by Charles Marowitz
(Swans - December 29, 2008 - January 1, 2009) In 1958, after the West End premiere of "The Birthday Party," it seemed to Harold Pinter, and most everyone else, that his future as a playwright was stone dead. The reviews were largely disastrous but the play resonated with a small number of Londoners who recognized a new and alluring tone of voice and a sense of unspoken dread that was very different from the plasticity of most English drama. At a meeting of the staff of Encore Magazine, a publication that would eventually emerge as one of the most influential theatrical periodicals of the next two decades, we decided that not only were the critics wrong, but that the play should be published so that it would not simply fall into the oblivion that awaited most dramatic works that roiled the largely antediluvian London critics. (It flew right past Ken Tynan's radar and curiously, its staunchest champion was Harold Hobson, then considered the most sedate and conservative of all the British drama critics.)
Pinter was contacted and agreed to allow us to publish the play in a limited edition. Two years after its demise, and after the production of "The Caretaker," the playwright emerged as an astounding theatrical figure and, by the mid-l960s after "The Collection," "The Dwarfs," and "The Lover," Pinteresque had become a common adjective with which to describe his work and the Pinter-clones had already begun to flood the theatrical scene. By l965 and the opening of "The Homecoming" it was clear that if there was a re-galvanized British drama, its front-runner was unquestionably Harold Pinter.
During the fallow period, before his national recognition, I met with Harold on several occasions. I had wangled the rights to stage "A Slight Ache," a play originally commissioned for BBC radio that the playwright allowed me to adapt for the stage. Casting problems sank that effort but it gave me an opportunity to discover the unique personality of the playwright whose work was already causing a small stir.
During one of those early strolls through Hackney before the premiere of "The Caretaker," I asked him what it was he was working on at the moment. He described a tangled series of incidents and character types that left me none the wiser. "What precisely," I asked firmly, "is it actually about?" In my callow state, I hadn't realized that an explicit description of the nature and purpose of a Pinter play was something that the playwright could never provide; that he shrunk from the idea of positing in finite language the plan and purpose of what he was creating. It offended some guardianship he felt towards the play itself and the complexity that gave it its special charge. "What do you mean, what is it about?" He repeated my words scoffingly as if I had asked him to give me a specific word count and interpretative breakdown of plot and purpose. "It's about love," he said -- as if that was so self-evident only a moron would not see it. I must admit that after I saw the play on the boards, it was hard to reconcile his explanation with the dramatic events. Pinter, like his mentor Beckett and his literary forefather Franz Kafka, was asserting the artist's right to ambiguity and the playgoer's right to interpret dramatic material in whatever subjective way they saw fit. This protectiveness against pat interpretation became more apparent as his oeuvre developed and as we all came to understand the curious esthetic that both propelled and protected his writing. It is not for nothing that the shade of Franz Kafka, like an ectoplasmic phantom, hovers over all his work.
Harold Pinter did more than create a unique dramatic style in the 29 or so plays he wrote. He established a new dimension for drama that was nourished by the metaphysical aura that his carefully wrought, perfectly reproduced dialogue and constant sense of foreboding brought to life. In Pinter's world, people are always vying for territory -- asserting their right to invade another's boundary and slyly threatening to subordinate them to their will. Casual exchanges of clichéd dialogue reek of palpable dangers. Affections are always subverted by nameless threats. The mundane is always in danger of becoming mortal.
Pinter was regularly in touch with David Mamet and allegedly influenced the composition of "Oleanna." Simon Gray was yet another Pinter-assisted British playwright, and there is a whole slew of Pinteresque clones who probably never realized they were appropriating territory originally opened up by the tailor's son from Hackney. What made Pinter special was that his works delved beneath psychological sub-text prodding deeply-layered fears and hungers, which we all experience but which very rarely fill out the interstices of drama. In Pinter's world, evil festers and conceals itself beneath airy badinage; clichés cloaking aggressive and colonizing impulses that turn ordinary people into predatory beasts.
Pinter never quite lost his East End smirkiness, the ability to see through bullshit and sham using a larky but telling phrase. Of course, after his marriage to Lady Antonia Fraser, his "wide boy" mockery was more subtle and less overt, but it was always there. He could spot a phony a mile off and wither him or her with a cutting phrase -- although the diction was now more vocally refined. I remember him once describing a charlatan producer as being nothing more than "a hole in the air," which I thought was a spot-on observation...until I learned he had swiped the phrase from George Orwell. Once Lady Antonia, his second wife, entered the picture, his viewfinder widened to include the mores of the upper middle class but his East End percipience, although camouflaged, never forsook him.
His film work was mainly a demonstration of his superb technical ability as a playwright. Although screenplays like "The Servant," "The Go-Between," "The Last Tycoon," "The French Lieutenant's Woman," and "The Handmaid's Tale" are terse, professional adaptations, there is very little that is Pinteresque in the film oeuvre -- even when, as in "Betrayal" and "The Trial," he was working with personally-charged material. The smoldering, pause-filled sub-text that made a Pinter play unique could only happen on stage. The stage was his natural element and it follows naturally that anyone who mastered it as well as he did would be besieged with offers to reproduce that magic on celluloid.
Since the early 1970s, Pinter, who previously had disdained any interest in international issues, became visibly active in politics. It began shortly after the overthrow of President Allende of Chile and became more strident during the Kosovo crisis in which he defended Slobodan Milosevic. He was vocally outspoken about Bush's incursion into Iraq and after 2002 became aggressively active in politics, much of it anti-American. To many, these political stances seemed very much out of character, even embarrassing. But if one looks back over his oeuvre, there is a humanistic undertow in his finest works in which vulnerable characters are being subverted and colonized by scheming and predatory enemies. It was a short step from Kafkaesque horrors in ominous institutions to his publicly-proclaimed positions on political issues. Not entirely a departure from the Pinteresque, but recognition of social injustices that had their roots in personal invasions traceable to plays such as "Betrayal" and "The Homecoming."
As an artist, Harold Pinter was a towering force and, as always when forces like that disappear, one takes solace in the ongoing life of their work. But for some, like those who knew him well, appreciated his dry wit and his unostentatious sense of morality, it is like a death in the family.
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