Spotlight on Harold Pinter
| By Ephram Ryan
(Updated on Oct 4, 2018)
Harold Pinter was born in Hackney in 1930 to British parents of Polish-Jewish descent. He was an only child and together with his family, survived the Blitz bombings of World War II during which they were evacuated to Cornwall and Reading. Considering how heavily bombed London was during this time, it's a miracle that his family managed to escape. These dark times were very influential on Pinter's work and all of his theatre pieces incorporate themes of loss, separation, loneliness and bewilderment.
It also comes as no surprise that Pinter sought a means to express himself after experiencing such a traumatic childhood. Following the Blitz, he turned to poetry at 12 years old. His family then returned to Hackney where Pinter began attending a London grammar school called Hackney Downs from 1944 to 1948. In the spring of 1947, his poetry began to garner attention when it was published in the Hackney Downs School Magazine. The year of 1950 saw his poetry reach the general public when it was published in Poetry London under his semi-pseudonym, Harold Pinta.
Following grammar school, Pinter attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art for two terms but found the school to be inadequate. He frequently played truant and even faked a nervous breakdown before finally dropping out in 1949. Understandably, after living through the London bombings of 1940 and 1941, Pinter refused to participate in compulsory military service when he was called up for National Service in 1948. He was also actively opposed to Cold War politics. He tried to register as a conscientious objector, which resulted in two prosecutions and a fine. Eventually, the government acquiesced and allowed him to carry on with his life.
After evading National Service, Pinter went into acting with his first role in Dick Whittington and His Cat at the Chesterfield Hippodrome from 1949 to 1950. He then briefly attended the Central School of Speech and Drama before dropping out once again to pursue his acting career. During these years, he performed in a number of shows across Ireland and England, often under his stage name David Baron. It is unclear from where he adopted this name, but it may have been an homage to the famous Jewish convert to Christianity. His BBC mentor at the time reportedly wasn't fond of the name change but for Pinter, it was a fresh start.
In the late 50s, he began writing his own stage and television plays. Some of his most notable works include The Room (1957), The Birthday Party (written in 1957 and first produced in 1958), The Dumb Waiter (1957), The Homecoming (1964), and Betrayal (1978). The Homecoming may have garnered a Tony Award for Best Play in 1967, but his career certainly wasn't an immediate success. His most well-known play, The Birthday Party, initially didn't fare well when it debuted in London in 1958, despite having been widely successful in Cambridge, Oxford and Wolverhampton. The play was, perhaps, just not ready for London audiences, despite one favourable review from Harold Hobson, which came too late to save the production. However, the review may have saved Pinter's career. The Birthday Party has been revived countless times and most recently ran at the Harold Pinter Theatre this year.
Pinter's theatre pieces from 1957 to 1968 became known as comedies of menace thanks to drama critic Irving Wardle who adopted the moniker from the subtitle in The Lunatic View: A Comedy of Menace. A “comedy of menace” stems from the Theatre of the Absurd movement that became prevalent following the Second World War. Plays of absurdist fiction feature themes of existentialism and aim to present reality as nonsensical and absurd. They express one’s feelings of impotence and present a loss of the ability to make oneself understood by other people while depicting mankind as threatened by the very mechanisms of modern civilisation that they created.
From 1968 to 1982, Pinter wrote many theatre pieces that were dubbed “memory plays” because they explored the “quicksand-like” characteristics of memory. They involve storylines in which the lead character narrates the events of the play that derive from the character’s memory. They also can be defined as plays where memory functions as a weapon. Select memory plays of his include Landscape (1968), Silence (1969), No Man’s Land (1975), and A Kind of Alaska (1982). His memory plays Betrayal (1978) and Old Times (1971) are significant pieces because they feature more than one character reciting past events from their own perspective, thereby creating a cloud of uncertainty as to whose side of the story represents the truth.
In 1979, Pinter voted for Margaret Thatcher’s conservative government as a protest vote in response to the National Theatre that was breathing down his neck and actively monitoring the production he was directing. Pinter later admitted that it was one of the most regretful acts of his life.
Following his memory play movement and his faux pas during the elections of ‘79, Pinter shifted his tone and began writing overtly political pieces for the remainder of his career. His political themes included oppression and human rights abuses, but he also focused on more abstract themes later on, including critiques on the level of ignorance that’s prevalent in upper-class society (1991’s Party Time and 1999’s Celebration). In addition to his plays, Pinter also wrote over two-dozen screenplays, many of which were either adapted for the stage or filmed.
Harold Pinter passed away on Christmas Eve 2008 from liver cancer but his legacy lives on. In September 2011, the Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG) announced that the Comedy Theatre on Panton Street was to be renamed The Harold Pinter Theatre, and now, 10 years after Pinter’s passing, the theatre will be honouring the legendary playwright with a full-fledged season dubbed Pinter at the Pinter that will feature 16 theatre pieces from his illustrious oeuvre. The Pinter at the Pinter season will run from 6 September 2018 until 23 February 2019.
For more information on Pinter at the Pinter and which plays will be running, click here.