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Playwright's style changed theater

HAROLD PINTER, 1930 - 2008

December 26, 2008|Mary Rourke | Rourke is a former Times staff writer

One leading British critic, however, saw into it.

"Mr. Pinter possesses the most original, disturbing and arresting talent in theatrical London," Harold Hobson of the London Sunday Times wrote in 1958.

As Pinter wrote about oppression and censorship in his plays, he lobbied for left-wing causes as a political activist.

In the 1970s he criticized the United States for its role in the overthrow of Chile's Socialist President Salvador Allende and denounced governments around the world that stifled freedom of speech and artistic expression.

Pinter was a prominent opponent of the Vietnam War in the 1970s and the first Persian Gulf War in the early 1990s. He gave impassioned speeches opposing the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and chastised the Britain government for supporting the invasion. Pinter wrote vitriolic antiwar poetry. By 2005, with his health in decline, he gave up writing plays to concentrate on his political concerns.

Pinter was born in London on Oct. 10, 1930, the only child of a Jewish tailor. He was a boy at the start of World War II and like many children in London was evacuated to the countryside for close to a year.

He was back in the city during part of the Blitz, the German campaign of bombing London. The experience made him passionately intolerant of war.

Pinter became interested in acting while a student at Hackney Downs Grammar School in London. Schoolmates found Pinter to be sensitive, charming and hot-tempered. He was a good athlete, setting track and field records, and became a lifelong devotee of cricket.

Rough neighborhood

In the rough neighborhood where Pinter was raised, he learned to fend off East End thugs ready to beat up anyone who might be Jewish. He used language to manipulate the situation to avoid physical harm.

Pinter graduated from Hackney Downs and went on to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1948 to study acting on a grant. But he soon left the academy and spent the next decade writing poems and essays and trying to find work in the theater.

"My experience as an actor has influenced my plays, I think. I certainly developed some feeling for construction and for speakable dialogue," he told the New Yorker some years ago.

Surviving World War II and experiencing the anti-Semitism that followed made a pacifist of him. At 18, Pinter refused to participate in Britain's mandatory national service. "I was aware of the suffering and the horror of war, and by no means was I going to subscribe to keep it going," he later said of his decision. He appeared before two tribunals and was eventually fined. His resistance shamed his parents.

In 1950, Poetry London, a leading literary magazine, published several of his poems under the pseudonym "Harold Pinta" and he found work as a radio actor with the BBC. In 1951, he joined a theater troupe in Ireland as an actor, later calling it his "first proper job on the stage." Pinter returned to London and acted in a series of repertory companies using the stage name David Baron.

He married actress Vivien Merchant in 1956, and they had a son, Daniel. She would appear in a number of his plays before they divorced 24 years later. She died in 1982.

Pinter wrote the draft of his only novel, "The Dwarfs," about strained friendships among four young Londoners, in the early 1950s. He later reworked it into a play and then revised and published it in the late 1980s.

He wrote his first play, "The Room" (1957), when a friend suggested he compose something for the drama department at Bristol University. In it, Rose is a reclusive white woman who lives in a boardinghouse. She is visited by Riley, a blind black man who says he has a message for her. At first she is hostile, but she gradually softens toward him.

When another man from the boardinghouse finds Riley with Rose, he beats him senseless. Rose covers her eyes and speaks the final words of the play, "I can't see."

"In this jejune and portentous one act, Pinter stumbled on a psychological truth that he continued to explore brilliantly for half a century: mankind's passion for ignorance," Lahr wrote in a New Yorker magazine review of a 2005 revival.

"The Birthday Party" came next.

The drama features Stanley, an out-of-work musician, who lives alone in a blue-collar boardinghouse where two ominous strangers, Goldberg and McCann, come to stay.

During a night of drinking to celebrate what either is or is not his birthday -- Stanley disputes the occasion -- Goldberg and McCann taunt him with unfounded accusations and threats of physical violence until he breaks down.

The stage direction calls for the sudden blackouts and unnerving silences that became a hallmark of Pinter's style.

The morning after the party, Goldberg and McCann take Stanley away, promising to "save" him. They lead him out the door, speaking an ominous litany: "We'll watch over you. Advise you. Give you proper care and treatment. . . . You'll be reoriented. You'll be rich. You'll be adjusted. . . . You'll be a success."

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