In June 2009, a group of Britain’s leading actors gathered to perform a celebration of the work of playwright Harold Pinter, for one night at London’s National Theater. The cast included Alan Rickman, Colin Firth, Gina McKee, Lindsay Duncan, Jeremy Irons, Kenneth Cranham, Susan Wooldridge, Michael Sheen and Henry Woolf. Jude Law and Penelope Wilton had to dash from their matinee performance of Hamlet to take part. The quality of this ensemble gives an idea of the respect with which Pinter is regarded.
The group of actors then presented a selection of extracts from Pinter’s plays, writing and poetry. The set was simple, with the cast remaining seated on stage throughout. The evening of celebration opened with Stephen Rea reading “Death,” written and published in 1997, the year Pinter’s father died. This was followed by an excellent selection from the playwright’s writings, notable amongst which were: Douglas Hodge’s reading of the playwright’s memoir “Mac,” a comic tale of his early career in repertory theater with the famed Irish actor Anew McMaster; David Bradley eking out all of the comedy and pathos to the character of the tramp, Davies from The Caretaker; Colin Firth also delivers superb performance as the character Aston, talking about his electro-shock therapy, from the play; while Janie Dee and Michael Sheen in Betrayal, and Jude Law and Indira Varma in The Lover, bring out the strong sexual tensions inherent in both plays.
Filmed for BBC’s Arena, Harold Pinter: A Celebration is a remarkable piece of theater.
Harold PInter liked Samuel Beckett because he rubbed his nose in the shit. He wasn’t leading him up the garden path. He wasn’t giving him the wink. And he certainly wasn’t fucking him about. No.
Pinter knew Beckett wasn’t selling him anything. But if he was selling him anything, then he would have bought it hook, line and sinker.
Pinter first read Beckett in 1953, while working in Ireland. When he returned home to London, Pinter searched the libraries for any of Beckett’s books. He couldn’t find any, that is until he happened upon a copy of Beckett’s novel Murphy in the Bermondsley Reserve LIbrary. Pinter borrowed it, and as he noted that the book had not been taken out since 1939, he kept it.
This is Pinter’s astounding performance in Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape. Though Patrick Magee was Beckett’s original choice for the role, Pinter brings a dark, bitter irony to the character, as well as a heightened sense of personal mortality. Pinter described the play he sees as being about death, and about love - the impossibility of love and the necessity of love.
‘He came into the hotel, very quickly indeed. Sharp strides, quick handshake. It was extremely friendly.’
And then he tells you about himself, a slight pride, ‘I’d known his work for many years, of course.’
Of course, as if there would have been any question to otherwise. Then the non sequitur, ‘But it hadn’t led me to believe that he would be such a very fast driver. He drove his little Citreon, from bar-to-bar, throughout the evening. Very quickly, indeed.’
And of course, there are (pauses).
It’s Harold Pinter on Samuel Beckett, recalling an evening spent in his company. A pub crawl in France.
‘We were together for hours, and finally ended up in… (Pause) ...a place in Les Halles, eating onion soup, at about 4 o’clock in the morning. (Longer Pause) And… (Pause) ...I was, by this time, overcome, through, I think, alcohol and tobacco and excitement (Pause) with indigestion and heartburn. So. I lay down on the table, to still see the place. (A Beat) When I looked up he was gone. (Pause) A I say, it was about 4 o’clock in the morning.’
It could be lines from a Pinter play, My Night Out With Samuel, or a comedy, When Harry Met Sammy, but it all progresses beautifully, and menacingly, towards a punchline.
‘I had no idea where he had gone, and he remained away and I thought perhaps this had all been a dream. (Long Pause) I think I went to sleep on the table and…. (Pause) ...About forty-five minutes later, the table jolted and I looked up and there he was, a package in his hand. A bag.
‘And he said, eh, “I’ve been over the whole of damned Paris to find this. I finally found it.” And he opened the bag and he gave me a tin of bicarbonate of soda. Which indeed worked wonders.’
Pinter then goes on to read from a letter he wrote to a friend in 1954, when he was 24, about Beckett - ‘The farther it goes, the more good it does me’ - before performing an extract from Beckett’s The Unnameable. In total, this short program is seven minutes of sheer brilliance.
In November 1964, Pinter appeared at the 92nd Street Y Poetry Center, New York, where he read a selection of his poetry and short stories. This audio recording is the full program of Pinter’s reading and includes:
“New Year in the Midlands”
“A Glass at Midnight”
“You in the Night”
“The Drama in April”
“The Anesthetist’s Pen”
“The Error of Alarm”
“The Black and White Selection”
This is followed by a Q&A where Pinter:
...talks about literary influences, point of view, his opinion of Edward Albee’s Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and the classic Beatles vs. Rolling Stones debate.
I started reading Pinter when I was about 12, and found his work strangely reassuring, for here was the dialog of the adults all around me, full of peopled silences and casual menace. Whether it was The Caretaker or The Birthday Party, it all seemed so normal, only as I gained a year, did I realize that perhaps it wasn’t meant to be so normal after all.
Pinter observed and refracted the world around him through the prism of his experience - a repertory actor caught in digs, mixing with landladies, traveling salesman, became The Room, The Basement, and The Birthday Party. As Pinter told his biographer, Michael Billington:
“I went to these digs and found, in short, a very big woman who was the landlady and a little man, the landlord. There was no one else there, apart from a solitary lodger, and the digs were really quite filthy ... I slept in the attic with this man I’d met in the pub ... we shared the attic and there was a sofa over my bed ... propped up so I was looking at this sofa from which hairs and dust fell continuously. And I said to the man, “What are you doing here?” And he said, “Oh well I used to be…I’m a pianist. I used to play in the concert-party here and I gave that up.” ... The woman was really quite a voracious character, always tousled his head and tickled him and goosed him and wouldn’t leave him alone at all. And when I asked him why he stayed, he said, “There’s nowhere else to go.”
Or, the start of family life, married to the actress Vivian Merchant, living together in a threadbare flat in Chiswick, the location which inspired The Caretaker:
“a very clean couple of rooms with a bath and kitchen. There was a chap who owned the house: a builder, in fact, like Mick who had his own van and whom I hardly ever saw. The only image of him was of this swift mover up and down the stairs and of his van going . . . Vroom . . . as he arrived and departed. His brother lived in the house. He was a handyman . . . he managed rather more successfully than Aston, but he was very introverted, very secretive, had been in a mental home some years before and had had some kind of electrical shock treatment . . . ECT, I think . . . Anyway, he did bring a tramp back one night. I call him a tramp, but he was just a homeless old man who stayed three or four weeks.”
Then there was his sexual and romantic relationships Landscape, Silence, Betrayal; and even his influences - a moot point that without Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr. Sloane, he wouldn’t have written The Homecoming.
In 1963, Pinter wrote an essay about his theater and his plays:
I’m not a theorist. I’m not an authoritative or reliable commentator on the dramatic scene, the social scene, any scene. I write plays, when I can manage it, and that’s all. That’s the sum of it.
I’ve had two full-length plays produced in London. The first ran a week, and the second ran a year. Of course, there are differences between the two plays. In The Birthday Party I employed a certain amount of dashes in the text, between phrases. In The Caretaker I cut out the dashes and used dots instead. So that instead of, say, “Look, dash, who, dash, I, dash, dash, dash,” the text would read, “Look, dot, dot, dot, who, dot, dot, dot, I, dot, dot, dot, dot.” So it’s possible to deduce from this that dots are more popular than dashes, and that’s why The Caretaker had a longer run than The Birthday Party. The fact that in neither case could you hear the dots and dashes in performance is beside the point. You can’t fool the critics for long. They can tell a dot from a dash a mile off, even if they can hear neither.
Nigel Williams directed this superb two-part film biography on Harold Pinter for BBC’s Arena strand, which explores:
Pinter’s life, work, and political passions - from his East End childhood to his work as an actor, his experience of both early critical rejection and adulation, his screenwriting, and his love of poetry and passion for cricket.
Part One explores Pinter’s key theme - the room - through the very rooms in which he wrote his first great series of plays. Arena reveals the links between the plays and places, and meets the people who live there now. We visit the East London terraced house room where Pinter grew up and first wrote poetry; the theatre dressing room where he began to formulate his ideas about playwriting and language; the sitting room in the London cold-water flat where he wrote his first hit, The Caretaker, and his study in the bow-fronted house in Worthing, where he lived in the sixties with his first wife Vivien Merchant, and wrote The Homecoming.
Harold Pinter has given Arena exclusive access to personal recordings in which he talks frankly to his biographer Michael Billington. Presented for the first time on television, they tell Pinter’s story in his own words, as he remembers it.
In part two of this film biography, Arena explores the relationship between the public and private dimensions of the famous playwright and actor’s life and work; the intimacy of his plays since the seventies; his work in films and television drama; his passion for poetry; and his fervent ‘political engagement’.
Arena accompanied Pinter for two years to film plays and events in America and all over Europe. The wildly funny Celebration features a group of friends celebrating in a restaurant and, over the course of the evening, revealing details of their private lives in this very public space.
Arena reunites members of the cast, including Lindsay Duncan, Andy de la Tour, Susan Wooldridge and Indira Varma, who discuss their working relationship with Harold Pinter.
Other contributors include his wife Lady Antonia Fraser, journalist John Pilger and Pinter’s biographer Michael Billington.
Part 2 of this excellent documentary on Harold Pinter, after the jump…