Harold Pinter Biography
(1930– ), The Room, The Dumb Waiter, The Birthday Party, The Hothouse, The Caretaker, The Homecoming
Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: Ellis’ [Edith Mary Pargeter] ‘Peters Biography to Portrait of Dora (Portrait de Dora)
British playwright, born in East London, the son of a tailor, educated at Hackney Downs Grammar School; he became a professional actor, performing in provincial repertory under the name David Baron. His first work, The Room, a one-act play, staged in Bristol in 1957, was followed by The Dumb Waiter (1958) and the London production of his first full-length work, The Birthday Party. This puzzling, somewhat Kafkaesque piece, though now regarded as a minor classic, found little favour with critics or the public; and Pinter suppressed The Hothouse, a stylistically similar satire on bureaucratic callousness and incompetence he wrote at roughly the same time, not permitting it to be performed until 1980. Instead, he moved his writing in a more realistic direction, achieving major successes with The Caretaker (1960) and The Homecoming (1965). The short plays The Collection (1960), The Lover (1963), and Tea Party (1965), all written for television but subsequently staged, also belong to this phase. At the end of the decade came another shift of style with the appearance of the ruminative Landscape (1968) and Silence (1969), in which characters relive their key memories, mostly in fragmented monologues. These were followed by Old Times (1971) and No Man's Land (1975), full-length works in which Pinter succeeded in reconciling aspects of his earlier and his later creative self. Neither play was fully realistic, and both largely consisted of characters' memories; but, since the accuracy of those memories was a matter of dispute, the dramatic conflict that had marked Pinter's more conventional work made a reappearance. In Old Times, in particular, the past became a battleground and memories weapons in attempts to seize control of the present.
Since Betrayal (1978), a triangle-drama told backwards, so that the play ends with the genesis of the love affair shown in collapse at the beginning, Pinter has written more sparingly for the stage, and, with the possible exception of the 80-minute Moonlight (1993), never at what's conventionally considered full length. A Kind of Alaska, inspired by Awakenings, Dr Oliver Sacks's case-studies of people afflicted by the epidemic of encephalitis lethargica that struck the world between 1916 and 1926, was performed in 1982 in conjunction with two still shorter plays, Family Voices and Victoria Station, under the overall title of Other Places. Since then, Pinter has written screenplays, directed his own and other people's work on the stage, and has become publicly identified with many radical and libertarian causes. For some ten years his only original plays were One for the Road (1983), the 17-minute Mountain Language (1988), and Party Time (1992): all three about political oppression and the violent abuse of human rights, all reflecting his involvement with Amnesty International and, with the exception of parts of Party Time, all somewhat less subtle than his previous work. However, Moonlight did seem to represent a return to what many commentators would regard as his best, most distinctive manner, concerning as it did family fragmentation (specifically, a dying man's conflicts with his wife and alienation from their grown-up sons) and written as it was in dialogue that mixed the colloquial with the poetic and the exact with the enigmatic.
Pinter's most original work combines powerful conflict with a sense of mystery. His characters are commonly battling for territory, power, sex, security, or survival itself, but rarely do so openly or directly. The key transactions occur either beneath the simple, colloquial, and, as it sometimes seems, barely relevant dialogue or during the silences for which Pinter has become famous. The result is a drama full of menace and danger, the more unsettling for their lack of specificity.