Disturbing talent

Print edition : January 30, 2009

Harold Pinter outside his home in London after he won the Nobel Prize in Literature, on October 13, 2005.-KIERAN DOHERTY /REUTERS

WHEN Henry Perowne, an affluent London neurosurgeon in Ian McEwans novel Saturday, buys a silver Mercedes S500 for himself, his poet daughter Daisy remarks that she thinks Harold Pinter owns something like it which made it all fine with her. It is not only Daisy Perowne for whom Pinter is an icon. In 2003, when McEwans novel is set, Harold Pinter is a major figure in 20th-century drama. The adjective Pinteresque is now part of the English language, listed in the Oxford English Dictionary as marked especially by halting dialogue, uncertainty of identity, and air of menace. In 2005, the Nobel Prize announcement lauds Pinter as a writer who in his plays uncovers the precipice under everyday prattle and forces entry into oppressions closed rooms.

But 50 years ago, when the young actor-turned-playwrights first major play, The Birthday Party, was staged at the Lyric Hammersmith in London in 1958, the theatre critics did not quite get it. In fact, they savaged it for its non-sequiturs, half-gibberish, and lunatic ravings (The Manchester Guardian) and dismissed it as just not funny enough (Evening Standard). One of those plays in which an author wallows in symbols and revels in obscurity, wrote The Daily Telegraphs reviewer. Oh, you poor darling, said an usherette to the playwright.

The London reviewers did not know that they were rubbishing one of the masterpieces of the century, but then they had not seen anything quite like it before. The three-act play is set in a seaside boarding house run by a middle-aged couple, Meg and Petey, where there is only one boarder, Stanley. Two men, Goldberg and McCann, come to seek out the boarder for some unspecified reason. Meg decides to put on a birthday party for Stanley and gives him a toy drum as a gift. The second act begins with Stanleys questioning, followed by the birthday party and a game of blind mans buff. When the third act opens, the party is over. In an unforgettably chilling scene, Goldberg and McCann tell Stanley how they will care for him from then on:

Goldberg: Well watch over you. McCann: Advise you. Goldberg: Give you proper care and treatment. McCann: Let you use the club bar. Goldberg: Keep a table reserved. McCann: Help you acknowledge the fast days. Goldberg: Bake you cakes. McCann: Help you kneel on kneeling days. Goldberg: Give you a free pass. McCann: Take you for constitutionals. Goldberg: Give you hot tips. McCann: Well provide the skipping rope. Goldberg: The vest and pants. McCann: The ointment. Goldberg: The hot poultice. McCann: The fingerstall. Goldberg: The abdomen belt. McCann: The ear plugs. Goldberg: The baby powder. McCann: The back scratcher. Goldberg: The spare tyre. McCann: The stomach pump. Goldberg: The oxygen tent. McCann: The prayer wheel. Goldberg: The plaster of paris.

It was only Harold Hobson of The Sunday Times, who had missed the opening night and saw the play on the Thursday matinee, who saw hope in the play, describing Pinter as the most original, disturbing, and arresting talent in theatrical London. But the damage had already been done, and by the time Hobsons review appeared in print, the play had already closed. It had not lasted a week.

Fortunately, television intervened and the play, a fiasco on the London stage, had a second life in its TV version. That Thursday matinee attended by Hobson had only seven people in the audience, including the struggling playwright, but the TV production had eleven million viewers. Fifty years later, the commemorative production of The Birthday Party was performed at the Lyric Hammersmith. The play had lost none of its relevance in a world where terror can still drop by with a quiet knock on the door.

Born in the London borough of Hackney in 1930 as the son of a Jewish dressmaker, Harold Pinter was evacuated from London as a nine-year-old at the outbreak of the Second World War, to return at the age of 12. The experiences of war, bombings and anti-Semitism had lasting effects on his writing sensibility. As a student at Hackney Grammar School, he played Macbeth and Romeo; in 1948, he joined the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and thereafter embarked on an acting career using the stage name of David Baron. It was while touring in small English towns with a stage repertory that he met the people, heard the language and breathed the air that would later appear in his plays.

His first play, The Room (1957), was produced at the University of Bristol. This was followed by The Birthday Party (1957) and The Dumb Waiter (1957). This marked the beginning of his most productive playwriting decades, with The Caretaker (1959), The Homecoming (1964) and Betrayal (1978).

To the heritage of the absurdist theatre of Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco and Jean Genet, Pinter added an atmosphere of deep menace and claustrophobia where characters speak in broken phrases, often at cross purposes, struggle for control, rarely say what they mean, frequently repeat themselves, pause between utterances, and lapse into silences.

Pinter described two kinds of silence: One when no word is spoken. The other when perhaps a torrent of language is being employed. This speech is speaking of a language locked beneath it. That is its continual reference. The speech we hear is an indication of that which we dont hear. It is a necessary avoidance, a violent, sly, anguished or mocking smoke screen which keeps the other in its place. When true silence falls we are still left with echo but are nearer nakedness. One way of looking at speech is to say that it is a constant stratagem to cover nakedness.

The painful, lingering pauses in Pinters plays strip the veneer off ordinary life and everyday relationships to reveal depths of horror and shame and hold the most secret desires and obsessions to scrutiny.

Apart from his 29 plays, Pinters long career included acting, writing for film, and direction. His 21 screenplays include The Servant (1963), The Go-Between (1971) from L.P. Hartleys novel and The French Lieutenants Woman (1981) from the novel by John Fowles. He directed 23 productions, including works by James Joyce, David Mamet and Simon Grayand and many of his own plays.

Having begun his acting career touring with the Anew McMaster Repertory in 1951-52, he continued to act occasionally on stage and in film. In 1960, he played Mick in The Caretaker when the actor Alan Bates took a four-week break; in 1969, he played Lenny in The Homecoming; and in 1985, replacing Michael Gambon on the American tour, he played Deeley in Old Times opposite Liv Ullman, who played Anna.

Always politically engaged he was a conscientious objector early in life Pinter became more and more outspoken in his views in his later years. In a speech made at Hyde Park in February 2003 on the day of the mass protest against the invasion of Iraq, Pinter described the planned attack as an act of premeditated mass murder. We have a clear obligation, which is to resist, he said in a speech at a Lobby of Parliament in the House of Commons in 2003. His collection of poetry, War, published in the same year, was awarded the Wilfred Owen Award for poetry.

But he could never remain very far from the stage. In October 2006, Pinter acted in a production of Becketts Krapps Last Tape as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations of the English Stage Company at Londons Royal Court Theatre a performance that Michael Billington called the harshest, least sentimental reading of Becketts play I can recall.... At two precise moments, Pinter looks anxiously over his left shoulder into the darkness as if he felt deaths presence in the room. This is the moment that will linger longest in the memory. It is impossible to dissociate Pinters own recent encounters with mortality from that of the character.

Diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus in 2002, Pinter underwent a difficult treatment for the disease, including chemotherapy. In a poem titled Cancer Cells (March 2002) published in The Guardian, he wrote about his experience of the disease:

The black cells will dry up and die Or sing with joy and have their way. They breed so quietly night and day, You never know, they never say.

The cells eventually returned. Pinter died on December 24, 2008, aged 78. His funeral was quiet and private, having been planned by the writer himself before his death. The brief ceremony included a reading from Pinters play No Mans Land: And so I say to you, tender the dead as you would yourself be tendered, in what you would describe as your life. And marking Pinters love for cricket (he took along his cricket bat when he was evacuated during the Second World War), there was Francis Thompsons cricket poem At Lords:

For the field is full of shades as I near the shadowy coast,

And a ghostly batsman plays to the bowling of a ghost,

And I look through my tears on a soundless-clapping host

As the run-stealers flicker to and fro, To and fro...

Playwright David Hare summed Pinters literary contribution thus: Pinter did what Auden said a poet should do. He cleaned the gutters of the English language, so that it ever afterwards flowed more easily and more cleanly.... The essence of his singular appeal is that you sit down to every play he writes in certain expectation of the unexpected. In sum, this tribute from one writer to another: you never know what the hells coming next. (Harold Pinter: A Celebration, 2000).

Surely the Nobel Prize, awarded to him in 2005, was late in coming, considering that Pinters most important work had been produced decades earlier. But the Swedish Academy, in the presentation speech made at the award ceremony, recognised the enduring relevance of Pinters drama:

At any given moment somewhere in the world [Pinters] plays are reinterpreted by new generations of directors and actors. In [his] works, seductively accessible and frighteningly mysterious, the curtain rises on dense life-landscapes and harrowing confinement. In poetic images, [he illuminates] an existence where fantasy and the nightmare of reality clash.

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