The Birthday Party | Study Guide

Harold Pinter

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Harold Pinter | Biography


Early Life

Harold Pinter was a famous playwright, poet, director, and actor. He was born on October 10, 1930, in Hackney, East London, England. He was the only child of Hyman Pinter who was a tailor (1902–97) and Frances Pinter (1904–92) who was a homemaker.

Pinter was impacted significantly by events in his childhood. In 1940 the Germans began bombing London. Nine-year-old Pinter and his family evacuated to the towns of Cornwall and Reading in the United Kingdom. Pinter was traumatized by the bombings which resulted in a life-long aversion to war. The trauma also sparked an interest in dramatic writing. In 1944 Pinter returned to London and attended Hackney Grammar School. His English teacher Joseph Brearley (1909–77) had a tremendous influence on Pinter and cast him as Macbeth and Romeo in productions Brearley directed. While at Hackney Pinter studied works from Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821–81), Franz Kafka (1883–1924), T.S. Eliot (1888–1965), D.H. Lawrence (1885–1930), Virginia Woolf (1882–1941), and Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961). In 1948 Pinter was accepted into the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. That same year he was called up by the National Service, but he did not enlist. His refusal resulted in a fine but not imprisonment. Pinter was accepted into Central School of Speech and Drama in 1951. He participated in Anew McMaster's famous Irish repertory where he played many roles over the two years he was there.

In 1956 Pinter married actor Vivien Merchant (1929–82) who provided much of the financial security early in their marriage. They had one son Daniel (b. 1958). Pinter and Merchant divorced in 1980, and he married author Lady Antonia Fraser (b.1932). He had known Fraser since 1975. Pinter was a stepfather to her six children from a previous marriage.


Pinter toured repertory theaters using the stage name David Baron from 1954 to 1959. He continued to write poems and prose. He earned his first break in 1957 with his one-act drama The Room (1957) and then later with The Dumb Waiter (1959).

His first full-length play The Birthday Party (1957) originally flopped. It opened at London's Lyric Theater on May 19,1958, and ran for only eight nights before it was shut down. Only one critic Harold Hobson (1904–92) of the Sunday Times was a fan and wrote that Pinter was the "most original, disturbing and arresting talent in theatrical London." The article in the Sunday Times appeared the day after the show was cancelled. The Birthday Party (1957) later received acclaim in 1968 when it was turned into a film.

Pinter's success as a playwright was solidified with his second full-length play The Caretaker (produced 1960). His next play The Homecoming (1964) reached Broadway in 1967 and brought Pinter additional fame. Other major works include Landscape (1968), Silence (1969), Night (1969), Old Times (1971), No Man's Land (1975), Betrayal (1978), Moonlight (1993), and Celebration (2000). Pinter wrote radio and television dramas as well as motion-picture screenplays. He also directed over 50 productions that included works of other writers. In addition, he took his talents to the stage as an actor. He played Saul Abraham in Rogue Male (1976) for which he received acclaim. He also played roles in Mojo (1997), Mansfield (1998), and The Tailor of Panama (2001). In all Pinter wrote 29 plays, penned 18 dramatic sketches, and co-authored two plays.

By 1968 Pinter's style had changed from absurdism which is a type of theater that portrays humans as lacking purpose and self-control to a style that portrayed characteristics of human memory. His plays took on a political focus in 1984. One for the Road (1984) centered on power and powerlessness under totalitarian rule. His political views about various causes were evident in a collection of poems titled War (2003).

Recognition and Legacy

Pinter has been recognized internationally as a dramatist, poet, actor, and director. Pinter was first recognized in 1966 when he was made Commander of the Order of the British Empire. His most notable achievement was earning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005. The French Legion of Honor recognized Pinter in 2007 with the noble title of chevalier which is similar to that of a knight.

Pinter was a fighter for human rights and earned praise for taking a stand on controversial issues. In 1999 he spoke out against the NATO action in Serbia saying that the action was "outside the parameters of international law." He earned many national and international awards as well as honorary degrees from established universities. Pinter also received recognition from film sources. He was a two-time Academy Award nominee for best screenplay in 1982 for The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981) and in 1984 for Betrayal (1983). The screenplay for The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981) was also nominated for a Golden Globe and a British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) award in 1982.

Pinter's legacy lives on through the PEN Printer Prize which is awarded each year to a writer from Britain, the Republic of Ireland, or the Commonwealth. This award is given to a writer who inspires truth through a body of plays, poetry, or fiction of outstanding literary merit. On September, 7, 2011, the Royal Comedy Theatre was renamed The Harold Pinter Theatre in honor of Pinter's contribution to the Comedy Theatre. Pinter's work has been honored through a production called Pinter at the Pinter which is a series of one-act plays. Pinter died on December 24, 2008, in London, England.

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