Harold Pinter - 1930-2008

Harold Pinter died on December 24, 2008 after a long battle with cancer. He is remembered in the New York Times by Mel Gussow* and Ben Brantley:
In more than 30 plays — written between 1957 and 2000 and including masterworks like “The Birthday Party,” “The Caretaker,” “The Homecoming” and “Betrayal” — Mr. Pinter captured the anxiety and ambiguity of life in the second half of the 20th century with terse, hypnotic dialogue filled with gaping pauses and the prospect of imminent violence.

Along with another Nobel winner, Samuel Beckett, his friend and mentor, Mr. Pinter became one of the few modern playwrights whose names instantly evoke a sensibility. The adjective Pinteresque has become part of the cultural vocabulary as a byword for strong and unspecified menace.

An actor, essayist, screenwriter, poet and director as well as a dramatist, Mr. Pinter was also publicly outspoken in his views on repression and censorship, at home and abroad. He used his Nobel acceptance speech to denounce American foreign policy, saying that the United States had not only lied to justify waging war against Iraq, but that it had also “supported and in many cases engendered every right-wing military dictatorship” in the last 50 years.

His political views were implicit in much of his work. Though his plays deal with the slipperiness of memory and human character, they are also almost always about the struggle for power.

The dynamic in his work is rooted in battles for control, turf wars waged in locations that range from working-class boarding houses (in his first produced play, “The Room,” from 1957) to upscale restaurants (the setting for “Celebration,” staged in 2000). His plays often take place in a single, increasingly claustrophobic room, where conversation is a minefield and even innocuous-seeming words can wound.
My first encounter with Mr. Pinter's work was working on a production of The Birthday Party at the University of Miami in 1973 (included in the cast was Ernie Sabella). I remember thinking that there had to be something more to the play than just the plot, and the more I saw it in rehearsal and in performance, the more I got to think about it. But what intrigued me was the reaction of other people who were watching it; some were repulsed by it while others were fascinated, but no two people had the same reaction. They didn't know if it was a horror story or a farce. But that's what the playwright wanted:
Few writers have been so consistent over so many years in the tone and execution of their work. Just before rehearsals began for the West End production of “The Birthday Party” half a century ago, Mr. Pinter sent a letter to his director, Peter Wood. In it he said, “The play dictated itself, but I confess that I wrote it — with intent, maliciously, purposefully, in command of its growth.”

He added: “The play is a comedy because the whole state of affairs is absurd and inglorious. It is, however, as you know, a very serious piece of work.”
The next time I saw the play was a few years later when it was staged at the University of Minnesota, this time directed by Emily Mann. It was a completely different production -- intimate and thoroughly chilling. The long pauses that Mr. Pinter is so famous for were actually punctuated by the tension felt in the audience and the menace of the unspoken word. It's a lesson some playwrights and directors need to learn, and Harold Pinter is the one who taught it.

By the way, a lot of conservatives are remembering Mr. Pinter more for his stand against the war in Iraq and his Nobel speech against it in December 2005 than his life's work as a playwright and director. These commentators seem to think that somehow playwrights or artists aren't allowed to speak out on things like war and inhumanity unless, of course, they agree with them. What these people don't understand is that playwrights have been speaking to the human condition since time out of mind -- it's what we do. And even if you don't agree with the writer's point of view, it doesn't lessen the importance or the impact of their work and the insight they may shed on humanity and civilization. And anyone who would dismiss or shun a writer's work or an actor's performance because of their political views is depriving themselves of the opportunity to understand themselves and the people around them. But then, people who do that probably don't want to leave their narrow little world in the first place.

*Mr. Gussow died in 2005.


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