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Harold Pinter

Harold Pinter

Harold Pinter was a British dramatist, poet, screenwriter, actor and director. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005. Some of Pinter's most famous plays are The Birthday Party (1958), The Caretaker (1960) and The Homecoming (1965).

Harold Pinter: biography

Harold Pinter was born on October 10th 1930, in Hackney, East London. He was of Jewish Eastern European descent. His father, Hyman (Jack) Pinter, was a tailor. His mother, Frances Pinter, was a housewife. Pinter started to write poetry when he was only 12 years old. His poetry was first published in his school's magazine until, in 1950, some of it was printed in the Poetry London magazine.

During that time, Pinter used the pseudonym Harold Pinta.

Between 1948 and 1951, Pinter trained to be an actor. First, he attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and then the Central School of Speech and Drama. This didn't last long, however, because he dropped out of both institutions. In 1951, Pinter joined the Anew McMaster repertory theatre company. In the next 12 years, he continued to work as a repertory actor for different companies, under the stage name David Baron. To make ends meet, Pinter also acted for radio and film, and he worked a number of odd jobs. Additionally, he continued to write poetry and started to engage in playwriting as well.

In 1956, Pinter married actress Vivien Merchant. In 1957, he wrote and produced his first drama, a one-act play called The Room. This was followed by his first full-length play, The Birthday Party (1958). Although it wasn't received well by audiences and critics at the time it was first produced in the late 1950s, The Birthday Party later became one of Pinter's most famous works.

Throughout the 1960s, Pinter wrote several plays for stage and radio, such as The Caretaker (1960) and The Homecoming (1965), establishing himself as a key figure in the Theatre of the Absurd. Over the next two decades, Pinter wrote several works on the topic of memory, including the plays No Man’s Land (1975) and Betrayal (1978).

The Theatre of the Absurd (or Absurdist drama) is a genre of drama that was started by European playwrights in the 1950s. Plays in this genre are 'absurd' and seemingly illogical. The purpose of the plot is not the classic conflict and resolution but an expression of existentialism that asks questions about the meaning (or lack thereof) of human existence. Plays categorised within the Theatre of the Absurd usually have a round narrative structure, meaning that they end in the same way they started.

In 1980, Pinter and Vivien Merchant divorced. Pinter had several affairs during their marriage. They had one son, Daniel, who later became estranged from his father and even changed his surname. In 1980, Pinter married writer Antonia Fraser who he had already had an affair with. The two of them didn't have any children but Pinter looked after his step-children from Antonia's first marriage. Throughout the 1980s and the 1990s Pinter continued to write plays and to be involved in the theatre in other ways by acting and directing. In 1996, he received the Olivier Award.

Pinter wrote Celebration, his last stage play, in the year 2000. In 2001, he was diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus. In the following 7 years, Pinter kept working while he was also undergoing treatment. During that time he wrote screenplays and radio plays. His last radio play, Voices, was produced in 2005. The same year Pinter won the Nobel Prize for Literature. After that, he decided to focus on his poetry and to stop writing dramas. However, Pinter continued to work in the theatre industry – he played Krapp in a 2006 production of Krapp's Last Tape (1958) by Samuel Beckett.

Harold Pinter died of cancer on Christmas Eve 2008. He died in Hammersmith hospital in London.

Throughout his life, and especially in the later decades of it, Harold Pinter was very politically-active. He was part of the antiwar movement in Britain and openly against any military operation and any act of violation of human rights. Pinter expressed his views and often criticised the British Government as well as the Governments of other countries, such as the United States, in many of his essays and interviews.

Harold Pinter: plays

Pinter's dramas are absurd and dark. Let's take a look at some of them:

The Birthday Party (1958)

The Birthday Party is a three-act play written in 1957. It premiered in May 1958 at the Lyric Hammersmith theatre in London. The play falls under the genre categories of absurdist drama. It explores themes of loss of identity, communication barriers and the absurdity of existence.

The Birthday Party is about Stanley Webber who lives at a boarding house hosted by an elderly couple, Meg and Petey. Two sinister men, Goldberg and McCann, arrive at the house unexpectedly. They claim to be throwing a party for Stanley's birthday. Actually they torment him for no particular reason. At the end of the play, Goldberg and McCann take Stanley away and Petey can't stop them.

The Caretaker (1960)

The Caretaker is a three-act drama. It was published in 1960 and first performed on April 27th 1960 at the Arts Theatre in London.

The play follows two disconnected brothers, Mick and Aston, who meet a tramp called Davies. Both Mick and Aston try to help Davies and they offer him a job as a caretaker. However, Davies is never content with what they give him and he wants more. Davies manages to toy with the vulnerable and mentally challenged Aston but he can't fool Mick. Davies loses the game of manipulation to Mick and is forced to leave the two brothers alone.

The Caretaker was Pinter's first big success that drew attention to him in the context of the Theatre of the Absurd. The play discusses themes such as family relations and power struggles.

The Homecoming (1965)

The Homecoming is a two-act play written in 1964. It premiered on June 3rd 1965 at the Aldwych Theatre in London. The Homecoming explores power, sexuality and family relations.

The drama is about Teddy, a university professor in the United States who's originally from London, and his wife Ruth. After six years of marriage, Teddy brings Ruth to North London to meet his family for the first time. Teddy comes from a dysfunctional all-male household. Teddy's abusive father, Max, Teddy's uncle Sam, and Teddy's brothers, Lenny and Joey, are all infatuated with Ruth. Ruth uses her sexuality to make the men prove themselves to her. The play ends with Teddy returning to America and to their sons, as Ruth stays behind in London. This ending is ambiguous as it is unclear what lies ahead.

Harold Pinter: poetry

Poetry was a constant presence in Pinter's life. He started writing poems from a young age, years before he developed an interest in playwriting, and he continued to write poems until the last years of his life. In 1991, Pinter published his own selection of poetry and prose in the book Collected Poems and Prose.

Like his plays, Pinter's poems deal with dark and ambiguous subjects. Let's take a look at two of his well-known poems - 'Poem' (1995) and 'Cancer Cells' (2002).

'Poem' (1995)

Don't look.

The world's about to break.

Don't look.

The world's about to chuck out all its light

And stuff us in the chokepit of its dark,

That black and fat and suffocated place

Where we will kill or die or dance or weep

Or scream or whine or squeak like mice

To renegotiate our starting price.

'Poem' (sometimes referred to as 'Don't Look') was first published on January 17th 1995 in The Guardian. The poem can be interpreted as presenting a generally bleak view of the world but, given Pinter's engagement in politics, it could also be addressing the Gulf War which he was against.

The 1990–1991 Gulf War was an armed campaign against Iraq that was led by the United States and involved 35 other countries. This was the United States' response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990

'Cancer Cells' (2002)

'Cancer Cells' was published in The Guardian on August 28th 2002. This is a much more personal poem in which Pinter comes to terms with his illness.

'Cancer cells are those which have forgotten how to die.' - nurse, Royal Marsden hospital

They have forgotten how to die

And so extend their killing life.

I and my tumour dearly fight.

Let's hope a double death is out.

I need to see my tumour dead

A tumour which forgets to die

But plans to murder me instead.

But I remember how to die

Though all my witnesses are dead.

But I remember what they said

Of tumours which would render them

As blind and dumb as they had been

Before the birth of that disease

Which brought the tumour into play.

The black cells will dry up and die

Or sing with joy and have their way.

They breed so quietly night and day,

You never know, they never say.

Harold Pinter: quotes

Let's look at some quotes from Pinter's plays:

The Birthday Party

(...) what are you but a corpse waiting to be washed?

(Goldberg, Act 2)

Goldberg says this to Stanley as part of a cheerful speech about enjoying life. However, the undertone is that Goldberg expresses the way in which he sees Stanley. Goldberg might also mean this as a threat and he might be revealing his intentions towards Stanley. This enhances the menacing atmosphere of the play.

The Caretaker

You’re stinking the place out. You’re an old robber, there’s no getting away from it. You’re an old skate. You don’t belong in a nice place like this.

(Mick, Act 2 Scene 1)

Mick gives Davies a piece of his mind the first time he finds him in his house where Aston has invited Davies to stay. Although Mick then changes his mind and lets Davies stay, this quote foreshadows the outcome of the drama: Davies doesn't belong with the brothers.

The Homecoming

She'll use us, she'll make use of us, I can tell you!

(Max, Act 2 Section 2)

Max realises the power that Ruth holds over him and the other men in the household. Max is used to being the one in control and he thought he could use Ruth to fill the woman-shaped void in his family – both as a mother figure and as an object of sexual desire. This quote signifies the power struggle between Max and Ruth.

Harold Pinter's influence

Throughout his life, Harold Pinter wrote over 30 plays and a number of screenplays, poems and essays. In his works, Pinter explores the absurdity of the human condition. He addresses people's constant fight for dominance and their struggle to communicate with each other. Although there is a lot of violence in his dramas, his political message is a revolt against violent and restrictive powers. Pinter's works are open-ended and unpredictable which keeps the audience on their toes. Some of his dramas, such as The Birthday Party, are full of dark humour and have been labelled as comedy of menace.

The term 'comedy of menace' was coined by drama critic Irvin Wardle. Comedy of menace is a type of play in which while the audience laugh at the comedic elements they are aware that something terrible is going to happen to the characters.

Harold Pinter had a very distinct literary style that is referred to as 'Pinteresque style'. He used colloquial language as well as long and regular pauses to represent the communication barriers that the characters in his plays face. The dialogues in Pinter's dramas are also very true to real-life conversations.

The Harold Pinter Theatre

The Harold Pinter theatre in London was formerly known as the Royal Comedy Theatre and its history goes as far back as 1881. In 2011, the theatre was renamed in honour of Harold Pinter and the work he did for the establishment.

Harold Pinter - Key takeaways

  • Harold Pinter was a British dramatist, poet, screenwriter, actor and director. He held several literary and drama awards, including the 2005 Nobel Prize for Literature.
  • Pinter was born on October 10th 1930 in Hackney, London. He died on December 24th 2008 in Hammersmith hospital, London.
  • Some of Pinter's most well-known plays include The Birthday Party (1958), The Caretaker (1960) and The Homecoming (1965).
  • Pinter's dramas fall under the categories of Theatre of the Absurd and comedy of menace.

  • In his works, Pinter explores dark themes, such as the absurdity of human existence and the struggle to communicate.

Frequently Asked Questions about Harold Pinter

Harold Pinter was a British dramatist, poet, screenwriter, actor and director. He was a key figure in the Theatre of the Absurd. Pinter held several literary and drama awards, including the 2005 Nobel Prize for Literature. Some of Pinter's most famous plays are The Birthday Party (1958), The Caretaker (1960) and The Homecoming (1965). 

Harold Pinter is buried at Kensal Green Cemetery in London.

Harold Pinter died on December 24th 2008.

Named in honour of Harold Pinter, the Harold Pinter Theatre in London has a diverse programme of productions based on plays by different dramatists.

No, Harold Pinter didn't write in the genre of realism. His works fall into the genres of Theatre of the Absurd and comedy of menace.

Final Harold Pinter Quiz

Question

True or false: Harold Pinter worked as an actor in a repertory theatre.

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Answer

True.

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Question

What was Pinter's first big success that helped him to establish himself as a key figure in the Theatre of the Absurd?

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Answer

The Caretaker (1960).

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Question

True or false: Pinter received the Nobel Prize for Literature but he never won the Olivier Award. 

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Answer

False.

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Question

True or false: Pinter was politically active in antiwar campaigns.

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Answer

True.

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Question

Stanley Webber is the main character in...

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Answer

The Birthday Party (1958).

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Question

Which play revolves around two brothers and a tramp?

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Answer

The Caretaker (1960).

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Which drama is set in a dysfunctional all-male household?

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Answer

The Homecoming (1965).


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Question

True or false: the poem 'Cancer Cells' (2002) might be about the 1991 Gulf War.

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Answer

False.

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Question

Comedy of menace is...

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Answer

a type of play in which while the audience laugh at the comedic elements they are aware that something terrible is about to happen.


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The 'Pinteresque style' is NOT characterised by...

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Answer

lines written in verse.


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Question

Whose birthday is being celebrated in the play The Birthday Party?

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Answer

Stanley Webber's birthday is being celebrated in Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party.


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What is the summary of The Birthday Party?


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Answer

In the play, The Birthday Party an innocent birthday party turns sinister after the arrival of two strangers.


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What is the main theme of The Birthday Party?


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Answer

The main themes of The Birthday Party are existentialism and chaos and order.


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What type of play is The Birthday Party?


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Answer

The play, The Birthday Party, has been described as a 'comedy of menace' and part of the theatre of the absurd.


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What is the meaning of The Birthday Party play?


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Answer


Show question

Question

Where did The Birthday Party have its London premiere?

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Answer

The Birthday Party had its London premiere at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith.

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What is the name of the couple who runs the boarding house?

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Answer

The couple who run the boarding house are Meg and Petey Boles.

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Who are the two mysterious visitors looking for Stanley?

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Answer

Goldberg and McCann are the two mysterious visitors.

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Which present does Stanley receive for his birthday?

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Answer

Stanley receives a small drum for his birthday.

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Which game proves the catalyst for Stanley's downfall?

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Answer

The game which proves the catalyst for Stanley's downfall is 'blind man's buff'.

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Question

Who wrote The Birthday Party?

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Answer

Harold Pinter wrote the play The Birthday Party.

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