Michael Coveney Pays Tribute to Late Harold PinterDate: 25 December 2008
The British theatre is said to have changed forever with John Osborne's Look Back in Anger in 1956 but the real depth charges were sounded with Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party two years later. Fifty years on, we can see that Osborne was writing in a social realist, politically engaged tradition stretching from Shaw and Granville Barker through to Terence Rattigan and David Hare.
With Pinter, our stage was suddenly invaded by the European literary tradition of Franz Kafka, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. And what gave Pinter his special flavour and his unique voice was his London background and his early days as an actor in rep and writer of revue sketches. He came out of the badlands of Hackney in the East End of London, working with early idols such as Anew McMaster in Ireland and Donald Wolfit on tour. He was a very funny man who loved wine, women and song, and actors almost as much as he revered cricketers.
The fact that he wasn't quite as good a cricket player as he liked to think he was is beside the point. He lived the game with a passion, as he lived his life, his loves and his beliefs. The citation for his Nobel Prize award in 2005 was that he "restored theatre to its basic elements: an enclosed space and unpredictable dialogue where people are at the mercy of each other and pretence crumbles".
Threat and menace were characteristics of his dramas. But they were really all about territorial rights and ideas of power and control. What went on in the world fitted his dramatic metaphors to perfection. He was too ill to accept the Nobel Prize in Stockholm but recorded his acceptance speech in a television studio, seated like a Beckett character in a wheelchair with a blanket over his knees. Before lambasting American and indeed British foreign policy in the Iraq war, he gave the most fascinating account of how his plays came to be written.
They started, he said, with a line or a picture. "What have you done with the scissors?" is the first line of The Homecoming (1965), arguably his greatest play, and Pinter found himself compelled to pursue the matter. The character's back history, as it were, forced itself upon him, inevitably. He became an author beleaguered, even tormented, by his own creations.
During the 1970s, his plays became fascinated with the mirage-like memory of the past. He always said the happiest year of his working life was spent on the preparation of his unproduced Proust screenplay - later staged at the National Theatre - for his great friend Joseph Losey, for whom he also wrote one of the best films of the 1960s, The Servant).
He combined elements of mystery and poignancy in plays like Old Times and No Man's Land in the 1970s while he achieved a second creative wind with Moonlight at the Almeida in 1993 and settled into a final decade of distinction, able to enjoy the esteem in which he was generally held despite a series of debilitating illnesses and the threat of cancer. His final performance in Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape at the Royal Court in 2006 was unaccountably moving, but totally devoid of sentiment. It was the very picture of an artist in retreat from his own life's work. A stunning valedictory.
It was a tragedy in his life that he remained estranged from his only son, Daniel, fruit of his first marriage to the actress Vivien Merchant, but he was in part compensated in his devotion to his second wife, the writer Antonia Fraser, from whom he was inseparable.
I last saw him in public in October at a LAMDA students’ production, directed by his friend and biographer, the Guardian critic and What’s On Stage magazine columnist Michael Billington, of two short plays. He was frail, but ever valiant and courteous, and deeply encouraging to the students who would embark on careers that he as a writer has defined immutably in the coming decades. He was a giant in his times, a truly great writer rooted in the everyday, a touchstone for the entire history of the British theatre in the 20th century and beyond.
- by Michael Coveney