A new Harold Pinter play opens in London this week. And nearly 40 years after his breakthrough, that's still an event
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A bunch of us had been to see Harold Pinter's play The Collection, done by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Aldwych Theatre. As we descended the Holborn escalator a friend asked me, with memorable formality: "And what did you think of it? Both as a play and as a Pinter epic?"

The Collection was actually a 60-minute piece with four characters: numbers which must be around the mean average for Pinter plays over the years. But we used the word "epic" pretty promiscuously in those days. Those days. It was 1962, and Pinter was already a cultural fact: had been for two years. Thirty-four years on, he still is. Among playwrights, you have to go back to Shaw to find anything comparable. On the way you might pause, briefly, at Noel Coward, whose prowess as an all-round theatrical animal was even greater than Pinter's but who never had the same intellectual clout.

David Leveaux, who was in his cradle when The Collection opened, has in the last few years directed three acclaimed Pinter productions: revivals of Betrayal and No Man's Land, the latter with Pinter himself in the cast, and the premiere of Moonlight, which was his first play of substantial length in 14 years. Leveaux calls Pinter "the key living dramatist; he has converted the English language into a way of expressing English history. He makes us hear English: vulgar, austere, direct, beautiful."

In the late Sixties the American screenwriter William Goldman said the same thing rather more racily. He described Pinter as "an English stylist, talented as hell", an accolade with a sting of dismissal in its tail. He went on to account for Pinter's fashionable prestige by calling him "appropriately obscure ... he allows intellectuals to theorise".

Goldman was writing in the wake of The Birthday Party, Pinter's first full-length play, which had opened on Broadway 10 years after its legendarily disastrous 1958 premiere in London. Over the course of that decade derision had given place to respectful bafflement. These days we deride the derision, and claim to find the bafflement baffling. We claim, simultaneously, that the play isn't obscure and that its obscurities are part of its power.

Well, let's see. The Birthday Party depicts the abduction from a seaside boarding-house of a fearful, reclusive young man by a pair of thugs, one an Irishman, the other a Jew. Only we are never actually told who has sent Goldberg and McCann, or why; or what their victim Stanley is hiding from. Pinter leaves holes that most playwrights - playwrights not necessarily committed to a glib belief in the transparency of human motivation - would fill in: holes of plot, not character. It's no wonder that audiences, to this day, feel thwarted; though they've learned to believe that it's good for them. If we knew more, goes the argument, we would be less scared; as it is, for Stanley's nameless fears we can substitute our own. (The standard interpretation - that the intruders represent the forces of society come to impound a hapless nonconformist - has never seemed very exciting.)

The play has always tantalised, precisely because it works so well at ground level: as a macabre thriller (it has more overt action than all Pinter's subsequent plays put together), as a set-piece study of interrogation, and as expertly timed black comedy. It amounted to a wonderful theatrical calling-card, an exhilarating display of skills. And even the initial failure - one week's run at the Lyric Hammersmith and terrible notices - served to highlight the later success. It is hard to think of another playwright who has gone so quickly and so decisively from outright rejection to bank-breaking esteem.

Pinter was 27 when The Birthday Party opened, an actor who had already written a one-act play and much (unpublished) poetry. The son of a tailor he had grown up in the East End of London, suffered the traumas of evacuation during the Blitz and been a star student at Hackney grammar school. As a Jew he had also encountered the lingering spirit of street-level fascism; the verbal encounters of himself and his friends with local gangs are widely held to have fostered his later genius for barbed crosstalk. His acting career - touring Shakespeare and lots of rep - was unglamorous but helped nourish an unerring instinct for what sounds well and works well on a stage.

I don't believe in decades but it's hard here not to make an exception. If The Birthday Party was ahead of its time, it was only so by two years. The Pinter legend took flight in 1960 with his next major play, The Caretaker. The Fifties had belonged to John Osborne and the earnest realists of the Royal Court. Pinter's plays, despite their run-down settings, had a Sixties gloss and confidence. They also had an early-Sixties comic swagger. People talk of his debt to Kafka and Samuel Beckett, but if I had to choose his affinities I would go for the finest of British sitcom writers, Alan Simpson and Ray Galton. The world of their Cockney rag-and-bone men, Steptoe and Son, was the world that Pinter mined, explored and expanded in The Caretaker, The Dumb Waiter and The Homecoming. His view is far darker than theirs but the language - London slang that became the patois of a generation - is the same. Before Steptoe, Galton and Simpson had written for - had largely created - the great Tony Hancock, whose seedy, inconsequential grandiloquence was remarkably Pinteresque - or would have been if it hadn't got there first.

"The best modern British playwrights," says David Leveaux, with excellent reason, "have all been comic, and Harold is very good with the gags." It was fitting that his breakthrough, even before The Caretaker, should have come with a TV production of The Birthday Party that devastatingly combined horror and humour. They were most smoothly blended by Lee Montague's Goldberg, which must have been the most influential Pinter performance ever; God knows why it never gets into the history books or why he never repeated it on stage. (His "well over the fast", a Jewish greeting inserted into the proceedings with sublime unexpectedness, had my parents rolling and me with them.) The viewing consensus was that it was absolutely mystifying, and you couldn't take your eyes off it. When The Caretaker came along, Pinter had a constituency.

The Caretaker had a cultural impact unequalled by any subsequent British play - it was incontestably the show you had to see. It also offered what may be the last great (as opposed to big or showy) role created by an English dramatist. Davies the venomously pitiable tramp, originally played by Donald Pleasence, is a magnificent verbal and psychological construct. The Collection, which followed, is a neglected piece but crucial. The tension in Pinter's earlier plays had largely derived from men needling one another. Here there is a woman to fight over and fight with. It is a play about love and cruelty, and it suggests that the first automatically gives scope to the second; this has been one of Pinter's constant themes. It is the first play in which the characters are obviously keeping secrets from one another rather than from the audience. It is the first play with a middle-class setting, perhaps reflecting its author's new success. As a Pinter epic - belatedly answering my friend's question - I rate it very high.

It was also the first of Pinter's plays to be directed by Peter Hall, who was to become his regular interpreter - first at the RSC, then at the National Theatre. The partnership took in The Homecoming, the one- act plays Landscape and Silence, the matched triangles Old Times and

Betrayal (the first generally lauded, the second panned, though history might reverse that verdict), No Man's Land with the glorious high-comic partnership of John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson, and as a pendent A Kind of Alaska, a lyrical-clinical study of sleeping sickness, based on Oliver Sacks and featuring an extraordinary performance by Judi Dench, one that found a natural rhythm for unearthly experience.

These were all high-style, high-definition, high-precision productions, treating language and movement with scrupulous care. They were also high-cultural - theatre as chamber-music - and as the 1970s wore on, that ideal began to seem remote. And even at the beginning - with The Homecoming, the flagship production of the series - there was a sense of heavy significance, a return to mystification. I remember the woman in the piece, played by Vivien Merchant, sending her departing husband on his way with the line "don't become a stranger". It sounded so oracular; the words seemed to relate to some symbolic structure previously unnoticed. But all she probably meant was "keep in touch".

And then, for a long time, there was silence. Actually, it wasn't silence. Pinter continued his career as one of the most proficient and productive of screenwriters. He directed plays, notably those of his friends Simon Gray and Ronald Harwood. And he wrote a series of playlets on, for the first time, obviously public themes: brief fables of tyranny and torture. Strangely, all this peripheral activity was taken to be greater evidence of decline than if he had shut up altogether.

In a thorough and revealing new book, The Life and Times of Harold Pinter (Faber & Faber, pounds 20, out 4 Nov), Michael Billington claims that there has been no great change, that Pinter has always been a political playwright. He has always written about power and intimidation. It depends what you mean by "political". I would prefer to say that the skills he used and sharpened on his domestic plays were lying ready to be re-applied. In the scarifying 10-minute piece The New World Order (1991), Goldberg and McCann ride again, exchanging sinister pleasantries before getting to work on a bound-and-gagged new victim. This time they do let us in on their motivation: it's to make the world safe for democracy. Maybe Pinter can write this kind of cross-talk in his sleep but it's still good, and it's still right for the subject. ("Pinteresque" has entered the language like "Kafkaesque" and "Orwellian". Strange how all three relate to terror.) That Pinter came out politically late in life - because he was outraged by specific inhumanities - is to his credit. I trust him more than I would a writer who chose a cause in youth as he might choose a football team and went on supporting it just as automatically.

His briefest pieces reaffirm the central fact: nobody else puts words on a stage so fastidiously, so powerfully, so well. It's a quality that survives in translation. Richard Eyre, director of the National Theatre, testifies that the best production he has seen of The Birthday Party was in Czechoslovakia in 1969; it was "absolutely terrifying". Eyre, who has a revival of The Homecoming scheduled, calls Pinter simply "the best: his plays still have a resonance after 30 years and will have in another 30". And it occurs to me that they are the first plays since Shaw's to have proved indefinitely reviveable in their author's lifetime.

He's our most talented playwright, whether or not he writes our best plays. And though there is this thing in the public consciousness - this cryptic, aloof, uncommunicative thing called "Pinter" - it seems to have little to do with the man himself or the way he works. Those who know him describe him as "loyal", "funny" and "resolutely generous". One also hears that his "Churchillian" voice reverts to East End Jewish when he gets drunk, that he's "very proud of every award he's ever won", that "he can be quite thuggish", especially when dressing-room visitors are insufficiently effusive. In rehearsal, says Leveaux, his chief concern "is to remove from the audience any fear that they're watching something cerebral. He's consumed by what works in the present tense. Good actors are."

And Pinter, we have been learning, is a very good actor. Sharp, fleeting appearances in films have gleamed with the same piercing wit as his best writing. Gawn Grainger, who played with him in No Man's Land, is emphatic that "Harold could have made a living as an actor if he'd never written a word". He also, like everybody who has worked with Pinter, emphasises the scrupulous manner in which he distinguishes between his various hats: actor, director, dramatist. Staging one of his own plays Pinter famously announced to the cast "of course, we can't be sure of what the author intended here". He has directed some of his own short plays, and revivals of the longer ones, but his new piece, Ashes to Ashes, will be the first major, brand-new Pinter to be staged by its author.

In No Man's Land Pinter played Ralph Richardson's old role of Hirst, the lordly alcoholic author: "a great writer," says Grainger, "playing a great writer. There was something lyrical about Richardson. Harold was much more brutal." He has indeed specialised in the more aggressive roles in his own plays; in earlier years he appeared as Goldberg, as Mick the tearaway brother in The Caretaker, and as Lenny the pimp in The Homecoming. Last year his revived acting career reached its peak when he played the lead in a revival of The Hothouse, an early play that he suppressed after the failure of The Birthday Party, to which it is a kind of sequel. It takes place in a sadistically run mental hospital, the kind of establishment to which Stanley's captors might well have been dragging him. Pinter played the man in charge.

It's a surprisingly explicit play, with no nonsense about it, hard and fast and funny, and Pinter's performance matched it exactly. "Brutal" was again the word that came to mind: brutal and pitiful. He stormed, and drank, and grew increasingly bemused and bewildered, and came back to bully again. He was hilarious, frightening, uncompromising - in total command of himself and his audience. It exposed a cruel and violent character with great relish but without ever denying his humanity. It was an object lesson in how to play Pinter.

! 'Ashes to Ashes' opens at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs at West St, WC2 (0171 730 1745) on Thurs.