February 20, 2018

Pinter, Home and Abroad

On this day in 1930 Harold Pinter was born. Although a Nobel laureate, a "Companion of Honour" (he turned down the knighthood), a recipient of Europe's top theater awards (the Shakespeare, the Olivier, the Pirandello, the Moliere ...), and author of some five-dozen plays and screenplays over fifty years, Pinter had a rough start. The Birthday Party, his first professional production in 1957, got not just bad but mocking reviews and closed after a week. When Pinter arrived late for the Thursday performance, he tried to rush past the usherette to a seat:
    "Where are you going?" she said. "To the dress circle," I said. "I'm the author." Her eyes, as I recall, misted over. "Oh, are you?" she said. "Oh, you poor chap. Listen, the dress circle's closed, but why don't you go in, go in and sit down, darling, if you like, go on." I went into the empty dress circle and looked down into the stalls. Six people were watching the performance....
This story is in Michael Billington's authorized, 1996 biography, which portrays Pinter as an individualist from an early age, one not likely to quit or be swayed by criticism. Seven years later, The Homecoming - Pinter's first hit and, many say, his best play - had a repertory run of eighteen months in London, making Pinter and the "Pinteresque" famous. At this representative moment in Act One, Lenny attempts to clear his sister-in-law's glass and the bottom falls out of the family reunion:
    LENNY You've consumed quite enough, in my opinion.
    RUTHNo, I haven't.
    LENNYQuite sufficient, in my own opinion.
    RUTHNot in mine, Leonard.
    LENNY ... Just give me the glass.
    RUTH No.
    LENNYI'll take it, then.
    RUTHIf you take the glass ... I'll take you.
    LENNYHow about me taking the glass without you taking me?
    RUTHWhy don't I just take you?
Perhaps Pinter learned his pauses as an only child in Hackney. At the age of eight or nine he and a group of imaginary friends would gather in his back garden, where they "talked aloud and held conversations beyond the lilac tree." Billington makes much of Pinter's experiences as a child-evacuee during WWII, as if it was a first taste of the adrift, menacing, semi-reality that he would put in his plays: "'There was,' says Pinter, 'no fixed sense of being ... of being ... at all.'" The war certainly helped bring a sense of drama to this funny story of young love:
    "I kept seeing this girl pass up and down the street. I couldn't speak to her. So I phoned her pretending to be an American soldier.... I put on an American accent and said I would be at the gates of Springfield Park, which was close by, at a certain time on a certain day. She said, 'I've never heard of such a thing in all my life. How dare you? Who are you?'... Anyway, I went to the gates of Springfield Park and she turned up. I remember it well because it was a drizzly day and she came to the gates and saw me standing there forlornly in a raincoat and cried out, 'Harold Pinter! What on earth are you doing here?'"
Billington also points out that Pinter's now-famous political views were formed early, his first conscientious objection and fine for refusing to enter National Service occurring in 1949. This 2003 poem shows him thinking differently about American soldiers:
    Here they go again,
    The Yanks in their armoured parade
    Chanting their ballads of joy
    As they gallop across the big world
    Praising America's God.

    The gutters are clogged with the dead
    The ones who couldn't join in
    The others refusing to sing
    The ones who are losing their voice
    The ones who've forgotten the tune....

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