Harold Pinter

  • London, England


Playwright Harold Pinter was born in Hackney, London, on 10 October 1930. He was educated at Hackney Downs Grammar School and trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and Central School of Speech and Drama.

His plays include The Room (1957), The Birthday Party (1958), The Dumb Waiter (1959), The Caretaker (1960), The Lover (1962), The Homecoming (1965), No Man's Land (1975), Mountain Language (1988), Moonlight (1993), Ashes to Ashes (1996) and Celebration (2000), first performed with The Room at the Almeida Theatre in London. His adaptation of Marcel Proust's novel Remembrance of Things Past was performed at the National Theatre in London in 2000. He adapted many of his stage plays for radio and television and he wrote the screenplays to a number of films including The Servant (1963), The Quiller Memorandum (1965), The Go-Between (1970), The Last Tycoon (1974) and The Comfort of Strangers (1989), adapted from Ian McEwan's novel. He directed many productions of his own plays as well as plays by other writers, including James Joyce, Noel Coward, Tennessee Williams, David Mamet and Simon Gray, and acted on stage, film, television and radio.

He was awarded a CBE in 1966, the German Shakespeare Prize in 1970, the Austrian State Prize for European Literature in 1973 and the David Cohen British Literature Prize in 1995, and held honorary degrees from the Universities of Reading, Glasgow, East Anglia and Bristol, among others. In 2001 he was awarded the S.T. Dupont Golden PEN Award by the English Centre of International PEN. War (2003), is a collection of eight poems and one speech inspired by the subject of conflict.

Harold Pinter was married to the writer Lady Antonia Fraser and lived in London. In 2005, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He died in December 2008.

Critical perspective

Harold Pinter achieved the ultimate distinction for a living dramatist.

He spawned his own adjective: 'Pinteresque'. It is generally applied to a situation fraught with menace in which common speech camouflages a ferocious battle for territory. But there is much more to Pinter than masked conflict and hidden threat. His pervading theme is memory: the way our existence is haunted by a recollection, however fallible or imaginary, of some vanished world in which everything was secure, certain and fixed. Pinter began his career as a repertory actor and occasional poet published in small magazines. Acting gave him an insight into the practicalities of stagecraft: poetry taught him about the precise placement of words. Both skills were evident in his short first play, The Room (1957): a highly effective piece about a reclusive heroine whose space is invaded by a succession of visitors climaxing in a blind Negro who bears a message calling on her to return home. The basic pattern was repeated, with fascinating variations, in Pinter's first full-length stage-play, The Birthday Party (1960). In this case the truculent hero, Stanley, has hidden away in dingy seaside digs from which he is forcibly removed by two visitors, Goldberg and McCann, who represent an unnamed organisation. In Stanley's recollections of his days as a concert pianist, you hear the characteristic Pinter note: a yearning for some lost Eden as a refuge from the uncertain present. But the play is also clearly a political metaphor for the oppression of the individual by the state; and it's no accident that Pinter had himself earlier risked imprisonment for conscientious objection. Pinter's early fascination with politics was also evident in The Hothouse(1980), a bilious black comedy set in a state-run hospital in which nonconformists are classified as mental patients. Written in 1958, it was never publicly performed till 1980. It was only with The Caretaker (1960) that Pinter finally achieved personal fame and commercial success. What everyone seized on, in this story of a tramp who accepts shelter from a brain-damaged benefactor and then tries to play him off against his smarter brother, was the verisimilitude of the dialogue: this was the language of the bus-queue or the cheap 'caff', with its pauses, repetitions and hidden desires, raised to the level of poetry. Yet it is also an acutely observant play about power and pipe dreams: about the desire for domination and about the human need for illusions. Which is presumably why to this day it is still performed all over the world.

Pinter's immaculate ear for dialogue led to him writing an impressive trio of 1960s films - The Servant, Accident and The Go-Between - all directed by Joseph Losey. But it was The Homecoming (1965) that confirmed his supremacy amongst his generation of stage-dramatists. It is a deeply disturbing play about Ruth, the wife of an academic, who opts to stay with her crude, aggressive in-laws rather than return with her husband to the sterile life of an American campus. What shocked people was both Ruth's apparent complicity in the family's desire that she should support them through prostitution and the absence of any conventional moral framework. But Ruth is more manipulator than victim who negotiates her homecoming very much on her own terms. And Pinter's refusal to moralise is part of what made him distinctive as a dramatist: his plays, for the most part, are pieces of social evidence, which he leaves us to interpret or resolve. Pinter revolutionised dramatic language through his use of demotic speech. But just as important was his banishment of authorial omniscience: the idea that the writer knows everything there is to know about his characters from start to finish.

After The Homecoming, however, Pinter's work underwent a formal change. He dispensed with the impedimenta of realism, such as exits and entrances, to present us with more distilled works that deal with his recurrent themes: time, memory, the power of the past over the present. In Old Times (1971) Deeley and Anna battle for possession of Kate: Deeley's wife and Anna's best friend. But their chosen weapon is reminiscence: even who saw the film of Odd Man Out with whom becomes a crucial tactic. And, at one point, Anna gnomically expresses the play's governing idea: 'There are some things one remembers even though they may never have happened. There are things I remember which may never have happened but as I recall them so they take place.' In the still more complex No Man's Land (1975) - easily Pinter's bleakest play - we witness an extraordinary encounter between a wealthy immured writer, Hirst, who seems tormented and crippled by the past and a Bohemian butterfly, Spooner, who has no fixed identity but who simply re-invents himself as he goes along. And in Betrayal (1978) Pinter reverses conventional chronology to explore the multiple deceptions involved in a triangular relationship: far from being a simple adultery-play, it is really about the endlessly corrosive nature of betrayal which infects lovers' trust, male friendship, youthful idealism and even one's sense of self.

Accused sometimes of retreating into private worlds, Pinter from the mid-1980s onwards answered his critics and expressed his sense of moral outrage with a series of pungent, political plays dealing with abuse of human rights. One For The Road (1984) demonstrates how torturers invoke God and country in order to justify their actions. Mountain Language (1988) depicts victimisation through suppression of language. Ashes to Ashes (1996) moves outwards from a man's interrogation of a woman about her lover to admit the Holocaust. But although these plays may lhave looked like a move into new territory for Pinter, they in fact marked a return to the political preoccupations that haunt his early work. Even the teaming of Pinter's play, Celebration (2000), with his earliest work, The Room, emphasised the unity of his sensibility and constancy of his obsessions. Set in a smart London restaurant, Celebration ostensibly satirises the coarse, crude materialism of a group of posh diners: the joker in the pack is a young Waiter who eavesdrops on the clients' conversations and uses them as a starting-point for his own fantasies about his grandfather. But once again Pinter uses memory not just as a dramatic device but as a key to understanding. The diners live in a world of instant gratification. The Waiter's memories of his grandfather evoke a world of familial closeness and natural beauty that is totally alien to the sex-obsessed diners. In 1957 Pinter set his first play in a dingy bedsit. 43 years later his chosen milieu was a swank restaurant. Yet, although the context may have been radically changeable, Pinter's obsessions remained very much what they always were, the hidden poetry of vernacular speech, the unfathomable mystery of human existence and the power of memory, however fallible, to convey the paradise we have all lost.

Michael Billington, 2002

For an in-depth critical review see Harold Pinter by Mark Batty (Northcote House, 2001: Writers and their Work Series).



Collected Screenplays 2
Collected Screenplays 1
Various Voices: Prose, Poetry, Politics 1948-1998
Ashes to Ashes
99 Poems in Translation
The Trial
Ten Early Poems
Plays 4
Party Time
The Comfort of Strangers and Other Screenplays
The Dwarves
Mountain Language
100 Poems by 100 Poets: An Anthology
Collected Poems and Prose
One for the Road
The French Lieutenant's Woman and Other Screenplays
Family Voices
The Hothouse
Plays 3
The Proust Screenplay
Plays 2
Plays 1
No Man's Land
Old Times
Tea Party and Other Plays
The Homecoming
The Lover
The Collection
A Slight Ache and Other Plays
The Dumb Waiter
The Caretaker
The Birthday Party
The Room


Legion d'Honneur (France)
Europe Theatre Prize
Franz Kafka Award
Nobel Prize for Literature
Critics' Circle Special 50th Year Award
Wilfred Owen Award for Poetry
Companion of Honour
Hermann Kesten Medallion
PEN/S.T. Dupont Golden Pen Award
Premio Fiesole ai Maestri del Cinema (Italy)
South Bank Show Outstanding Achievement in the Arts Award
World Leaders Award (Canada)
Critics' Circle Award for Distinguished Service to the Arts
Sunday Times Award for Literary Excellence
Laurence Olivier Special Award
David Cohen British Literature Prize
Companion of Literature
Elmer Holmes Bobst Award for Arts and Letters
Donatello Prize
Giles Cooper Award
Pirandello Prize
Laurence Olivier/BBC Award for Best New Play
SWET Award
Austrian State Prize for European Literature
Shakespeare Prize (Germany)
Italia Prize