Pause for thoughts on Pinter

Dr Linda Renton: Pinter “single-handedly changed British theatre”.
Harold Pinter (1930 – 2008) was the tailor’s son from the East End of London who rose to become a Nobel prizewinner and, many would say, Britain’s greatest living dramatist. Among those supporting that view is Pinter scholar Dr Linda Renton of Bath Spa University, author of (among others) Pinter and the Object of Desire, and tonight she came to BRLSI to speak on Pinter’s work under the title Harold Pinter: Beyond Pause and Silence.
Pinter, Dr Renton told us, is credited with single-handedly changing British theatre, although his career didn’t get off to an auspicious start. His first full-length play, The Birthday Party, was savaged by the critics on its first London performance and closed after eight days, but its prospects – and Pinter’s – were rescued when leading critic Harold Hobson gave it a glowing review in the Sunday Times. Dr Renton described the key characteristics of Pinter’s dramas; the poetic use of layered nuance, the absence of comfortable third act resolutions, the way the characters abstain from articulating their feelings – and, of course, the famous pauses, there to draw attention to the space between what’s being said. It was easy to see how the critics of 1958 might have found them a shock
Perhaps surprisingly, the uncompromising Pinter also managed a successful career as a writer in the mainstream media of TV and film.  Dr Renton said that while his screenplays tend to be overlooked because they’re adaptations, he in fact made them truly Pinteresque, reducing the action so that the drama became the emotional interplay between the characters, and focussing on familiar themes such as isolation in The Servant and anxiety in The Go Between. His finest screenplay, in her view, was his 1973 adaptation of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, which sadly never found a backer.
This lecture was about Pinter’s work, not Pinter the man, and we heard little of his life. Dr Renton did, however, touch on the strong socialist views that informed his later, openly political work such as Mountain Language, and on his reputation as a ‘champagne socialist’, widely ridiculed in the press after starting the 20 June Group think-tank with other high-profile left-wing intellectuals. An actor to the last, his final appearance was in a 2006 production of his friend Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape.
As the clips we saw from the TV production of The Birthday Party showed, Pinter’s early work has not necessarily aged well, with dialogue that was revolutionary in the late 1950s seeming merely stilted today. In a sometimes impassioned lecture Linda Renton managed to make a convincing case that it was, nevertheless, great.

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