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?"



At 8:40 PM, Blogger Anne-Marie said...

Hi Chris,
It was with sadness that I read of his passing, too. I am not much of an English-language theatre connoisseuse, but I remember Pete Townshend admiring him a lot.
His comment about writing 29 plays reminds me of Who fans who want Pete to keep writing and writing. My own feelings are that he's written so much already and that if he chooses to relax and enjoy his time now, more power to him.

Have a Happy New Year, Chris!

At 7:31 AM, Blogger ahva-rahn said...

He leaves quite a legacy. What a varied and full life he lived. I remember you playing Robert in Betrayal – was that last year or this? Time flies and morphs. You comments on how you played that part were very insightful. You have written this obit tremendously well, Chris. An interesting synopsis of the man – the ultimate short story.

Best wishes to you and Allan for a good year in 2009. In one of your previous posts you spoke about a difficult year ending, and I am glad to see the back of it. To be honest, I am dreading the next, but I am determined to keep my head up.

Be well, be lucky,
Happy New Year,

At 11:14 AM, Blogger VallyP said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 11:55 AM, Blogger VallyP said...

I too feel his loss, Chris. The new greats maybe have yet to emerge, but Harold Pinter was truly one of the greatest literary leaders of the 20th century. As a student of English Lit (as we called it) at university, I had both the privilege and the frustration of studying his work. The problem with studying is that all literature seems to lose its impact and dynamism in the analysis. However, with Pinter, his plays lost none of their searing, crackling and sometimes brutal sharpness, but they did lose a certain freshness after a time, and I would love to read or even better see them performed again now I have the benefit of a few decades break!

I'm impressed that you tackled them, played and directed them as I can imagine his work was very challenging as both an actor and director.

Your obit is really great, and shows a real appreciation of the man. I had no idea he was such a cricket fan! That gives him some extra brownie points in my book already...as if he needed them ;-)

Chris, I hope your new year is a truly good one, and that any past troubles are smoothed out and overcome. All my very very best to you and Allan for 2009.


PS the deleted comment was mine. I realised I'd said I studied him at school, but can't have done...I'm too old...lol...but I definitely read his plays at uni!

At 12:21 PM, Blogger Chris Capp said...

A-M: Yes! Now that you mention it, I remember Mr. T. commenting on his old website when Pinter delivered his Nobel acceptance speech. I wonder if that's still out there on the Web somewhere?

Paul: Thanks so much. It was spring of 2007 that I took on the long-coveted role of Robert, so close to two years ago now. Hard to believe. My postings on that prompted a comment from Mr. Townshend himself, which was a kick for me. I know many are predicting 2009 to be more painful for people than 2008, but I remain hopeful that a breath of Obama air will help lend confidence and stability to things.

Val: You may well have studied his plays in school -- Pinter's first plays were produced
in the late 1950s and early '60s, so he's been curriculum-worthy for a long time! Yes, the cricket love is a surprising touch. Being a lifelong baseball fan [and a weekend player!], I really love that he combined his artistic pursuits with his passion for the sport. Thanks for your sweet wishes, too!

Here's to a wonderful 2009 for all!

At 12:32 AM, Blogger Dan L. said...


Wow...I had thought he passed away so much earlier....so much to see that he had not, on your blog.

Also, I must congratulate you on the vERY FINE post about Pete and Roger you made...Kennedy stuff.


--Dan L.

At 6:07 AM, Blogger Suesjoy said...

hmm...like A-M I am only know of Pinter thanks to PT.
Now I realize I MUST read his work.
Thanks for this insightful post,Chris.
I love your blog...I've missed it.

Happy New Year to you and yours.


At 10:17 AM, Blogger VallyP said...

Thanks for that Chris...now I don't feel quite so ancient..;-) Actually I googled him and saw the list of his plays on Wikipedia, so I realise some of his work was most likely in my school A level reading, as well as at uni. That aside, I'm hoping there will be some Pinter productions in the coming months on the BBC. I have a feeling we could see a celebration of his work worldwide.

At 2:32 PM, Blogger ginab said...

oh, I thought of you rather instantly upon hearing the news. I might have told you this already.

I love your writing.

Pinter liked Beckett a whole lot, which made me like his work even more and more. I'm not confident a line hasn't been cut: from Joyce, to Beckett, to Pinter.

no solace here I suppose from me. Chaplin managed to end his autobiography on the word serenity!



At 8:11 PM, Blogger Metalchick said...

Hi Chris,
I'm sorry to say that I didn't know who Harold Pinter was until now, I guess I'll have to check out his work. But he does seem like he went against the rules and did his own thing.

I read your other posts, and I'm glad that Pete and Roger are getting recognition for their talent. Unfortunately I missed the Kennedy Center Honors, but it does sound ironic that they're being honored by Bush (Is he a fan, or was this for publicity?)

Way to go on protesting the passing of Prop 8! I voted "no" and I can't believe it passed!

Hope you had a good holiday and Happy New Year!

Take care

At 11:23 AM, Blogger E.L. Wisty said...

Hi Chris,

I can understand your sadness, knowing how much Pinter's work meant for you and your personal connection to the plays through your own work in the theatre.

A marvellously written obituary.


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