Pinter, Harold

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.
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Pinter, Harold

Harold Pinter, 1930–2008, English dramatist. Born in Hackney in London's East End, the son of an English tailor of Eastern European Jewish ancestry, he studied at London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and Central School of Speech and Drama. One of the most important English playwrights of the last half of the 20th cent. and the most influential of his generation, Pinter wrote what have been called "comedies of menace." Using apparently commonplace characters and settings, he invests his plays with an atmosphere of fear, horror, and mystery. The peculiar tension he creates often derives as much from the long silences between speeches as from the often curt, ambiguous, yet vividly vernacular speeches themselves. His austere language is extremely distinctive, as is the ominous unease and sense of imminent violence that it provokes, and he is one of the few writers to have an adjective—Pinteresque—named for him. His plays frequently concern struggles for power in which the issues are obscure and the reasons for defeat and victory undefined. In the course of a career that spanned six decades, Pinter won many prestigious honors, the crowning of which was the 2005 Nobel Prize in Literature.

Pinter began his theatrical career as an actor, touring with provincial repertory companies. He continued to act throughout his career, working on stage, in films, and on radio and television. His first produced effort as a playwright, a one-act drama entitled The Room (1957), was followed by such plays as The Birthday Party (1957, film 1967), The Dumb Waiter (1957), A Slight Ache (1958), and The Dwarfs (1960). Pinter adapted several of these and later plays for film. The Caretaker (1959, film 1963) was his first great commercial and critical success and was followed by numerous plays, including The Collection (1961), The Homecoming (1964, film 1969), Landscape (1967), Old Times (1970), No Man's Land (1974), Betrayal (1978, film 1981), A Kind of Alaska (1982), One for the Road (1984), Mountain Language (1988), Moonlight (1993), Ashes to Ashes (1996), Celebration (1999), and Remembrance of Things Past (2000). By and large, Pinter's later dramas, often more overtly political than his previous works, were greeted with less critical acclaim than his earlier plays.

Pinter wrote the screenplays for a number of other highly praised motion pictures as well, among them The Servant (1963), The Pumpkin Eater (1964), Accident (1966), The Go-Between (1971), The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981), and The Handmaid's Tale (1987). His collected screenplays were published in 2000. He also wrote Mac—a Memoir (1969), several volumes of poetry, the novel The Dwarfs (1990), numerous essays, and a miscellany, Various Voices (1999). An active director of his own work and that of other contemporary dramatists, Pinter oversaw the productions of numerous plays as well as of several films and television dramas.

A longtime political activist, Pinter was a vigorous and vocal campaigner for human rights and an outspoken opponent of American and British involvement in the Iraq war. In 2005 he announced that he had retired from playwriting in order to focus on politics and his work for peace, but planned to continue writing poetry. He was married to the historian Lady Antonia Fraser.

See M. Gussow, Conversations with Pinter (1994); A. Fraser, Must You Go?: My Life with Harold Pinter (2010); critical biography by M. Billington (1996); studies by W. Kerr (1967), M. Esslin (1967, 1970, 1973, 1984 repr. 1992), W. Baker and S. E. Tabachnick (1974), S. Sahai (1981), J. Klein (1985), S. H. Gale (1986) and as ed. (1990), H. Bloom, ed. (1987), E. Sakellaridou (1987), L. Gordon, ed. (1990, 2001), C. Misra (1992), K. H. Burkman and J. L. Kundert-Gibbs, ed. (1993), R. Knowles (1995), M. S. Regal (1995), D. K. Peacock (1997), P. Prentice (2000), M. Batty (2001), and I. Smith (2003, 2005).

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