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Harold Pinter

Harold Pinter, playwright, director, poet, actor, political activist and Nobel laureate, died on 24 December 2008. He was 78.

All the national quality dailies pay tribute to his stature as a playwright. Michael Billington in The Guardian sums it up thus:

Among the dramatists of the last 50 years, Samuel Beckett is his only serious rival in terms of theatrical influence, and it is a measure of Pinter’s power that early on he spawned the adjective “Pinteresque”, suggesting a cryptically mysterious situation imbued with hidden menace.

The Daily Telegraph also defines “Pinteresque”, though slightly differently as “an awkward silence suggesting some kind of hidden menace”; Alastair Macaulay in the Financial Times renders it as “implying suspense, menace, eroticism, mystery”. The Times contents itself with noting that “The description ‘Pinteresque’ has become part of our language” without, however, defining what the word means.

Michael Pennington in The Independent doesn’t bother with the word at all. He does, however, give the best description of Pinter’s boyhood:

…a warm but introverted boyhood in Hackney, east London, as the heartily loved only child of Jack Pinter, a ladies’ tailor, and his wife Frances. After various bruising evacuations – but also plenty of London in the Blitz – Pinter found a place at Hackney Downs Grammar School, where he met his great English teacher and mentor, Joe Brearley, with whom he would walk from Springfield Park to Bethnal Green shouting speeches from The Duchess of Malfi and The Revenger’s Tragedy at the trolley buses, and under whose direction he played Macbeth and Romeo.

An early defining experience for him came in 1948, according to the FT:

…not in his decision to act but when, at 18, he was called up for National Service and registered as a conscientious objector. He had to argue his case through tribunals and trials, and at home against his parents – though his father paid his fines – and he learnt quite how Kafkaesque it can be to be misrepresented by the authorities.

The young Pinter’s ambition was to be an actor. After briefly studying at RADA, only to leave early, he returned to it – thus The Guardian:

After a second spell at drama school, he joined Anew McMaster’s Shakespearean Irish touring company in 1951 and later worked with Donald Wolfit’s company in Hammersmith. From these two masters of the big effect, the young Pinter learned how to achieve maximum intensity through silence or gesture.

But it was as a playwright that he made his mark, in the last 1950s. After an initial stir with his first play, The Room, he suffered a big setback with his next, as The Times relates:

Notoriously, the daily papers reviled The Birthday Party at its opening, calling it hopelessly obscure. And though, several days later, Harold Hobson hailed it enthusiastically in The Sunday Times [“the most original, disturbing and arresting talent in theatrical London”, The Guardian quotes his description of Pinter], the play had been withdrawn the day before after only a week. It had taken £260 11s 8d at the box office.

Michael Pennington’s obituary in The Independent reflects on this setback:

Anybody can flop: the manner of recovery makes the man. For two years afterwards, like its hero Stanley refusing to be told what to do, Pinter determinedly prepared for success: nursing the play back to health by means of a revival and television adaptation, writing three new plays and overseeing the premieres of two written earlier, The Room and The Dumb Waiter. After the runaway triumph of The Caretaker in 1960 he needed no more time for recovery.

Pinter’s plays are noted for their various nuanced silences. The Daily Telegraph analyses them:

Pinter’s best known mannerism came, in fact, in three sizes. The longest break was marked in the text “silence,” implying a character’s profound change of mood or attitude; the medium length pause was just marked “pause”, indicating a crisis and filled with unspoken meaning; and the briefest pause was marked by three dots.

A big upheaval came in 1975 when Pinter left his first wife, Vivien Merchant, for historian Antonia Fraser:

In 1975, at the height of his fame, Pinter’s private life became the subject of many newspaper columns and much dinner party discussion when he left Vivien Merchant for Lady Antonia Fraser, then married to the Conservative MP Sir Hugh Fraser. Vivien Merchant, devastated by the affair, spoke at length about the couple, telling the press that “he didn’t have to take a change of shoes. He can wear Antonia’s. She has very big feet, you know.” (Daily Telegraph)

Pinter’s second marriage in 1980 appeared to give him a whole new lease of life; here’s Michael Pennington’s description in The Independent:

Now came, for lack of a better word, the politics, which of course had always been there. Pinter’s public role was never, as some thought, a coat he suddenly decided to wear. He had been shocked into political scepticism as a teenager by the anti-Semitism and anti-Communism (under a Labour government) of the immediate post-war years, and he never forgot the way one of the judges at his military tribunal for conscientious objection had falsified his testimony, accusing him of being a man who wouldn’t defend his sister in time of war.

Tony Benn, also in The Independent, writes:

…those who have never heard him speaking on the public platform passionately denouncing the brutality of war and the murder, torture, plunder and rape with which it is inevitably accompanied, may never be able to appreciate the impact it made upon his audiences.

He spared no one, however high and mighty, in his outbursts of anger at the personal responsibility they bore for what was being done in our name and, for that reason, the mainstream media chose – very largely – to ignore his political campaigns.

Despite these “outbursts of anger”, Pinter appears to have been a man who loved life and found real happiness in his later years. Michael Billington writes in The Guardian:

As for the man himself, he was full of contradictions. He had a reputation for being short-tempered, but, in writing a critical biography of him, I was more struck by his unflinching loyalty. He remained close to the friends of his youth – the Hackney gang of Henry Woolf, Mick Goldstein and Morris Wernick. He also listened to what other people said – the secret of his gift as a writer. And he had an immense zest for life. He loved poetry, wine, bridge and just about every kind of sport, especially cricket. I often thought he was as proud of the cricket team he first played for and then managed, the Gaieties, as of almost all his literary accomplishments.

And actor Michael Gambon, writing in reply to the obituary inThe Independent, adds:

…he wasn’t just a good director – he was the best… And it was always clear that he was at heart a very fun guy. People say that he was sour but that was never my experience; rather one got a sense of his playfulness. Often he’d have a drink and a fag, back in the day when he used to smoke, that is. Not whisky, as some people said – beer, usually, or maybe a glass of white wine. He’d sit quite still on his chair, watching rehearsals proceed. …

He leaves the most enormous gaping hole behind him. It’s like someone you know leaving you behind as they head elsewhere. I think of Harold as the iron rod of English theatre: without him we’re much weaker.

(Harold Pinter CH CBE, born 10 October 1930 in London; died 24 December 2008 in London)

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