Harold Pinter: Nobel Prize-winning playwright and poet who dominated British theatre for four decades

Michael Pennington
Friday 26 December 2008 01:00 GMT

How to describe such a life as Harold Pinter's, or to ask about his achievement without hearing that ringing baritone demanding (as he once did when asked how he was that day), "What kind of a question is that?"

Pinter was an actor and director, a poet and prose writer, the author of 20 screenplays, a cricketer and an impassioned political witness to his times; above all, for over 40 years he dominated the theatre.

When The Birthday Party opened in London in 1958, it ran for a weekfollowing catastrophic notices. On the Thursday afternoon the youngplaywright crept towards the dress circle to observe the matinée. He was alone: when an usher came to see him off since the circle was closed, his admission that he was the authorsoftened her attitude: "Oh, you poor chap . . . in you go." If instead he had sat downstairs in the stalls, he might have noticed Harold Hobson of The Sunday Times cooking up a review that would decisively launch his career the morning after the production closed. It was the beginning of half a century in which, in his own words, he gave his audience not what they wanted, but what he insisted on giving them.

Behind him, at this first of many turns in the road, had been a warm but introverted boyhood in Hackney, east London, as the heartily loved only child of Jack Pinter, a ladies' tailor, and his wife Frances. After various bruising evacuations – but also plenty of London in the Blitz – Pinter found a place at Hackney Downs Grammar School, where he met his great English teacher and mentor, Joe Brearley, with whom he would walk from Springfield Park to Bethnal Green shouting speeches from The Duchess of Malfi and The Revenger's Tragedy at the trolley buses, and under whose direction he played Macbeth and Romeo. Then, to Jack's and Frances's horror, he was twice arrested and fined as a conscientious objector to National Service; expecting the worst, he took his toothbrush to the tribunal.

He had tried Rada but found it too class-bound and dropped out, then done a two-year stretch as an actor in Anew McMaster's touring company in Ireland, playing everything from the Greeks to Shakespeare to Wilde to Agatha Christie – the experience left him with a rhapsodic regard for barnstorming classical acting, though he subsequently had little formally to do with it. Then there was a novel, The Dwarfs (which he later dramatised), three years in rep, his first marriage, to the actress Vivien Merchant, and the birth of their son Daniel.

And now the fiasco of The Birthday Party. Anybody can flop: the manner of recovery makes the man. For two years afterwards, like its hero Stanley refusing to be told what to do, Pinter determinedly prepared for success: nursing the play back to health by means of a revival and television adaptation, writing three new plays and overseeing the premieres of two written earlier, The Room and The Dumb Waiter. After the runaway triumph of The Caretaker in 1960 he needed no more time for recovery.

Like the death of John F. Kennedy, this play's début records a moment in many lives. Though forewarned a little by Samuel Beckett, audiences were taken aback by a play that featured a description of electric convulsive therapy and yet was riotously funny, in which language drawn directly from the street but entirely original in its crafting was used as a tactical weapon in a three-sided battle for large and small advantage. The Caretaker has played all over the world, in an infinite variety of ways, its three great parts attracting a host of actors and endless celebration and debate.

Over the next decade, Pinter moved on to Broadway, to many awards and his appointment as CBE. Working in tandem with Peter Hall on The Collection in 1962 he began a lifelong partnership as well as his own career as a London director; he became a screenwriter by virtue of films of his own work (The Caretaker, 1964, and The Birthday Party, 1968) and his four adaptations of others' (among them The Servant and Accident, vintage collaborations with Joseph Losey, 1963 and 1967); and he created another theatre milestone, The Homecoming, in 1965. The story of Ruth's triumphant progress through the predatory jungle of male sexual confusion confirmed Pinter's fascination with the final undefeatability of women; the tribalism of the men proved that an upwardly mobile writer had forgotten nothing of his childhood.

In 1970 Pinter was immortalised by Stephen Sondheim, who wrote him into a lyric in Company as conclusive evidence of chic, and he was awarded the German Shakespeare Prize. Accepting guiltily, since at that moment he wasn't writing anything and wasn't about to, he wondered poignantly about the identity of "this fellow called Pinter" whom people wanted to shake hands with. In fact he was pausing, looking for the oxygen that can be as hard to find after success as failure.

His new work with Losey, The Go-Between, would win the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 1971, but he was seriously reviewing how to go forward in the theatre; he knew that he couldn't travel any further with "this bunch of people who open doors and come in and go out", but it was taking some time to settle the alternative. At 40, his own landscape was changing; his marriage was beginning to disintegrate, and while some of his generation were hesitant, a new generation of more evidently political playwrights – Hare, Edgar, Brenton, Griffiths – was beginning to move into the light.

Typically, Pinter negotiated all this by continuing to change on his own terms – his work becoming if anything more internal, preoccupied with time, human solitude and separation. In Old Times (1971) he suggested how the past could be continually reinvented: this fascination with creative memory had already been broached in Landscape and Silence in 1969. He then spent 12 months, which he described as a kind of homecoming, "swallowed up" in adapting Proust's A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, a period of great personal satisfaction but practical disappointment: the screenplay was never filmed, though it was published, and finally adapted for the theatre in 2000.

Pinter became a director of the National Theatre in 1973; he adapted The Last Tycoon for Sam Spiegel and Elia Kazan in 1974. His awesome No Man's Land arrived with unexpected suddenness in 1974: as the play went into production the following year, Pinter started his relationship with Antonia Fraser, attracting a particularly unpleasant frenzy of press attention that would slow down his writing. Instead he directed Noël Coward (Blithe Spirit) and Simon Gray (Otherwise Engaged and The Rear Column), and came back with Betrayal in 1978.

Antonia and he married in 1980. Now came, for lack of a better word, the politics, which of course had always been there. Pinter's public role was never, as some thought, a coat he suddenly decided to wear. He had been shocked into political scepticism as a teenager by the anti-Semitism and anti-Communism (under a Labour government) of the immediate post-war years, and he never forgot the way one of the judges at his military tribunal for conscientious objection had falsified his testimony, accusing him of being a man who wouldn't defend his sister in time of war.

So his sense of injustice and instinctive anti-authoritarianism were deep in the bone; in the 1970s he had already attacked American involvement in the overthrow of Allende in Chile and defended the Soviet internee Vladimir Bukovsky. However, the Eighties press, still tumid over his love life, responded to this apparent new turn with the special fury aimed at the writer who gets too big for his boots, that greatest of English sins.

Pinter's subsequent position on the US economic blockade of Cuba and intervention in Nicaragua, his contempt for US foreign policy and British compliance with it, down to the Nato bombing of Yugoslavia, Bill Clinton's attack on Iraq and the allied attacks on Afghanistan after 11 September, were uncompromising; his tireless human-rights campaigning and scrutiny of the meretricious language of politics he might, almost, choose as his epitaph.

In the early 1980s he continued to adapt (The French Lieutenant's Woman, 1981; his own Betrayal, 1983), and to direct (Quartermaine's Terms, 1981; The Common Pursuit, 1984) – but his political work both slowed down his original writing and sharpened its aim. The tremendous triple bill "Other Places" in 1982 was followed by a two-year silence broken by the sound of a bullet – the brief One for the Road, on the subject of state-authorised torture, written in a single enraged breath one night after an encounter at a party.

What the press derided in Pinter the public man were often acts of exceptional courage. During a momentous fact-finding visit to Turkey in 1985 with Arthur Miller (they were Vice-Presidents of Pen, and, the more you think about it, natural partners as citizens and writers), Pinter exploded at a journalist during a dinner in the US Embassy and effectively had them barred from the country. That was the headline, but the week they spent there thrust the torture in detention of hundreds of thousands of that country's "political" prisoners inescapably under English and American noses – and also engendered the first draft of the 20-minute Mountain Language, dealing with the brutal suppression of minority culture. Oddly, when a group of Kurdish actors rehearsed a revival of the play in north London in 1996 the police, accompanied by helicopters and marksmen, arrested them for carrying (prop) weapons and forbade them to communicate in their own language – the very matter of the play.

By the time of the 1988 opening of Mountain Language a vengeful press, parked outside Pinter's house as if for some squalid festival, had mocked to death his June 20th Society, a harmless discussion and debating group of liberal-to-left writers and broadcasters: its public damnation is a measure of the intolerance sluicing through the media during the Thatcher years.

Knowing who his enemies were but also his friends, Pinter entered the 1990s with a four-hour radio tribute, Pinter at Sixty, but with the press still on his back and a rare disappointment in his screenwriting career – Remains of the Day, an assignment which for various reasons he didn't finish. His sharp eye on what he used to call "the state of affairs" didn't miss the deportation of Iraqis at the beginning of the Gulf War, and he wrote a savage short poem, "American Football", which blew the euphemisms off the rhetoric that followed Operation Desert Storm, and which the broadsheets refused to publish. Party Time and A New World Order (both 1991) expressed the same anger dramatically. There were major revivals of The Homecoming, The Birthday Party and Betrayal (which the critics finally approved), and Donald Pleasance, the original Davies in The Caretaker, appeared in the part once more. Pinter himself returned to the stage in No Man's Land at the Almeida in 1992: his mother Frances died, and the beautiful Moonlight the following year was in many ways the result.

Pinter was in this full flood of writing, acting, directing and being an eloquent public nuisance when I had the good fortune to be directed by him in Ronald Harwood's Taking Sides. I am only the latest to report his pride in and unfailing kindness to the fellow actors he directed. You felt ushered towards a performance rather than shoved or cajoled. His self-effacement was that of a carpenter working on a perfect chair: he worked with the same economy that perhaps lay behind the speech in The Dwarfs when a nutcracker is criticised as an inefficient instrument for cracking a nut because of the unnecessary friction at the hinge. There was no carry-on, only the gentlest authority, punctuality and discipline, affection and trust.

It was a good time to be with him; with great good humour he seemed to be doing everybody's job better than they did. He had Old Times playing at the Wyndhams, Taking Sides at the Criterion, and was personally wowing them in The Hothouse at the Comedy. What seemed to be some extravagant late flowering was really the start of a long summing-up on all fronts.

Continuing down to the present to clean up in every department, Pinter went on to direct Twelve Angry Men (1996) and Simon Gray's Life Support (1997) and underexposed The Late Middle Classes (1999); to play in The Collection, Breaking the Code, Mojo, Mansfield Park and One for the Road; to take part in two Pinter Festivals in Dublin, and to complete Ashes to Ashes (1996) and Celebration (2000).

He faced the final obstacles in his road with an appropriate truculence and a sense of business as usual. A week after announcing, in February 2002, that he had cancer of the oesophagus, while his own production of No Man's Land played at the Lyttelton, he premiered a new work at the NT, Press Conference, performing it himself as part of a programme of his sketches. Soon afterwards he released his poem "Cancer Cells".

In June 2002 he was appointed a Companion of Honour (he had rejected a knighthood in 1996), and in August he appeared at the Edinburgh Festival to announce, "I am no less passionately engaged, nevertheless I think I have come out of this experience with a more detached point of view." Thus armed, he continued to attack politicians for their abuse of language, in due course declaring that George W. Bush and Tony Blair were war criminals who should be impeached: "When I hear Bush say [after the events of 11 September 2001] that "on behalf of all freedom-loving people we are going to continue to fight terrorism" and so on, I wonder what "freedom-hating people" look like: I've never met such people myself or can't even conceive of it. In other words, he is talking rubbish."

After being celebrated across radio and television in the "Pinter at the BBC" season in the autumn, he embarked on a campaign against British military involvement in Iraq, speaking at the mass demonstration in London in February 2003, contributing to Faber's instant book 101 Poems Against War (he brought out his own pamphlet, War, in June 2003), and campaigning in the press. "The US and the UK couldn't care less about the Iraqi people. We've been killing them for years," he said. "What is now on the cards is further mass murder. To say we will rescue the Iraqi people from their dictator by killing them an is an insult to the intelligence."

In 2005, not long after directing Simon Gray's The Old Masters in the West End, he seemed to be announcing his retirement from the theatre to concentrate on his political work; War won the Wilfred Owen Award for Poetry and he also carried off the Franz Kafka Prize. His 75th birthday in October was celebrated by the broadcast of Voices, a collaboration with the composer James Clarke, in which he drew on plays such as One for the Road, Mountain Language and Ashes to Ashes to create a narrative accompanied by Clarke's radiophonic score.

A few days later came the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature – news which he seems to have received on the telephone with something closer to a Pinter silence than a Pinter pause: "I was speechless." One news channel announced that he was dead, then changed its mind and confirmed that he had won the Nobel Prize. "So I've risen from the dead."

He sensed that his political activities had been "taken into consideration" in the award. No wonder: they have completed an extraordinary axis in his life of polemics, the spit and sawdust of theatre practice and literary culture. In December 2005, everything that Pinter was seemed to have fused in a superb speech of acceptance. "I have often been asked how my plays come about," he said. "I cannot say. Nor can I ever sum up my plays, except to say that this is what happened. That is what they said. That is what they did." But he was unusually explicit about his work, and his working method. "The author's position is an odd one. In a sense he is not welcomed by his characters. They resist him, they are not easy to live with." He could write obliquely in fiction, he said, but uncompromisingly in politics because there were ambiguities he stood by as a writer but could not as a citizen. And with a great writer's simplicity he dealt with the justifications for the Iraq war with resounding repetitions: "We were assured that was true. It was not true."

It sounded like both a manifesto, and, poignantly, a farewell. Some farewell : in January 2006 he won the Europe Theatre Prize; and in October he delivered himself of a great piece of acting as Beckett's Krapp – fortunately recorded for posterity, as was his radio performance the next spring as Max in The Homecoming.

Early in 2007 came the Legion d'Honneur; and throughout the year he was with us in spades. In February The Dumb Waiter was in the West End, and a film version of Celebration was seen on television. In July The Hothouse was at the NT while Betrayal was at the Donmar. The Broadway production of The Homecoming opened at the end of the year, shortly before the same play's triumphant revival at the Almeida. Then earlier this year a double bill of The Collection and The Lover opened in the West End and a 50th anniversary production of The Birthday Party was staged at The Lyric Hammersmith.

He had slept next to a sheep on the road with McMaster, but as a man of letters he became part of a tradition that included Joyce and Eliot. He would have liked to have a drink with Proust and Kafka – but, as he said, he never got around to it. Reams have been written about him as a writer, not all of it irrelevant, and he has, of course, earned his own personalised adjective, usually seriously misapplied. His ear for the vernacular was unerring, his comic escalations riot-ous; his sense of personal politics included the "piss-take", that means of mocking others without their being quite sure of it. He redistributed the weight of language in the theatre; he was able to make a word or a silence travel in a way that was at once poetic and hilarious; he believed that every sentence written should pay for its keep. His originality, the breadth and depth of his gifts, the thoroughness with which he reorganised his audience, bucked his critics and embraced his citizenship, have been fabulous.

Now he's having his drink with Proust, or better still with Len Hutton. For an enormous public the silence will be felt by degrees, and for his colleagues the loss is hard to measure. Along the way, Pinter immortalised many people: the soft-hearted usher on The Birthday Party, Anew McMaster; Joe Brearley; even the disgruntled box-office clerk at a theatre who didn't recognise him, and when reminded replied with a verbal quirk – "Why would I know that?" – which delighted him. For a man of such pride, his sense of self-mockery was acute.

Add to this exceptional loyalty and generosity, his brilliance as a raconteur and a high degree of personal imitability, and it is easy to see why anecdotes cluster closely around him. We already miss the Satanic grin, the bullnecked intemperance in the cause of good theatre that would make him try to stop the traffic outside a rehearsal room or kill a buzzing fly, and which once enabled him to halt the sale of Smarties during a performance; his undeflectable kindness to his colleagues; his half-serious fury at half-imagined slights.

Harold Pinter was thought to be frightening, and he was certainly a cutter of crap; but really, like Chekhov, an encounter with him made you want to be simpler, more yourself. For all his fabled belligerence, this was a man of enormous warmth, who made you feel that we were, after all, about something. To have known him was a joy and enrichment; to have been of the same profession has been the greatest privilege.

Harold Pinter, actor, playwright and director: born London 10 October 1930; CBE 1966; FRSL 1967; Associate Director, National Theatre 1973-83; CLit 1998; CH 2002; Nobel Prize for Literature 2005; married 1956 Vivien Merchant (died 1982; one son; marriage dissolved 1980), 1980 Lady Antonia Fraser (née Pakenham); died 24 December 2008.

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