The Ultimate Silence: Harold Pinter (1930-2008)


With cosmic irony, death came to Harold Pinter, playwright, screenwriter, and winner of the 2005 Nobel Prize for Literature, on Christmas Eve. The timing, with its overtones of symbolic grandeur, would never have occurred in one of Pinter’s works. A master of understatement who revolutionized dramatic writing with his meticulous use of pauses and silences, Pinter shrank from all forms of inflated gesture; any such explicit symbol that occurred in his work would have been undercut with parody or ambiguity. A first-generation Englishman, the son of lower-middle-class immigrants from Eastern Europe, he had a supreme command of the nuances of the English language, using his characters’ verbal slips or slight alterations of phrase to convey even their most violent inner turmoils.

In his major plays, from early efforts like The Birthday Party (1958) and The Caretaker (1960) through masterworks like The Homecoming (1965) and onward to his last work, Celebration (2000), that inner violence often erupts onstage in stark, seemingly inexplicable actions, breaking the conventional surface in ways that often shocked and puzzled their first audiences. Pinter’s many screenplays, including his notable series of collaborations with director Joseph Losey, brought his provocative techniques to an even wider audience in films like The Servant (Losey, 1963), Accident (Losey, 1967), The Go-Between (Losey, 1971), and The French Lieutenant’s Woman (Karel Reisz, 1981). As worldwide recognition of his theater and film work increased, he used his enhanced public status politically, becoming a staunch liberal spokesman internationally against state-sponsored violence, torture, and the suppression of artists’ and journalists’ freedom. In intense, powerful short plays of his later years, like One For the Road (1984) and Mountain Language (1988), he was able to merge his political passion with his unfailingly meticulous artistry.

He shifted the ground of dramatic writing in ways that few playwrights since Pirandello and Brecht have achieved. Like theirs, his name has become an adjective: When a moment of silence onstage is filled with inexplicable, latent menace, we call it “Pinteresque.” Today’s world is filled with such menaces. Pinter the man, who took a stand against the biggest and most visible of them, is now gone. He has left behind, like a most bittersweet Christmas present, the writings in which he showed us how to map and confront the terrors that surround us.–Michael Feingold

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