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Harold Pinter is one of the most acclaimed contemporary British playwrights, noted particularly for his early body of work. He was born in the working-class neighborhood of East London's Hackney (an ironic name for such an original writer) in 1930, the son of a Jewish tailor. He evacuated to Cornwall, England, at the outbreak of World War II in 1939, and returned to London when he was 14. He began acting in plays at his grammar school, and later received a grant to study at London's prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. He left the school after two years, and spent most of the 1950s writing his published poetry (under the name Harold Pinter) and acting in small theater productions (often under the pseudonym David Baron). In 1957, he wrote his first play in four days, The Room, a sign of the prolific output to come. His first produced play—The Birthday Party—came a year later. The reception was unfavorable—it closed within a week—but Pinter's next full-length play, The Caretaker (1960), won more accolades.
The Dumb Waiter, also staged in 1960, helped cement Pinter's status as a major theatrical figure. He frequently directed, and sometimes acted in, his growing body of work in the 1960s and 1970s, while disseminating his work into radio, television, and film. After 1978's Betrayal, Pinter did not write another full-length play until 1994, but he continued writing shorter plays and adapting the work of others for the stage and screen. A conscientious objector of war when he was eighteen (for which he was fined by the Royal Academy), Pinter was motivated to be more political—both in his works and in his public life. He was particularly distressed by the dictatorial coup that overthrew Chilean President Salvador Allende in 1973. He has since become an outspoken advocate of human rights, and has criticized the Gulf War bombings and other military actions. His actions are not without controversy or contradiction—he attacked the NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999, and in 2001 joined The International Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic, the former Serbian president arrested by the United Nations for crimes against humanity.
Pinter's plays generally take place in a single, prison-like room. His works, which blend comedy and drama, often focus on jealousy, betrayal, and sexual politics, but it is his dialogue—and the lack of dialogue—for which he is known. Pinter's language, usually lower-class vernacular, has been described as poetic. His compressed, rhythmic lines rely heavily on subtext and hint at darker meanings. Just as important, however, are the silences in his plays. Pinter has spoken much on the subject, and has categorized speech as that which attempts to cover the nakedness of silence. His most obvious forbear is Irish playwright Samuel Beckett, who took silences to a new level, and other playwrights of the Theatre of the Absurd (a French dramatic movement in the 1950s), but whereas Beckett's silences hint at alienation, boredom, and the slow approach to death, Pinter's are ominous and violent. The true natures and motivations of his characters emerge in their silences.
Academic attention on Pinter remains as heavy as ever. The Harold Pinter Society was founded in 1991, which publishes The Pinter Review and organizes conferences. Pinter died in December 2008.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Dumb Waiter!