Harold Pinter's curtain call
December 25, 2008 6:11 AM   Subscribe

Harold Pinter has died, the BBC reports If you don't know about him it is worth getting acquainted. This is a sad day for literature, but at least he had a good innings.
posted by The Salaryman (53 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
From Synecdoche, New York:

Harold Pinter died!


Oh wait. No, he didn't. He won the Nobel Prize. Good for him.


I remember being moved and inspired by The Homecoming in high school. Rest in piece.

posted by suedehead at 6:24 AM on December 25, 2008 [2 favorites]

PEACE, good god, peace, not in pieces.
posted by suedehead at 6:24 AM on December 25, 2008

perfect, suedehead. oh, that movie was so good.

Pinter's screenplay is the closest I've so far gotten to reading Proust. I know, terrible. But it's not a bad screenplay...

posted by mdn at 6:32 AM on December 25, 2008

Requiem in pace, o great man.
posted by pxe2000 at 6:38 AM on December 25, 2008

Someone who I helped through In Search of Lost Time gave me a copy of Pinter's screenplay of the novel, which Pinter had personally inscribed to me. It's among my most treasured possessions.
posted by OmieWise at 6:43 AM on December 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

True story: a young theatre student became obsessed with "The Birthday Party." He wrote a forty page essay about its "meaning" and thought he'd come up with a brilliant interpretation. He decided to mail his tome to Harold Pinter, and after doing so, he was puzzled as to why he didn't get an immediate, enthusiastic reply. Eventually, he resigned himself to the fact that he'd never hear back. But then, almost a year later, he got a manila envelope in the mail. He opened it and found his essay inside. Scrawled on the front page, written in think magic marker, were the words "Fuck off. -- H.P."
posted by grumblebee at 7:09 AM on December 25, 2008 [18 favorites]


His use of language---no matter how many times I read or see his plays---always astounds me. A true master of theater has died.
posted by Bromius at 7:11 AM on December 25, 2008

posted by Manhasset at 7:13 AM on December 25, 2008

Sad to see him go, but sad to have him hang around and suffering longer. Goodbye to a great man.
posted by ardgedee at 7:13 AM on December 25, 2008


posted by Kinbote at 7:14 AM on December 25, 2008 [3 favorites]

Performed The Birthday Party in highschool drama class with a metronome tick-tocking endlessly in the background. It was revelatory.
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot at 7:19 AM on December 25, 2008

Having directed Pinter plays (Pinter is my favorite 20th-century playwright), one of the things I love is how they present actors and directors (and audiences) with the challenge of interpreting actions without back story.

I mean "actions" in the Stanislavskian sense: trained actors try to always DO something on stage (as opposed to BEING in some state, like saddened or joyfull). Most actors express these actions as infinitive verbs, as in "my action is to seduce" or "my action is to flee." As a director, one of my jobs is to help actors find actions when they're having trouble finding them on their own. If I fail, the actor my play a quality, such as menacing or sexy. If you ever tried to "be sexy" (as opposed to "to seduce"), you'll realize it's hard to do it convincingly.

In most plays, you know (or can guess) why characters are acting the way they are: Jim wants to frighten Old Mrs. Smith BECAUSE he's hoping she'll have a heart attack, die and he'll inherit her fortune. But with Pinter, reasons are usually murky or unknowable. You can try to invent them, but in my experience, that's often confusing and fruitless. So all you know -- or all you can try to work out -- is what they characters are DOING in the moment that they're doing it: their actions. You don't know why they are doing it. (Why are Goldberg and McCann torturing Stanley in "The Birthday Party"?). You just know they are doing it. And as actor, director and audience, you have to commit to they fact that they are doing it without knowing (or caring) why.

The great Pinter actors are able to play actions, gung-ho, without worrying about motivations. Pinter helps by providing incredibly evocative language, great wit, room for improvisation and no answers.
posted by grumblebee at 7:28 AM on December 25, 2008 [3 favorites]

posted by mandal at 7:33 AM on December 25, 2008

Sad to see him go as well. I've always enjoyed his work; oddly, because he wrote so many influential pieces (The Birthday Party, The Homecoming, Old Times) at a relatively early point in his career and I was much less familiar with his later, more recent work (anything post-Betrayal, really), I have always made the mistake of thinking he had passed away in 1983 or something.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:43 AM on December 25, 2008

I hope my Christmas is Pinteresque.

posted by meerkatty at 7:49 AM on December 25, 2008


posted by EarBucket at 7:52 AM on December 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


posted by Happy Dave at 7:54 AM on December 25, 2008

The End: Act I, scene i. Still, literature lives in the present tense.
posted by woodway at 7:58 AM on December 25, 2008







posted by sonic meat machine at 8:19 AM on December 25, 2008

posted by Smart Dalek at 8:40 AM on December 25, 2008

posted by Rykey at 8:46 AM on December 25, 2008

Oh no!

posted by desuetude at 8:46 AM on December 25, 2008

posted by brujita at 9:29 AM on December 25, 2008

The Birthday Party made me squirm uncomfortably when I first read it. That was a good thing.

And now he's dead. Well, dammit.

posted by droplet at 9:38 AM on December 25, 2008

posted by jonp72 at 9:41 AM on December 25, 2008

posted by Iridic at 9:43 AM on December 25, 2008

posted by Quidam at 10:18 AM on December 25, 2008

From Wikipedia:

The Birthday Party (1957), Pinter's second play and among his best-known, was initially both a commercial and critical disaster, despite a rave review in the Sunday Times by its influential drama critic Harold Hobson, which appeared only after the production had closed and could not be reprieved (Hobson, "The Screw Turns Again").[18] Critical accounts often quote Hobson's prophetic words:

One of the actors in Harold Pinter[']s The Birthday Party at the Lyric, Hammersmith, announces in the programme that he read History at Oxford, and took his degree with Fourth Class Honours. Now I am well aware that Mr Pinter[']s play received extremely bad notices last Tuesday morning. At the moment I write these it is uncertain even whether the play will still be in the bill by the time they appear, though it is probable it will soon be seen elsewhere. Deliberately, I am willing to risk whatever reputation I have as a judge of plays by saying that The Birthday Party is not a Fourth, not even a Second, but a First; and that Pinter, on the evidence of his work, possesses the most original, disturbing and arresting talent in theatrical London.… Mr Pinter and The Birthday Party, despite their experiences last week, will be heard of again. Make a note of their names.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 10:19 AM on December 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

Poignant .
posted by Artw at 11:01 AM on December 25, 2008

I'm going to dedicated all this Christmases uncomfortable family interactions to him.
posted by Artw at 11:17 AM on December 25, 2008 [2 favorites]

Pinter's 2005 Nobel Lecture, Art, Truth & Politics is online. Wikipedia entry.
posted by twoleftfeet at 12:12 PM on December 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

I was motivated to find out more about Pinter while watching MST3K years ago, when Crow yelled out "This thing is moving slower than a Pinter play." Always did hate missing their references.

posted by Pater Aletheias at 12:20 PM on December 25, 2008

A great man, a courageous man, and a great spirit.

I was glad to see him get a Nobel, but really, the Prize gained far more prestige from that than Pinter did.
posted by jamjam at 12:20 PM on December 25, 2008

posted by MythMaker at 12:27 PM on December 25, 2008

Yes, I think the "minute of silence" remembrance technique will never be more appropriate than in his case.

What a loss to the theatre.

posted by ilana at 12:33 PM on December 25, 2008

A courageous & restless man(mind). He dove all the way in; the way that only a true handful ever do.
posted by vurnt22 at 12:40 PM on December 25, 2008

Sad that he is gone. The Birthday Party is as relevant now as it was during the Cold War. Strangers with no apparent office or authority invade our lives to begin a process of hostile interrogation. When the curtain comes down we don't know if these cold men of determination dispensed justice, captured a political prisoner of conscience, or committed a criminal act of kidnapping.

Also, my heart jumped into my throat several times while just reading Betrayal. Normally the dramatic tension is decreased when the the worst possible outcome is made real on stage: even as we shrink in horror, we sigh in relief, and secretly thrill that the worst has come to pass and the uncertainty is over. Pinter created moments of pathos that increased our unease, instead of letting us off the hook.
posted by sol at 12:59 PM on December 25, 2008

. . .

The Times Obituary

2006 Interview: I've written 29 damn plays, isn't that enough?

From his Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech

A writer's life is a highly vulnerable, almost naked activity. We don't have to weep about that. The writer makes his choice and is stuck with it. But it is true to say that you are open to all the winds, some of them icy indeed. You are out on your own, out on a limb. You find no shelter, no protection - unless you lie - in which case of course you have constructed your own protection and, it could be argued, become a politician.

I have referred to death quite a few times this evening. I shall now quote a poem of my own called 'Death'.

Where was the dead body found?
Who found the dead body?
Was the dead body dead when found?
How was the dead body found?

Who was the dead body?

Who was the father or daughter or brother
Or uncle or sister or mother or son
Of the dead and abandoned body?

Was the body dead when abandoned?
Was the body abandoned?
By whom had it been abandoned?

Was the dead body naked or dressed for a journey?

What made you declare the dead body dead?
Did you declare the dead body dead?
How well did you know the dead body?
How did you know the dead body was dead?

Did you wash the dead body
Did you close both its eyes
Did you bury the body
Did you leave it abandoned
Did you kiss the dead body

When we look into a mirror we think the image that confronts us is accurate. But move a millimetre and the image changes. We are actually looking at a never-ending range of reflections. But sometimes a writer has to smash the mirror - for it is on the other side of that mirror that the truth stares at us.

I believe that despite the enormous odds which exist, unflinching, unswerving, fierce intellectual determination, as citizens, to define the real truth of our lives and our societies is a crucial obligation which devolves upon us all. It is in fact mandatory.

If such a determination is not embodied in our political vision we have no hope of restoring what is so nearly lost to us - the dignity of man.

posted by Rumple at 1:16 PM on December 25, 2008

Daily Telegraph obituary:

On one occasion when the playwright was inveighing against the world at a dinner party his wife attempted to placate him with a Chinese proverb: “If you sit by the river long enough, the bodies of your enemies come floating by.”

“Not good enough,” Pinter responded, “I want to be the one who pushed them in.”

posted by Rumple at 1:25 PM on December 25, 2008 [2 favorites]

posted by Wolof at 2:37 PM on December 25, 2008

Ambivalence on hearing this news seems entirely appropriate. I'm not going to miss the member of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign, the International Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic, the 20 June Group, etc., but I mourn the passing of the author of The Birthday Party, The Homecoming, Betrayal, No-Man's Land, et al.
posted by Doktor Zed at 2:50 PM on December 25, 2008

posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 4:06 PM on December 25, 2008

I read "The Last Tycoon" and liked it very much. However, the novel was unfinished at F. Scott Fitzgerald's death, and the notes for how it was going to end did not sound promising. I was curious to watch the movie. For the screenplay, Pinter not only did a wonderful job of adapting the novel, he came up with a satisfying ending. Even with the change, you sensed his respect for the author. He was a very good screenwriter. And the movie is underrated.
posted by acrasis at 4:15 PM on December 25, 2008

[Exeunt Harold Pinter.]

posted by crossoverman at 4:35 PM on December 25, 2008

posted by gomichild at 4:49 PM on December 25, 2008

posted by orthogonality at 5:18 PM on December 25, 2008

"I won't be silenced..." August 2001 interview with Pinter on his works and politics.
posted by Fizz at 6:46 PM on December 25, 2008

I have nothing to say, and maybe that's appropriate.

posted by Football Bat at 7:49 PM on December 25, 2008

. .
posted by Joey Michaels at 9:43 PM on December 25, 2008

Harold Pinter was also a poet.

Goodbye, Harold.
posted by ersatz at 7:31 AM on December 26, 2008

I will never forget the moment I finished the Homecoming. So much of the everyday content of human interaction - mindless aggression, banal coldness, and self-serving abuse had just been extruded to its maximum possible point - and once I saw that point, I could never innocently participate in it again, while also knowing that I would participate in it again. Just not innocently. Harold Pinter made me know my own callousness, and thus made me want to change it. He also made me run to the library to check out everything he's ever written.

This is a big loss for literature, of a man who was still fighting spiritual and moral fights that many authors seem to consider old-fashioned or irrelevant.
posted by goldfinches at 10:00 AM on December 26, 2008

Wow. My friend recruited me to be in her scene for a directing class—the classic "glass of water" exchange from The Homecoming. Even with a ten-minute excerpt, the dialogue was incredibly challenging for reasons I never quite understood, having never read Pinter. Since then, I've always wanted to delve into his work but never found the time. I have no excuse now.

posted by Menomena at 10:36 AM on December 26, 2008

at a dinner party in Turkey
posted by hortense at 9:36 AM on January 6, 2009

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