Harold Pinter was born on October 10, 1930, in
London's East End, a working-class
neighborhood known as Hackney. The son of a Jewish tailor, he was
evacuated from the city on the eve of World War II and did not return to London
again until he was 14. "The condition of being bombed has never left me," he
Pinter was educated at Hackney Downs Grammar School, where he enjoyed
reading the works of Franz Kafka and Ernest Hemingway. He acted in
several school productions and accepted a grant to study at London's Royal
Academy of Dramatic Arts. He was unhappy there and left after two
In 1949, he was fined by magistrates for having refused to perform his
service in the military. As a conscientious objector, he said
afterwards, "I could have gone to prison--I took my toothbrush to the
trials--but it so happened that the magistrate was slightly sympathetic, so
I was fined instead, thirty pounds in all. Perhaps I'll be called up
again in the next war, but I won't go."
Pinter never had to face that possibility. In 1950, he began publishing
poems in Poetry magazine under the pseudonym, Harold Pinta. He worked
as a bit-part actor on a BBC Radio program, Focus on Football Pools,
and studied for a short time at the Central School of Speech and Drama
before touring Ireland in 1951 - 52. The following year, he appeared
on stage at the King's Theatre in Hammersmith.
After four more
season acting in local repertory theatre, Pinter began to write, using the
stage name, David Baron. He turned out The Room
(1957), originally written for Bristol University's drama department, in
only four days. A Slight Ache, his first radio piece, was
broadcast on the BBC in 1959. His first full-length play, The
Birthday Party, was performed by Bristol University's drama department
in 1957 and produced in 1958 in the West End. It was a
theater-of-the-absurd, Kafkaesque-style play about an apparently ordinary
man who is threatened by strangers for some reason never revealed.
When he attempts to run away, they track him down. The play closed to
horrible reviews after one week.
Despite the setback, Pinter quickly produced a number of plays that took
an apparently innocent situation and turned it into a threatening and absurd
one by means of characters acting in ways that seem inexplicable both to the
audience and, often, to other characters. These plays earned him the
title, Master of the Comedy of Menace.
Upset with the critics who found his work unnerving and
without any theatrical value, Pinter said years later,
"I find critics on the whole a pretty unnecessary bunch of people. We
don't need critics to tell the audiences what to think."
Stylistically, most of Pinter's major plays are simple in set, often
contained in a single room. Their
occupants are obsessed with threats from outside forces or from people whose
exact intentions are ambiguous. His characters are
often engaged in a life-and-death struggle for survival or identity.
But it is their dialogue that sets them apart.
"Pinter's dialogue is as tightly - perhaps more tightly - controlled than
verse," Martin Esslin wrote in The People Wound (1970). "Every
syllable, every inflection, the succession of long and short sounds, words
and sentences, is calculated to nicety. And precisely the
repetitiousness, the discontinuity, the circularity of ordinary vernacular
speech are here used as formal elements with which the poet can compose his
The actions of Pinter's characters often defy logic. Instead, they
offer existential glimpses into the most bizarre and terrible
moments of their lives. In Monologue (1973) and No Man's
Land (1975), the characters use words as their weapons in their
struggles, not only for survival but also for sanity.
With his second full-length play, The Caretaker (1960), Pinter's
reputation as a major talent was secured.
ASTON - You said you wanted me to get you up.
DAVIES - What for?
ASTON - You said you were thinking of going to Sidcup.
DAVIES - Ay, that'd be a good thing, if I got there.
ASTON - Doesn't look like much of a day.
DAVIES - Ay, well, that's shot it, en't it?
- The Caretaker
He followed that up with A
Slight Ache (1961), The Collection (1962), The Dwarfs
(1963), The Lover (1963), and The Homecoming (1965), the story
of an estranged son who brings his wife home to meet his family. It is
most enigmatic and mysterious of all the author's works. It won a Tony Award, the Whitbread
Anglo-American Theater Award, and the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award.
After teaching philosophy at an American university for six years, Teddy
brings his wife Ruth home to London to meet his family: his father Max, a
nagging, aggressive ex-butcher, and other member of the all-male household.
At the end, Teddy returns alone to his university job in America. No
one needs him anymore, and he needs no one. Ruth stays behind as a
mother or a whore to his family. Everyone needs her.
It was one of Pinter's favorite plays. Nevertheless, its Broadway
opening was anything but successful.
From the moment the curtain opened, the audience hated it. "The
hostility towards the play was palpable," said Pinter. "You could see
it. The great thing was, the actors went on and felt it and hated the
audience back even more. And they gave it everything [they had].
By the end of the evening, the audience was defeated. All these men in
their tuxedos were just horrified.... There's no question that the play won
on that occasion."
Similar story lines--the battle for domination in a sexual context--recur in
Landscape and Silence (both 1969), as well as in Old Times
(1971), in which the key line is "Normal, what's normal?"
Besides writing for the theater, Pinter wrote a number of plays first
performed on British radio and television. He also wrote several
original screenplays, including The Servant (1963), The Accident
(1967), The Go-Between (1971), The Last Tycoon (1974, dir.
by Elia Kazan), The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981, novel by John
Fowles), Betrayal (1982), Turtle Diary (1985), Reunion
(1989), The Handmaid's Tale (1990), The Comfort of Strangers
(1990), and The Trial by Franz Kafka (1990). In the 1990s,
he became more active as a director than as a playwright, overseeing David Mamet's Oleanna and several works by Simon Gray.
In 1985, Pinter traveled to Turkey with American playwright Arthur Miller
and met victims of political oppression there. At an American embassy
function honoring Miller, instead of exchanging pleasantries, Pinter spoke
of people having an electric current applied to their genitals. He was
thrown out, and Miller, in support, left the embassy with him.
Pinter's experience of oppression in Turkey and the suppression of the
Kurdish language inspired his 1988 play, Mountain Language.
In the twilight of his career, Pinter has been more active in human
rights issues than ever; his opinions are still controversial.
During the Kosovo crisis in 1999, he condemned NATO's intervention and
inaccurately predicted that it would "only aggravate the misery and
the horror and devastate the country." In 2001, he joined with former
U.S. General Ramsey Clark in The International Committee to Defend Slobodan
Milosevic--who was ultimately arrested by the U.N. War Crimes Tribunal and placed on
trial for crimes against humanity.
In January 2002, Pinter was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus.
Always the Rebel with a Cause, he continues to work and speak out
against war and other social issues wherever possible.
Pinter wrote, "There are no hard distinctions between what is real and
what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is
not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false."
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