Biography of Harold Pinter

Harold Pinter was one of the most renowned dramatists of the 20th century, esteemed for his inventiveness, originality, and innovation of form. His work is so influential that his name has been used to explain certain settings or situations –the "Pinter Pause" concerns relying on things not said to convey characters' motivations or personalities, and the "Pinteresque" refers to an inconclusive end to a comedy of subtle menace and absurdity. His work was influenced by Samuel Beckett, who Harold Bloom identified as Pinter's "ego ideal".

Pinter was born in East London in 1930 to a Jewish tailor. It was a working class upbringing. Pinter's experiences during WWII, such as the blitz and relocation, inform his work. At the Hackney Downs Grammar School he excelled at sports and took up acting for the first time. After school ended he took some odd jobs and managed to get out of the war by declaring himself a conscientious objector (this did not entirely work, but a judge fined him instead of imprisoning him for refusing to go). In 1949, inspired by the works of Beckett, he published his first poems, under the penname Harold Pinta. He studied acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and the Central School of Speech and Drama, and began touring Ireland with a Shakespeare company and working in provincial repertory theaters in England.

Pinter wrote his first play, The Room, in 1957. It features many motifs that would be common in his oeuvre –a situation that seems quotidian but is charged with ambiguity and menace. It was reviewed favorably and was mounted by the drama department of Bristol University. Pinter then went on to The Birthday Party, a play of muted anxiety and tension that bordered on the theater of the absurd. In 1957, on the same day that his son Daniel was born, Pinter was paid 50 pounds for the play, which was soon produced at Cambridge's Arts Theatre to critical success. The play bombed during its London debut a few short months later. Despite its critical failure, The Birthday Party remains one of Pinter’s most successful full-length plays, and is considered the first of his “comedy of menace” pieces.

The Caretaker (1960) was Pinter's second full-length play and a resounding critical and commercial success. A fusion of the realistic and symbolic, it led to his third play, The Homecoming, which was full of energy and power. In 1966 he was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

Pinter also wrote plays in the 1970s, though his earlier works were more than enough to cement his reputation. This decade saw Old Times (1970, No Man's Land (1975), and Betrayal (1978). Pinter was the associate director for Britain's National Theater.

In the 1980s-2000s, Pinter continued to compose plays but also tried his hand at poetry, screenwriting, and directing. He explained that he wanted to look at politics at the end of his life, and that his twenty-nine plays were enough. In 2005 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature.

Pinter was married twice. He died on December 24th, 2008 of liver cancer. The lights of Broadway and of West End were dimmed in tribute to him. In 2011, the Comedy Theatre on Panton Street in the West End was renamed The Harold Pinter Theatre.


Study Guides on Works by Harold Pinter

Harold Pinter was working as an actor in England when he stayed briefly at a dilapidated boardinghouse that would serve as his inspiration for both The Birthday Party and The Room. As he has explained in many published works, he wrote more from...

The Caretaker is one of playwright Harold Pinter's most popular plays, and certainly one of the 20th century's most notable works of the stage. It is Pinter's second full-length play, but his first major success. Critics delve into its historical,...