When Harold Pinter died in December, a curtain fell not only on a life of profound artistic achievement but on an era in the English-speaking theater. As Pinter’s life and work were chewed over in obituaries and retrospectives, the disjunctures of the dramatist’s life and work forced themselves into view. A quick temper bubbling over the surface of a deep reservoir of generosity. A messy and devastating midlife crisis and divorce–mined for the stage in Betrayal (1978)–that settled into a deeply devoted second marriage. A playwright celebrated for his audacity and mystery who championed (and directed) the work of Simon Gray–one of England’s most traditional modern playwrights. A devotee of cricket who tirelessly lashed out against US military interventions, from Latin America to Iraq to Kosovo.
Whatever his controversies and contradictions, his legacy as a writer is assured. Pinter is among the few writers one can point to as decisively influential on a genre. (Among fellow Nobelists, one would have to cite Hemingway on fiction, perhaps, or T.S. Eliot on poetry.) There is not a playwright working in English after 1968 or so who doesn’t owe something to the stripping down and refurbishing of theatrical language in Pinter’s early masterworks–a meld of poetry, jargon, slang and strategic silences.
Just as crucial, however, was the way Pinter unhitched English-speaking drama from its most-treasured certainties–clear narrative, defined character. Beckett and Kafka are obvious wellsprings for works such as The Caretaker and The Birthday Party, but Pinter’s innovation was to root existential dilemmas in the quotidian. His early plays are set in dingy flats and seaside resorts, filled with junk and servings of corn flakes for breakfast. When Pinter finally pulls away the threadbare rugs of those same rooms, the audience sees that there is no floor at all–but rather a moral and temporal abyss. There’s shock and awe in this magic act but also palpable surprise and comedy. It’s breathtaking writing–especially when acted well and seen for the first time in performance.
These arrows are in every dramatist’s quiver now. But such an outsized influence as Pinter’s provokes as much resentment as gratitude among playwrights. A shadow so pervasive is, in its way, oppressive–particularly when Pinter’s early plays (and his statements about them) are so slippery, fiercely resistant to ascribing specific meanings and focused resolutely on the search for truth within the process of staging the play.
The terms of Pinter’s achievement are the central problem of his influence. His knotty and unexpected crises and epiphanies (or are they?) in narrow rooms are an inescapable helix of our theatrical DNA. His plays offer fruitful challenges–and precise choreography–for actors and directors. But they carry the considerable benefit of being much easier to stage in the desiccated economy of today’s theater than the complex Brechtian political epics of, say, Tony Kushner or Howard Brenton. Or even Caryl Churchill’s epic disjunctures of gender and politics in time and space.