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Born: October 10th, 1930 (London, England)
Died: December 24th, 2008
“I've never been able to write a happy play, but I've been able to enjoy a happy life.”
Comedy of Menace
To say that Harold Pinter's plays are unhappy is a gross understatement. Most critics have labeled his characters “sinister” and “malevolent.” The actions within his plays are bleak, dire, and purposely without purpose. The audience leaves bewildered with a queasy feeling - an uneasy sensation, as though you were supposed to do something terribly important, but you can't remember what it was. You leave the theater a bit disturbed, a bit excited, and more than a bit unbalanced. And that's just the way Harold Pinter wanted you to feel.
Critic Irving Wardle used the term, “Comedies of Menace” to describe Pinter's dramatic work. The plays are fueled by intense dialogue that seems disconnected from any sort of exposition. The audience rarely knows the background of the characters. They don't even know if the characters are telling the truth. The plays do offer a consistent theme: domination. Pinter described his dramatic literature as an analysis of “the powerful and the powerless.”
Though his earlier plays were exercises in absurdity, his later dramas became overtly political. During the last decade of his life, he focused less on writing and more on political activism (of the left-wing variety). In 2005, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. During his Nobel lecture he stated:
“You have to hand it to America. It has exercised a quite clinical manipulation of power worldwide while masquerading as a force for universal good.”
Politics aside, his plays capture a nightmarish electricity that jolts the theater. Here is a brief look at the best of Harold Pinter's plays:
The Birthday Party (1957)
A distraught and disheveled Stanley Webber may or may not be a piano player. It may or may not be his birthday. He may or may not know the two diabolically bureaucratic visitors that have come to intimidate him. There are many uncertainties throughout this surreal drama. However, one thing is definite: Stanley is an example of a powerless character struggling against powerful entities. (And you can probably guess who is going to win.)
The Dumbwaiter (1957)
It has been said that this one-act play was the inspiration for the 2008 film In Bruges. After viewing both the Colin Farrell movie and the Pinter play, it is easy to see the connections. “The Dumbwaiter” reveals the sometimes boring, sometimes anxiety-ridden lives of two hitmen - one is a seasoned professional, the other is newer, less sure of himself. As they wait to receive orders for their next deadly assignment, something rather odd happens. The dumbwaiter at the back of the room continually lowers down food orders. But the two hitmen are in a grungy basement - there's no food to prepare. The more the food orders persist, the more the assassins turn on each other.
The Caretaker (1959)
Unlike his earlier plays, The Caretaker was a financial victory, the first of many commercial successes. The full-length play takes place entirely in a shabby, one-room apartment owned by two brothers. One of the brothers is mentally disabled (apparently from electro-shock therapy). Perhaps because he isn't very bright, or perhaps out of kindness, he brings a drifter into their home. A powerplay begins between the homeless man and the brothers. Each character talks vaguely about things they want to accomplish in their life - but not one of the characters lives up to his word.
The Homecoming (1964)
Imagine you and your wife travel from America to your hometown in England. You introduce her to your father and working-class brothers. Sounds like a nice family reunion, right? Well, now imagine your testosterone-mad relatives suggest that your wife abandon her three children and stay on as a prostitute. And then she accepts the offer. That's the kind of twisted mayhem that occurs throughout Pinter's devious Homecoming.
Old Times (1970)
This play illustrates the flexibility and fallibility of memory. Deeley has been married to his wife Kate for over two decades. Yet, he apparently does not know everything about her. When Anna, Kate's friend from her distant bohemian days, arrives they begin talking about the past. The details are vaguely sexual, but it seems that Anna recalls having a romantic relationship with Deeley's wife. And so begins a verbal battle as each character narrates what they remember about yesteryear - though it's uncertain whether those memories are a product of truth or imagination.