The son of a Jewish tailor, Harold Pinter was born in East London in 1930. He started writing poetry for little magazines in his teens. As a young man, he studied acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and the Central School of Speech and Drama, but soon left to undertake an acting career under the stage name David Baron. He travelled around Ireland in a Shakespearean company and spent years working in provincial repertory before deciding to turn his attention to playwriting.
Pinter started writing plays in 1957. He had mentioned an idea for a play to a friend who worked in the drama department at Bristol University. The friend liked the idea so much that he wrote to Pinter asking for the play. The only problem was that if the university was to perform the play, they would need a script within the week. Pinter wrote back and told his friend to forget the whole thing–then sat down and wrote the play in four days. The product of his labors, a one-act entitled The Room, contained many of the elements that would characterize Pinter’s later works–namely a commonplace situation gradually invested with menace and mystery through the deliberate omission of an explanation or motivation for the action. Later this same year, Pinter would develop his style still further in another one-act, The Dumb Waiter, about two hired killers employed by a mysterious organization to murder an unknown victim. In this second play, Pinter added an element of comedy, provided mostly through the brilliant small-talk behind which the two men hide their growing anxiety. Their discussion over whether it is more proper to say “light the kettle” or “light the gas” is wildly comic and terrifying in its absurdity. The Dumb Waiter was first performed at the Hampstead Theatre Club in London in 1960.
Although written after The Dumb Waiter, Pinter’s first full-length play (The Birthday Party) was produced two years earlier in 1958 at the Arts Theatre in Cambridge. The play centers around Stanley, an apathetic man in his thirties who has found refuge in a dingy seaside boarding house which has apparently had no other visitors for years. But when Goldberg and McCann (characters reminiscent of the hired assassins in The Dumb Waiter) arrive, it soon becomes clear that they are after Stanley. Like Samuel Beckett, Pinter refuses to provide rational explanations for the actions of his characters. Are the two men emissaries of some secret organization Stanley has betrayed? Are they male nurses sent to bring him back to an asylum he has escaped from? The question is never answered. Instead, the two men organize a birthday party for a terrified Stanley who insists that it is not his birthday.
Pinter has gone on to write a number of absurdist masterpieces including The Caretaker, The Homecoming, Betrayal, Old Times, and Ashes to Ashes. He has also composed a number of radio plays and several volumes of poetry. His screenplays include The French Lieutenant’s Woman, The Last Tycoon, and The Handmaid’s Tale. He has received numerous awards including the Berlin Film Festival Silver Bear, BAFTA awards, the Hamburg Shakespeare Prize, the Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or and the Commonwealth Award. His sparse style and gift for creating tension and horror through the most economic of means has made him one of the most respected playwrights of our day. He is married to Lady Antonia Fraser.