (1989)
The Dreaming Child (1997)
The Tragedy of King Lear (2000)
The Dwarfs, 1960
Various Voices(Faber and Faber, updated through 2005) contains several of Pinter's works of short fiction.
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Trademarks Of Pinter's Plays
The dialogue of Pinter's plays is perhaps as notable for the pauses as the words. The precisely measured daily speech interchanges are as tightly controlled as the lines in a poem. As Martin Eslin in The People Wound puts it: "Every syllable, every inflection, the succession of long and short sounds, words and sentences, is calculated to nicety. And precisely the repetitiousness, the discontinuity, the circularity of ordinary vernacular speech are here used as formal elements with which the poet can compose his linguistic ballet."
The setting of a Pinter play is more often than not a single room, with its occupants' existence or identity threatened by something or someone whose intentions are puzzling and indecipherable, to the audience as well as the characters. A sense of menace often buildis out of placid, naturalistic circumstances and sometimes taking on absurd or surreal qualities and, often, unpleasant issues relating to families and relationships. For all the threats overhanging the situations, the only weapons used are words and the audience must figure out the revelations for themselves. Consequently, the whys and wherefores of the playwright's intention and the characters' actions are often discussed long after the curtain falls.
Les Gutman's review of A Kind of Alaska serves as a sum-up of a typical Pinteresque experience: "Pauses, comedically-delivered menace and enigma. . . to create a thrillingly discombobulating theater-going experience."
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Links To Reviews, Features and Books
Ashes To Ashes
Beckett, the Spiritual MatchmakerBehind the Summer 2001 Mating of Albee and Pinter (Berkshires)
Betrayal (London 2011)
Betrayal (London-Donmar, 2007)
The Birthday Party(New Jersey-McCarter)
The Birthday Party(London)
The Birthday Party(LA)
/The Caretaker(Off-Broadway-BAM 2012)
The Caretaker (London 2010)
The Caretaker (Berkshire Theatre Festival
The Caretaker (London)
The Caretaker (Broadway-2003)
The Caretake (London, 2007)
The Collection & A Kind of Alaska (Off-Broadway 2010)
The Dumb Waiter (London, 2007)
Homecoming (London's Almeida, 2008)
The Homecoming, (Broadway 2007)
The Homecoming, (London)
The Hothouse (London, 2007)
a href="hothouselon.html">The Hothouse (London 2013)
The Lover/ The Collection(London 2008)
No Man's Land (Broadway 2013)
No Man's Land, (London)
No Manâ??s LandÂ (New Jersey 2010)
Moonlight (Studio Theatre Metheny 2009)
Old Times (2015 Roundabout Theater)
Old Times(London 2013)
Old Times (Shakespeare Theatre-DC
Old Times (Los Angeles 2008) The Pinter Festival at Lincoln Center (2001)
Pinter Mirror: A Slight Ache, Family Voices, Victoria Station. (Berkshires 2009 The Pinter Project: The Birthday Party & The Homecoming
Pinter's People (sketches)(London-2007)
Room & Celebration (London)
Room & Celebration (Off-Broadway--2005)
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Quotes by and about Pinter
I don't know how music can influence writing, but it has been very important for me, both jazz and classical music. I feel a sense of music continually in writing, which is different matter from having been influenced by it.
--- Pinter in Playwrights at Work, ed. by George Plimpton, 2000
I don't give a damn what other people think. It's entirely their own business. I'm not writing for other people. — interview, Dec. 1971
I sometimes wish desperately that I could write like someone else, be someone else. No one particularly. Just if I could put the pen down on paper and suddenly come out in a totally different way.— interview, Dec. 1971
Pinter did what Auden said a poet should do. He cleaned the gutters of the English language, so that it ever afterwards flowed more easily and more cleanly. We can also say that over his work and over his person hovers a sort of leonine, predatory spirit which is all the more powerful for being held under in a rigid discipline of form, or in a black suit. The essence of his singular appeal is that you sit down to every play he writes in certain expectation of the unexpected. In sum, this tribute from one writer to another: you never know what the hell's coming next.
--- David Hare in Harold Pinter: A Celebration.
I find critics on the whole a pretty unneccessary bunch of people. We don't need critics to tell the audiences what to think.
---Harold Pinter during an interview
I can sum up none of my plays. I can describe none of them, except to say: That is what happened. That is what they said. That is what they did.
--- Harold Pinter, 1971
Shall I tell her lies or the truth? --- Pauline
Both ---Hornby in A Kind of Alaska.
You said you wanted me to get you up. --- Aston
What for? ---Davis
You said you were thinking of going to Sidcup. ---Aston
Ay, that'd be a good thing, if I got there. ---Davies
Doesn't look like much of a day. ---Aston
Ay, well, that¹s shot it, en't it? ---Davies
I said to this monk, here, I said, look here, mister, he opened the door, big door, he opened it, look here mister, I said, I showed him these, I said, you haven't got a pair of shoes, have you, a pair of shoes, I said, enough to help me on my way. Look at these, they're nearly out, I said, they¹re no good to me. I heard you got a stock of shoes here. Piss off, he said to me.
---Davies, The Caretaker
Boxing's a gentleman's game. . . . (Pause) I'll tell you what you've got to do. What you've got to do is you''t know how to defend yourself, and you don't know how to attack.
--- Max, Homecoming.
The earth's about five million years old, at least. Who Can afford to live in the past?
Quotes About Pinter
One thing plays had in common: you were supposed to believe what people said up there. If somebody comes in and says, â??Tea or coffee?' and the answer is â??Tea,' you are entitled to assume that somebody is offered a choice of two drinks, and the second person has stated a preference. With Mr. Pinter there are alternatives, such as the man preferred coffee but the other person wished him to have tea,or that he preferred the stuff you make from coffee beans under the impression that it was called tea.—Tom Stoppard, on the common thread connecting a all Pinnter plays.
The essence of his singular appeal is that you sit down to every play or film he writes in certain expectation of the unexpected.— David Hare, who was a member of the political seminars known as the June 20th Society, hosted by Pinter and his wife, Lady Antonia Fraser. (ither members included Ian McEwan, Michael Holroyd, John Mortimer, Salman Rushdie and Germaine Greer).
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