Appreciation: Playwright Harold Pinter, 1930-2008
Friday, December 26, 2008
Let us pause. And in deference to a man who knew precisely how to wring meaning from silence, stop just a little longer.
Harold Pinter, prospector of 24-karat drama in the tension-racked spaces between words, died in London on Wednesday, at age 78. With his death, the pool of contemporary playwrights of international literary stature has been all but drained dry.
Although he expressed the views of a pacifist, Pinter wrote as if he held his finger on the pin of a grenade. In modernist classics such as "The Homecoming," "Old Times" and "No Man's Land," he devised characters who spoke in elliptical asides and enigmatic bursts. Violence of some nature was never out of the realm of possibility, even in his quietest plays. For Pinter was a connoisseur of subtext, of letting a story unfold on a living room set while a more savage one simmered in the crawl spaces of the mind. His characters routinely rattle each other with what never gains utterance.
His stark black-comic sensibility and economical use of language owed much to Samuel Beckett, the father of existential 20th-century drama. It was a debt that Pinter, who got his start as an actor in postwar Britain, readily acknowledged. When the Nobel Academy gave him the prize for literature in 2005, the act affirmed his link to Beckett, who had won it 36 years earlier. That they are among the few English-speaking dramatists to have received the award speaks to the nonpareil influence they both wielded over the style and force of the modern theater.
Power and turf are always at issue in Pinter. You get to see in his plays how much the anatomy of our emotional entanglements is built on ever-shifting questions of who's up and who's down.
Whether the conflict is over primacy in a Darwinian family struggle ("The Homecoming"), control of the memories of long-ago events ("Old Times") or the psychological upper hand in a metamorphosing love triangle ("Betrayal"), his works are taut battlefields. Unlike Beckett, though, whose seminal plays such as "Waiting for Godot" are placed in barren, metaphysical landscapes, Pinter's tend toward cozier, bourgeois surroundings. In his hands these spaces seem as raw and terrifying as any heath.
Audiences do, at times, engage in head-scratching over Pinter's peculiar rhythms. As noted by Peter Hall, a friend who directed many of his 30 works for the stage, the playwright's eccentric cadences were challenging for actors, too: the long silences, shorter pauses and brief hesitations were ubiquitous features of his scripts. "The actors had to understand why there were these differences," Hall explained in his 1993 autobiography. "They chafed a little, but finally accepted that what was not said often spoke as forcefully as the words themselves."
Over time, Pinter's work became more overtly political, and his vehemence drew controversy. (As a young man, he claimed status as a conscientious objector.) He was outspoken in his outrage at the invasion of Iraq, and described in a speech in 2005 his reaction to the policies of the Bush and Blair administrations as arousing nausea.
Pinter saved his subtlety for his dramatic voice. His blink-of-an-eye 1988 play "Mountain Language" painted in four short scenes the terrors of a regime that stripped a minority population of its freedom, its dignity and finally, in banning the speaking of its language, even its words. To one who used them to such captivating effect, this truly would have seemed a crime against humanity.