Harold Pinter was an author who gave you pause. And I’m not just talking about the meaningful silences he inserted into so many of his stage directions for dialogue, the better to mimic the ebb and flow of real-world conversation. I’m talking about the legacy Pinter leaves as one of the most challenging — and dare I say it? — offputtingly difficult playwrights to embrace.
Pinter’s importance and influence can’t be underestimated. He revolutionized 20th century theater in innumerable ways. His characters were often working-class figures (unlike the effete Noel Coward fops who dominated London stages when Pinter got his start in the 1950s), and they spoke in blunt, everyday idioms, with a liberal dose of obscenity. (You’re welcome, David Mamet.) His mix of realism and absurdism, though similar to Samuel Beckett’s, paved a path for Edward Albee. He built scenes of explosive violence from the most banal, everyday situations, inserting a sense of foreboding into the ordinary. (Sam Shepard and Martin McDonagh apparently took note.) He could play with story structure and fracture the time frame of his works (as in Betrayal, which depicted an adulterous love affair chronologically backwards) in ways that prefigured Quentin Tarantino and others.
It’s no wonder that the Swedes bestowed upon him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005. And it’s no surprise that this life-long liberal activist took the occasion of his Nobel acceptance speech to deliver a blistering screed against George W. Bush and Tony Blair for the war in Iraq (because he was too ill from the cancer that later claimed his life, he delivered his speech via videotape).
But none of these accomplishments made Pinter particularly accessible or popular, even as he worked in more commercial media like film. (He picked up two Oscar nominations, for his adaptations of John Fowles’ novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman in 1982 and his own play Betrayal in 1984.) Pinter’s work was so nuanced, so built on subtext, that it could be a challenge for both performers and audiences alike.
Last week, just days before the news of his death was announced, I caught his 2007 version of Sleuth on TV. The classic 1972 movie starred Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine in a game-filled duel between a successful author (Olivier) and his wife’s young lover (Caine). The new version, in which Caine takes the Olivier role and Jude Law plays the younger man, is not so much a remake as a complete reimagining by Pinter. He maintains the basic plot structure and perhaps a few lines of dialogue, but the result is both tauter and twistier. Like much of Pinter’s best work, Sleuth seems to revel in discomfiting suspense, verbal gamesmanship, and the almost sexual charge of power struggles.
What are your own thoughts about Pinter and his legacy?