By Whitney Eggers, Production Dramaturg
For a writer whose plays, at first glance, seem to hold a mirror to anything but nature, Harold Pinter’s inspiration often rests surprisingly in reality. Saturated in a claustrophobic menace that defies easy definition, Pinter’s plays can feel familiar at best and disquieting at worst. This “Pinteresque” ambience breeds a reputation for inaccessibility and a distance from quotidian reality that belies the actual source of much of Pinter’s work. “Most of the plays,” he said, “are engendered by a line, a word or an image. The given word is often shortly followed by the image […] followed by me.” In fact, the originating incidents for most of Pinter’s plays lie in moments of seeming banality that, seen with an outside eye, expose the element of mystery that lurks in everyday life.
For early plays like The Room and The Birthday Party, images from his days as an actor in a touring company took root in Pinter’s imagination. Invited to a party by an actress in his company, Pinter recalls meeting the evening’s host: “He welcomed us in, gave us a cup of tea, discussed philosophy and metaphysics, literature, the weather, crockery, fabrics. And all the while at a table sat an enormous man with a cap on reading a comic. The little chap was dancing about cutting bread and butter, pouring tea and making bacon and eggs for this man who remained quite silent throughout the whole encounter.” As Pinter began writing The Room, a claustrophobic play about the threat of the unknown on a couple’s safe haven, the memory of this encounter resurfaced. The man flitting around his room buttering toast transforms into Rose, the main character—a woman who fusses over her silent, seated husband, chattering away about the weather, the neighbors, and her husband’s health as she makes him breakfast in their tiny, secluded, one-room apartment.
A chance meeting sparked The Birthday Party when Pinter, still touring, arrived in a town without arranging housing. Striking up conversation with a man in a local pub, Pinter recalls the man saying,
“‘I can take you to some digs but I wouldn’t recommend them exactly.’ I had nowhere else to go and I said, ‘I don’t care what they are.’ I went to these digs and found, in short, a very big woman who was the landlady and a little man, the landlord. There was no one else there, apart from this solitary lodger, and the digs were really quite filthy, the house was quite filthy and I used to… I slept in the attic with this man I’d met in the pub […]. And I said to the man one day, ‘What are you doing here?’ And he said, ‘Oh well I used to be… I’m a pianist. I used to play in the concert-party here and I gave that up.’ […] And when I asked him why he stayed, he said, ‘There’s nowhere else to go.’ That remark stayed with me and, three years later, the image was still there and I… this idea came to me about two men coming down to get him.”
The disappointed musician holed up in a grungy seaside retreat evolved into The Birthday Party’s Stanley, a permanent tenant at a coastal boarding house dubiously claiming to be a former pianist. Stanley’s sanctuary crumbles when Goldberg and McCann, two mysterious figures from his past, arrive to take him away.
Pinter’s acclaimed masterpiece The Homecoming began with a simple question: Where are the scissors? “I didn’t know who was saying it,” said Pinter. “I didn’t know who he was talking to. Now, the fellow he was talking to—if he had said, ‘Oh, I’ve got them right here, Dad,’ there would have been no play. But instead he says, ‘Why don’t you shut up, you daft prat?’ Once that’s said, there’s a spring of drama, which develops and follows its own course. I had no idea what the course was going to be. I hadn’t planned anything.” From this jarring, darkly comic exchange, a linguistic world developed in which family members respond to each other with hostility and aggression, trading jabs that occasionally glance but often resoundingly register. “I think it’s the most muscular thing I’ve written,” Pinter said. “I delight and relish in language. I certainly did with The Homecoming to an extent that I probably haven’t done in any other play.”
While a line informed the language of The Homecoming, for the play’s dramatic situation, Pinter drew again on real life, this time from a more personal source—his childhood friend Morris Wernick’s long-overdue homecoming. Ten years earlier, in 1954, Wernick had secretly married, then immediately moved with his new wife to Canada to begin a career as a professor of English. For the next decade he kept his wife and growing family a secret from his father, believing he was protecting him from the pain of his choice to marry outside the Jewish faith. Eventually regarding his decision as a mistake, he flew his family out to England to introduce them to his father. The story stuck with Pinter, and in six weeks, The Homecoming “kind of wrote itself.”
Over those six weeks, the play went through numerous drafts that illustrate the precision of Pinter’s creative process. In an early sketch, characters simply labeled A, B, and C cautiously circle each other, questioning motives and personal histories. While details are never made explicit, A, apparently a policeman, has just arrived from Venice with B, his new wife, in tow, to the home or hideaway of C, a criminal on the run. Though the occupations of all three would eventually stray from Pinter’s original ideas, the interactions among them—strains of violence, possessiveness, and repression—reveal them as prototypes of Teddy, Ruth, and Lenny.
Through his next drafts, Pinter began working towards a tauter, leaner unit, linguistically and dramatically. Of his process, Pinter said, “One of my main concerns is to get things down and down and down…. Always paring away.” Whereas his first draft shows an explicitly violent home, with more cursing and more overt vitriol between family members, Pinter’s instinct for ambiguity led him toward the sustained menace of the family we see now. Even as late as the 1967 American premiere of The Homecoming, Pinter cut words and whole monologues, always with the aim of making things less obvious, and more open to interpretation. Critics of The Homecoming often cite the play’s intentional avoidance of clear-cut character motivation and easily digested meaning. But for Pinter, drama that fits comfortably into understood, reassuring categories “is not theatre but a crossword puzzle. The audience holds the paper. The play fills in the blanks. Everyone’s happy. There has been no conflict between audience and play, no participation, nothing has been exposed. We walk out as we went in.” Though we can begin to understand Pinter’s process, one thing remains certain—we cannot leave The Homecoming the way we walked in.