Nearly every obituary of Harold Pinter, who died Dec. 24, said he was one of the most influential playwrights of the 20th century.
That’s absolutely true, but his influence was like his plays: subtle, radical and with a deep impact.
It’s hard to come up with current playwrights who are Pinteresque: David Mamet and … well, the list of his direct descendants isn’t all that extensive.
But starting with his first full-length play, “The Birthday Party,” in 1958, Pinter created a new style of drama in which the subtext was primary. He understood that people rarely say what they mean. Out went exposition and characters making articulate explanations of ideas/issues. In Pinter’s world, very little is explained. That influence has extended to theater and, arguably, even more to film.
In “The Dark Knight,” the Joker’s maniacal motivation: never explained. The funny-scary characters in movies ranging from “Blue Velvet” to “No Country for Old Men” and “There Will Be Blood”: never explained. John Travolta’s conversation with Samuel L. Jackson in “Pulp Fiction” about the Royale With Cheese: unrelated to the violence that’s about to occur, making the mayhem even more unsettling.
These are Pinteresque touches. He freed writers by saying, “You don’t have to hold the audience’s hand; the dialogue doesn’t have to illuminate the action. You don’t have to clearly define who’s a hero and who’s the villain.”
And he daringly removed the notion of a traditional plot, replacing it with intricate webs of underlying tensions between people. Pinter, like Beckett, severed the reassuring ties between language and intent. For Beckett’s characters, words were tools to fill silence and defend oneself against meaninglessness. In Pinter’s work, however, words are weapons in power struggles.
Before Pinter, writers were always careful to clarify what was driving their characters because audiences wanted to know: Why is he doing that? Why does she hate him so much? In the post-Freudian era of the 1920s-’50s, everything needed to be accounted for.
Tennessee Williams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning 1955 “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” for example, is mostly exposition: The characters parry and argue, but always carefully reveal past events that motivate the current action. That’s true in many works of Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, Terence Rattigan, et al. Even the “angry young man” theater of John Osborne clearly defined his rebel antihero’s actions.
In contrast, Pinter saw drama as an overheard conversation. In a restaurant or on a subway, you can hear two or three people talking, but they never explain their relationships or the subject of their conversation. The burden is on the eavesdropper to figure it out.
In a 1962 speech at a drama festival in Bristol, England, Pinter said language “is a highly ambiguous business. So often, below the word spoken, is the thing known and unspoken. My characters tell me so much and no more, with reference to their experience, their aspirations, their motives, their history.”
In his 1964 screenplay for “The Pumpkin Eater,” Jo (Anne Bancroft) is sitting at a beauty parlor and the woman next to her strikes up a conversation, full of compliments and cheer. But the stranger becomes suddenly demanding, saying her life is an empty place. “What are you going to do about it?”
The woman is never seen again, but that’s the world we live in, full of inexplicable hostility. Pinter borrowed Kafka’s sense of pervasive paranoia and Beckett’s bleakness, but put them in benign English settings: a drawing room, a boarding house, a hospital room. And he added humor.
In Pinter’s 1971 “Old Times,” Deeley and Kate are visited by Kate’s old friend Anna. Their amiable reminisces begin to contradict each other, and the three enact a genteel power struggle, but power over what?
The Royal Shakespeare Company production of that play seemed definitive, but then Pinter himself played Deeley in Los Angeles in 1985 and added so much humor to the character (and the play) that the ending became even more poignant and unsettling.
As Kate bathes, Deeley tells Anna that she “gives herself a great soaping all over” but is “totally incompetent” at drying herself. “You’ll always find a few odd unexpected unwanted cheeky globules dripping about.”
Pinter managed to get big laughs as he conveyed urgency and tension in those few words.
Pinter’s later plays became more overtly political and less entertaining. But even with the earlier plays — “The Caretaker,” “The Homecoming,” “No Man’s Land” — many audience members were perplexed or irritated. All of the plays required major adjustments from his audience, who wanted to be told exactly what they were watching. Pinter politely refused.
In his Bristol address, he said we have been brought up to believe in a last-act resolution, but he found that style of writing to be “facile, impertinent and dishonest.” But, he added, “No statement I make should be interpreted as final and definitive.”
That was Pinter: For 50 years, he wrote about people who were living in a state of unease, battling undefined fears and strangers who are threatening and unsettling.
He started this decades ago, but clearly the world has caught up with him, and modern life — when nothing seems final and definitive — has become Pinteresque.
David Benedict in London and Gordon Cox in New York contributed to this report.