Socialist Worker

Working with Pinter: insight into a revolutionary dramatist

by Simon Basketter
Issue No. 2230

Harold Pinter revolutionised British drama at the end of the 1950s.

He used language that was often oblique, but also sharp and savagely funny, to change the subject matter and form of theatre.

No verbal exchange is ever just an innocent conversation in his dialogue—there is always a battle for power being conducted under the surface.

Harry Burton’s 2007 film Working with Pinter has just been released on DVD.

In the documentary Pinter says, “I’m a political person, I haven’t always written political plays. There should be a lively relationship between real life and theatre.”

The abuse of power and the domination of the weak are consistent themes in his plays.

Throughout Pinter’s work the complexities of human relations and memories carry political implications.

His early plays explore the repressive politics of sex and family life. In later work he often explores the personal consequences of political attitudes.

Pinter revels in revealing the insecurity, panic and hypocrisy that lie behind the masks of authority.

The abuse of language is another central concern—particularly words such as “freedom” and “democracy”.

For politicians, “language is actually employed to keep thought at bay,” he once said.

There is the contradiction of a man confident enough to write his first play in two days but then couldn’t face watching it, so he was drunk at the premiere.

“Stan, don’t let them tell you what to do.”

According to Pinter, that was “one of the most important lines I’ve ever written… I’ve lived that line all my damn life.”

The line is taken from Pinter’s first professionally staged play, The Birthday Party (1958), in which the banal existence of Stanley, a boarding house lodger, is ripped apart by arbitrary psychological torture.

At that time the Lord Chamberlain had the power to censor stage productions.

Pinter was furious at having to hand his scripts to the government for approval—and he inserted the line into the play after it had come back from the Lord Chamberlain’s office.

The film is a great introduction to Pinter’s work and provides genuine insights into the way Pinter worked and the production of theatre.

The DVD is available for £17.99 from

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Tue 30 Nov 2010, 18:17 GMT
Issue No. 2230
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