Feature: Remembering Harold Pinter

Date posted: 15 Aug 2011Author: STC

When playwright Harold Pinter passed away on 24 December, 2008, the international theatre community plunged into mourning. Although his death was not entirely unexpected, as he was suffering from cancer, it was still a shock to realise that this powerful voice had been silenced.

Ahead of our upcoming production of No Man's Land, starring Peter Carroll and John Gaden, we look back at what some of Pinter's contemporaries had to say about one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. Here are extracts from three of the obituaries printed in the media in the days following his death...

A tribute from writer Ariel Dorfman

''You want to free the world from oppression? Look inside, look at the hidden violence of language''

The email came to me a few days after Harold Pinter's death. It was from Farouq Homar, who was in the process of translating three of the great dramatist's plays into Kurdish and who lamented: "I am unlucky that I will be unable to send the great playwright a volume of three of his works about to appear in Kurdish, as a gift, because he wrote Mountain Languagefor us, the Kurds.

"With all the homages from actors and directors and politicians, it would be easy to overlook what the life and works of Harold Pinter meant to remote people in the forgotten corners of the earth.

Men like Farouq Homar. Men like myself.

It was in Chile, some time in the early 1960s, that I saw my first Pinter play. That is where and when something in my work and life changed for ever. The play was The Dumb Waiterand it was immediately recognisable to me, almost Latin American in its familiarity, despite having been originally written in elliptical English by an author from Hackney, London. In the years that followed, Pinter's plays showed me how dramatic art can be poetic merely by delving into the buried rhythms of everyday speech. He whispered to me that we often speak in order to hide, and perhaps avoid, what we are really feeling and thinking.

He understood that if you push reality hard enough, it will end up exposing under its surface another dimension - fantastic, absurd, delirious. He suggested that the worst hallucinations of fear are not immune to the pendulum of humour.

But all of these lessons in dramatic craftsmanship pale next to what he taught me about human existence and about politics. Though the characters in those first works were uninterested in changing the world for better or for worse, sad citizens of intimacy obsessed only with their own survival, the lives of those men and women revealed to audiences everywhere the many gradations and degradations of power with a starkness absent from other authors, even those supposedly dedicated to examining or denouncing politics.

All power, all domination and liberation started there, he seemed to be saying, in those claustrophobic rooms where each word counts, each slight utterance needs to be accounted for, is paid for in some secret currency of hope or suffering. You want to free the world, free humanity, from oppression? Look inside, look sideways, look at the hidden violence of language. Never forget that language is where the other, parallel violence, the cruelty exercised on the body, originates.

Two men waiting in a basement to kill somebody. An old tramp laying claim to a derelict room. A birthday celebration interrupted by intruders. A woman afraid of being evicted. A son who comes home to his dysfunctional family accompanied by an enigmatic wife. Primal scenes of betrayal that could be happening anywhere on our planet, embodiments of a vast and disquieting landscape of dread, the precarious condition inhabited by most of contemporary humanity, the neglected narrative of the 20th century.

So it was natural that I projected on to those stories born in England the disturbing shadows of my own Latin America. How many men like Davies [from The Caretaker] crossed our Santiago streets? How many killers took their time in the Buenos Aires cellars of yesterday? How many would await us in the São Paulo cellars of tomorrow? And how to tell those stories, respecting the uncertainty of those existences on the rim of extinction, mercilessly stripping the masks forged out of the lives we made for ourselves, and yet also be gentle, oh so tender, with these victims of their own delusions?

Pinter knew how.

Read the full text at: New Statesman, 8 January 2009

Film and theatre director Richard Eyre

Harold Pinter entered our cultural bloodstream years ago. People who have never seen a play of his describe unsettling domestic events or silences laden with threat as "Pinteresque". He has become adjectival, part of who and what we are.

What I am is a child of the late 1950s who grew up in west Dorset knowing as much about theatre as I did about insect life in Samoa. There were no theatres within reasonable distance - at least ones that presented plays - so by the age of 18 I had seen only two professional productions: Hamletat the Bristol Old Vic and Much Ado About Nothingat Stratford. Then I saw The Caretakerand I felt something like Berlioz encountering Shakespeare -"coming on me unawares, [he] struck me like a thunderbolt", to which he added "and at this time of my life I neither spoke nor understood a word of English".

I hadn't been corrupted by reading about the "theatre of the absurd" or by the critics' passion for kennelling a writer in a category, and I was innocent of the writer's supposed concerns with "status" and "territory". The play seemed to me a natural way of looking at the world, unpredictable but as inevitable as the weather.

I loved the way that it didn't glut you with exposition, that things just happened in the play without their significance being spelt out. What it was about seemed irrelevant, what was important was what it was: a world like ours where the meaning of things was at best opaque, and the most normal condition of life was uncertainty.

Above all, it distilled normal speech - the kind you'd hear on a bus or in a pub - into a singular language syncopated with hard wit and percussive poetry. And it used silence as a dramatic tool. It woke me up to the fact that theatre was as much about the spaces between the words as the words themselves, that what was left off the stage was as important as what was put on it, and that feelings - particularly of men - are articulated obliquely or mutely, mostly remaining trapped like water under an icecap.

For the full text go to: The Observer, Sunday 28 December 2008

Critic and biographer Michael Billington

Harold Pinter, who has died at the age of 78, was the most influential, provocative and poetic dramatist of his generation. He enjoyed parallel careers as actor, screenwriter and director and was also, especially in recent years, a vigorous political polemicist campaigning against abuses of human rights. But it is for his plays that he will be best remembered and for his ability to create dramatic poetry out of everyday speech. Among the dramatists of the last century, Beckett is his only serious rival in terms of theatrical influence; and it is a measure of Pinter's power that early on in his career he spawned the adjective "Pinteresque" suggesting a cryptically mysterious situation imbued with hidden menace.

No other dramatist of his generation proved as durable as Pinter. But he was also one of those rare writers who helps to shape and influence the medium in which they work. For a start he banished the idea of the omniscient author: after plays like The Birthday Partyand The Caretaker, it was no longer de rigeur for dramatists to know the back-story or the future of their characters. As Pinter said in a much-quoted lecture to students in 1962: "My characters tell me so much and no more with reference to their experience, their aspirations, their motives, their history."

But, alongside that, Pinter showed that theatrical poetry is not some kind of ornate verbal appendage. He proved that it can be found in the banalities, the repetitions, the evasions and even the hiatuses of everyday speech. He became famous for his use of the pause: something he always claimed to have learned from the comedian Jack Benny. Yet for Pinter dramatic speech was also frequently a camouflage for the real, unexpressed, hidden emotion: "so often," as he said in Bristol, "below the word spoken is the thing known and unspoken."

As for the man himself, he was full of contradictions. He had a reputation for being short-tempered and angry; and it is perfectly true that he could flare up if he encountered some thoughtlessly expressed political opinion. But, in writing a critical biography of him, I was more struck by his iron loyalty, meticulous precision and innate capacity for friendship. Almost alone amongst famous dramatists, he remained close to the friends of his youth: in his case the Hackney gang.

He also listened to what other people said: the secret of his gift as a writer. And he had an immense zest for life: he loved poetry, wine, bridge-playing and just about every kind of sport, but most especially cricket. I often thought he was as proud of the cricket-team he first played for and then managed, the Gaieties, as of almost all his literary accomplishments.

His life had its tragedies: the chief amongst them was his estrangement from his son, Daniel, by his first marriage to Vivien Merchant. But his second marriage to Antonia Fraser, who survives him as do his son Daniel, six step-children and 16 grandchildren, was a source of great joy. It also, I believe, gave a new lease of his life to his writing and pricked and stimulated his passion for politics.

Pinter was an all-round man of the theatre of a kind we're unlikely to see again: a practical graduate of weekly rep and touring theatre who all the time nursed his own private vision of the universe. And that, in the end, was his great achievement.

Like all truly first-rate writers, he mapped out his own country with its own distinctive topography. It was a place haunted by the shifting ambivalence of memory, flecked by uncertainty, reeking of sex and echoing with strange, mordant laughter. It was, in short, Pinterland and it will induce recognition in audiences for as long as plays are still put on in theatres.

For the full text go to:, Thursday 25 December 2008

No Man's Land, Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, 28 October - 18 December, 2011.