An Appreciation Of Harold Pinter

Playwright Harold Pinter came into prominence at a time when Tennessee Williams' and Arthur Miller's plays were being performed in the U.S. and Bernard Shaw and the Boulevard Comedies dominated London's West End. In contrast to the work at the time, Pinter's plays dealt with the theater of menace.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Joining me in the studio is NPR art's critic Bob Mondello. Bob, Harold Pinter - Neda reported on what was so unusual about his plays for the time. What was usual for the time?

BOB MONDELLO: Well, back then in this country, we were seeing things like Tennessee Williams plays and Arthur Miller plays. On the West End, it would tend to be something like Shaw or Terence Rattigan, and you were just getting into the angry young men plays. All of those different kinds of theater are all about articulating everything. What he was doing was this weird theater of not knowing - all the things you didn't know about the characters were what seemed threatening about them.

SIEGEL: And dialogue in which, as we heard, it seemed that one character was not responding to, at least, what the other character had said.

MONDELLO: Right, not connecting. And in the gaps, in between there, what became known as the Pinter pause, you were supposed to read all kinds of interesting things. His first full-length play, "The Birthday Party," was a play about a guy who was sitting in a boarding house, a filthy, horrible boarding house, and he was about 30 or something like that, and all these strangers come in and start acting upon him. And these two guys come in, and they get very threatening towards him. And ultimately, they take him away, and you assume he's being tortured, but you don't know. The terrible thing is you don't know.

SIEGEL: Now, you brought a clip of a Pinter interview with the BBC from some years ago.

MONDELLO: Yeah.

SIEGEL: When he describes a real episode in his own life.

MONDELLO: Yeah, he was talking about a play called "Betrayal" that he did later, and he was talking about something that might have inspired that a little bit.

Sir HAROLD PINTER (Playwright, Nobel Laureate): I had a group of friends, and I took one of my friend's girlfriends for a walk down to the River Lee, which I shouldn't have done, you know. This was found out naturally, and I was visited one day by two men. I know this sounds like "The Birthday Party," but I happen to know these people. They were my very close friends. And they said, we're going for a walk, Harold. We got on a bus in silence, got to Victoria Park. They walked me in silence right into the middle of the park, turned and left me there. And I felt absolutely desolated.

SIEGEL: Harold Pinter describing to a BBC interviewer, not a play but something that actually happened.

MONDELLO: Yeah, and doing it with a lot of, you heard those Pinteresque pauses. If you look at the titles of his plays, just look at the titles. Things like "Dumb Waiter" and "Caretaker" and "Hothouse" and "Betrayal" and "No Man's Land." They sound menacing, dangerous maybe.

SIEGEL: He was writing life as he perceived it.

MONDELLO: Absolutely, and frequently, life as he perceived it was pretty political. The last one I saw was a play called "Mountain Language." He wrote it in 1988. I didn't see it until many years later. And it's about people in an authoritarian state who are told that they can visit political prisoners. These are their spouses and their fathers and sons and things, but they cannot use their own language, their mountain language. In talking to them, they must use the state language, the one that has been imposed on them. And they don't know it. And so they get in finally, at the end of this play, they get together with their loved ones, and they're sitting across a table from each other. They have not seen each other in years, and they just sit there because they can't - they are not allowed to talk. And it's the longest Pinter pause you've ever heard, and boy, could you read a lot into it.

SIEGEL: That's NPR critic, Bob Mondello talking about the playwright, Sir Harold Pinter, who died yesterday at age 78.

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Nobel Prize-Winning Playwright Harold Pinter Dies

Harold Pinter pictured in 2004 at age 74. i i

Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter, a world-renowned playwright and political activist, died of cancer on Wednesday. He was 78. Bruno Vincent/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Bruno Vincent/Getty Images
Harold Pinter pictured in 2004 at age 74.

Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter, a world-renowned playwright and political activist, died of cancer on Wednesday. He was 78.

Bruno Vincent/Getty Images
Harold Pinter, pictured in 1979 i i

Pinter, pictured above in 1979, says he committed himself to speaking out for human rights after the 1973 assassination of Chilean president Salvador Allende. Jones/Evening Standard/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Jones/Evening Standard/Getty Images
Harold Pinter, pictured in 1979

Pinter, pictured above in 1979, says he committed himself to speaking out for human rights after the 1973 assassination of Chilean president Salvador Allende.

Jones/Evening Standard/Getty Images

British playwright Harold Pinter, who won the 2005 Nobel Prize for Literature, died Christmas day at the age of 78 after a long battle with esophageal cancer.

Pinter was best known for writing such plays as The Birthday Party, The Homecoming and Old Times. He also adapted other writers' novels for the screen, including The French Lieutenant's Woman, A Handmaid's Tale and The Comfort of Strangers.

Pinter wrote dozens of plays, essays and poems. His lifelong friend, actor and director Henry Woolf, says Pinter's major contribution was what became known as the "theater of menace."

"People for the first time in English drama spoke in non sequitors — as if they hadn't heard what had just been said to them," Woolf says. "They had to have heard, but they didn't want to respond so there were these strange pauses and silences."

Brutal pauses punctuate The Birthday Party, a Pinter play from 1957. "It was very, very sort of frightening in a way, but also hilariously funny," Woolf recalls.

Woolf directed Pinter's first play, The Room, and says that, at the time, no one had seen anything like Pinter's work; his audiences roared with laughter. Woolf says Pinter found laughs harder to come by once he became more famous and "the grim hand of reverence took over ... but the humor's there."

Playwright Penelope Prentice, author of The Pinter Ethic, points out the strengths of the darker side of Pinter's writing.

"No other dramatist better understands and dramatizes the causes of human violence than Harold Pinter," Prentice says. "And that's a big statement if you consider Shakespeare and the Greeks."

She says Pinter's focus on psychological violence changed the nature of drama, especially in depicting the savageries inherent in human relationships.

Pinter's 1983 film Betrayal, which he adapted from his own play, traces a seven year affair:

"I should have blackened you in your white wedding dress, blackened you in your bridal dress, before ushering you into your wedding, as your best man," Jerry (Jeremy Irons) menacingly tells Emma (Patricia Hodge).

The threat of power was one of Pinter's most consistent themes; he tried to change not just how we view the world, but how we act in it. Pinter committed himself to human rights, he said, after the assassination of Chilean President Salvador Allende in 1973. More recently, Pinter was a truculent critic of the war in Iraq.

"I'm both deeply engaged in art and deeply engaged in politics, and sometimes those two meet, and sometimes they don't," Pinter said, after learning of his Nobel win.

Before cancer got the better of his voice — and before it claimed his life — Pinter wrote a poem about his diagnosis.

I need to see my tumor dead
A tumor which forgets to die
But plans to murder me instead.

But I remember how to die
Though all my witnesses are dead.
But I remember what they said
Of tumors which would render them
As blind and dumb as they had been
Before the birth of that disease
Which brought the tumor into play.
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.

But in the end, Harold Pinter had the last word.

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