Harold Pinter is renowned as much for his precise deployment of the dramatic pause as for his words. His plays explore the anxiety of life in the second half of the 20th century, his dialogue often terse and fretted with menace. He was a master of claustrophobia and unease; he once described his work as being about ‘the weasel under the cocktail cabinet’.
Early life and education
Pinter was born in 1930, in Hackney to parents of Jewish Eastern European descent. He attended RADA but was not happy there and decided to continue his training at the Central School of Speech and Drama. He worked as an actor in repertory theatre in Ireland and England for many years – his favourite roles, he said, were the sinister ones – and wrote his first play, The Room, for a student production in 1957.
The Birthday Party and other major plays
His second play, The Birthday Party, premiered at the Lyric Hammersmith where it was savaged by the critics and closed after eight performances. Its only champion was Sunday Times critic Harold Hobson.
The Caretaker, which premiered at the Arts Theatre Club in 1960, was the play that cemented Pinter’s reputation as a playwright. It was directed by Peter Hall, who would direct many of Pinter’s plays. Hall said of Pinter’s work that his ‘words are weapons that the characters use to discomfort or destroy each other’.
In 1964 The Birthday Party was filmed for television and revived in the West End. This time the reviews were favourable. The plays that Pinter wrote from the late 1960s onwards are often referred to as his ‘memory plays’. These include Old Times (1971), No Man's Land (1975) and Betrayal (1978), a play based on Pinter’s affair with Joan Bakewell.
Later work and life
Pinter was outspoken in his politics, and the plays he wrote in his later years reflected this. He wrote a number of overtly political shorter works and sketches concerned with the abuse of power, such as One for the Road (1984).
Pinter won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005. Though by now his health was failing, he performed in a production of Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape in 2006. He died in 2008.
His work was long associated with the Comedy Theatre in the West End, which has since been renamed the Harold Pinter Theatre.
Further information about the life of Harold Pinter can be found here via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
- Article by:
- Michael Billington
- Exploring identity, 20th-century theatre, Gender and sexuality
Michael Billington considers The Homecoming in the context of Harold Pinter's life and work, and explores how attitudes towards the play's portrayal of gender relations have changed.
- Article by:
- William McEvoy
- Gender and sexuality, 20th-century theatre
In Harold Pinter's Betrayal, an affair and its revelation are portrayed in reverse chronological order. William McEvoy explores how this reversal focuses our attention on the ways in which meaning and knowledge are constructed, and on the ability of language to hide as much as it reveals.
- Article by:
- Andrew Dickson
- Theatre practitioners and genres, 20th-century theatre, Capturing and creating the modern, European influence
Absurdist theatre responded to the destruction and anxieties of the 20th century by questioning the nature of reality and illusion. Andrew Dickson introduces some of the most important figures in the Theatre of the Absurd, including Eugène Ionesco, Martin Esslin and Samuel Beckett.
Related collection items
Betrayal (1978) overview Harold Pinter’s 1978 play employs a reverse-chronological structure to tell the story ...
The Homecoming (1964) overview Written in 1964, and premiering in 1965, Harold Pinter’s two-act play The ...