A Pinter room. Anyone who has seen almost any of Harold Pinter's plays will know exactly what that phrase means. A cold, unwelcoming, claustrophobic chamber, in which the inhabitants live in anticipation of a visitor a threat to their dingy equilibrium. Pinter's plays have been performed all over the world, from Australia to China, and an awful lot of people have recognized those lonely rooms.
Despite the crashing failure in 1958 of his first full-length play The Birthday Party (it was pulled out of a London theater after just four performances, following catastrophic reviews), Harold Pinter has risen to become perhaps Britain's most revered contemporary writer. That reputation started to build with his second full-length play, The Caretaker, an instant hit that ran for 444 performances and was quickly followed by international productions. Certainly he has attained the rare distinction of having merited an adjective in the Oxford English Dictionary "Pinteresque: ... pertaining to, or characteristic of ... Harold Pinter, or his works."
Pinter turned 70 last October, and a year of international tributes reaches its climax this month with a string of high-profile events. At London's New Ambassador's Theatre, the writer himself stars in a Gate Theatre of Dublin production of his One for the Road, a brutal study of torture and totalitarianism (July 3-7). Across the city, the Royal Court Theatre is performing a Pinter double-bill, Mountain Language and Ashes to Ashes. After London, the Royal Court show and One for the Road will travel to New York City with two other Gate productions, the double-bill of Landscape and A Kind of Alaska, and The Homecoming, to join Lincoln Center's nine-play Pinter Festival (July 16-29).
Demand for these events has been tremendous. "Tickets have been flying out of the door," says Nigel Redden, director of the Lincoln Center Festival. Sales for the Pinter shows, he reports, are brisker than for last year's Bolshoi visit, its first in a decade. Redden says he received a telephone call from an excited Israeli before the Pinter Festival had even been publicized the man wanted details so he and 18 friends could book flights to New York.
So what is it about Pinter director (of major productions starring Lauren Bacall and Faye Dunaway), political activist (he campaigned against "NATO machismo" in Kosovo), actor and, of course, playwright that has touched so many? His plays are not as immediately funny as Alan Ayckbourn's, and you cannot easily sympathize with his invariably damaged, degraded characters as you can with those of, say, Arthur Miller. Pinter is more difficult, in every sense, than his contemporaries, and his rooms are battlegrounds.
In The Homecoming, for instance, a woman controls her patronizing husband and his lecherous family by becoming a high-class hooker. The Caretaker depicts a three-way conflict between a tramp and the two brothers who take him in. Pinter's most recent play, Celebration (also at the Lincoln Center Festival), features an oblique struggle for dominance between two sets of diners in a restaurant yet you never know precisely why they are competing. The stakes are never obvious in Pinter. Characters' true meanings are always hidden between and behind the words. A simple invitation to sit down can become a dangerous contest for the upper hand. That's what makes him so tantalizing, and so uncomfortable. "His choice of words is so specific," says the actress Lindsay Duncan, who created the role of Prue in Celebration. Ian Holm, who is currently starring in The Homecoming and also had a different role, Lenny, in the original 1965 production agrees. "The language is pared down until every word has immense power," he says. "He relishes every phrase. Pinter is the best playwright in the English language."
He also has an uncanny ability to create characters who, though they are seldom given specific histories, are at once menacing and often desperately sad. Peter Hall, who directed all but one of Pinter's new theater plays for 21 years, from 1962 until the two fell out over what Pinter felt were unfriendly observations about him in Hall's published diaries (they have since been reconciled), loves that unpredictability about his characters. "They are mysteries." says Hall, "selfish, outrageous, predatory, often likable just like us. Their mystery is our mystery." Adds Duncan: "He's not in the business of giving answers. He understands at a very profound level how complex human beings are, and he's not looking to explain that."
Perhaps it is that complexity which has prevented Pinter from having the commercial big-screen hits enjoyed by other playwrights, such as David Mamet (The Untouchables) and Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons). Pinter's 22-strong movie output, however, is critically distinguished particularly a three-film collaboration with director Joseph Losey (including the creepy Dirk Bogarde-James Fox classic The Servant), and his John Fowles adaptation, The French Lieutenant's Woman.
And what about Pinter the man? In his speech of thanks on being awarded the David Cohen British Literature Prize in 1995, he acknowledged, "I am well aware that I have been described ... as enigmatic, taciturn, terse, prickly, explosive and forbidding." Yet colleagues say his reputation as the angry old man of British theater is unfair, even if he did turn down a knighthood from Prime Minister John Major saying, "I would not accept such recognition from a Conservative government." "He's passionate, with a very short fuse," says Hall, "but he's also extremely warm and kind." Ian Holm recalls starring in Moonlight in 1993. The night the author attended, nobody dared laugh at the jokes. "He couldn't understand it," remembers Holm. "And his wife [author Antonia Fraser] said, 'Harold, they're scared of you.' 'Me?' he replied in amazement. 'But I'm Mr. Cuddles!'"
Unlike the works of John Osborne and the "angry young men" of the 1960s, or the political playwrights of the 1970s, Pinter's writing is not dependent on any particular time, location or ideology. It deals with human nature, with the way we continue to probe each other's weaknesses. So the work will not date. And so far, with characteristic determination, its author refuses to. He may be 70, but Mr. Cuddles will continue to excite and horrify us for some time to come.