The Great Harold Pinter Is Dead

PinterA great playwright has died, and how sad we are to lose him. We have come to the end of an era. Harold Pinter, who died on December 24, 2008 at the age of 78, was the major British playwright of the last fifty years. He and Samuel Beckett, who died in 1989, laid out a vision of human existence that expressed the post-WII anxieties of our contemporary western world. Together they brought to the stage, with full theatrical power, an uncompromising sense of our human limitations, our ludicrousness, and our luminosity.

Pinter, as the younger playwright, born in Hackney, London in 1930, introduced a unique sense of menace and dark humor to the stage. In the course of a career of over fifty years, he wrote 29 plays, acted in many productions, wrote screenplays, and directed his own and other people’s work. In the final decade of his life, he gave his energy to an articulate and passionate political activism.

But what I remember now, in the first week after his death, is the excitement of seeing a number of his plays in their early New York productions back in the 1960s and '70s. Then his work was considered highly obscure and difficult to comprehend. Some critics just refused to take it seriously at all, as if it were some sort of shaggy dog story that no rational person could be expected to grasp. For me, sitting in the small off-Broadway theatres where he was then performed, his plays were thrilling -- utterly new, wild, dark, and hilarious. And since the critics were baffled, I could take each play in on a visceral level, untainted by the banality of received wisdom. I would sit forward in my seat, breathlessly attuned to the words and actions of the stage -- as well as the famous pauses -- absolutely engaged in the Pinter world. Once I even saw him walk up the aisle in some Greenwich Village theater, dark, handsome, and mysterious, and my heart leapt to be in his presence.

I could write here about what defines his work -- his irony, the menace, the tone, the evolving political vision -- but I’d rather think about what it means to be a truly unique writer. Pinter was Pinter right from the start. His very first play, The Room in 1957, possessed those characteristic mysteries and cruelties. It starts on a bleak, cold, dark night when a man must go out and drive his van, leaving his nervous wife alone in their rented room. Always in Pinter there is a strong sense of the out-doors and the in. Safety and risk. Although nothing is really safe in Pinter. The wind shifts. The room might really not belong to one. There is menace in the basement. The past is encroaching. Strangers are en route. It may be this stage atmosphere of extreme discomfort that characterizes Pinter. Numerous books have been written over the past thirty to forty years trying to explain just what Pinteresque means. So I am saved the task.

In 2001 Pinter was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. He hung in there for seven more years: winning more honors, appearing at events when he could, writing and publishing poetry, and showing up for political demonstrations. In 2005, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature and videotaped his 45-minute political address from a hospital. He even acted in 2006 for nine sold-out performances as the lead in Beckett’s Krapp's Last Tape ( in a motorized wheelchair) in London. When he showed up on Charlie Rose to discuss world politics, he was a model of intellectual rigor and passion, politely resisting Charlie’s foolish desire to keep the conversation safe.

What I want to say upon the occasion of his death is that Pinter deeply mattered to me. He set a standard of originality, wit, and basic insight into the terrors of this world. He was the real McCoy. I could never see his work often enough, whether in the British Isles, New York City, or the far reaches of the Berkshires. I’m glad he made it to 78 years of age, and that his beloved wife, Antonia Fraser, was with him to the end. His work and life made a difference. - Victoria Sullivan

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Ms. Sullivan is a poet and playwright who lives in Manhattan and has a little cabin outside of Woodstock, NY. When not brooding, she is generally traveling, writing, or staring at the trees. She also loves to laugh.

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