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Revisiting the Works of Harold Pinter

Revisiting the Works of Harold Pinter

Playwright, Director, Actor, Poet and Activist was born on 10 October 1930 and breathed his last on Dec 24 2008.

He had left aside his huge corpus of works for more research. There are twenty nine plays including his famous ones like The Birthday Party, The Betrayal ,The Homecoming so on. Besides this he had written twenty-nine screenplays like The Servant, The Go Between and had also directed twenty-seven theatre productions

The Shakespeare Prize (Hamburg) the European Prize (Vienna ) the Pirandello Prize(Palmero) the David Cohen British Literature Prize, the Laurence Olivier Prize and the list goes on. In 1999 the Royal Society of Literature made him a Companion of Literature. He had also received honorary degrees from eighteen universities around the world.

Pinter also took a very serious interest in politics. He had verbally protested against the American occupation of Serbia and the increasing powers of Statehood of the USA. NATO’s bombing of Serbia had deeply stirred him and his speech was given on the eve of Committee for Peace in the Balkans Conference at the Conway Hall on June 10th 2000.

Harold Pinter > Poemas del Alma
Harold Pinter pic


Born to a Jewish dressmaker in London he had encountered the feelings of antisemitism. The Second World War broke out when he was only nine and he had to evacuate London only to return three years later. His childhood experience of bombing would always trouble him. He later attended the Hackney Grammar School and joined the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. His years at college saw critical success where he won a place in the Anew Mc Master’s Company which performed Shakespeare’s plays.

He was married to actress Vivien Merchant from 1956 to 1980. After that he married for a second time with the renowned historian and author Lady Antonia Fraser. His famous plays will be discussed later and, on his death, he had attained the cult status as the most famous British dramatist of the second half of the century.


Now coming to the discussion of his major plays.  The Betrayal is play written about an extramarital affair. It contains autobiographical elements as Pinter himself was involved in an extramarital affair with BBC presenter Joan Bakewell which spanned for seven years from 1962 to 1969. There are several layers of understanding that you will grasp as you come to know of the married couple Emma and Roberts and Emma’s affair with Robert’s friend Jerry. Jerry too is married to Judith. A few years later after cuckolding Robert and betraying Judith, Emma admits about the affair to her husband though she still continues seeing Jerry.

In 1977 four years after admitting the affair and two years after it has broken up Emma meets Jerry to tell him that their marriage has reached the doldrums and its finally over. She then lies to Jerry claiming that its only last night that Robert has come to know of the affair although the incident has taken place four years before.

Pinter makes excellent use of reverse chronology where the play opens with scenes that take place two years after the affair has ended. It goes back in time and the last scene begins by displaying the way their affair began.

Roger Ebert observed that the Betrayal’s structure gets rid of all types of artifice and humans sometimes discover that the very act of finding love is based on betraying one’s own self. This play is one of his best open to different interpretations for its complexity.

The Homecoming

‘The Homecoming’ was Harold Pinter’s masterpiece and it was considered to be enigmatic and baffling at the same time. It was produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1968 and it at once became a running success.

In the play, Teddy is a professor who lives in America with his wife Ruth, return to his family living in London. His is a typical working-class household where his two brothers Lenny and Joey are small time pimp and boxer. His father is a butcher and his uncle is a chauffeur. There is absolutely no female in the house and as Ruth enters the house with her completely neo-liberalized ways, the family’s sexuality becomes challenged.


The Homecoming 1973


Ruth engages in a two-hour love-making with Joey which completely shakes Teddy as he is forced to leave his wife back with his three kids living in America.  The play’s name is metaphorical in a sense as this is never the sort of homecoming Teddy expected. But for Ruth who is an erstwhile model she is able to come back to discover people who help her to bare her primeval nature. She turns her back on family and children but this was nothing new for women of her time. The play is beyond articulation as some critics have concluded stretching to the levels of ambiguity. It still manages to thrill the audience and is being reinterpreted with the coming years.

The Caretaker

Pinter’s play ‘The Caretaker’ was his first commercially successful play. The three characters of the play Aston his brother Mick and Davies the tramp share a pathetic plight. Davies suddenly gets inside Aston’ house and the two men begin a strange conversation. They even stay together for the night as Aston snores and the roof is broken and needs a bucket to be put up. In the middle of the play, Mick and Davies get into a tussle which Mick wins. As the play proceeds we find that after staying two weeks in Aston’s house Davies is taking the better of him. He tries to plot against Aston but Mick deals strongly with the situation and all Aston does is hear Davies’s protest as he quietly discards him.

When we analyze the fate of the characters in the play, we find that they are powerless. Aston is institutionalized the electric shock therapy has completely unnerved him. Davies the tramp is homeless and suffers from rootlessness which is a major streak found in characters in plays written post World War II. Mick on the other hand suffers from financial obligations. There is a lot of confusion in their relationship and communication takes a difficult turn. All the characters are victim of isolation. All of them lie or are victims of self-deception whether it’s the altruistic Aston or the habitual liar Davies who can never stop blaming others. The end shares a typical plight where none of them can improve their situation and are as inactive as they are at the beginning of the play.

The Birthday Party

‘The Birthday Party’ falls into the genre of ‘comedy of menace’ especially because of its ambiguous characters, isolated setting and fluidity of time. Stanley Webber lives in a house by the seaside. He is a piano player by profession and is wary of strangers visiting him. But the whole house is turned upside-down by two strangers who turn up on his birthday absolutely with no sense of purpose. They bombard Stanley with a volley of illogical questions to cross-examine him.  This only shows the meaninglessness of the characters’ existence and their failure to arrive at any kind of truth.

The Dumb Waiter

Set in the basement of a rooming house the two characters are connected to the room above and by the intercom. The dumbwaiter moves up and down. The two killers discuss about their next possible victim. Ben and Gus spend time planning their next murder as they are hired killers. Gus leaves the room and as a result of the sudden dramatic development Ben receives a call that he must shoot the first person who arrives at the door. As the time approaches Ben finds it is none other than Gus who enters the door. Both of them end up getting shell shocked.

Most productions of the play has stressed the lower class dialect and accent used by the two characters who happen to be seasoned criminals. This play includes symbols that assume allegorical significance. In an industrial society even after hours of labor people do not have any idea about the end product. Ben and Gus have hardly any sense not even bothering to find out the cause or consequences of their action. The have become mere machines in the hands of a shaky system. Ben ends in pure boredom while Gus’s end is tragic.

Films and Pinter

“Altogether, I have written twenty-four screenplays. Two were never shot. Three were rewritten by others. Two have not yet been filmed. Seventeen (including four adaptations of my own plays) were filmed as written. I think that’s unusual. I certainly understand adapting novels for the screen to be a serious and fascinating craft.”

Harold Pinter, September 200

Pinter always insisted that when a dramatist starts writing screenplays he does not necessarily move from one world to another. Neither does he move from one discipline to another. They only operate in the domains of the integrated discipline known as economy.

Pinter always enjoyed complete freedom regarding his work and he had a chance to work with talented Directors Jack Clayton, Joseph Loosey and Clive Donner the Hollywood greats. His first film The Servant is marked by class tensions and creeping moral corruption. As a playwright he was excellent but that also does not reduce his importance as an actor. He was outstanding as Goldberg in The Birthday Party who visits the lonely pianist on his birthday. He had won the Tony Award for the best play ‘The Homecoming’ in 1967. He had worked as a Director post 1970s and produced fifty productions in his capacity as a Director and Playwright.

Comedies of Menace and the Spectacle of Disbelief

These comedies does the strange work of converging comedy and fear. The two elements have been intermingled in Harold Pinter’s plays. In this context the play ‘The Birthday Party’ should be considered. Stanley as the character in the play is hounded by his emotions.

The themes of his different plays are devastating by nature and fear continues to disturb the protagonist’s psyche. The different characters encounter different kinds of threat. Fear in his plays are directly related to use of language, identity, humor , dominance, control and subservience.

Two kinds of fear dominate his plays. The first kind is of abductors and intruders who end up challenging the very idea of personal space. The second kind is the result if existential realism where the characters in his plays fail to form meaningful relationships. The idea of family bonding is virtually non existent in most of his plays.

Pinter’s characters are also terribly isolated individuals who interact very little with the outside world. The outside world is also in state of constant change and that would demand adjustments from the protagonist’s side. Men in his plays also fear woman’s sexuality. Feelings of fear and grief pile up as they are rebuked or harassed by abductors. It is quite needless to say that the process is indeed comic.

The Poetry Archive and Pinter

Pinter is best known for his theatre, but he was a poet before he had started writing plays. Prior to his death in 2008 he had also made an announcement in BBC that he would once more start writing poems. His poetry publications include War which had won the Wilfred Owen Prize. He had won the Noble prize in 2005 for his contribution to the poetical cannon as well as for his plays.

Pinter ‘s plays are known for their menacing mood and the same feelings hangs around his poetry as well. Some of his poems act as companion pieces for his plays. He also dealt with his cancer treatment in his poem ‘Cancer Cells’. His deep love for his second wife finds expression in the poem ‘It is Here.’

Harold Pinter was thus a living legend. From the little boy who feared bombings and being flogged off in concentration camp he had emerged as one of the most important dramatist of the twenty first century. Politically he had always been critical of the American occupation outside their home territory and the world as it is has seen very few of his kind.