In 1955, 50 years before he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Harold Pinter was a supporting player at the Colchester Repertory Company, acting under the name David Baron. That same year, while rotating through a series of drawing-room dramas and Agatha Christie thrillers, Pinter began work on his first play, an eerie one-act called The Room. Five years later his masterpiece The Caretaker vaulted him to international fame, and he never needed to take another acting role for money again. Yet Pinter has continued to pursue acting through a number of small, vivid film roles, employing his giant frame and low, thunderous voice to bring life to a whole rogue’s gallery of thugs, tyrants, and misanthropes. The nature of these roles is no coincidence: The characters that he plays embody the same obsessions and moral anger that inform his writing. Pinter the actor is a natural extension of Pinter the writer.
Launch the video clip In Pinter’s plays, conversation is a form of war. As such, conversational strategy is paramount—more important, in fact, than the content of the conversation. Characters choose their words carefully, trying to extract as much information from the person they’re speaking to while giving away as little of themselves as possible. Uncle Benny, the character Pinter plays in John Boorman’s 2001 spy satire The Tailor of Panama, places a similar premium on oratorical warfare. As the ghost of Geoffrey Rush’s former partner in crime, Pinter appears during high-stakes conversations to offer sage conversational gambits, whether coaxing Rush to lie when his wife demands to know where he’s spending his nights, or fighting to stop him from spouting disastrous fibs when a penniless Rush attempts to sell nonexistent state secrets to the British government. In Pinter’s 1961 teleplay The Collection, a man named Bill is repeatedly confronted by the angry husband of a woman he may have slept with. As Bill offers a series of contradictory explanations, it’s as if he’s got his own Uncle Benny whispering in his ear. In both stories, the truth becomes irrelevant in the wake of the verbal battle.
Launch the video clip Just as Pinter sees bitter conflict behind conversational banter, he also sees insecurity, heartlessness, and rage beneath the cover of proper British decorum. Patricia Rozema’s 1999 adaptation of Mansfield Park would have little to distinguish itself from the recent rash of Jane Austen pictures were it not for Pinter’s portrayal of Lord Bertram, the patriarch of the titular mansion. Lord Bertram is a fascinating study in light of Pinter plays like Old Times or The Homecoming, where courtly British manners often conceal layers of callousness and savagery. Lord Bertram is everything a landed British gentleman should be. He’s proper, mannerly, and charming. We learn, however, that the source of his fortune—a slave plantation in the Caribbean—is awash with shameful secrets. When Bertram discovers his adopted daughter Fanny Price (Frances O’Connor) examining horrific drawings that depict the slaves on the plantation being physically and sexually abused—acts in which Bertram himself took part—Bertram tears the pictures from her hands, twisting his face into a rictus of rage and self-hatred. Underneath the genteel facade lies the heart of a tyrannical monster. He can no longer pretend that the Bertram of the Caribbean and the Bertram of Mansfield Park are different men; they are two different layers of the same man. The condescending husband Teddy in The Homecoming, or the endlessly jealous Deeley in Old Times play out this same theme on paper, as their veneer of British politesse falls away to reveal a savage inner core. Mansfield Park offers a rare opportunity to see a great writer incarnate one of his principal themes in a single image of chilling clarity.
Pinter’s definitive onscreen work may be his performance in Catastrophe, David Mamet’s short film of the Samuel Beckett’s play—part of the ambitious 2000 British television project Beckett on Film. This seven-minute piece represents the confluence of several of Pinter’s passions: He cites Beckett as his greatest influence, and the subject matter—the torture of dissidents by the state—has been his key political obsession of the last 20 years. Since his searing play One for the Road opened in 1984, Pinter has repeatedly returned to the theme of torture, both as a playwright (Party Time, Mountain Language) and an activist. In 1985, Pinter and Arthur Miller traveled to Turkey on a humanitarian mission to support Turkish writers who had been imprisoned and tortured. And in 1988, Pinter met Beckett’s inspiration for Catastrophe, the jailed Czech dissident Vaclav Havel.
While Pinter’s activist sympathy lies with the sufferers of torture, as a writer he explores what drives torturers, as well as the methods they employ to strip prisoners of their humanity. In One for the Road, the interrogator Nicolas questions the members of a family of political prisoners one by one in a prison in an unnamed country. Nicolas easily fends off any sense of moral outrage with the cold certainty that what he’s doing is just. When a woman tells him she was raped in one of his prison cells, he asks her how many times. When she can’t remember, he calmly asks, “And you consider yourself a reliable witness?”
Pinter’s role in Catastrophe allows him to plumb the depths of this theme further. John Gielgud plays the Protagonist—a political prisoner standing limp and pliant on the stage of a theater—while a Director (Pinter) and his Assistant prepare him for a public exhibition. Pinter orders minute changes to Gielgud’s posture and clothing to make his appearance more ridiculous (and thus more humiliating). “Raise the shins,” he orders. “Higher. Bare the knees.” As Pinter speaks these words, he doesn’t snarl, nor does he betray any anxiety. Degrading the Protagonist is all in a day’s work. The power of Pinter’s performance lies in how little such degradation affects the Director. In both One for the Road and Catastrophe, the message is the same: The perpetuation of torture requires men who simply aren’t bothered by the act of carrying it out. Catastrophe proves Pinter can deliver that message just as powerfully as an actor.