Pinter: A great dramatist

Harold Pinter, who has died at the age of 78, on December 24, 2008, was the most influential, provocative and poetic dramatist of his generation. He enjoyed parallel careers as an actor, screenwriter and director. He was also a vigorous political polemicist. But it is for his plays that he will be best remembered, and for his ability to create dramatic poetry out of everyday speech. It is a measure of Pinter’s power that early on he spawned the adjective ‘Pinteresque’, suggesting a cryptically mysterious situation imbued with hidden menace. He also won the Nobel prize for literature in 2005.

Whether in art, politics or religion, Pinter was a born nay-sayer who examined all received truths with a rigorous scepticism. And it was Pinter who, from The Room and The Birthday Party onwards, demolished the idea of the omniscient author. Pinter’s other lasting legacy was to redefine theatrical poetry. But less attention has been paid to his pioneering work on screen.

Pinter was born into a Jewish family in the London borough of Hackney on October 10, 1930. The circumstances of his upbringing gave him a sense of solitude, separation and loss - the perfect breeding-ground for a dramatist. Always a wide reader, Pinter devoured Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Eliot, Lawrence, Woolf and Hemingway.

His early determination was to be an actor. After a second spell at drama school, he joined Anew McMaster’s Shakespearean Irish touring company in 1951 and later worked with Donald Wolfit’s company in Hammersmith. But in the mid-1950s he found himself leading a strenuous double-life. As an aspiring actor and a closet writer, penning poems, prose sketches and an autobiographical novel, eventually published as The Dwarfs in 1990. He was always hard up, although after 1956 his troubles were shared by his first wife, Vivien Merchant.

The turning-point came in 1957 when one of Pinter’s old Hackney friends, Henry Woolf, asked him to write a play for Bristol University’s drama department. The result was The Room,

which attracted the attention of a young producer, Michael Codron, who decided to present Pinter’s next play, The Birthday Party. Despite its initial failure, the play brought him a series of commissions.

He was an instinctively political writer. Proof came with a play written in 1958 but not actually produced until 1980 — The Hothouse. The play that finally secured his reputation was The Caretaker. Then came plays like Night School, The Collection, The Lover, Tea Party, The Homecoming. Power and sex — these were always two of Pinter’s classic themes.

But in the 1960s he explored them in cinema too. Indeed, his greatness as a playwright has obscured his mastery of screenwriting, and just as in the theatre he had found the perfect interpreter in Peter Hall, so in the cinema he found director Joseph Losey. The greatest of their collaborations remains The Servant (1963), other works include Accident (1967) and The Go-Between (1970).

His immersion in cinema brought a major change in his theatre work. He dispensed with the paraphernalia of realism. In Landscape and Silence in 1969 it took the form of poetically interwoven monologues. His plays focused on theme of memory such as In Old Times (1971), when Pinter came to adapt Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu for the cinema — published as The Proust Screenplay and never filmed, although it was later staged — he was also to grapple with the greatest 20th-century treatment of memory and later in No Man’s Land.

In 1975 Pinter’s own life underwent an upheaval, his marriage broke up and he went to live with historian Antonia Fraser, who in 1980 became his second wife.

It was in mid-1980s that he started to express, in dramatic form, his strong feelings about torture, human rights and the double-standards of the western democracies. First, in 1984, came One for the Road, four years later he wrote Mountain Language, inspired by the Turkish suppression of the Kurdish language. In 1991 he pursued the theme in Party Time. But the best of all of his late political plays is Ashes to Ashes (1996). However, he continued to write plays such as Moonlight (1993) and Celebration (2000), which sharply satirised the moral coarseness of the super-rich.

He also renewed his career as an actor, appearing on stage with a muscular authority in revivals of No Man’s Land, The Collection and One for the Road, and performing on screen in a variety of movies from Mojo to Mansfield Park. He was also a lifelong director of his own and other people’s plays.

No other dramatist of his generation has proved as durable as Pinter.