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The Dumb Waiter | Study Guide

Harold Pinter

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Harold Pinter | Biography


Childhood Trauma and Dramatic Beginnings

British playwright Harold Pinter, known for tense, absurd, and evocative plays, became one of England's most essential post-World War II (1939–45) dramatists. He was born the son of a Jewish tailor on October 10, 1930. He lived in a working-class area of London. Young Pinter loved sports, especially cricket. But his childhood was traumatic in many ways. He faced anti-Semitism because of his Jewish identity. When Pinter was age nine, wartime German bombing forced him from his London home for three years.

Pinter never forgot being an eyewitness to war. When he turned 18 he refused to sign up for Britain's mandatory military service. Like Pinter's activism later in life, this was a deeply principled stance. The government charged him a fine.

His first career ambition was acting. He performed in English playwright William Shakespeare's plays while attending London's Hackney Grammar School. He then studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art but left in 1950 to tour with a theater company. Using the stage name David Baron, he traveled throughout Ireland and England as an actor until 1959. He worked briefly as a radio actor for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). His acting career continued until 2001. Pinter later claimed his acting experience on stage, radio, and television influenced his playwriting and gave him an ear for dialogue. In 1956 he married actress Vivien Merchant.

A New Voice in Theater

Pinter started out as a poet. He published several poems in the magazine Poetry London in 1950. Though poetry was Pinter's earliest writing passion, his plays made him famous.

Pinter's first short one-act play, The Room (1957), opened in Bristol, England. His second one-act play, The Dumb Waiter, was written in 1957 but not performed in London until 1960. The BBC decided the drama, about two disgruntled hit men waiting for their next assignment, was too obscure for television viewers to understand. Once The Dumb Waiter premiered in Frankfurt, Germany, and in London the following year, audiences weren't sure what to make of it. Many audience members were reminded of Irish playwright Samuel Beckett's absurdist drama Waiting for Godot (1953), in which two men wait for a third man who never arrives. Others compared the two characters' banter to American male comic duos Abbott and Costello or Laurel and Hardy. In the mid-20th century Bud Abbott and Lou Costello's popular style of stage comedy featuring slapstick action and rapid-fire dialogue made them Hollywood stars. Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, a similar comedic duo, starred in films from the 1920s through the 1950s. Pinter's drama is funny and menacing at the same time. The play provides no easy resolution for the characters. Theater critic Michael Billington says Pinter presented a "radically different" approach to drama, challenging the audience to think of resolutions themselves.

Pinter branched out into full-length plays with The Birthday Party (1957). At first The Birthday Party seemed like a colossal failure. Its run lasted only a week. Critics were bewildered by the strange plot, in which two strangers terrorize a man at a seaside resort. The play would later become one of Pinter's most popular works, but at the time the critical response devastated him. He moved on to his next play, A Slight Ache , published in 1959 and first performed in 1961.

The Caretaker (1960) propelled him to stardom. The play features another unusual plot involving two brothers who bring home a homeless man. Audiences were getting a sense of Pinter's signature style: claustrophobic spaces, limited but meaningful dialogue, and tense personal relationships. One New York Times critic said Pinter created "a world of perplexing menace." Pinter's work shared many characteristics with the Theatre of the Absurd, a movement presenting plays with characters trapped in bizarre, hopeless situations. Pinter's combination of absurdity and realism, however, resulted in a style all his own.

His play The Homecoming (1965) established him as a master of the form. The Homecoming deals with ruptured loyalty at a family reunion. It's Pinter's only play to win Broadway's coveted Tony Award. A film version of The Homecoming featured its original cast, including Merchant, Pinter's then-wife. Later plays included Landscape (1969), Silence (1969), Night (1969), and Old Times (1971).

A typical Pinter play features two characters speaking in seemingly ordinary but unpredictable dialogue, with tension and violence bubbling below the surface. The dialogue includes fraught pauses and silences known as Pinter pauses. A third character may interrupt the two onstage or be referenced but never appear. The characters eventually descend into instability, fear, anger, and loneliness.

With sparse sets and small casts, Pinter's plays created drama and anxiety from simple conversations between two people. His later plays eliminated physical activity onstage. Despite the distinguishing features of Pinter plays, he always surprised the audience. English playwright David Hare described "[sitting] down to every play [Pinter] writes in certain expectation of the unexpected."

Work for the Stage and Screen

Pinter wrote and adapted several screenplays for films. His written screenplays include The Servant (1963), The Accident (1967), and The Go-Between (1970). He adopted English writer John Fowles's novel The French Lieutenant's Woman for film in 1981 and Canadian writer Margaret Atwood's novel The Handmaid's Tale in 1990.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Pinter stayed involved with the theater. He directed productions of several plays, including his own. He appeared in a production of his play Old Times in 1985. And he continued to write plays, including No Man's Land (1975), Betrayal (1978), and One for the Road (1984). Pinter based Betrayal (1978)on his own affair with television personality Joan Bakewell. By 1975 Pinter was also involved with biographer Antonia Fraser, who became his second wife in 1980.

Although Pinter always had a passion for political engagement, his later work dealt with political issues more openly. His play Mountain Language (1988), written after a visit to Turkey with American playwright Arthur Miller, dramatized the plight of Turkey's Kurdish people. Other plays dealt with topics like censorship and class struggles. His poems often took strong political stances. The poetry collection War (2003) expressed his outrage at Great Britain's involvement in armed conflict.

Political Activism and Artistic Legacy

Pinter was both a writer and a dedicated activist. In the 1970s he spoke out against the Vietnam War (1955–75, conflict between North Vietnam and South Vietnam, supported by the United States, over the spread of communism) and American election intervention in Chile (1963–73). He later publicly opposed the Gulf War (1990–91, in response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait); the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) bombing of Serbia (1999, to defend Kosovar Albanians against the ethnic cleansing actions of the Serbian military); and the 2003 American invasion of Iraq (a continuation of the first Gulf War), in which the United Kingdom participated. Friends and colleagues recall Pinter's outrage at any form of injustice.

As a writer Pinter noticed how political leaders used language. He felt powerful Western governments used words like freedom and democracy to claim their own superiority and manipulate their citizens. Pinter described himself as "deeply engaged in art and deeply engaged in politics." In 2005 he retired from playwriting and devoted himself full-time to activism and poetry.

In 2005 Pinter also won the Nobel Prize in Literature. He received many awards for his work including the French Legion of Honor, Hamburg's Shakespeare Prize, and Vienna's European Prize for Literature. Pinter's death from cancer on December 24, 2008, marked the end of a long, passionate, and influential career. Younger writers like Czech British playwright Tom Stoppard and American playwright David Mamet adopted Pinteresque techniques. Actors around the world continue to perform Pinter's plays.

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