Appreciation: The playwright who gave us ‘Pinteresque’


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Harold Pinter, who died Wednesday after a long bout with cancer, will go down as the most important modern English-language playwright after Samuel Beckett. He wouldn’t have minded coming in second. Plus he gave the world a sharper adjective — Pinteresque.

Beckett was an idol and mentor to Pinter, as well as a friend. Pinter took inspiration from the Irish writer’s profound concentration of language and metaphor, breadth of literary and philosophical knowledge, Proustian appreciation of the subjectivity of memory, recognition of the power struggles in human relations and harrowing comedy in the face of the 20th century’s apocalyptic worst.


In effect, Pinter brought Beckett’s game indoors, transferring it from barren heaths, garbage cans and mounds of earth to recognizable domestic English settings. Shabby in Pinter’s early years, these rooms became posher as he began to reap the fruits of his success in both theater and film, where he was a noted screenwriter (enjoying an especially productive relationship with Joseph Losey), a pungent actor and an occasional director.

But Pinter was always his own man. And to understand him, one has to recognize the specifics of his background, as a Jewish kid from the East End of London whose adolescence was darkened by the Second World War and as an actor who gleaned as much about playwriting from working as a rep player alongside such British acting legends as Donald Wolfit as he did from studying Beckett.

Where Pinter grew up, violence and anti-Semitic hatred weren’t abstract matters. After the war, in his economically debilitated, politically explosive part of town, he learned to avoid physical confrontations — a danger, he acknowledged, for anyone who “remotely looked like a Jew” — by talking to thugs hanging out outside the club he used to frequent: “Are you all right?” “Yes, I’m all right.” “Well, that’s all right then, isn’t it?”

Language, which is so often a weapon in his plays, is also a reliable shield, “a constant stratagem to cover nakedness,” as the playwright himself once described it. David Hare was right to pay Pinter the ultimate Auden compliment of having “cleaned the gutters of the English language, so that it ever afterwards flowed more easily and more cleanly.” But Pinter’s poetic density, shot through with those signature gaping silences, wasn’t deployed for its own sake.

The assaultive threat hovering over his characters is what shapes their jagged conversation. In Pinter’s view, Kafka was one of the few writers who had got it right: The nightmarish knock on the door isn’t just a paranoid delusion. The urge to dominate is fundamental to our territorial natures. We know we’re not safe, and our canine vigilance readies us to attack and defend.

Pinter’s rough-and-tumble roots also informed his political perspective, which became more explicit in his plays in the 1980s and could admittedly become rather truculent in his speeches and editorials, most notably in his 2005 Nobel lecture, “Art, Truth & Politics,” in which he took the opportunity to rail against what he saw as the long-standing brutality of American foreign policy.

But for all his vehemence and posturing, Pinter was too gifted with words and too astute a critic to be dismissed as an ideological crank. He was also too deft a psychologist, understanding what the British psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott meant when he wrote that “being weak is as aggressive as the attack of the strong on the weak” and that the repressive denial of personal aggressiveness is perhaps even more dangerous than ranting and raving. (All that stiff-upper-lip business can be murderous.)

Pinter’s early career as an actor helped him theatricalize these insights. In Michael Billington’s admiring biography, Pinter reveals what he learned working beside Wolfit, a barnstormer who could generate the most extraordinary “savagery and power” by the simple turning of his cloak. Wolfit provided Pinter with a master class in dramatic timing, demonstrating the potency of silence and the way delay can turn suspense into something wonderfully excruciating.

All of this permeated his playwriting, which invested everyday objects with an uncanny sense of Hitchcockian menace. When we talk about something being Pinteresque, we’re referring to that state of anxiety in which seemingly harmless encounters can provoke the most fearfully ambiguous threats. A glass of water may sometimes be just a glass of water, but in “The Homecoming,” one of modern drama’s signal achievements, it becomes a line in the sand between Ruth and Lenny, seductively antagonistic in-laws who are sussing each other out.

Pinter’s emergence in 1958 with “The Birthday Party,” followed shortly by “The Caretaker,” was both thrilling and baffling. The new theatrical vocabulary had to be decoded. Characters didn’t arrive with their birth certificates and back stories in a convenient carrying case; the dialogue ran down subterranean pathways; and the plots typically involved an outsider’s incursion into the delicate equilibrium of a private space. Also, nothing could be trusted — not language, not memory and certainly not reality, which always entails a war of personal fictions.

Pinter later applied these innovations to his political plays, revealing totalitarian regimes as deranged dances between oppressors, who find endless ways of reaffirming the banality of evil, and the oppressed, who use all their wiles to protect themselves from the unavoidable blows. These dramas might not have the same staying power. But in 2001, Pinter himself starred in “One for the Road” in New York and demonstrated just how smoothly the domestic dynamics of his earlier works could fold into the more geopolitical concerns of his later ones.

The plays are ultimately gifts to actors who can master the verbal precision while maintaining an aura of unforced mystery. These are the qualities that director Peter Hall found in Vivien Merchant, Pinter’s first wife, who originated the role of Ruth in “The Homecoming” in 1965. And I’ve come upon them a few times myself — with Penelope Wilton in “A Kind of Alaska,” Lindsay Duncan in “Ashes to Ashes” and Michael Gambon in “The Caretaker.”

Experience Pinter’s sorcery in such expert hands and you’re hooked for life.

-- Charles McNulty