Harold Pinter, who has died at the age of 78, was the most influential, provocative and poetic dramatist of his generation. He enjoyed parallel careers as actor, screenwriter and director and was also, especially in recent years, a vigorous political polemicist campaigning against abuses of human rights. But it is for his plays that he will be best remembered and for his ability to create dramatic poetry out of everyday speech. Among the dramatists of the last century, Beckett is his only serious rival in terms of theatrical influence; and it is a measure of Pinter's power that early on in his career he spawned the adjective "Pinteresque" suggesting a cryptically mysterious situation imbued with hidden menace.'A poet's ear for language and a flawless sense of dramatic rhythm'
Michael Billington reflects on the life and work of Harold Pinter and his immense contribution to the world of drama
The death of Harold Pinter comes as a great shock. We all knew, of course, that he had endured a succession of illnesses ever since 2000. But there was a physical toughness and tenacity of will about Harold that made us all believe he would survive for a few more years yet. Sadly, it was not to be.
My own memories of Harold, and it's hard to think of him in more formal terms, are entirely happy. We'd had a relatively distant professional relationship for many years. I'd reviewed his plays, sometimes favourably, sometimes not. (I made a spectacular ass of myself over the original production of Betrayal.) Then in 1992 I was approached by Faber and Faber to write a book about him. What was intended as a short book about his plays and politics turned, thanks to his openness, into a full-scale biography. I talked to Harold himself at great length, to his friends and colleagues. And what I discovered was that his plays, so often dubbed enigmatic and mysterious, were nearly all spun out of memories of his own experience. If they connected with audiences the world over, it was because he understood the insecurity of human life and the sense that it was often based on psychological and territorial battles.
Pinter's contribution to drama was immense. He had a poet's ear for language, an almost flawless sense of dramatic rhythm and the ability to distil the conflicts of daily life. I believe his plays, from The Room in 1957 to Celebration in 2000, will endure wind and weather. Indeed many of them already, such as The Birthday Party, The Homeconming and No Man's Land, have the status of modern classics. Pinter was also, of course, a highly political animal, as evidenced by his later plays, his crusading articles and speeches and his famous Nobel Lecture which brilliantly skewered the lies surrounding US foreign policy.
But, just a few hours after learning of his death, what I chiefly remember is the generosity of the man himself. Harold had a great talent for friendship, as the next few days will surely testify. He also had a remarkable sense of loyalty. Eight weeks ago I directed a group of LAMDA students in a triple-bill of Party Time, Celebration and the Nobel Lecture. At the time, Harold was extremely ill. But he had promised to come and see the productions and, on the fina
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Harold Pinter entered our cultural bloodstream years ago. People who have never seen a play of his describe unsettling domestic events or silences laden with threat as "Pinteresque". He has become adjectival, part of who and what we are.
What I am is a child of the late 1950s who grew up in west Dorset knowing as much about theatre as I did about insect life in Samoa. There were no theatres within reasonable distance – at least ones that presented plays – so by the age of 18 I had seen only two professional productions: Hamlet at the Bristol Old Vic and Much Ado About Nothing at Stratford. Then I saw The Caretaker and I felt something like Berlioz encountering Shakespeare -"coming on me unawares, [he] struck me like a thunderbolt", to which he added "and at this time of my life I neither spoke nor understood a word of English".
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Leading figures from the worlds of theatre and the arts offered their own tributes to Harold Pinter yesterday, describing him as "the last great playwright", an inspirational hero and a dear friend who had inspired successive generations of dramatists and producers.
"Yesterday when you talked about Britain's greatest living playwright, everyone knew who you meant," the playwright David Hare told the Guardian. "Today they don't. That's all I can say."