Harold Pinter

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I interrupt the holiday festivities to note the passing of Harold Pinter. To "serious playwrights" of my generation, Pinter was second only to Beckett in terms of being a must-read. Back when I was trying to figure out what a play is, I read all the Pinter I could get my hands on. As the years went by, I sufficiently developed my talent to the point where I finally began to understand that I didn’t have the slightest idea what Pinter was doing. I understood that his absurdist dramas were primarily about mood, that they weren’t meant to be taken literally, but it was a good twenty-five years before I started to get a handle on the full measure of his accomplishment. Pinter himself consistently refused to discuss his work in any but the most practical terms ("you stand there and say this and pause here and then stick the knife in, and that’s really all there is to it") but a piece last year from John Lahr in the New Yorker did an excellent job of putting the whole thing into something like a proper perspective.  To paraphrase Beckett’s thoughts on Joyce, most playwrights write about something, but Pinter’s plays are something.  They don’t find drama in social interaction, they are drama itself.  They aren’t there to merely entertain you, they’re there to provoke an emotional reaction.  That sounds easy, but try it some time, try to create a drama that pushes past the conventions of the form to arrive at a place where the drama is the play itself, and maybe you too can end up with a Nobel prize.

For those thinking "Who the heck is Harold Pinter?" I suggest you begin with Betrayal, a mid-period piece of his, a relatively straightforward romantic drama with a simple, ingenious twist — it is told backwards. For my illiterate readers, there is an excellent film adaptation starring Ben Kingsley and Jeremy Irons. Another good place to start is his electrifying anti-torture one-act One for the Road.  Or, you could watch himexplain himself — in his own kind of way — in his Nobel speech.  And here is the young Ian Holm as Lenny in a scene from The Homecoming. And here is Donald Pleasence and Alan Bates in a scene from The Caretaker.  And here is some very late Pinter, a chunk of his adaptation of Peter Shaffer’s (actually Anthony Shaffer’s  — see below) Sleuth with Michael Caine and Jude Law, directed by Kenneth Branagh, which well illustrates his way with threat and the power struggles that underlie the smallest conversational tidbits.

A few years ago, I had a devastating moment of self-definition in a hotel bathtub in Innsbruck. I was reading a little book of essays on Pinter, published in conjunction with his 70th birthday. One of the essays described him as England’s last "important" writer, that is, a writer whose work isn’t merely decorative, or "entertainment," but which has worth and resonance into the "real" world, the world of politics and world affairs, and which physically alters the shape of its form — plays would never be quite the same after Pinter, and any theatrical moment that wrings uneasy menace from a silence will be forever known as "Pinteresque." My devastating moment of self-definition came when I suddenly realized, with an electric chill, that no one is ever going to publish a little book of essays on my 70th birthday, describing me as an "important writer." It was a shaming moment, but also a freeing one, because I realized that the job of Harold Pinter was already taken, there was no point in my pursuing it. I decided then that if I ever wrote a memoir, I would call it An Unimportant Writer.


16 Responses to “Harold Pinter”
  1. kikilatrace says:

    your tribute kicked my tribute’s ass.

    but then again, you have people actually reading your blog, so I guess there are some expectations to be met.

  2. monica_black says:

    You have somehow managed to put my thoughts on Pinter’s writing and death into the words I couldn’t put them into earlier today.

    Other than Beckett, I don’t think that anyone can or ever will top Pinter’s writing. And if that happens, I’ll eat my words.

  3. craigjclark says:

    This is the news that I woke up to this morning and it’s definitely put a damper on my holiday. At this point, the only death that would be equally devastating to me would be Tom Stoppard’s (and I hope that is far, far in the future).

  4. Of playwrights whose lives have overlapped mine, Pinter comes second only to Beckett for me.

    Pinter started as an actor, and occasionally went back to it. He was, I think, pretty terrific in David Mamet’s film of Beckett’s penultimate play Catastrophe, which can be seen HERE (which also features John Gielgud’s final film performance).

  5. urbaniak says:

    To top it all off, the man outlived his obituary writer.

  6. Oh, and thanks for the link to the Sleuth excerpt – should note the play is by Anthony Shaffer, not Peter (twin brother playwrights, who also wrote mysteries together as “Peter Andrew”).

    Fascinating adaptation – I’m a fan of the original play/film, but I’d read that Pinter read Shaffer’s play once and then did what he cared to with what he remembered of it. It feels like that all right. The plot is Shaffer, but the feel is all Pinter.

  7. mr_noy says:

    Weird. I just got in (it’s really late) and was about to watch Sleuth for the first time but decided to surf the web first. Then I found out about Pinter’s passing. I had no idea until I read your post that he had adapted Sleuth. I was slightly disappointed to discover that, according to IMDB, that he adapted the 2007 version, not the 1972 version which is the one I rented on a whim yesterday. Still, knowing Pinter was involved is more incentive for me to seek out the 2007 version as well. I haven’t seen any of the filmed adaptations of his plays but I’ve seen theatrical productions of Betrayal, The Collection, A Kind of Alaska, The Homecoming and The Birthday Party. The last two in particular left images seared onto the bottom of my brain pan that time hasn’t scoured off yet. Electrifying stuff. I love Krapp’s Last Tape and would have loved to have seen Pinter in it. I hope somebody recorded it for posterity (appropriate and ironic, given Krapp’s subject matter).

  8. curt_holman says:

    The Birthday Caretaker

    You’ll find this amusing:

    I must say that I rarely “get” Pinter unless I’m seeing his work on stage. The plays don’t have nearly the same impact on me when I read them. A friend of mine and I saw the Betrayal film when it came out, and got so bored we went and watched the rest of whatever was playing next door (probably ‘The Road Warrior’). I point out, though, that he and I weren’t exclusively action fans, and sat through ‘My Dinner With Andre’ TWICE the night it opened.

    But maybe I should see ‘Betrayal’ again, and would appreciate it more.

    • craigjclark says:

      Re: The Birthday Caretaker

      My first Pinter play was a high school production of The Dumb Waiter, which was pretty good as those things go. It definitely put the bug in me and ever since I’ve devoured as much Pinter as I could get my hands on, usually in book form, but occasionally on the stage as well.

      Soon after, I saw Betrayal on television and loved it. It’s one film that I still can’t believe is unavailable on DVD. You’d think some enterprising company would have put it out by now.

      Over the past year and a half I’ve worked steadily on seeing as many of his other films as I can, but so far his work from the ’80s and ’90s (like Turtle Diary, Reunion, The Comfort of Strangers and The Trial) has proved most elusive. If you want to see Pinter the actor, though, I cannot recommend John Boorman’s The Tailor of Panama enough. He’s just incredible in it.

  9. greyaenigma says:

    My devastating moment of self-definition came when I suddenly realized, with an electric chill, that no one is ever going to publish a little book of essays on my 70th birthday, describing me as an “important writer.”

    I realized this about myself decades ago! I’m ahead of the curve! Of course, not writing anymore doesn’t help.

  10. stormwyvern says:

    ll take the job of admitting that I’ve never read or seen a Pinter play. I did already know of the man, but solely because my sister and her playwright husband named their dog “Pinter,” which led to an explanation of why. I will try to get around to reading some of his work now that a good chunk of the internet has reason to sing his praises.