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.
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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