Of the crop of revolutionary English playwrights of the late 1950s and early 60s—often labeled the “Angry Young Men” because they displayed, with few exceptions, all three characteristics—Harold Pinter (1930-2008) has emerged as the one with perhaps the best claim to literary immortality. Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature and the Legion d’Honneur in the years before his death, Pinter’s career spanned more than 50 years and works in multiple mediums including film, radio and television.
But his furthest reaching influence was in the theatre, in which he offered a novel response to the dramaturgical innovations of Beckett, Ionesco and the Parisian avant-garde of the early 1950s, integrating them with the native British fascination with language and things left unsaid. Stripping away the clichéd conventions of the “well-made play”—reducing the action to a mere skeleton, the dialogue to banal fragments and trivial ellipses, the characters to metaphysical enigmas—Pinter somehow returned the stage to a reality more recognizable as our own while filling it with a metaphysical mystery all his own. The situations in Pinter plays are often random to the point of terrifying arbitrariness—much like our own experience of the world. If his plays offer no neat explanation, no “moral” or philosophy, well, that is because he believed there wasn’t one.
As the late great drama critic Richard Gilman once wrote, Pinter’s plays reverse the theatre and leave us standing at the threshold, looking out. Through that doorway lies a distinctly modern understanding of the world. Some critics cite Joyce or Kafka; the great British director Sir Peter Hall compared Pinter’s style to Magritte’s “hard-edged, very elegant, very precise style.” Like all of them, Pinter is more interested in observing than in explaining behavior, more devoted to the theatrical present tense than the fictive illusion, more likely to employ silence and irruptions of the mind than to craft well-turned phrases or witty circumlocutions. Depriving us of comforting fictions, Pinter returns us to the ambiguities of human existence.
Despite, or perhaps because of these innovations, it is easy to miss Pinter’s artistic evolution. We often speak of the “Pinteresque” when considering his plays—modernists, so intent on capturing indescribable sensations, often inspire eponymous adjectives—and in so doing we obliterate how he changes.
Pinter began writing plays after dropping out of RADA in 1948 and touring the provinces, performing Shakespeare and Terence Rattigan as “David Baron.” He would also publish poetry as “Harold Pinta,” alluding to the possible Sephardic origins of his name. In these apprentice years, Pinter would meet and marry actress Vivian Merchant, who starred in many of his early works. In 1957, aged 27, in a burst of inspiration, he wrote three short one-act plays, The Room, The Dumb Waiter and The Birthday Party, the last of which would later be expanded into his first full-length. Each is set in an underworld lair (a broken-down flat, a basement, a boarding-house) reminiscent of Pinter’s Cockney upbringing in the London neighborhood of Hackney. The genre is unstable—scratch-and-sniff naturalism? crime procedural? Sartrean farce with no exits?—replaced by a bewildering atmosphere.
In Pinter’s earliest plays, background details and fleeting images, often macabre and comic, come to the fore, inverting typical dramatic concerns such as situation or character. As he told Time in 1961, The Room was inspired by an encounter at a London party with two men. A little man with bare feet was “carrying on a lively and rather literate conversation, and at the table next to him sat an enormous lorry driver.” This lorry, or cab, driver, “had his cap on and never spoke a word. And all the while as he talked, the little man was feeding the big man—cutting his bread, buttering it, and so on. Well,” Pinter concluded, “this image would never leave me.”
The Caretaker, a full-length, would follow in 1961, but the limits of Pinter’s early style were starting to show. In his shorter works, the refusal to distinguish between the extremes of comedy and terror, of banality and profundity, had produced a distilled, alarming effect, imbuing simple situations with the sense of something far beyond the spoken word. (This may also have had to do with social reality: until 1968, Pinter was still writing in a country where the Lord Chamberlain’s office held the power to censor plays for obscenity, one it had maintained, unrelinquished, since Shakespeare’s time. Little surprise that a dramatist of the rising counterculture would turn to oblique reference.) He had found a new form. He had yet, however, to fill it with figures and scenarios capable of taking the drama into deeper realms.
These two short plays written in 1961 and 1962—The Lover and The Collection—point the way forward. Originally written as one-hour teledramas for the BBC, they change the mise-en-scène from the Cockney East End to the tonier West End (The Collection) and more suburban Windsor (The Lover). He has also raised the level of his social portraiture from seedy underworld goings-on to the thriving fashion industry or “rag trade” of swinging 60s London (The Collection) and the Mad Men lives of a married commuter and housewife (The Lover).
More significant than the broadening range of social reference, however, these two short plays introduce the structure of interpersonal combat that would come to define Pinter’s mature masterpieces, from The Homecoming in 1964, immediately afterward, to increasingly ambitious works such as Old Times (1971) and Betrayal (1978). Like those later plays, the drama in The Lover and The Collection is still one of menace, but action predominates over atmosphere. The focus is on the ellipticalities of human behavior rather than evocative rooms and dialogue. The characters are drawn no less indelibly, but here they are shown doing things, to each other, in defiance of each other. The Collection suggests a dramaturgical corollary to the quadratic equation, with its four characters circling each other in a kind of amoral combat—configured into evermore complex relationships. The Lover places its two in a perhaps even more complicated emotional chaos theory. In both plays, Pinter arrives at a subtle but deeply influential breakthrough in modern drama. Few plays, and fewer playwrights, take us so deftly across the abyss and into strange new realities.