Literary Laureate

October 13, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


EMILY REUBEN: Harold Pinter has been writing for 50 years, authored 29 plays and more than a dozen screen plays. His voice cracked from a long struggle with cancer of the esophagus, the man who’s made his life from words, for once had few to say.

HAROLD PINTER: I’m speechless. And I’ll remain speechless. But I’ll have to stop being speechless when I get to Stockholm apparently because I have to make a speech, which is going to take a great deal of thought on my part.

ACTOR: I’m talking to you! Where is –

EMILY REUBEN: His early plays like “The Homecoming” were initially shocking. Today, the Nobel Prize judges praised him for restoring theater to its basic elements.

When it first opened, “The Birthday Party” closed after just four days. Yet by the time of this television version, his mastery of minimal language yet dense emotion won Pinter huge audiences.

ACTOR: You read that — yesterday.

ACTOR: Well, I haven’t finished this one yet.

DAVID HARE, Playwright: He’s unusual among British playwrights in that there was this extraordinary decade in which not only he wrote “The Birthday Party,” he wrote “The Homecoming,” and he wrote “The Caretaker,” but at the same time he was writing two of the most perfect screenplays, you know, for Joseph Losey’s film, of “The Servant,” an accident, and it’s hard to think of anyone actually that you can say is equally adept in both media, and he managed to do all that in the space of ten years. It’s a most extraordinary, phenomenal output at that period.

EMILY REUBEN: And Harold Pinter is a huge figure on the political stage too. Campaigning for years against war, most recently the campaign in Iraq.

HAROLD PINTER: The United States is a monster out of control.

EMILY REUBEN: He has always been incredibly involved in his art, acting here in “The One for the Road.” The themes of his plays sometimes curious as his private life, one work, “The Betrayal” thought to be based on an affair with the broadcaster Joan Bakewell.

Tonight Harold Pinter’s said to be drinking champagne with his wife and friends, the biggest prize in literature won just two days after his 75th birthday.

JIM LEHRER: And to Jeffrey Brown.

JEFFREY BROWN: Harold Pinter is the rare writer whose very name has entered the language in the form of the adjective “Pinteresque.”

Joining me to explain that and discuss Pinter’s work is Ben Brantley, chief theater critic for the New York Times.

So Ben Brantley, for those who may not have seen a Pinter play, what makes it “Pinteresque?”

BEN BRANTLEY: I think Pinter’s own phrase is “comedy of menace;” there’s a sense that something unspecified often but very dangerous is lurking. Pinter once used the phrase “the weasel under the cocktail cabinet,” but that sense of danger I think is also located in the people. There’s always a sense of struggle for power within Pinter and also a struggle to define themselves against the anxieties of this strange world through which they float.

It’s given voice not only in the repetition of simple words, which acquire different weights as the plays go on, but also in the silences in Pinter’s trademark pauses.

JEFFREY BROWN: Speaking of the silences, I was reading his play “the Homecoming” today, and it is striking how often the word “pause” is written into the directions in the play.

BEN BRANTLEY: He once said he regretted having ever introduced pause into the stage directions, that he thought it made people self-conscious, but it’s certainly essential and it’s hard for actors to get it right. I think it’s rare, especially in this country, that you see an ideally-produced Pinter play.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, let’s hear some of that Pinter dialogue. We have a short clip from the film version of his play “Betrayal.” Here’s Jeremy Irons and Ben Kingsley as two parts of a love triangle.

ACTOR ONE: It’s good of you to come. ACTOR TWO: Not at all. ACTOR ONE: Please sit down. ACTOR TWO: Well, I might, yes, in a minute. ACTOR ONE: Julie’s at the hospital on night duty. ACTOR TWO: Ah. Speak. ACTOR ONE: Yes. ACTOR TWO: You look quite rough. What’s the trouble? It’s not about you and Anne Marie, is it? I know all about that. ACTOR ONE: Yes, so I’ve been told. ACTOR TWO: Ah. Well, it’s not very important, it is? ACTOR ONE: It is important. ACTOR TWO: Really? Why?

JEFFREY BROWN: So in those silence and pauses, a lot of meaning is conveyed.

BEN BRANTLEY: Oh, yes. You can actually hear the wheels of power shifting, the balance of power moving sort of tectonically from one man to another within as each wonders what does the other know.

JEFFREY BROWN: What were Pinter’s influences? Where did he come out of?

BEN BRANTLEY: Well, I think he’s very much the fullest grown child of Samuel Beckett, who created — didn’t create but probably was the great English and French-speaking practitioner of the Theater of the Absurd.

As in Pinter in Beckett you have a sense of man at odds with the universe. The difference is that Pinter takes it from the sort of abstract cosmic settings or metaphoric or poetic settings and puts it in everyday life, so that kind of cosmic fear becomes a part of daily existence. It’s doubly scary.

JEFFREY BROWN: And in turn, what were — how did he influence writers of his generation and those of the next generation?

BEN BRANTLEY: I think so many playwrights today — I was on — I was in London for a few weeks to see plays a year ago, and I was amazed. They were reviving “Betrayal” at that time. And I was amazed how many playwrights, and playwrights you don’t think of at all as being at all “Pinteresque” like Michael Frayn, who wrote “Democracy,” and “Noises Off,” and “Copenhagen,” a verbose playwright, were nonetheless shaped by that landscape of ambiguity that Pinter created, the sense that we can’t really know another person and in fact we can’t really know ourselves.

David Mamet in the states I think certainly has picked up on the more wrathish elements of Pinter dialogue and the way people use words as weapons to get at one another.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about Pinter the man as we saw in the setup? He’s become a very outspoken figure in politics.

BEN BRANTLEY: He has indeed. I think — and he said this too — that his plays in a sense were always political, and they were about one person trying to assert or battle a struggle for dominance. I think he wound up translating that more and more specifically into plays like “One for the Road,” in which I saw him portray an interrogator from a totalitarian regime. Harold Pinter doing Harold Pinter menace is something to witness.

JEFFREY BROWN: So when you think about his legacy, is it in terms of the writing, is it in terms of the themes? How do you define it?

BEN BRANTLEY: I think many people have addressed the same themes that Harold Pinter has, but what’s so extraordinary about him is the way he translated those themes into the form.

I can’t see a Pinter play if it’s even passably well-acted without leaving and finding that I’ve been infected by it, that the rhythms of my thought are the rhythms of Pinter, often for three hours or even a day later.

He expresses anxiety and not just individual anxiety or personal anxiety but a social anxiety I think we all share in the 21st Century through his very rhythms of language and what people say and particularly what people don’t say.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you have a favorite Pinter play, one that you’d direct people to?

BEN BRANTLEY: Oh, I love “The Homecoming” in which a wife is introduced into a clan of men, and little by little let’s say insinuates her way into their lives.

The shifts in power in is that and sort of the feeding of power by the old men, as strange and I think objectionable, a lot of people found it when it first came out in its sexuality, as strange as all that, is I think anyone who goes home after a long period away will identify with it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Okay, Ben Brantley, of the New York Times, thanks very much.

BEN BRANTLEY: Thank you.