In Memory: Harold Pinter
On the occasion of Harold Pinter’s passing, we asked Rail theater contributors to submit thoughts and responses to his work. What quickly became clear is that this great writer was an inspiration—if not a model—for many theater artists working today. What follows is just a small sample of the ways Pinter's work has influenced us all.
The Caretaker (Lydia Stryk)
I almost met Harold Pinter several years ago. An actor I was visiting in the National Theater canteen was on rehearsal break from a Pinter play which Pinter was directing. I could easily have asked to meet the man. I longed to meet him. No doubt, because he was a kind man, he would not have refused a worshipful playwright a moment of his time, however American she may have been.
But what would I have said? The scenario, as I imagine it—had I asked and received that moment with Pinter—goes like this: I enter the room, he turns to face me. My eyes grow large, and rejecting his outstretched hand, I fall on to his breast, sink down onto my knees in an act of penance, and begin to sob—burning convulsive sobs without end.
There were no words, and they are no easier to come by today knowing he is gone forever.
It’s funny to discover, in tribute after tribute, that a large number of those who love Pinter love The Caretaker best. Turns out, we’re all alike. But then, it’s no surprise. Not only is it the greatest contemporary metaphorical play—that smashed Buddha—`but also contains one of the great comic roles of all times in the homeless tramp, Davies. If you saw Michael Gambon in the role you died and went to heaven that night, like I did.
This beloved play that asks (among boundless questions) just what we expect from those upon whom we extend our compassion, just who we think we are to insist on gratitude in this bloody unjust world, also prefigures the sad reality that nothing Pinter did for the theater world has been paid back with thanks. I don’t mean the thanks of fame and honors. He had those aplenty. But the reward of our learning and heeding. He took care that the theater should be a place of metaphor. He took care of the poetry. He took care of the discomfort. And mostly he presided over the mystery—understanding that what is mysterious is meaning and that nothing less than meaning belonged in the theater.
Without these things, the theater, like the setting of that fierce play of his, will be left a vacant building filled with junk.
And in this way and many others, but in this way most tragically, his watchful presence is irreplaceable. Pinter, our caretaker, has vanished.
The Birthday Party (Aurin Squire)
The first monologue I memorized for the Actors Studio was from Pinter’s The Birthday Party. I flopped open an anthology and the pages fell upon a particularly sharp monologue in deceptively flat and bitter Pinter prose. The words caught my attention for their clarity and foreshadowing language.
I had a unique touch. Absolutely unique. They came up to me. They came up to me and said they were grateful. Champagne we had that night. The lot. (Pause) My father nearly came down to hear me. Well, I dropped him a card, anyway. But I don’t think he could make it.
I say all that now, but the real reason I picked it was that I sought out the easiest bit of words to memorize. When I began reading it through to burn into my brain, I noticed the room: the way the words were designed to allow artistic freedom but still fitting within the play and the character. As a novice actor I began to play with “the room”: space between sentences, silences I could take to signify anything, a loving ellipsis.
No, I—I lost the address, that was it. [...] Then after that, you know what they did? They carved me up. Carved me up. It was all arranged, it was all worked out.
I pretty much did that monologue for two years. I did it standing, sitting, laying down. I did it while an Alexander teacher massaged my vocal chords, while crawling around on the ground doing breath exercises. I did it weeping, laughing, drunk and surly, salacious, flirty, morose, wistful, completely destroyed, completely indifferent, masking regret, enraged. I did it with the intent to make love, run, fool, kill, and go to the bathroom.
A fast one. They pulled a fast one. I’d like to know who was responsible for that. All right, Jack, I can take a tip. They want me to crawl…
I messed around with the font and dashes in my head. Tweaked a word, slammed them together, masticated them between plates of food, desiccated them while dry-mouthed and thirsting.
And on it went. In acting class…
I had a unique touch
in voice and speech…
in Alexander technique...
‘CARVED me up. Carved ME up!
I waited for my day when the teacher would sigh and subtly roll the eyes and suggest I try out some new material. I’d like to know who was responsible for that?
For my final voice and speech jury I stepped out on to an enormous stage in an empty auditorium. The teachers were sitting in the back. I cleared my throat and began. When I finished I could see the shadowy outline of heads nodding along and a voice called from the darkness.
“Who wrote that?”
Moonlight (Alexis Clements)
You only need to read three or four pages into the script and you already know what you’re dealing with. It starts right in with that familiarly cruel marriage patter that marked so much of British and American theater for a good chunk of the 20th century. Though written fairly late in that game (it was his first full-length play in nearly two decades when it opened in London in 1993), Pinter’s Moonlight was classic—nearly bloodless characters dripping the last of their life out in metallic drops of dialogue:
She’s laughing at me. At my ineptitude. At my failure to find the boys, at my failure to bring the boys to their father’s deathbed.
Well that’s more like it. You are the proper target for a cat’s derision.
And how I loved you.
The two sons sit in a distant room, batting fragmented conversations between themselves as if in a game of pickleball—absurd, tense, compressed. This is an unforgiving play, but that was always Pinter’s bag. Bridget, an apparition from an earlier time in all of their lives, a dead daughter and sister, dreamily fades in and out trying to draw the orbiting worlds together, but there’s little indication that she succeeds.
As with most of Pinter’s plays, if you approach it looking for psychological insights and biographical clues to help you fix these people in time and place, you will come away disappointed. And if you come hoping for emotional revelation, you are more likely to have to face your own than to witness it in one of the characters.
As a teenager I began digging through scripts by writers like Pinter—clever, thinky writers, all men (I gather it was what was readily available)—who pinned their characters against one another in word plays that crackled and cut. There was Pinter, Stoppard, Guare, Ionesco, Pirandello. The elements of absurdity were attractive, but mostly it was the seething dialogue that caught me. They all wrote the kind of plays you had to listen closely to, in which the audience is terminally denied the chance to laugh out loud as they might miss the next line. Plays that might play best if a conductor stood before the actors to keep them churning forward on a mad tempo that rarely relents.
What strikes me now, rereading Pinter, though, is the emotional vacuum, the seemingly inhuman void that they plumb. The starkness is haunting.
The Dumbwaiter (Jason Grote)
I first learned who Pinter was as a writer—in any case, the Pinter most of us know, the Pinter of bleak, menacing, Anglo-Saxon one-acts—the only way there is to learn, which is to say from acting in one of his plays. Before that, I had lumped him in with his modernist predecessors, mostly Beckett, albeit with a more cinematic flavor. Perhaps Pinter might never have come to pass without Beckett; who knows? But he certainly wasn’t after the same things. Pinter rooted himself in what is now mostly called psychological realism; beneath the grunts, small talk, and conspicuous omissions are reasonable simulacra of human beings, characters who desire things and act in conflict with one another, or with external forces, to get what they want. It was Pinter who first taught us that the naturalistic drama of Ibsen or Chekhov was not at all in conflict with the depthless absurdism of Beckett or Ionesco.
Specifically, I learned this as an undergraduate in New Jersey, muddling through a production of The Dumbwaiter with a lousy Cockney accent and an even worse moustache, wearing a costume I had temporarily liberated from the college’s costume shop. My roommate and I spent many a late night puzzling through this creepy and seemingly inexplicable comic drama about two hitmen, one brutish and taciturn (my roommate), one prone to nervous jabbering (me). The director, also a student, was not skilled, and didn’t understand much about Pinter beyond the fact that he (Pinter, not the director) liked long pauses and required dialect coaching. So it fell to my friend and me to determine what, if anything, was going on with the dumbwaiter and all that food and that crazy ending. To give an example of the director’s methods, one evening we were reading through the play when he abruptly jammed his thumb into my roommate’s mouth. On the thumb, I soon learned, was a tab of LSD, some of which the director had also taken, and some of which I was about to ingest myself, seeing as how I wasn’t going to be getting any sleep anyway. Anyone with even a passing familiarity to either Pinter or recreational drugs surely knows that these were in no way a good mix—if anything, the right match for a Pinter play is decades of alcoholism, or perhaps the jitters a few days after some bad speed. We really didn’t learn much that night—we mutinied and invited some friends over instead—but the experience (of the play, not the acid) inexorably changed the dramatist I would later become. Today I am anything but a Pinteresque minimalist—in fact, I lament the tyranny of terseness that seems to pervade a lot of American drama—but I owe a debt to Pinter’s gift for surprise, for atmosphere and tension, and would not be the writer I am without him. He was one of a small handful of dramatists whose work changes a writer forever.
The Lover (Tommy Smith)
Of all of Pinter’s plays, The Lover stands out to me as the best representation of his “style,” i.e. eerily commonplace conversations charged with an electric subcurrent of buried sexual drives and social frustration. But reading The Lover just makes you feel crazy; Pinter seduces you into a regular English household only to turn the relationship of a stilted couple into a schizophrenic examination of the different faces we must wear in order to remain in love. While the gimmick of The Lover—the husband of the play adopts the dual role of his wife’s mysterious lover—promises a more drawing room style dramatic experience, Pinter shoves his two characters head-on into their separate demons and diversions, revealing a bottomless abyss of vanishing identities that culminates in one of the finest last lines in any psychosexual comedy/drama of the 20th Century. (Take that, Equus.) For a playwright revered for his examinations of male angst and anguish, Pinter here shows a complex understanding of How Females Like To Be With Men, a theme more brutally tackled in the more structurally ambitious Betrayal. But my heart is with The Lover; I read the piece on a yearly basis and each time come away with a different understanding of the dynamic between his two lovers. It’s a testament to Pinter’s linguistic integrity that the play’s blank fire dialogue and aggressive situations ensure that this early work still reverberates. Oh, and it’s really funny.
No Man’s Land (George Hunka)
On my first visit to New York in 1976, I saw two plays—one in the afternoon, one in the evening on this quick trip into and out of town—and both have stayed with me. I was 14, and thought after I saw them that perhaps this drama place was where I’d like to have a career, that perhaps writing plays was something I could spend a life doing. That night I saw Richard Foreman’s production of Threepenny Opera at Lincoln Center, but a few hours before, I saw John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson in the Broadway premiere of Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land.
I was already familiar with Pinter through Peter Hall’s film The Homecoming, but this was the first time I’d seen any of his work onstage. Like the Brecht, the Pinter was a revelation of what could take place in the theater—a very different sort of revelation; between Brecht and Pinter there lies an ocean, but revelation just the same. No Man’s Land is relatively plotless, a poem about the memory-obsessed death-in-life of the spiritually spent, the inevitable solitude of the dying and thus of all of us. It contains much of Pinter’s best lyrical writing for the stage (perhaps something Pinter realized too, when he chose a portion of the play to be the only example of his own work to be read at his funeral).
More, it was a profoundly musical play: a quartet for four male voices, as complex and tragic as the late quartets of Beethoven or Bartok. In Gielgud and Richardson, No Man’s Land possessed two of the most precious, resonant, memorable English-language stage voices of the twentieth century: a contemporary quartet played, then, on the finest instruments of the era. Actors seem to love the play, too; in the years since its premiere, it has attracted Christopher Plummer, Jason Robards, Michael Gambon, even Pinter himself.
As I reread No Man’s Land today in preparation for this memoir, Pinter’s example returned in all its strength. There remains in the text the disciplined cadence; the ear for the syncopation that slips up the cliché; the joke that arises even from within the darkest of meditations; the determination to carry an autopsy of the cancerous body through to its end; the bravery, courage, strength to see in all its bloody outline this fallen world, and to say it, with his own blooded music.
The Homecoming (John Soltes)
It was a fluke, one of those fleeting moments where happenstance and catharsis combine as threads into one indecipherable segment of rope.
I had put off seeing The Homecoming revival on Broadway at the Cort Theatre for the sole reason that I was terrified to see my first play by Harold Pinter. It was more a reflection of my own psyche than anything personal against the playwright. By continuing to evade his theatrical omnipresence, I felt unfulfilled but also content with not having to navigate what I was told were characters and plot occurrences incapable of being navigated.
But serendipity stepped in. It was 1:45 p.m. on a Wednesday in the middle of winter. I was walking down 48th Street, looking for a place to warm up, and the local music shops and palm readers weren’t making the grade. Then the marquee came into view: “The Homecoming.” A matinee was scheduled to begin in 15 minutes, and seats were available. It was time to test those unchartered waters.
I sat down amongst a crowd of senior citizens, bus groups seemingly. Then the lights went down, and the actors appeared. I was both repulsed and oddly at ease with the five male characters of the unflinchingly brutal play. They all were malign and hardly beacons of respectable behavior. But, for some reason, they seemed like mirrors rather than faraway theatrical creations. In each one of them—be it the paterfamilias Max (in this production played by Ian McShane) or the cunningly creepy Lenny (Raul Esparza)—I saw a quality I both hated and falteringly recognized in myself and the society I lived in.
These were men entranced, seduced, upset and jealous of Ruth (Eve Best), a woman who was everything they wanted and craved—goddess, mother, wife, slave. As the words of Pinter methodically and deceptively crept toward an allegorical flourish, the audience I could sense was pulling back.
Wasn’t this supposed to be a nice afternoon on Broadway? Where were the frolicking gazelle and self-indulgent witches? Who was this Pinter man and why was he making me think? Their dismay was my confirmation.
I left under the same marquee I had walked in under. But though it still had its same shining bulbs of luminosity, I was changed. I had been somewhere—not sure where exactly—and now I was back, still on a cold winter’s day, but with a new notch in my belt and a big, beautiful, potentially violent idea in my head.
Betrayal (Cristina Pippa)
“Betrayal.” Not the word I expected to come from the mouth of a boss who had gone behind my back.
“Well, do you want the ticket or not? Speak up.”
As if my comeuppance might result from a wasted Broadway ticket, I declined. Missing Juliette Binoche and Liev Schreiber was a hefty price to pay for maintaining my indignation. This became particularly clear once I picked up the script.
I would guess that there are few playwrights who haven’t thrown at least the suggestion of an affair into one of their plays. It’s instantly dramatic, filling characters with internal and external conflict. The audience may be kept on the edge of their seats for two acts, wondering: Will the lovers get caught? How will their spouses react? Pinter’s Betrayal is no such play. The Nobel laureate chooses to dissolve such mundane questions by answering them in the first scene of the play when we meet the lovers two years after their five-year affair has ended and with at least one of their marriages utterly ruined. A director once told me that everyone in England knew that Pinter based the play on his own relationship with his wife and best friend. So maybe that’s why he saw no need for building up suspense over whether or not the liaison would be discovered.
As the play progresses, we travel back in time to see what leads to the lovers’ break-up, how their clandestine meetings play out at the best of times, and finally, how a groom’s best man seduces the bride. The dramatic question at hand shifts from what will become of these characters to how did this all come about, as Pinter tells the story in reverse chronological order. The rhythm of Betrayal is particularly captivating because the first scene contains as many as eight pauses in a single page. Pinter is more renowned for the breaks in his dialogue than for the words that are actually spoken. As the characters hold back in these silences, we imagine what they find too difficult to reveal. Then, the last scene races by without a single pause. We arrive at the beginning, when the characters have nothing to hide and one lover says to the other, “All these words I’m using, don’t you see, they’ve never been said before.”
Old Times (Caridad Svich)
There are some things one remembers even though they never happened. There are things I remember which may never have happened but as I recall them they take place.
—Anna in Old Times (1971)
Harold Pinter’s play Old Times was one of the first plays of his that I read. I knew nothing about it. I only knew that it was written by the famous Harold Pinter and that the cover intrigued me. The edition of the play featured black and white illustrations of a man and two women against a hazy violet-blue background. The three figures were not looking at one another and one of the women held a cigarette in her hand. I was an actor then and in my second year of undergraduate school and I was looking for a part to play in an independent studio seminar/workshop production class I was taking. Kate in Old Times held my interest. I played her in college and found the experience as a young actor of diving into Pinter’s constantly shifting text extraordinarily challenging and intellectually invigorating. I had been writing some short plays and although I didn’t know then that playwriting would take over as my primary discipline in the theater, I knew that Pinter tapped into something that was primal, funny, and true.
A theater space at the University of London, Queen Mary is named after him: the Harold Pinter Studio. I performed my solo piece Torch there in 1998 and remember walking into the space under the placard with his name. I remember how daunted I felt, and yet how thrilled. I was walking into the Harold Pinter Studio! What worlds lived there! A year or so later my play Any Place But Here was produced in that same space and of all the many programs of productions of my work, this is one of which I most cherish, simply because Pinter’s name is attached to the venue. A sense of legacy, perhaps, if you will. A sense that in theater one is part of a long and deep stream of writing, no matter what “new” things you may think you’re up to in your work.
Old Times. The paperback copy from college is still on my bookshelf. A reminder of being confounded by his words and wanting to unravel their design, which, of course, will never be truly unravelled.
The Proust Screenplay (Lonnie Carter)
Having sworn off Wikipedia through a twelve step WA program, I fell off the wagon this morning but found this: “Although cordial with Scott Moncrieff, Proust grudgingly remarked in a letter that Remembrance eliminated the correspondence between Temps perdu and Temps retrouvé (Painter, 352).” Who is this ‘Painter’? P(a)inter?
And if H.P. and M.P. had known each other, would the latter have written, (Proust at his computer, the sound of the birds of Combray pulling him forward to Twitter), that the former had eliminated the correspondence between Temp perd and Temp ret, upon reading The Proust Screeenplay?
The Proust Screenplay has never been produced, but in 2001, Pinter and Di Trevis brought a stage version of the screenplay version of the novel version to the Cottesloe. Michael Billington of The Guardian wrote, “Talk about squashing quarts into pint pots! Two things leapt out at me…Proust’s narrator, Marcel, is both a participant in and observer of his own life as if everything is leading to the play’s climactic line: ‘It was time to begin.’” Of course, by this time, lost and found, the book, play, screenplay, has already been written. Back to Billington: “The stage version also heightens the aspect of Proust most often neglected, his gift for Balzacian social comedy…”
This is on display about one hundred shots in:
Let me introduce you to…the Marquis de Norpois.
Good evening, sir.
Good evening. Your father tells me you wish to pursue writing, as a career?
I…yes, sir. I think so, sir.
A career in writing can bear surprisingly rewarding fruits…if, that is, one maintains the proper balance of industry, determination, and ambition…a friend’s son…two years ago published “The Sense of the Infinite on the Western Shore of Lake Victoria Nyanza,” and followed it with “The Use of the Repeating Rifle in the Bulgarian Army”…What have you written?
Nothing…I’m afraid…that is actually finished.
FATHER takes a piece of paper from desk.
What about this? Your piece about steeples.
Oh no! No…that’s…
It’s finished, isn’t it?
Yes, but it was written years ago. It’s…juvenile.
One can discern a great deal from early efforts.
(To FATHER) May I?
FATHER (passing paper)
NORPOIS (glancing at it, murmuring)
M. NORPOIS reads. Silence. M. NORPOIS finishes reading, looks up, clears his throat, hands paper back to MARCEL, staring at him. FATHER takes paper, puts it back in desk.
Shall we go into dinner?
A Pinter Silence, at its best.
Now from the very first shot:
1. Yellow Screen. Sound of a garden gate bell.
To the very last:
454. MARCEL as a child looking out of his bedroom window. The bell ceases.
455. Vermeer’s View of Delft. Camera moves in swiftly to the patch of yellow wall in the painting. Yellow screen.
It was time to begin.
Cristina Pippa is a playwright who no longer lives in Brooklyn, but in Buffalo, where she teaches at Buffalo State College and is an Artist in Residence at the Center for the Arts.Jason Grote
Jason Grote is the author of 1001, Maria/Stuart, and Hamilton Township. He is writing the screenplay for What We Got: DJ Spooky's Quest For The Commons, and co-hosting the Acousmatic Theater Hour on WFMU.Lonnie Carter
Lonnie Carter won an Obie in 2003 for The Romance of Magno Rubio. He's from Chicago, which is the place to be from these days to any days.George Hunka
George Hunka is a dramatist based in New York and the artistic director of the theater minima company.Tommy Smith
Tommy is a playwright. He lives in Manhattan.John Soltes
John Soltes is a journalist who works in New Jersey. For the Rail, he has written pieces on Nigerian Catholic priests and the tug boat business.Lydia Stryk
Lydia Stryk is the author of over a dozen plays including Monte Carlo, The House of Lily, The Glamour House, American Tet, and An Accident produced at, among others, Denver Center Theatre, Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Victory Gardens, the Contemporary American Theatre Festival, Magic Theatre, and in Germany at Schauspiel Essen, Theaterhaus Stuttgart and the English Theater Berlin. She lives between Berlin and New York. www.lydiastryk.com.Caridad Svich
Caridad Svich is a playwright-lyricist-translator-editor and founder of theater alliance NoPassport. Her play Instructions for Breathing premieres this spring at Passage Theater in NJ under Daniella Topol's direction.Aurin Squire
Aurin Squire is a playwright and reporter who lives in South Park Slope. He is also co-creator and writer for the online cartoon Bodega Ave.Alexis Clements
Alexis Clements is a writer and filmmaker based in Brooklyn. Her film All We’ve Got, examining LGBTQ women’s communities, is available for screenings. Her podcast, The Answer is No, which shares stories of artists challenging the conditions under which work, is available on podcast apps. Learn more: alexisclements.com.
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