Harold Pinter died yesterday. He was born in 1930 to a family of Jewish garment workers and passed his early life in East London, where he experienced the Blitz and, as the Forward put it, an “antisemitism [that] hung in the air like smoke and smog.” Pinter was attacked a few times by thugs apparently incited by his Jewishness; the one time he brought this up to the authorities, he was not taken seriously. Pinter was disposed to defend himself and once punched a man out for making anti-Jewish remarks, but was not for a long time vocal about his racial identity, and began his stage career under the name David Baron. It may be that he learned early about the uses of indirection, and about unacknowledged menace.
His first play, a one-act called The Room (1957), was compared with the work of Ionesco and Beckett, probably for its poetic use of idiom and unnervingly escalated subtext (of a van: “She was good. She went with me. She don’t mix it with me. I use my hand”), but Pinter seemed more excited than the older playwrights by violence, overt and suppressed, which may have helped his popularity. In the famous plays that immediately followed — The Birthday Party, The Caretaker, The Collection (the finale of which appears above), The Homecoming, et alia — Pinter built a reputation for quotidian scenes that bristled with intimidation, jealousy, and class resentment, and in which cheerful intruders exploit social conventions to gain advantage. He also became an adept orchestrator of quiet, laying out the gaps between lines with precisely scored stage directions — “beat” meaning just that, “pause” meaning a gasp of unspoken thought, and “silence” meaning a long space, usually after a decisive event which renders language useless.
Pinter became more experimental in later years, and also more politically outspoken, most famously in his 2005 Nobel Prize acceptance speech. By then he’d already had a profound effect on theatre and film writing, not just in the frankly emulative style of writers like David Mamet and David Storey, but also by generally raising authors’ and audiences’ comfort level for allusive or discursive dialogue. When Marge Gunderson or Carl Showalter chatter away in Fargo, or Bradley puts his fingers in Shelly’s mouth in Sam Shepard’s The Buried Child, or the conversation turns from noirish to comically banal in Point Blank (“You tell people to do things around here, and it doesn’t make any difference”), you are hearing an echo of Harold Pinter.