Thursday, June 5, 2014

Who Is Harold Pinter?

An English playwright who achieved international success as one of the most complex post-World War II dramatists, Harold Pinter's plays are noted for their use of silence to increase tension, understatement, and cryptic small talk. Equally recognizable are the 'Pinteresque' themes – nameless menace, erotic fantasy, obsession and jealousy, family hatred and mental disturbance.

In 2005, Pinter was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.

“There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.” - Harold Pinter

Harold Pinter was born in Hackney, a working-class neighborhood in London's East End, the son of a tailor. Both of his parents were Jewish, born in England. As a child Pinter got on well with his mother, but he didn’t get on well with his father, who was a strong disciplinarian. On the outbreak of World War II Pinter was evacuated from the city to Cornwall; to be wrenched from his parents was a traumatic event for Pinter. He lived with 26 other boys in a castle on the coast. At the age of 14, he returned to London. "The condition of being bombed has never left me," Pinter later said.

Pinter was educated at Hackney Downs Grammar School, where he acted in school productions. At school one of Pinter's main intellectual interests was English literature, particularly poetry. He also read works of Franz Kafka and Ernest Hemingway.

After two unhappy years Pinter left his studies at London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. In 1949 Pinter was fined by magistrates for having, as a conscientious objector, refused to do his national service. Pinter had two trials. "I could have gone to prison – I took my toothbrush to the trials – but it so happened that the magistrate was slightly sympathetic, so I was fined instead, thirty pounds in all. Perhaps I'll be called up again in the next war, but I won't go." (from Playwrights at Work) Pinter's father paid the fine in the end, a substantial sum of money.

After four years acting in provincial repertory theatre under the pseudonym David Baron, Pinter began to write for the stage. The Room (1957), originally written for Bristol University's drama department, was finished in four days. A Slight Ache, Pinter's first radio piece, was broadcast on the BBC in 1959. His first full-length play, The Birthday Party, was first performed by Bristol University's drama department in 1957 and produced in 1958 in the West End. The play, which closed with disastrous reviews after one week. Although most reviewers were hostile, Pinter produced in rapid succession the body of work which made him the master of 'the comedy of menace.' "I find critics on the whole a pretty unnecessary bunch of people", Pinter said decades later in an interview. "We don't need critics to tell the audiences what to think."

Pinter's major plays originate often from a single, powerful visual image. They are usually set in a single room, whose occupants are threatened by forces or people whose precise intentions neither the characters nor the audience can define. The struggle for survival or identity dominates the action of his characters. Language is not only used as a means of communication but as a weapon. Beneath the words, there is a silence of fear, rage and domination, fear of intimacy.

"Pinter's dialogue is as tightly – perhaps more tightly – controlled than verse," Martin Esslin writes in The People Wound (1970). "Every syllable, every inflection, the succession of long and short sounds, words and sentences, is calculated to nicety. And precisely the repetitiousness, the discontinuity, the circularity of ordinary vernacular speech are here used as formal elements with which the poet can compose his linguistic ballet." Pinter refuses to provide rational justifications for action, but offers existential glimpses of bizarre or terrible moments in people's lives.

In 1960 Pinter wrote The Dumb Waiter. With his second full-length play, The Caretaker (1960), Pinter made his breakthrough as a major modern talent, although in Düsseldorf the play was booed. The Caretaker was followed by The Collection (1962), The Dwarfs (1963),The Lover (1963). The Homecoming (1965) is perhaps the most enigmatic of all Pinter's early works. It won a Tony Award, the Whitbread Anglo-American Theater Award, and the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award. After The Homecoming Pinter said that he "couldn't any longer stay in the room with this bunch of people who opened doors and came in and went out."

Several of Pinter's plays were originally written for British radio or TV. In the 1960s he also directed several of his dramas. After Betrayal (1978) Pinter wrote no new full-length plays until Moonlight (1994).

Pinter received numerous awards in his lifetime, including the Berlin Film Festival Silver Bear in 1963, BAFTA awards in 1965 and in 1971, the Hamburg Shakespeare Prize in 1970, the Cannes Film Festival Palme d'Or in 1971, and the Commonwealth Award in 1981. He was awarded a CBE in 1966, but he later turned down John Major's offer of a knighthood. In 1996 he was given the Laurence Olivier Award for a lifetime's achievement in the theatre. In 2002 he was made a Companion of Honour for services to literature. In 2005 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in drama.

Pinter was married from 1956 to the actress Vivien Merchant. For a time, they lived in Notting Hill Gate in a slum. Eventually Pinter managed to borrow some money and move away. Although Pinter said in an interview in 1966, that he never has written any part for any actor, his wife Vivien frequently appeared in his plays. After his first marriage dissolved in 1980, Pinter married the biographer Lady Antonia Fraser, whose former husband was the ­Conservative MP Hugh Fraser. The divorce separated Pinter from his son Daniel, a writer and musician.

Since the overthrow of Chile's President Allende in 1973, Pinter was active in human rights issues. Salman Rushdie, who had been "sentenced to death" by Ayatollah Khomeini, was asked to deliver the annual Herbert Read Lecture in 1990. Because he was living with the threat of murder, the lecture, entitled 'Is Nothing Sacred,' was read by Rushdie's friend Pinter. Pinter's opinions were often controversial. During the Kosovo crisis in 1999, Pinter condemned NATO's intervention, and said it will "only aggravate the misery and the horror and devastate the country". In 2001 Pinter joined The International Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic, which also included former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark. Milosevic was arrested by the U.N. war crimes tribunal. In his speech to an anti-war meeting at the House of Commons in November 2002 Pinter joined the world-wide debate over the so-called "preventive war" against Iraq: "Bush has said: "We will not allow the world's worst weapons to remain in the hands of the world's worst leaders." Quite right. Look in the mirror chum. That's you." In February 2005 Pinter announced in an interview that he has decided to abandon his career as a playwright and put all his energy into politics. "I've written 29 plays. Isn't that enough?" Harold Pinter died from esophogeal cancer on December 24, 2008, in London.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Some Background on The Birthday Party

 The Birthday Party has been described as a Comedy of Menace. This was initially coined in an article by the drama critic Irving Wardle in 1958 as a play on words from “comedy of manners” – “manners” pronounced with an exaggerated English accent becomes “menace." And the term stuck.

Beyond the play on words, of course, the term does fit The Birthday Party quite well. The menacing element in the play is destiny “as an incurable disease which one forgets about most of the time and whose lethal reminders may take the form of a joke" (Wardle, "Comedy of Menace" in Encore magazine). The celebration of Stanley’s birthday hangs menacingly enough over most of the play, to resolve into what we can only imagine is Stanley’s destiny – being taken away by two mysterious men.

The Birthday Party is also often given as example for Theatre of the Absurd, which refers to the fluidity and ambiguity of time, place, and identity in the text. As an audience member of The Birthday Party, you can expect to feel confused at times about the story line, as the facts seem to contradict themselves at times, and characters respond to more than one name.

For example, in Act One, Stanley describes his career, saying "I've played the piano all over the world," followed immediately by "All over the country," and then by "I once gave a concert”. The character Goldberg responds to ‘Nat’, but in his stories of the past he refers to himself as ‘Simey’ and also ‘Benny’, and when talking about his partner McCann, he calls him both ‘Dermot’ and ‘Seamus’. Of course, none of this is actually absurd, one could theoretically come up with a plausible explanation for the multitude of names – nicknames, and the story about a career as a pianist could just be a lie that Stanley decides to tone down. But in the context of a staged play, for an audience member who is trying to follow the story, things get amusingly confusing. Which is, of course, part of Pinter’s charm.

By Ana-Catrina Buchser for the Dragon Theatre