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Harold Pinter, playwright and polemicist

Harold Pinter, who was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 2005, died on 24th Dec. 2008.
I’ve read a couple of Harold Pinter obituaries in the meantime, but the one in the Economist seems to me to convey a good idea of what the writer was like: Harold Pinter, playwright and polemicist.

Because he could be charming company, he and Lady Antonia were fixtures on the literary cocktail circuit. But he seldom cut a comfortable or happy figure. Instead he would stand beside her like a metaphor for silence and death, his black polo-neck pulled up ruthlessly to his big, baleful, staring head. Like Stanley in “The Birthday Party”, caught up in a game of blind man’s buff that turns very nasty, he seemed to expect at any moment the shadows to move in, knee him in the groin, break his glasses. Except that, unlike Stanley, he would roar back and punch them senseless. He would never let them tell him what to do.

His playwriting life, he said, was much like that. His characters rose up randomly (from the mere word “dark”, the question “What have you done with the scissors?”, an image of a couple by a window in Kilburn) and then began to play taunting games with him. They resisted him, went their own way. There was no true or false in them. No certainty, no verifiable past.


Mr Pinter’s characters were often would-be homebuilders. They remembered the comforts of hot milk and hotwater bottles, dreamed of kitchens with matching worktops and lino tiles, dwelt longingly on casseroles and fried bread. But nothing could bridge the void or make it cosy. The theme Mr Pinter lived with and raged against was human alienation.

It was his own, as much as anyone’s. Despite the contentments of his life he felt exposed to all the winds, naked and shelterless. Only lies would protect him, and as a writer he refused to lie.

January Magazine recommends the Los Angeles Times’ obituary and mentions the Chicago Tribune’s and the Times Online’s.

I also like the very detailed text at the Guardian’s site, where Michael Billington writes about Pinter’s most famous play, The Caretaker:

What was largely missed at the time, however, in all the tributes to his tape-recorder dialogue, was Pinter’s ability to find the hidden poetry in everyday speech: arguably his greatest single contribution to modern drama. In all the games of hunt-the-symbol, people also overlooked the more obvious point. That this was both a deeply humane play about the universal need for pipe-dreams and a microcosmic study of power in which the tramp-hero, Davies, forms shifting alliances as part of his strategy for survival.

The Guardian also offers a comprehensive set of pages on various aspects of Pinter, among them a 1999 portrait of the author (no, not as a young man) by Stephen Moss, “Under the Volcano.” There are quaint anecdotes like this one:

A woman once wrote to Harold Pinter to ask him to explain The Birthday Party. “These are the points I do not understand: 1. Who are the two men? 2. Where did Stanley come from? 3. Were they all supposed to be normal? You will appreciate that without the answers to these questions I cannot fully understand your play.” Pinter replied: “These are the points I do not understand: 1. Who are you? 2. Where do you come from? 3. Are you supposed to be normal? You will appreciate that without the answers to these questions, I cannot fully understand your letter.”

(You may also want to read Stephen Moss’s comment on the obituary.)

Worth looking at:
- BBC obituary (contains a video clip and some audio commentary)
- New York Times obituary

I dedicate this entry to Volker Strunk, in whose seminar I first read a handful of Pinter plays (some 25 years ago, at Augsburg University). And if you’re really interested in reading about a colourful career, have a look at what Volker Strunk does now for a living.

1 comment to Harold Pinter, playwright and polemicist

  • Oh thanks a million for this nice collection. Except for the article in “Die Zeit” I haven’t had the time to search for some good articles. It’s very sad that Pinter died and I am so sorry I never saw him on stage. But then we still have his plays etc.. Will go and check out Mr Strunk now :-)

    Btw… Happy New Year!