Pinter's Legacy: Short Recipe for Tension

The work of playwright Harold Pinter is most often recognized by Pinter's use of tense, aggressive dialogue, punctuated with long silences. Guest host Brian Naylor speaks with Tim Sanford, artistic director for the theater company Playwrights Horzions, about how Pinter has influenced the way playwrights use language.

Copyright © 2005 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

BRIAN NAYLOR, host:

Drum Hadley uses words to honor open spaces. Playwright Harold Pinter turns his creative attention inward. He fits his characters into small, often bleak scenarios that offer few obvious escapes. Pinter's play, "Betrayal," was made into a film of the same name. Jeremy Irons plays Jerry, a man having an affair with the wife of Robert, played by Ben Kingsley. In this scene, Pinter brings the two men together and turns what should be a moment for clarity into a time of confusion.

(Soundbite of "Betrayal")

Mr. JEREMY IRONS: (As Jerry) The fact is I can't understand why she felt it necessary, after all these years, to tell you so suddenly, last night.

Mr. BEN KINGSLEY: (As Robert) Last night?

Mr. IRONS: (As Jerry) Without consulting me, without warning me. After all, you and me.

Mr. KINGSLEY: (As Robert) She didn't tell me last night.

Mr. IRONS: (As Jerry) What do you mean? I know about last night. She told me. You were up all night, weren't you?

Mr. KINGSLEY: (As Robert) That's correct.

Mr. IRONS: (As Jerry) And she told you last night about her and me, did she not?

Mr. KINGSLEY: (As Robert) No, she didn't. She didn't tell me about you and her last night. She told me about you and her four years ago.

NAYLOR: For the body of his work, Harold Pinter was named this past week the winner of the 2005 Nobel Prize for literature. Over the decades since his first play, "The Room," was produced in 1957, Pinter's influence has extended far beyond the many stages where his plays have been performed. Tim Sanford is the artistic director for Playwrights Horizons, a theater company in New York City, and joins us now from our New York bureau.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. TIM SANFORD (Playwrights Horizons): Thank you.

NAYLOR: How would you describe the influence of Harold Pinter on playwrights today?

Mr. SANFORD: Playwrights today--it's been '57, 2005--it's coming on to 50 years that Pinter has been part of the artistic landscape, so I would say Pinter's influence is of many natures. There's a musical influence of his dialogue, there's a kind of metaphysical influence of the world and ethos of the plays. There's influence of tone and philosophy. You know, it runs deep. It's hard to think of a playwright who actually would not be influenced by Pinter.

NAYLOR: His dialogue was almost always spare and intense, sometimes filled with long pauses. How have those depictions affected the way subsequent playwrights have crafted scenes and dialogue?

Mr. SANFORD: I think it changed the way people look at dialogue. The use of pauses as a musical instrument almost, and also as a weapon in plays like "The Caretaker" and "Birthday Party." There was an aggressiveness to the the language that's also been influential.

(Soundbite from "The Birthday Party")

Mr. PATRICK MAGEE: (As Shamus McCann) What were you doing yesterday?

Mr. ROBERT SHAW: (As Stanley Webber) Yesterday?

Mr. MAGEE: (As Shamus McCann) And the day before? What did you do the day before that?

Mr. SHAW: (As Stanley Webber) What do you mean?

Mr. MAGEE: (As Shamus McCann) Why are you wasting everybody's time, Webber? Why are you getting in everybody's way?

Mr. SHAW: (As Stanley Webber) Me? What are you...

Mr. MAGEE: (As Shamus McCann) I'm telling you, Webber, you're a washout.

NAYLOR: You say his dialogue is sometimes musical. What do you mean by that? Is it the way the words themselves sound?

Mr. SANFORD: There's a back and forth, there's a fixation with certain words used to comedic effect. I think of "The Dumbwaiter," for example, an early comedy of his, the way language was looked at from all directions. There is a real musicality to that, and that's an important part of theater which, of course, is a live entertainment.

NAYLOR: And is there a Pinter school or is--it just sort of infuses all of modern playwright...

Mr. SANFORD: No, there's not a Pinter school now, I think, plus he changed so much in his life. I think he changed the way we looked at scenery. I can think of so many plays in which just sitting in the room took on a kind of existential aura. That was the early phase of his career. And then he had the great plays like "The Homecoming," there's a famous speech, Ruth, where she says, `I cross my legs. See? Look at me cross my legs.' The way the action focused in on the smallest detail.

(Soundbite from "The Homecoming")

Ms. VIVIEN MERCHANT: (As Ruth) Look at me. I move my legs. That's all it is. But I wear underwear which moves with me. It captures your attention.

NAYLOR: Actress Vivien Merchant in the role of Ruth in the 1973 film "The Homecoming," adapted from the Harold Pinter play of the same name. We also heard Patrick Magee in the role of Shamus McCann bullying Stanley Webber, played by Robert Shaw, in the 1968 film version of Pinter's play "The Birthday Party." We spoke with Tim Sanford, the artistic director of Playwrights Horizons in New York City.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Liane Hansen returns in two weeks. I'm Brian Naylor.

Copyright © 2005 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: