Three or four things I know about Harold Pinter who died in London on Christmas Eve, age 78:
To visit him in his Holland Park home was to enter unwittingly into a Pinter play. After greeting me at the door of his office—which was in a separate cottage in the grounds of the house where he lived with his wife, Antonia Fraser—he triple-locked the door behind him with great, deliberate care, like a jailor.
He was a coiled figure, politely wary and restrained, as if hiding something. I found myself absurdly feeling like a Pinter character. Was he locking me in? If not, who was he locking out? Dressed in black, he sat with marked stillness peering at me from behind his glasses. He was a man who could be charming and courteous, yet, when provoked, given to a violent temper. The offer of a drink took on momentous significance in the mutual silence.
“Drink?” he offered eventually.
“Care to join me?”
“Do you want a little stool?” he added incongruously.
He produced a little bamboo stool that became a drinks tray between us in the writing room, where there was no evidence of any writing (or even work). His desk, like the orderly shelves, appeared to be obsessively, neurotically neat—as if keeping impending chaos at bay. His secretary worked in a room nearby, but everything here was meticulously in its place.
A big painting of a rural cricket scene hung prominently on a wall like a romantic totem of England, and he smiled warmly when I pointed it out. “It’s always been with me,” he said. Cricket was Pinter’s first love, you might say, along with writing, poetry and sex. In one of his most famous plays, No Man’s Land (1975), whose meaning some still find baffling, all four of its characters are named after celebrated cricketers.
For many years, Harold Pinter was proudly chairman and match manager of the Gaieties Cricket Club, which included a number of theater people, like Tom Stoppard, who, along with Pinter, played the game with deadly serious zeal.
I saw Pinter in a Gaieties match one time, and he played like he wrote, with studious control and economy, a threatening, combustible minimalism and an awareness of imminent danger. (Mr. Stoppard’s cricketing style was altogether flashier and untidier, devil-may-care.)
Pinter was a journeyman poet, but he was a keen one and circulated his poems among friends. He once sent to his old friend the playwright Simon Gray a three-line ode about his cricket hero, Sir Len Hutton (“I saw Len Hutton in his prime/ Another time/ Another time”), and getting no response called him to ask if he’d received it. “Yes,” said Gray, “but I haven’t finished reading it yet.”
PINTER’S PLAYS—particularly the early ones in the 1960s and ’70s—reshaped the theatrical landscape in England. His enduring dramas of mysterious menace and paranoia like The Homecoming (1965), Old Times (1971) and Betrayal (1978) introduced a new word into the English language: Pinteresque. Because of Pinter, we listen differently to language and the possibilities of dialogue.