In Memoriam: Harold Pinter

Virtually unique in his capacity to create avant-garde masterpieces that have been highly successful in commercial productions, Pinter’s influence on postwar British playwrights remains unrivaled.

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The death of Harold Pinter on 24 December 2008 after a long battle with throat cancer is an incalculable loss to the worlds of literature and theatre, as well as to the political arena in which he had for two decades been both admired for his honesty and courage and ridiculed for the intensity of his passion. The Centre was privileged by Harold Pinter’s presence as guest of honour at its formal inauguration in 2003. The kindness spoken of by those who know him personally was very much in evidence on that occasion as was his courage in making an impromptu speech in which he spoke with grace, wit and remarkable honesty about his gratitude at being spared for the occasion.

Having been awarded an honorary doctorate by Goldsmiths in 2001, he visited the College on a number of occasions, always tempering his passionate commitment to political causes with generosity and good humour towards the students with whom he came into contact. Pinter’s last visit to Goldsmiths was in February 2005, when he was in conversation with Blake Morrison, reading from his work and answering questions from a packed hall of students and staff. His death prompted obituaries that were predictable not only in their celebration of his originality and significance as the most important postwar British dramatist, but in some cases in their simplistic denigration of his later plays as moralistic political propaganda. Among genuine scholars of his work, however, his late play Ashes to Ashes (1996) quickly established its reputation as a masterpiece, the simplicity of whose theatrical structure is in inverse proportion to its linguistic complexity. From The Room (1957) to Press Conference (2005) Pinter was continuously innovative in his use of theatrical form, while his work remained remarkably consistent in its ethical and epistemological concerns.

Whether, as in the eighties and nineties, concerned with the state abuse of power, or with the micro-politics of human relations that form the key motif in his work until 1982, the majority of Pinter’s plays anatomise both the brute reality and the language of power, so that there is no real contradiction between his early - apparently apolitical – drama and the more explicit politics of the later work. The interweaving of popular cultural forms such as forties film noir and stage thrillers with the modernist motifs that reflect Pinter’s admiration of Kafka and Beckett, produces a suspenseful drama of interrogation, evasion and silence that exposes a crisis of subjectivity at the core of human identity.