Harold Pinter: 1930-2008

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Harold Pinter was the greatest writer of dramatic English we had. He wrote mouth-filling meals for actors, where what you want is who you are, and what you say to get it is provoked by what was said to you only a second earlier. I got to say his words on stage, screen and radio, and I count myself lucky.

His first full-length play, The Birthday Party, contains what Pinter came to think was the most important line he ever wrote: "Stan, don't let them tell you what to do." At 18 he had become a conscientious objector - a decision which marked him as a non-conformist for life. But Pinter's work isn't just dry, agit-prop drama of resistance.

There is also what Michael Billington calls "a yearning for some lost Eden". There is a hinterland to Pinterland. I've just finished a run of T S Eliot's The Family Reunion, which Harold was due to see the week he died. Eliot's frustration with language in Burnt Norton - "Words strain,/Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,/Under the tension" - could have been written for Pinter. And like Eliot, he has a fecund relationship with his own unconscious.

Much is made of Harold's mystery, as if he guarded the meaning of his plays like a jealous wizard. But something stranger is going on. The characters turn up; they want to speak, and he lets them speak. He said of the first line of The Homecoming, "What have you done with the scissors?", that it "came right out of the blue into my head, followed by an image, followed by me". In Betrayal, which I was in recently, one of the characters is haunted by the memory of a child being tossed up and caught again in a kitchen. It is Pinter's own memory, and it encapsulates perfectly the exhilaration and fear we feel when hurtling through his atmospheric unconscious.

It is sometimes said in this country, that like Woody Allen and the "early funny stuff", Pinter's first full-length plays are the real deal, and the later, shorter political pieces don't cut it. But Harold's work has always been political. From the interrogation of Stanley in The Birthday Party and the baiting of Davies in The Caretaker, he understood our capacity for cruelty, our need to dominate, our use of language, memory and silence as weapons.

By the 1980s his plays were only one act, but they still pack a punch. In the 20-minute Mountain Language, a relentless account of the muzzling of an entire people, a guard harangues a woman: "Your language is forbidden. It is dead. No one is allowed to speak your language. Your language no longer exists. Any questions?"

In countries where forced silence is a way of life the later short plays are more often revived. But even here, like in Ellie Jones's brilliant 2007 montage of short Pinter's plays, they can knock you sideways.

As a screenwriter of 26 films Pinter became world famous - nominated for two Oscars, part of a literate mainstream we now lack. David Hare summed up their themes: "adultery, violence, alcohol, class and sex". I was in one, Reunion, the story of a Jewish boy and an aristocrat who become friends in 1930s Germany. When the aristocrat expresses a liking for Hitler, the friendship ends. Only in 1988 does the Jew return to Germany to find out what happened to his friend, to discover that he was implicated in the plot to kill Hitler and executed. For Pinter, brought up in the fascist-fighting East End bartering bits of Webster with his fast Hackney gang, the marriage of childhood loyalty and resistance to authority was perfect; the screenplay is a little gem.

In 2005 Pinter won the Nobel Prize in Literature; the committee cited how he "uncovers the precipice under everyday prattle and forces entry into oppression's closed rooms". He was too unwell to travel to Stockholm, but he recorded the lecture, and it emerged as one of the most powerful and sustained diatribes against injustice ever filmed. In a voice hoarse from illness, he told us, "The invasion of Iraq was a bandit act, an act of blatant state terrorism, demonstrating absolute contempt for the concept of international law." The Nobel Lecture was totally ignored by the BBC.

My last real memory of him was doing The Homecoming on radio, playing Lenny to his Max. He landed in the studio like a cross planet, scowling at the microphone; we orbited him nervously. The play was in his bones, the north London language bitten off in chunks. He was a brilliantly dangerous actor, a supportive director, a fanatical cricketer (the perfect blend of solidarity and antagonism - a team game built around a personal war) and a playwright of true power. He had a righteous anger second to none, and he used it. That passion is rare and useful, and I will miss it, and him, terribly.


Sam West is an actor and theatre director