A pause to remember Pinter — Rest without peace


Every great writer speaks in his own voice, invents his own language — not just his own language but the whole tone of that language — and Harold Pinter, who died in London at 78 on the day before Christmas 2008, after a long battle with cancer, was greater than most.

What was that voice, that language?

All sorts of words, dozens of words, maybe hundreds of words, have been employed to describe it, characterize it: menacing, brooding, dark, ominous, cryptic, terse, tense, enigmatic, hardened, Cockney (on occasion), freighted, elliptic, moody, compressed, compact, Pinteresque, foreboding, foreshortened…and on and on.

Then there is the famous Pinter pause — six or eight or 10 different kinds of pauses, degrees of pause, actors and directors will tell you. Depends in part on how many dots appear from one word to the next in a Pinter script.

But of course there is no such thing as a Pinter pause per se. Because a Pinter pause in whatever shape or form is really nothing more than a Beckett pause freely borrowed by the younger playwright (born 1930 vs. Beckett 1906) from Sam, the Master of Us All. Except that the particular way Pinter puts his pauses together is part of the aforementioned Pinter tone, Pinter language.

We in America, Off-Broadway in particular, now have two or three generations of playwrights following in the footsteps of both Pinter and Beckett — as of course does England and the rest of the playwriting world. Often in truth this is not for the best, because God or nature or chance doesn’t create gifted post-Becketts or post-Pinters every day.

It was during the birth pangs of what is now a 50-year-old Off-Broadway movement that, unannounced, unexplained, there arrived on my desk at The Village Voice, by airmail from London, a scrappy little pocket-sized magazine called Encore. It was obviously a rebellious, antiestablishment journal. Most of the issue that had arrived out of nowhere consisted of the text of a play called “The Birthday Party” — a very scary play indeed — by a Brit I’d never heard of named Harold Pinter.

At this remove I do believe we are talking about 1957, a full year before anyone in England dared mount “The Birthday Party” on an actual stage (where it immediately got slaughtered by the London critics), but the arrival of that Encore may have been 1958 — no later. And no matter. We in Anerica had to wait till 1967 to see “The Birthday Party” in the flesh, at Broadway’s Booth Theater, directed by Off-Broadway’s (and Beckett’s) Alan Schneider.

By then I had met and interviewed Pinter once or twice, and even had had the chutzpah to tell him that “The Birthday Party’s” Goldberg and McCann, who are smoothly terrifying the hell out of a schnook named Stanley (and out of us), should not be performed with such caricature Jewish and Irish accents.

Pinter said I was wrong. No wasted syllables. Just: “You’re wrong.”

By then, too, we had come to know Pinter the deep-under-the-skin screenwriter of “The Servant” (1963) and “The Pumpkin Eater” (1964); also Pinter the actor (he’d started life as an actor), who enjoyed taking bit parts as a bad guy or a horse’s-ass boring guy or some other incidental character in one film or another, written by him or otherwise.

I don’t know about you, but “The Pumpkin Eater,” directed by Jack Clayton, with Peter Finch betraying Anne Bancroft while giving her one baby after another, and Anne Bancroft having a nervous breakdown in the middle of Harrod’s department store, and James Mason trying obnoxiously to leer her into bed, did as much to color my own life as any movie I ever saw.

But they didn’t give Harold Pinter the 2005 Nobel Prize in Literature for that, or for any screenplay except the fabulous, unbelievably compact-inclusive one he did (1972) from Proust’s 2,000-page “À la recherche du temps perdu,” and which script was in Proust’s tones, not Pinter’s.

They gave it to him for two-dozen delay-fused dramas that were in Pinter’s black-on-black gathering-cloud tones, his one-of-a-kind language and social structure, in which characters and events rarely say or do what you expect them to do, or in the way you would — any of us — would say or do it. Except that, come to think of it, we would do so when push comes to shove, as it always does.

It was not altogether surprising that this Hackney-born son of a Jewish tailor (who gave that son a very hard time) should employ his Nobel Prize address as a platform to blast the United States — more exactly, the George W. Bush United States and all its blunderbuss doings these past eight years.

But it was that other Harold Pinter, the cordial, generous, helpful Harold Pinter, who was still hard at work, as playwright, as essayist, as speaker, as teacher, even as actor — solo, in Beckett’s great, beautiful “Krapp’s Last Tape” — almost to the end.

“The condition of being bombed has never left me,” the Harold Pinter who was indeed bombed as a child during the Blitz once said. What he gave us, and left us with, are time bombs at nerves end for all of us.