Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Homecoming

On Christmas day, at my sister's house in snowy New Hamphire, I logged onto the Internet in the late morning, only to discover that actor/playwright/poet/activist Harold Pinter had died on Christmas Eve following a long illness. I'd never met the man, but having worked on his deliciously mysterious and rich plays -- as both a director and an actor -- I had gone through periods of obsession with his life and work, which led me to feel great sadness at his passing. He was a titan. A towering literary figure who remade the landscape of what we consider theatrical. As esteemed British playwright David Hare said on Christmas, "Yesterday we all knew who the greatest living British dramatist was. Today we don't."

Pinter was certainly a complicated man. His personal life was not always pleasant, and a son from his first marriage -- his only child -- was estranged for years and right up to his death. Pinter's plays could be brutal, and he could be withering in his dismissal of others. On the other hand, his lifelong love of cricket betrayed a playful side that could easily be overlooked by simply examining the subject matter of his plays. I like the photo here -- taken of the writer in his London study in 2007 -- because the prominent painting of him in full cricket gear reveals the importance the sport had in his life.

In Pinter's work, everyday relationships are battles. The stakes are high and often the cause of conflict remains unknown. He was brave enough to put life and behavior on stage with little or no explanation, sometimes leaving critics and audiences angry and confused. But rarely bored. Early in his career, when asked what his work was about, he mischievously replied, "the weasel behind the cocktail cabinet." What was meant as a ridiculous red herring was often taken as gospel, with Pinter later joking that he shuddered to see the quotation repeated in academic articles written about him.

For my money, Mr. Pinter was a true original -- a term that gets thrown around with too much ease these days. Nobody wrote like him, though thousands tried. His literary voice is unmistakable. His mixture of black humor and brutality speak to the complexities of human relationships and, I believe, call us to be better than we typically are. In recent years his plays have enjoyed a robust renaissance both in New York and London, with major productions of The Homecoming, Betrayal, The Hothouse, The Room and No Man's Land lighting up stages on both sides of the Atlantic. I hope to have the chance to work on more of his plays in the future. They are endlessly fascinating, challenging, puzzling and gratifying.

When asked in recent years if he thought he would write any more plays, Pinter famously declared, "I've written 29 damn plays. Isn't that enough?"