undefinedStill from BBC interview with Harold Pinter, 1969.

 

Harold Pinter had recently moved into a five-story 1820 Nash house facing Regent’s Park in London. The view from the floor-through top floor where he has installed his office overlooks a duck pond and a long stretch of wooded parkland; his desk faces this view, and in late October 1966, when the interview took place, the changing leaves and the hazy London sun constantly distracted him as he thought over questions or began to give answers. He speaks in a deep, theater-trained voice that comes rather surprisingly from him, and indeed is the most remarkable thing about him physically. When speaking he almost always tends to excessive qualification of any statement, as if coming to a final definition of things were obviously impossible. One gets the impression—as one does with many of the characters in his plays—of a man so deeply involved with what he’s thinking that roughing it into speech is a painful necessity.

   He was not working at any writing projects when the interview took place, and questions about his involuntary idleness (many questions came back to it without meaning to) were particularly uncomfortable for him. His own work is alternatively a source of mystery, amusement, joy, and anger to him; in looking it over he often discovered possibilities and ambiguities that he had not noticed or had forgotten. One felt that if only he would rip out his telephone and hang black curtains across the wide windows he would be much happier, though he insists that the “great boredom one has with oneself” is unrelated to his environment or his obligations.

   When he wrote his first plays, in 1957, he was homeless, constantly on tour as an actor with a repertory stage company, playing all sorts of parts in obscure seaside resorts and provincial cities. His wife, the actress Vivien Merchant, toured with him, but when she became pregnant in 1958 it was necessary for them to find a home, and they took a basement room in London’s shabby Notting Hill Gate section, in a building where Mr. Pinter worked as a caretaker to pay his rent. When their son was born they borrowed enough money to move to a less shabby district in Chiswick, but both had to return to full-time acting when Mr. Pinter’s first full-length play, The Birthday Party, was a full-scale flop in 1958. The production of The Caretaker in 1960 produced enough money for a move to the middle-class district of Kew, and then, thinking he could live on his writings, Mr. Pinter moved his family to a bowfronted Regency house in the south-coast seaside town of Worthing. But the two-hour drive to London became imperative too often, and so they moved once again, to a rented flat in Kensington, until Mr. Pinter’s lucrative film scripts made it possible for them to buy the Regent’s Park house. Though it is not yet completely renovated, the size and comfort of it are impressive, as is Mr. Pinter’s office, with a separate room nearby for his secretary and a small bar equally nearby for the beer and Scotch that he drinks steadily during the day, whether working or not. Bookshelves line one-half the area, and a velvet chaise longue faces the small rear garden. On the walls are a series of Feliks Topolski sketches of London theater scenes; a poster of the Montevideo production of El Cuidador; a small financial balance sheet indicating that his first West End production, The Birthday Party, earned two hundred sixty pounds in its disastrous week’s run; a Picasso drawing; and his citation from when he was named to the Order of the British Empire last spring. “The year after the Beatles,” he emphasizes.    

 

INTERVIEWER

When did you start writing plays, and why?  

HAROLD PINTER

My first play was The Room, written when I was twenty-seven. A friend of mine called Henry Woolf was a student in the drama department at Bristol University at the time when it was the only drama department in the country. He had the opportunity to direct a play, and as he was my oldest friend he knew I’d been writing, and he knew I had an idea for a play, though I hadn’t written any of it. I was acting in rep at the time, and he told me he had to have the play the next week to meet his schedule. I said this was ridiculous; he might get it in six months. And then I wrote it in four days.  

INTERVIEWER

Has writing always been so easy for you?  

PINTER

Well, I had been writing for years, hundreds of poems and short pieces of prose. About a dozen had been published in little magazines. I wrote a novel as well; it’s not good enough to be published, really, and never has been. After I wrote The Room, which I didn’t see performed for a few weeks, I started to work immediately on The Birthday Party.  

INTERVIEWER

What led you to do that so quickly?  

PINTER

It was the process of writing a play that had started me going. Then I went to see The Room, which was a remarkable experience. Since I’d never written a play before, I’d of course never seen one of mine performed, never had an audience sitting there. The only people who’d ever seen what I’d written had been a few friends and my wife. So to sit in the audience—well, I wanted to piss very badly throughout the whole thing, and at the end I dashed out behind the bicycle shed.  

INTERVIEWER

What other effect did contact with an audience have on you?  

PINTER

I was very encouraged by the response of that university audience, though no matter what the response had been I would have written The Birthday Party, I know that. Watching first nights, though I’ve seen quite a few by now, is never any better. It’s a nerve-racking experience. It’s not a question of whether the play goes well or badly. It’s not the audience reaction, it’s my reaction. I’m rather hostile toward audiences—I don’t much care for large bodies of people collected together. Everyone knows that audiences vary enormously; it’s a mistake to care too much about them. The thing one should be concerned with is whether the performance has expressed what one set out to express in writing the play. It sometimes does.  

INTERVIEWER

Do you think that without the impetus provided by your friend at Bristol you would have gotten down to writing plays?  

PINTER

Yes, I think I was going to write The Room. I just wrote it a bit quicker under the circumstances; he just triggered something off. The Birthday Party had also been in my mind for a long time. It was sparked off from a very distinct situation in digs when I was on tour. In fact, the other day a friend of mine gave me a letter I wrote to him in nineteen-fifty-something, Christ knows when it was. This is what it says: “I have filthy insane digs, a great bulging scrag of a woman with breasts rolling at her belly, an obscene household, cats, dogs, filth, tea strainers, mess, oh bullocks, talk, chat rubbish shit scratch dung poison, infantility, deficient order in the upper fretwork, fucking roll on.” Now the thing about this is that was The Birthday Party—I was in those digs, and this woman was Meg in the play, and there was a fellow staying there in Eastbourne, on the coast. The whole thing remained with me, and three years later I wrote the play.  

INTERVIEWER

Why wasn’t there a character representing you in the play?  

PINTER

I had—I have—nothing to say about myself, directly. I wouldn’t know where to begin. Particularly since I often look at myself in the mirror and say, “Who the hell’s that?”  

INTERVIEWER

And you don’t think being represented as a character on stage would help you find out?  

PINTER

No.  

INTERVIEWER

Have your plays usually been drawn from situations you’ve been in? The Caretaker, for example.  

PINTER

I’d met a few, quite a few, tramps—you know, just in the normal course of events, and I think there was one particular one … I didn’t know him very well, he did most of the talking when I saw him. I bumped into him a few times, and about a year or so afterward he sparked this thing off.  

INTERVIEWER

Had it occurred to you to act in The Room?  

PINTER

No, no—the acting was a separate activity altogether. Though I wrote The Room, The Birthday Party, and The Dumb Waiter in 1957, I was acting all the time in a repertory company, doing all kinds of jobs, traveling to Bournemouth and Torquay and Birmingham. I finished The Birthday Party while I was touring in some kind of farce, I don’t remember the name.  

INTERVIEWER

As an actor, do you find yourself with a compelling sense of how roles in your plays should be performed?  

PINTER

Quite often I have a compelling sense of how a role should be played. And I’m proved—equally as often—quite wrong.  

INTERVIEWER

Do you see yourself in each role as you write? And does your acting help you as a playwright?  

PINTER

I read them all aloud to myself while writing. But I don’t see myself in each role—I couldn’t play most of them. My acting doesn’t impede my playwriting because of these limitations. For example, I’d like to write a play—I’ve frequently thought of this—entirely about women.