The son of a Jewish tailor, Harold Pinter was born in East
London in 1930. He started writing poetry for little magazines
in his teens. As a young man, he studied acting at the Royal
Academy of Dramatic Art and the Central School of Speech and
Drama, but soon left to undertake an acting career under the
stage name David Baron. He travelled around Ireland in a Shakespearean
company and spent years working in provincial repertory before
deciding to turn his attention to playwriting.
Pinter started writing plays in 1957. He had mentioned an
idea for a play to a friend who worked in the drama department
at Bristol University. The friend liked the idea so much that
he wrote to Pinter asking for the play. The only problem was
that if the university was to perform the play, they would need
a script within the week. Pinter wrote back and told his friend
to forget the whole thing--then sat down and wrote the play in
four days. The product of his labors, a one-act entitled The
Room, contained many of the elements that would characterize
Pinter's later works--namely a commonplace situation gradually
invested with menace and mystery through the deliberate omission
of an explanation or motivation for the action. Later this same
year, Pinter would develop his style still further in another
one-act, The Dumb Waiter, about two hired killers employed
by a mysterious organization to murder an unknown victim. In
this second play, Pinter added an element of comedy, provided
mostly through the brilliant small-talk behind which the two
men hide their growing anxiety. Their discussion over whether
it is more proper to say "light the kettle" or "light
the gas" is wildly comic and terrifying in its absurdity.
The Dumb Waiter was first performed at the Hampstead Theatre
Club in London in 1960.
Although written after The Dumb Waiter, Pinter's first
full-length play (The Birthday Party) was produced two
years earlier in 1958 at the Arts Theatre in Cambridge. The play
centers around Stanley, an apathetic man in his thirties who
has found refuge in a dingy seaside boarding house which has
apparently had no other visitors for years. But when Goldberg
and McCann (characters reminiscent of the hired assassins in
The Dumb Waiter) arrive, it soon becomes clear that they
are after Stanley. Like Samuel Beckett,
Pinter refuses to provide rational explanations for the actions
of his characters. Are the two men emissaries of some secret
organization Stanley has betrayed? Are they male nurses sent
to bring him back to an asylum he has escaped from? The question
is never answered. Instead, the two men organize a birthday party
for a terrified Stanley who insists that it is not his birthday.
Pinter went on to write a number of absurdist masterpieces including The Caretaker, The Homecoming, Betrayal, Old Times,
and Ashes to Ashes. He also composed a number of radio plays and several volumes of poetry. His screenplays include The French Lieutenant's Woman, The Last Tycoon, and
The Handmaid's Tale. He received numerous awards including the Berlin Film Festival Silver Bear, BAFTA awards, the Hamburg Shakespeare Prize, the Cannes Film Festival Palme d'Or, the Commonwealth Award and the Nobel Prize for Literature. His sparse style and gift for creating tension and horror through the most economic of means made him one of the most respected playwrights of his day.
Harold Pinter died on December 24, 2008, at the age of 78, after a long battle with cancer. He was survived by his wife, Lady Antonia Fraser.