Sarah Sands: Pinter's funeral – more final reckoning than reconciliation

Most personal grudges and animosities fade year by year. Not in the Pinter family, says Sarah Sands

Sunday 04 January 2009 01:00

For a master of conflict and violence, Harold Pinter had a benign death. He was successful and honoured, picking up the Nobel Prize for literature in his last years and using the occasion as another opportunity to attack American foreign policy. He was revered even by those he attacked. American immigration officers welcomed him admiringly.

His long marriage to the serene Lady Antonia Fraser was described as "purringly contented" in The Economist last week. His short funeral at Kensal Green cemetery had been rehearsed in his dining room at Holland Park, the actor Sir Michael Gambon invited over to practise a recitation from No Man's Land. As the playwright once mused to The New York Times writer Sarah Lyall: "I've never been able to write a happy play, but I've been able to enjoy a happy life."

Yet there was one jarring, unexplained detail about the funeral. Pinter's son, Daniel, who spurned his father after the death of his mother, Pinter's first wife, Vivien Merchant, did not attend. Pinter may have achieved some personal contentment, but not reconciliation. In this, his life more closely resembled his plays. He avoided conclusion and explanation. He wrote, in relation to The Birthday Party, about the hopelessness of verification, particularly of the past. "What took place, what was the nature of what took place, what happened..." It was more a question of "whose perception of reality will prevail".

Daniel does not apparently share his father's ambiguity about the past. His mother divorced Harold Pinter in 1980 and in 1982 she died of drink. He carries his mother's sense of grievance to his father's grave. The few public references to Daniel, who changed his name from Pinter to that of his maternal grandmother, Brand, describe a nice man, a writer and painter now in his fifties. He is almost as old as his mother was when she died. Yet the undimmed rage seems to have been inherited from his father.

Although Vivien Merchant blamed Antonia Fraser for taking Harold Pinter from her, it was actually Joan Bakewell who had been Pinter's long-standing mistress and the basis for his play Betrayal. Yet jealousy need not be accurate. And presumably Daniel witnessed an extreme version of many divorces: one partner flourishes while the other perishes. His beautiful and talented mother drank herself to death.

Anyone who met Antonia Fraser with Harold Pinter marvelled at her suitability as his wife. She was clever and accomplished in her own right, but not competitive. She absorbed his temper and social awkwardness in her own smiling, distracted, aristocratic bearing. She was never confrontational, only teasing. If she took issue with her husband, it was in the spirit of mild intellectual enquiry.

Perhaps Daniel took this sense of rising above misery as a slight to his mother, who sunk pitifully below it. Probably he resented the lot of first families of successful public figures, which is to be reduced to a footnote. Pinter was married to Vivien Merchant for 24 years. She was a brilliant Ruth in The Homecoming. She encouraged him after the ferociously bad reviews for The Birthday Party. She was a great deal more than a footnote.

The feeling of injustice in the child of a first marriage burns deep even without a suicide. The righteous fury of Rupert Murdoch's eldest daughter, Prue, is the howl of first-marriage children. What had sent her over the edge was her father's casual mention of his "three children" during a press conference. He was referring to Elisabeth, James and Lachlan, who were all the offspring of his second wife, Anna.

Prue became more cheerful when Murdoch divorced Anna and married Wendi Deng. As Anna's children defended their mother against the dynastic ambitions of Wendi, Prue mellowed towards her father. After the birth of Wendi's children, Grace and Chloe, Elisabeth Murdoch spoke of the family hurt. Prue responds: "It was interesting to me because I was just sitting there thinking 'Well, hello, I've done this' – and when I said that they said: 'Yes, but it wasn't like that for you.' I said: 'It was kind of worse because I had to live with you.'"

When one reads of amicable divorces and extended families, one should bear in mind that these are usually pastures above dormant volcanoes. And that weddings and funerals are the natural place for ruptures. There is something about the formality and sense of pew entitlement that rips at old wounds.

You would have thought that the capricious death of a promising young actor such as Heath Ledger would unite those who loved him, but his funeral was notable for the number of banned family members.

A funeral is supposed to be a place of reconciliation but it is more a final reckoning. If a life has been fragmented or disputatious, the spotlight is waiting. Furthermore, the surviving spouse might be present by virtue of musical chairs, rather than by virtue.

How do you keep the past at bay? Remember the mousy dignity of Sally Burton, fifth wife of Richard Burton, who looked after her husband loyally during his final disintegration. In the obituaries she was reduced to a cameo role by the big screen presence of Elizabeth Taylor. There may be many marriages but there is usually only one great love.

It is one thing for husbands or wives to be slugging it out over a corpse. It is much sadder when parents and children are unreconciled at the end.

Harold Pinter's contemporary, John Osborne, managed to fall out with his mother ("she is my disease"), his wife, Jill Bennett, who committed suicide ("she was the most evil woman I have come across") and, somehow most shockingly, his daughter Nolan, whom he threw out of the house when she was 17. Nolan never spoke to her father again.

Pinter, for all his anger, was not passionately cruel. Those who know him say his son's refusal to forgive him was passively and sorrowfully accepted. All he said during his New York Times interview was: "There it is."

This does not mean that it was forgotten, even among the love and tumble of Fraser family life, with 16 grandchildren of six stepchildren, disregarding the playwright's fearsome reputation and calling him Grandpa.

Michael Billington, Pinter's biographer, wrote of him: "I believe that memory is also the key to Pinter's whole work as an artist. He is plagued and haunted by the whole notion of memory and by the idea that as we go through daily life we are occupied by our memory of past events, past emotional circumstances, and they can break through at any moment."

What is the inference of Sir Michael Gambon's funeral passage from No Man's Land? "Allow the love of the good ghost. They possess all that emotion trapped. Bow to it. It will assuredly never release them but who knows what relief it may give to them, who knows how they may quicken in their chains, in their glass jars..."

Pinter and his son Daniel possessed all that emotion trapped and were imprisoned by it.

One of the pleasures of growing older is a diminishing sense of grievance. I find that when I am asked about the causes of divorce or professional feuds, I cannot remember, or indeed find myself easily able to see the points of view of old enemies. Perceptions of reality hang in the balance. "What took place; what was the nature of what took place; what happened?"

I would not presume to delve into the causes of the lasting fury of this son towards his famous father, but I am sure it will have poisoned his own life. Despite the message of misery memoirs, you cannot go on blaming your parents for everything or continue to fight their battles. There is no catharsis in it, only prolonged unhappiness.

Had Vivien Merchant recovered from her alcoholism, she might have forgiven her husband. Let us hope that her son can make peace with his dead father.

Sarah Sands is editor in chief of British 'Reader's Digest'

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in