Harold Pinter, who died Wednesday after a long bout with cancer, will go down as the most important modern English-language playwright after Samuel Beckett. He wouldn’t have minded coming in second. Plus he gave the world a sharper adjective — Pinteresque.

Beckett was an idol and mentor to Pinter, as well as a friend. Pinter took inspiration from the Irish writer’s profound concentration of language and metaphor, breadth of literary and philosophical knowledge, Proustian appreciation of the subjectivity of memory, recognition of the power struggles in human relations and harrowing comedy in the face of the 20th century’s apocalyptic worst.

In effect, Pinter brought Beckett’s game indoors, transferring it from barren heaths, garbage cans and mounds of earth to recognizable domestic English settings. Shabby in Pinter’s early years, these rooms became posher as he began to reap the fruits of his success in both theater and film, where he was a noted screenwriter (enjoying an especially productive relationship with Joseph Losey), a pungent actor and an occasional director.

But Pinter was always his own man. And to understand him, one has to recognize the specifics of his background, as a Jewish kid from the East End of London whose adolescence was darkened by the Second World War and as an actor who gleaned as much about playwriting from working as a rep player alongside such British acting legends as Donald Wolfit as he did from studying Beckett.

Where Pinter grew up, violence and anti-Semitic hatred weren’t abstract matters. After the war, in his economically debilitated, politically explosive part of town, he learned to avoid physical confrontations — a danger, he acknowledged, for anyone who “remotely looked like a Jew” — by talking to thugs hanging out outside the club he used to frequent: “Are you all right?” “Yes, I’m all right.” “Well, that’s all right then, isn’t it?”

Language, which is so often a weapon in his plays, is also a reliable shield, “a constant stratagem to cover nakedness,” as the playwright himself once described it. David Hare was right to pay Pinter the ultimate Auden compliment of having “cleaned the gutters of the English language, so that it ever afterwards flowed more easily and more cleanly.” But Pinter’s poetic density, shot through with those signature gaping silences, wasn’t deployed for its own sake.

The assaultive threat hovering over his characters is what shapes their jagged conversation. In Pinter’s view, Kafka was one of the few writers who had got it right: The nightmarish knock on the door isn’t just a paranoid delusion. The urge to dominate is fundamental to our territorial natures. We know we’re not safe, and our canine vigilance readies us to attack and defend.

Pinter’s rough-and-tumble roots also informed his political perspective, which became more explicit in his plays in the 1980s and could admittedly become rather truculent in his speeches and editorials, most notably in his 2005 Nobel lecture, “Art, Truth & Politics,” in which he took the opportunity to rail against what he saw as the long-standing brutality of American foreign policy.

But for all his vehemence and posturing, Pinter was too gifted with words and too astute a critic to be dismissed as an ideological crank. He was also too deft a psychologist, understanding what the British psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott meant when he wrote that “being weak is as aggressive as the attack of the strong on the weak” and that the repressive denial of personal aggressiveness is perhaps even more dangerous than ranting and raving. (All that stiff-upper-lip business can be murderous.)


Charles McNulty
Los Angeles Times