Corrections or additions?
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
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."
McCosh 50, 609-258-4719. Free. Monday, January 11, 5 p.m.
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.