Magazine article American Theatre

Harold Pinter: 1930-2009

Magazine article American Theatre

Harold Pinter: 1930-2009

Article excerpt

MY FIRST REAL-LIFE encounter with the famous "Pinter Pause" was when I phoned Harold Pinter, early in 1989, to discuss Classic Stage Company's upcoming double bill of The Birthday Party and Mountain Language. I dialed his home number with some degree of trepidation, took a deep breath, and listened. The answering machine clicked on and a profoundly deep voice began to speak. "I'm not in," the voice said. I waited. And waited. And waited. After what seemed like an eternity, the final instruction came. "Leave a message."

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

If it is true that you can tell everything about a playwright's work from his or her daily speech, my encounters with Pinter were a manual for directing his plays. Conversation with him was bracing and aggressive. No small talk. No down time. Long silences. Huge stakes. Huge sexuality. Wicked sense of humor. Always ready to pick a fight. Fiercely curious. Unerringly precise. He could sniff a secret a mile off.

One night after rehearsal, over drinks, he turned to Wendy Makkena, the actress playing Lulu, and asked with probing curiosity, "Makkena ... Makkena. ..." (PAUSE) "Irish?" "No," she replied. "Scottish?" "No." (PAUSE) Two drinks later, he had figured it out. Wendy was a Jew, like him, with a stage name that was as disguised as his own first adopted name "David Baron." He was delighted with his discovery. Monikers hold endless mysteries in Pinter's work--characters hide their names, change their names halfway through the play, respond to different versions of their names depending upon the circumstances. It's all about survival and the desperate need to protect one's identity in times of danger. Pinter loved finding us out.

He also adored being at rehearsal, in part because he was such a consummate actor himself. The notes he gave us as we worked on The Birthday Party were so precise, so behavioral, so ''actable," he immediately gave lie to the notion that a Pinter play lived in the zone of the "abstract" or the "absurd." When Jean Stapleton asked Pinter why Meg was so desperate for her husband Petey to read the newspaper aloud to her (Was it the only lifeline in their otherwise empty marriage?), Pinter thought for a moment and then replied: "I think she's forgotten how to read." That was something Jean could run with!

He watched every move the actors made like a hawk: He was a cricket player, a tennis buff, so he looked for the clean hit, for the ball to touch the sweet spot, for a wicked piece of strategy to kick in. At CSC we played The Birthday Party on a thrust stage, which meant that the staircase referred to in the script was actually visible. …

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