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Harold Pinter’s Cultural Map

This article was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on January 6, 1999. All rights reserved.

How astonishing in this, the most wordy and congested

20th century, to earn your own adjective. And that the adjective in

question — "Pinteresque" — is generally used to describe

the quieter, more enigmatic pauses in our times, the fragmentary conversations

that ward off our terror of the void, is more to Harold Pinter’s credit.

The British playwright who has succeeded in leaving his mark on the

Oxford English Dictionary reads from his works at Princeton University’s

McCosh 50 on Monday, January 11, at 5 p.m.

Over the past 40 years, Pinter has been writing plays that read like

a cultural map of our times: "The Birthday Party," "The

Dumb Waiter," "The Caretaker," "A Slight Ache,"

"The Homecoming," "No Man’s Land," and "Betrayal."

In Pinter’s plays, characters grapple with their existence and the

torture of human relationships. Here pauses and silences are filled

with meaning, while spoken language is often used to conceal the truth.

Contradictions, repetitions, and small talk are the expressions of

characters desperate to maintain a verbal connection with those around

them, even when real communication appears impossible.

Born in 1930 in Hackney, just beyond the borders of London’s traditional

Jewish East End, Pinter was the son of a ladies’ tailor (and became

a lifelong "natty" dresser), grandson of Jewish immigrants

from Poland and Odessa. He was the beloved and protected only child

of his parents’ enduring marriage, his secure home life twice disrupted

by forced wartime evacuations.

Books had a strong hold on the young Pinter’s imagination. In his

1996 biography, "The Life and Work of Harold Pinter," author

Michael Billington recounts how, at 15, Pinter bought a copy of James

Joyce’s "Ulysses," somewhat to his parents’ dismay. Pinter

explains how this "wasn’t taken very well for the simple reason

that my parents had heard about it . . . they didn’t look into it

but they knew there was something fishy about it. My father, in fact,

told me to take it off the living-room bookshelf. He said he wouldn’t

have a book like that in a room where my mother served dinner."

Nurtured by a large extended family, Pinter discarded

the Jewish faith in his youth and by age 18 was arrested for refusing

military service. His high school years were followed by two brief

stints at drama school before he embarked in earnest on an acting

career, much of it under the name of David Baron. From 1953 to 1956,

Pinter led a double life; on the one hand as an aspiring actor, in

and out of work, "slogging round the reps," playing everything

from Shakespeare to the front half of a horse. At the same time he

was a closet writer, writing poems, prose sketches, and working on

an early autobiographical novel (unpublished until 1990), "The

Dwarfs." Like most out-of-work actors, he also worked a panoply

of odd jobs that included doorman, dishwasher, salesman, snow-shoveler,

and bouncer at a dance hall.

Pinter married fellow actor Vivien Merchant in 1956, a marriage that

lasted 20 years and produced their son, Daniel. Since 1980 he has

been married to his Antonia Fraser, the novelist and esteemed biographer

of England’s historical past.

Pinter’s earliest full-length play, "The Birthday Party,"

was a resounding failure on its first performances. The first work

that brought commercial success, widespread fame, and a modicum of

financial security was "The Caretaker," which opened in London

in 1960. His recent works include the 1993 play "Moonlight"

that explores conflict between fathers and sons.

David Leveaux, the stage director whose production of "Electra"

was recently performed at McCarter Theater, has directed Pinter the

playwright and Pinter the actor. "I think when he’s writing a

play there’s almost an unchecked open channel between his unconscious

and the page," Leveaux observes. "When he finished that process,

the door closes in some way and he is something of a stranger to the

work itself."

Throughout his career Pinter has also written radio and television

dramas and film screenplays that include "The Go-Between,"

"The Last Tycoon," and "The French Lieutenant’s Woman."

Harold Pinter, Princeton University Humanities Council,

McCosh 50, 609-258-4719. Free. Monday, January 11, 5 p.m.

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