Harold Pinter, CH, CBE (10 October 1930 – 24 December 2008) was a Nobel Prize-winning English playwright, screenwriter, director and actor. One of the most influential modern British dramatists, his writing career spanned more than 50 years. His best-known plays include The Birthday Party (1957), The Homecoming (1964), and Betrayal (1978), each of which he adapted for the screen. His screenplay adaptations of others’ works include The Servant (1963), The Go-Between (1970), The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981), The Trial (1993), and Sleuth (2007). He also directed or acted in radio, stage, television, and film productions of his own and others’ works.
Pinter was born and raised in Hackney, east London, and educated at Hackney Downs School. He was a sprinter and a keen cricket player, acting in school plays and writing poetry. He attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art but did not complete the course. He was fined for refusing National Service as a conscientious objector. Subsequently, he continued training at the Central School of Speech and Drama and worked in repertory theatre in Ireland and England. In 1956 he married actress Vivien Merchant and had a son, Daniel born in 1958. He left Merchant in 1975 and married author Lady Antonia Fraser in 1980.
Pinter’s career as a playwright began with a production of The Room in 1957. His second play, The Birthday Party, closed after eight performances, but was enthusiastically reviewed by criticHarold Hobson. His early works were described by critics as “comedy of menace”. Later plays such as No Man’s Land (1975) and Betrayal (1978) became known as “memory plays”. He appeared as an actor in productions of his own work on radio and film. He also undertook a number of roles in works by other writers. He directed nearly 50 productions for stage, theatre and screen. Pinter received over 50 awards, prizes, and other honours, including the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2005 and the French Légion d’honneur in 2007.
Despite frail health after being diagnosed with oesophageal cancer in December 2001, Pinter continued to act on stage and screen, last performing the title role of Samuel Beckett’s one-act monologue Krapp’s Last Tape, for the 50th anniversary season of the Royal Court Theatre, in October 2006. He died from liver cancer on 24 December 2008.
Pinter was born on 10 October 1930, in Hackney, east London, as the only child of lower middle class English parents of Jewish Eastern European ancestry: his father, Jack Pinter (1902-1997) was a ladies’ tailor; his mother, Frances (née Moskowitz; 1904-1992), a housewife. Pinter believed an aunt’s erroneous view that the family was Sephardic and had fled the Spanish Inquisition; thus, for his early poems, Pinter used the pseudonym Pinta and at other times used variations such as da Pinto. Later research by Lady Antonia Fraser, Pinter’s second wife, revealed the legend to be apocryphal; three of Pinter’s grandparents came from Poland and the fourth from Odessa, so the family wasAshkenazic.
Pinter’s family home in London is described by his official biographer Michael Billington as “a solid, red-brick, three-storey villa just off the noisy, bustling, traffic-ridden thoroughfare of the Lower Clapton Road”. In 1940 and 1941, afterthe Blitz, Pinter was evacuated from their house in London to Cornwall and Reading. Billington states that the “life-and-death intensity of daily experience” before and during the Blitz left Pinter with profound memories “of loneliness, bewilderment, separation and loss: themes that are in all his works.”
Pinter discovered his social potential as a student at Hackney Downs School, a London grammar school, between 1944 and 1948. “Partly through the school and partly through the social life of Hackney Boys’ Club … he formed an almost sacerdotal belief in the power of male friendship. The friends he made in those days—most particularly Henry Woolf, Michael (Mick) Goldstein and Morris (Moishe) Wernick—have always been a vital part of the emotional texture of his life.” A major influence on Pinter was his inspirational English teacher Joseph Brearley, who directed him in school plays and with whom he took long walks, talking about literature. According to Billington, under Brearley’s instruction, “Pinter shone at English, wrote for the school magazine and discovered a gift for acting.” In 1947 and 1948, he played Romeo and Macbeth in productions directed by Brearley.
At the age of 12, Pinter began writing poetry, and in spring 1947, his poetry was first published in the Hackney Downs School Magazine. In 1950, his poetry was first published outside of the school magazine in Poetry London, some of it under the pseudonym “Harold Pinta”.