The Pinter of our discontent

Following the death of Harold Pinter, James Maxwell pauses for thought on the life of the Noble prize-winning playwright

The poet, polemicist and playwright Harold Pinter, who died last year on the 24th of December, was one of the dominant figures of Britain’s post-war cultural landscape. Despite the critical savaging his first work, ‘The Room’, received when it debuted in 1957, he would eventually earn comparisons with Irish literary titans James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. In 2005 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Pinter was born in East London in 1930 to a lower-middle class Jewish family (his father was a tailor, his mother a housewife), schooled at Hackney Downs Grammar and studied acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, although he claims to have spent much of his time there “wandering the streets like a tramp”. From an early age it was clear Pinter possessed a tendency for contrary behaviour; a tendency that would manifest itself consistently throughout both his private and professional life.

It was also evident that he harboured an intense natural antipathy toward authority. For instance, in 1948 — aged just eighteen — he was twice brought to trial for refusing to complete compulsory national service; an act of obstinace and defiance that temporarily ostracised him from a community which had suffered excessively during the Second World War.

His formal education ended when he graduated from RADA. He avoided university — which would have presented him with the unwelcome disciplines and pressures of an academic routine — and in the mid-1950s began work on stage. Acting was not Pinter’s primary talent (although he had been conventionally trained and was as such equipped with the basic elements of the craft) and he quickly came to realise that writing provided greater scope for expressing his creative impulses.

After the publication of a number of his poems in some minor university journals, Pinter succeeded in persuading a small Bristol-based production company to put on a performance of ‘The Room’.

There was just one dissenting voice from the scores of drama critics who lined up to eviscerate his first official authorial and directorial outing. Only Harold Hobson of The Sunday Times recognised the potential of the young playwright, noting that Pinter was perhaps “the most original, disturbing and arresting talent in London”. Hobson congratulated Pinter for having successfully combined the disconcerting surrealism of Beckett with the domestic realism of dramatists like John Osborne, and for having introduced such a novel style into a theatrical environment that had grown self-referencing and over-familiar.

Pinter’s dialogue is characterised by the use of casual, colloquial language and punctuated with extended, menacing pauses that draw our attention to the sinister and discomforting features of ordinary speech that usually remain hidden. His best plays (generally those written between the late 50s and mid 70s) are preoccupied with investigating and exposing the fundamentally coercive nature of all human relationships.

Pinter appeared to believe that power, with its multitude of disguises, defines how people interact with one another on every level, from familial to political and institutional. For example, in ‘The Birthday Party’ (1957), we are presented with a couple — Stan and Meg — who seem to habitually exploit and persecute one another, and in ‘The Homecoming’ (1959), Pinter explores what he perceived as the inevitably violent and masochistic heart of contemporary sexual discourse. The play abruptly climaxes with three brothers and their father grovelling at the feet of the only female on stage.

Although, Pinter’s characters are frequently subjected to dark and humiliating settings and experiences, Professor Robert Grant of Glasgow University’s English Literature Department suggests that Pinter felt drawn to examine the unspoken brutality of everyday associations because “he empathised to an extreme degree with human suffering.”

Toward the latter half of his career, Pinter came to exercise this empathy in plays that focus on the oppression and subjugation of minority ethnic groups. ‘Mountain Language’, for instance, attempts to display the full effects of state-sanctioned censorship when it is applied to an entire culture. The play’s most desperate and ironic moment comes when a soldier and soon-to-be torturer announces to his prisoners, “Your language is forbidden. It is dead. No one is allowed to speak your language. Your language no longer exists…Any Questions?”

By the 1980s, it seemed Pinter had become increasingly obsessed with politics — an obsession that many commentators agree worked to the irreversible detriment of writing. In 1987 he briefly formed a left-leaning discussion group that included novelist Salman Rushdie (among other prominent figures from London’s liberal artistic elite), but it swiftly collapsed under the combined weight of the contending egos.

In 1995, he refused a knighthood from the Major administration, stating plainly and frankly that he was “unable to accept such an honour from a Conservative government.” In the late nineties he committed what was perhaps his most shameful and diminishing act when he joined an international committee dedicated to the defence of Serbian ultra-nationalist and serial ethnic-cleanser Slobodan Milosevic.

Pinter’s decision to side with Milosevic was indicative of his approach to global politics, which was dependent on and constructed around the belief that the United States is responsible for all the world’s ills — an attitude that confirmed the suspicions of critics and admirers alike that he had developed an obsessive personality. He responded with fury to the actions of the Bush administration, but reacted to Tony Blair — a man he considered an obsequious and moralising war criminal — with something resembling pathological loathing.

Opinion is divided on Pinter the activist and ideologue. When he was made a Nobel Laureate, the judges said that they had “taken his political activities into consideration.” Dr. Simon Murray, a lecturer on Theatre Studies at Glasgow University, argues that: “As a highly political playwright he challenged the conventions of the most banal forms of realism … He was also that increasingly rare animal, the ‘public intellectual’, who spoke cogently, fearlessly and often controversially about the moral, ethical and political inequities of capitalism and imperialism.”

In contrast, Professor Grant offers this observation: “I don’t think he was in any way politically important, despite his high profile … even to those who were half-sympathetic to his politics, and certainly to admirers of his work, he was an embarrassment … I was very pleased, however, that we gave him an honorary degree, and I’m told that he was, too.”

There is a great deal less controversy about the extent of Pinter’s talent as a writer and dramatist. So distinct is Pinter’s style and so constant and engaging are his themes that it is not in the least surprising that he is one of the few playwrights of the modern era who can claim to have given rise to their own adjective.

The term ‘Pinteresque’ has come to be used to describe the highly concentrated, often excruciating silences that mark conversation not just in his plays, but in real life. Of those famous silences Professor Grant says, “I think what Pinter is trying to do is illustrate emotions and intentions in, so to speak,  their ‘pure’ state, uncontaminated by any questions of the object of that emotion. People in Pinter are not afraid of something; they are just afraid, period, and the actual object of their fear is left blank.”


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