A complete guide to the life and works of Harold Pinter

By | Posted on 26-Sep-2018

A complete guide to the life and works of Harold Pinter

Distinguished British playwright Harold Pinter (1930-2008) was a prolific dramatist within British theatre. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005 for uncovering the tropes of everyday life and zooming in on how characters feel. With a career spanning over five decades, Guardian theatre critic and Harold Pinter’s biographer Michael Billington described him as “one of the greatest modern dramatists” whose plays changed the shape of British theatre post-WWII.

Harold Pinter

What was Harold Pinter’s early life like?

Pinter realised he loved writing and performing while at Hackney Downs School. His poetry was first published in the school magazine and he also performed in school plays, playing Romeo in Romeo and Juliet and the eponymous Macbeth. Outside of this, Pinter loved cricket and saw it as a great theatre of aggression, saying that was cricket was “certainly greater than sex”.

Pinter also grew up with a sense of loneliness from wider society. He was evacuated from London to Cornwall during the Blitz, where he became further isolated from his family and upbringing. Having been evacuated three times, his firsthand experience of war and destruction foreshadowed a dramatist who would tap into darker topics throughout his work.

After WWII, Pinter did not enlist in the military, instead choosing to be a conscientious objector. Refusing to serve, he was given a fine for not completing national service. His early life formed a man who would not create traditional plays and would form his own style.

How were Harold Pinter’s early plays received? 

Pinter’s early theatre career started at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1948. Hating the school, he dropped out in 1949 and continued his journey to becoming an actor.

His acting career in the 1950’s was mainly in regional theatre. In particular, he toured Ireland with the Anew McMaster repertory company and performed with the Donald Wolfit Company in Hammersmith. From 1954 until 1959, Pinter performed under the name David Baron.

During the 1950’s, he also penned plays. His first short-play The Room was performed as a student production at the University of Bristol. The play sets up Pinter as a dramatist, as the story takes a comedy of menace approach to show pressures building from the outside world. This production gained attention by producer Michael Codron, who then presented Pinter’s The Birthday Party in 1958. The Birthday Party was originally a disaster. Critics didn’t find his work funny or clever, feeling sorry for the cast that had to perform it. After this, Harold Pinter nearly gave up a theatre career and was on the verge of quitting writing. However, a review published by The Sunday Times critic Harold Hobson after the show’s run said that Pinter was one of the most original talents in London during the late 1950’s.

Pinter’s initial failure with The Birthday Party helped him to find his voice as a playwright. Continuing to write plays, his early plays were “comedy of menace” as characters would be joking with each other whilst their actions would say otherwise.

His work was first celebrated in 1960, when The Caretaker established his reputation. Initially performed at the Arts Theatre, the show later transferred to the Duchess Theatre for 444 performances. Bursting into the spotlight, his plays were being performed on radio, television and on stage, with a revival of The Birthday Party, despite its original failure. By the mid-1960’s, Pinter was a household name. He had achieved celebrity playwright status and his career would continue to grow and branch out from writing into performing and politics.

How was Harold Pinter’s later career?

Pinter’s writing career was influenced by politics that he saw on the news or was currently living in, which evolved his plays. From the 1960’s to the 1980’s, his plays can be labelled as “memory plays” as the lead character narrates the events of the play which are drawn from their memory. Examples include A Kind of Alaska which took inspiration from a novel written by a neurologist.

Whilst many of his works can be classed as “memory plays”, later texts serve memory through a political lens. Pinter’s plays became overtly political, acting as a platform to discuss torture and human rights. For example, Mountain Language was inspired by a visit to Turkey, where Pinter wanted to express the fate of the Kurdish people and how language affects power.

Towards the end of his career, Pinter wanted to devote more time to politics so stopped writing plays. However, his work makes it clear that Pinter has always been interested in giving his opinion on the political state through absurd drama that allowed the silences in memory and words to communicate just as much as the action on stage.

In a piece memorialising Harold Pinter, Billington recounts how even in his final days, Pinter would still attend productions of his work.

“I can only recount an amazing experience I had two months ago when I directed Pinter’s Party Time, Celebration and a staged version of his Nobel lecture with drama students at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. Pinter had promised to come to the final performance and, on a cold autumn Saturday, he and his wife, Antonia, duly turned up… as the cast gestured towards him at curtain-call, he struggled to his feet with great difficulty, shook them individually by the hand and made an impromptu speech expressing his admiration for their performance”.

What are some of Harold Pinter’s famous works?

Throughout his career, Pinter authored 32 plays and 13 sketches. He also won awards celebrating his literary talent across the world, including a BAFTA Fellowship in 1997 and the Hermann Kesten Prize in 2001, celebrating those who write on behalf of persecuted writers. He was also presented with 20 honorary degrees from universities in the United Kingdom, United States and many European countries. During the Pinter at the Pinter season at the Harold Pinter Theatre, some of these works will be performed.

The Caretaker (1960): Pinter’s first significant commercial success, The Caretaker tells the story of two brothers and a tramp who find themselves in a power struggle. In a recent adaptation of the play, it has been labelled as “an outsider’s tale for xenophobic times” where being an outsider is hostile and corruption lurks in society.

The Homecoming (1965): Set in North London, the play centres around married couple Teddy and Ruth’s homecoming. Bringing their family into the equation, The Homecoming questions the relationship between sex and power and where the true homecoming really lies, especially giving that Ruth is the only female in the play.

Betrayal (1978): Betrayal focuses on the emotions attached to marital affairs, tapping into hidden emotions and the silences. Whilst reviewed as presenting the reality of reality of relationships, Michael Billington likened it to a soap opera. So, when Betrayal won the top prize at the Society of London theatre awards, Pinter used an iconic Pinter pause to acknowledge Michael Billington’s distaste, which has become one of Billington’s fond memories.

Harold Pinter One

One for the Road (1984): Telling the story of a tortured couple and a child who are held captive by an officer within a totalitarian regime, One for the Road shows conflicting power relationships with his surroundings in front of him against the wider politics. One for the Road is being performed as part of Pinter One.

Moonlight (1993): Set in Andy’s well-furnished room and his son Fred’s scruffy room, we meet Andy, an ex-civil servant who is lying on his deathbed. Reflecting with the relationship of life, death and family, comfort comes from Bridget who bridges the gap between youth and age.

Celebration (2000): Celebration is set at a dinner party in an expensive London restaurant. While couples seem to be celebrating wedding anniversaries and following normal relationship conventions, their relationships aren’t all they appear to be and love/hate relationships develop.

Are there any common features in Pinter’s work?

Pinter’s style of work is so well-known and unique that “Pinteresque” has been entered in the Oxford English Dictionary. The dictionary definition states that being Pinteresque is:

“resembling or characteristic of the works of the English playwright Harold Pinter, in particular by having a sense of menace and featuring dialogue marked by many pauses”

His writing normally features meaningful pauses, and the commonly named ‘Pinter pause’ is his writing trademark. In his work, a pause can be just as important as a line, as pauses could communicate loneliness, awkwardness as well as significant moments that should be communicated non-verbally.

When characters do speak to each other, the dialogue is full of nonsensical comments that stray away from the original subject, which can make Pinter’s plays confusing. Pinter’s works are normally classed as Theatre of the Absurd. Characters show what’s going on in their mind on the outside. While performances may cause anxiety for those who are watching, they are irrational and are typically ‘tragicomedies’.

Was Harold Pinter just a writer?

In 1973, Harold Pinter became an associate director of the National Theatre, directing almost 50 productions across film, television and stage. Notably, he directed Quartermaine’s Terms in 1981, a stage adaptation of the book written by Simon Gray. With Pinter directing productions he did not write, it allowed him to further develop his drama style.

Although beginning his theatre career on stage, Pinter continued to perform as well as write. He made cameo appearances in films based on his own screenplays such as Turtle Diary starring Michael Gambon. He also starred in the television adaptation of Pulitzer Prize-winning Wit in 2001 for HBO alongside Emma Thompson.

Pinter’s last appearance on stage was in 2006, when he performed Samuel Beckett’s one-act monologue Krapp’s Last Tape where he played Krapp. Battling cancer and taking the Royal Court Theatre in a motorised wheelchair, the nine shows were performed to sell-out crowds each night and received rave reviews.

Aside from writing, Pinter was heavily involved in a number of political groups, including the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. In particular, Pinter was vocal in his feelings against war, publicly opposing the Gulf War and recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

What is Harold Pinter’s legacy?

In the Los Angeles Times, David Hare said “the essence of Pinter’s singular appeal is that you sit down to every play he writes in certain expectation of the unexpected”, perfectly summing up Harold Pinter. His works may seem initially confusing, with a heavy focus on language and characterisation. Yet, by concentrating so much on the characters, audiences relate to the stories even when adapted into modern surroundings.

In 2011, the Comedy Theatre was renamed the Harold Pinter Theatre, as the work of Pinter was part and parcel of the theatre’s history, so the renaming seemed fitting to mark Pinter’s life as a dramatist.

Passing away in 2008, Pinter’s work is celebrated by theatre critics, dramatists and actors alike. Billington came to the conclusion that Pinter’s legacy rests on his desire to communicate politics and normal situations in a way that was extraordinary and just simply Pinteresque.

Photo credit: Wikipedia under Creative Commons 3.0.