Strange – no, very strange – to hear of Pinter’s death on Christmas Eve (at first I thought it had been on Christmas Day, which would have struck an odd chord, given that The Hothouse, the play he abandoned in 1960, and revived in 1980, is set on Christmas Day and is in a way one of his best: a Kafkaesque parody of authority, set in an asylum).
Pinter was one of my literary heroes: not that he could do no wrong, but that he wrote so many plays which I could recite almost word for word, and which I loved for the richness of their dialogue. He is also the writer whose work I have used in teaching more frequently than any other, and whose work gave me my earliest and maybe even best ideas for teaching – because his plays dealt so carefully with the inexactitude of memory, and the way people embroider lies into their memory without a second thought. Oddly enough, given his vital and furious stand against insitutions and authority, his work was, when I was still sixteen, about the only work accepted as being brilliant, even though he was (very much) alive. In fact, even in the 1960s, I studied Pinter (The Caretaker) for A level, and practically the first thing I ever had published was about creative ways of teaching his work. And The Birthday Party, even after fifty years, still strikes me as a work of genius. For me, it was the British play of the twentieth century, alongside Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls.
Pinter was a good example of a writer who was inaccessible untl you made him accessible. This was how I did it. Without revealing that Pinter was the writer under discussion, I asked students to interview each other (and tape the interviews) about a childhood memory. Half of the interviewees, unknown to the interviewers, were instructed to tell the truth; the other half to lie. I transcribed the resulting monologues, and students would analyse whether what they had was true or not. It was a fantastic way of getting students to look at language, because, although Pinter was partly a parodist of speech, he was also a natural mimic. There were some amazing pieces of writing which resulted – students who had never heard of Pinter began, in effect, to write Pinter plays. After that, they had no trouble with the work itself. They could read (say) The Caretaker and realise that Aston, the sympathetic figure, is not always telling the truth. Borges wrote a short stort in Labyrinths, in which a character called Pierre Menard wrote Don Quixote by living out Cervantes’ life. Any theory I had about teaching came from the Borges story, and using it in relation to Pinter’s early plays, from 1957 through to 1966. I never had so much fun, never enjoyed teaching so much as when I was teaching students to get into Pinter. His work was a kind of clue to the creative process itself.
The Hothouse was important, because it was nakedly political, and written at a time when he absolutely denied – as he did for a quarter of a century – that he was a political writer (this might be hard to grasp for those who knew him only through his determinedly political later plays, like Party Time or One For The Road).
Odd things about Pinter I will remember: (a) his first play, The Room, written in four days, was based on meeting Quentin Crisp in the 1950s (Crisp is the basis for Meg, the woman at the heart of it); (b) he wrote the interrogation scene in The Birthday Party in an interval, in either Torquay or Eastbourne, can’t recall which, when on tour as an actor, (c) he foxed commentators with his refusal to explain his plays (memorably, he gave a marvellous non-interview to Melvyn Bragg on an early ‘South Bank Show’, in which he reduced Bragg to the kind of silence he polished in his plays so well) and (d) he delighted in giving mystery answers to critics which they took horribly seriously, as in suggesting that they were about ‘the weasel underneath the cocktail cabinet’, a phrase so intensely meaningless that examiners actually asked students to discuss it.
The key to Pinter was that he was an actor (I can’t think of a single other playwright who actually gave the definitive portrayal of his own characters). He had an instinct for what worked on stage. Recently, they staged some of his early revue sketches from 1960 (some nicked from The Hothouse, then consigned to a drawer), which comedian Bill Bailey tried to make funny. But if you tried to make Pinter funny, the whole thing went flat. Skilful actors, Pinter included, played them straight, and got the dark laughter that way.
Pinter tried to write prose and poetry, but it all came unstuck. His poems were often published, and they were unironic tirades. They failed. But his plays, pretty well all of them – and his wonderful screenplays – were the real thing. He was a devotee of Beckett, but the only one who took Beckett apart and reconstructed his work as something new and troubling. His absolute skill was to write plays which felt realistic, no matter how surreal the premise. He was superficially easy to parody (I am afraid I think I’ve parodied him for money about ten times, including a version of Paddington Bear), but he was perhaps the only writer whose work I have parodied while preserving a complete respect. The BBC reports added the usual snide asides about ‘champagne socialism’. But Pinter was, when all was said and unsaid and done, the defining playwright of my lifetime.
‘My sad captains’ was poet Thom Gunn’s phrase for those who he admired and who had died. Pinter was perhaps the most important ‘sad captain’ for me: a total genius.