Post image for Acting Harold Pinter

For the past three years—about half of that time supported by a William and Eva Fox Foundation fellowship—I’ve been immersed in a comprehensive exploration of the plays of Harold Pinter. Within days of Pinter’s death on December 24, 2008, I proposed a reading series to the artistic leadership at A Contemporary Theatre (ACT) in Seattle that made its debut in March of 2009 and came to be known as “Pinter Fortnightly”. After twenty-five “Fortnightlies” all but three of the Pinter canon of 29 plays have been presented, and ACT is now poised to produce a festival of full productions of four Pinter plays, as well as evenings devoted to his revue sketches, this July and August.

Over the course of these readings a kind of de facto company of actors evolved, a company now well-versed and particularly fluent in speaking lingua pinteria. (Gratifyingly, many of these actors will also be participating in the summer Festival.)

Which begs the question: Is there a particular style of performance necessary to best serve both the spirit and the letter of this great writer’s work? And if there is such a style, what are its characteristics?

I posed this very question to Henry Woolf, Harold Pinter’s boyhood friend and the man who as a graduate student at Bristol University in 1957 coaxed Pinter into writing his first play, The Room. Mr. Woolf possesses a unique authority to respond to the question; beyond his life-long association with the playwright — Pinter wrote the haunting Monologue for Woolf and dedicated his early play The Hothouse to him — he has enjoyed a long and distinguished career as actor, director, playwright, poet and teacher in his own right. He is also remarkably approachable and generous, both with his time and his willingness to share the wealth and breadth of his knowledge and insight. He wrote to me:

“Why won’t Stan the Man see you through with Pinter? Well, not all the way to the door. Because being truthfully the character, as one can ever be, is not enough with Pinter anymore than it is with Shakespeare…They were both writing poetry most of the time which demands a certain stylization in the delivery if the text is not to fall dead into the kitchen sink. This stylized—up to a point—delivery has to be truthful to the character, of course, but in this case there is the higher truth of Pinterland. Nearly every character is aware of him-or-herself as they speak. They are acting their lives, most of them, even as they live them. Just listen to Lenny and Max in The Homecoming or Goldberg and Stanley in The Birthday Party, etc. etc. Very much as the characters in Oscar Wilde or Joe Orton never descend to ordinary conversation, their specialty is extraordinary conversation.” (Italics mine.)

Next day, unexpectedly, Henry wrote again:

“Two further thoughts, one very obvious: Pinter is Pinter—Chekhov he ain’t. In other words, there is no stasis in Pinter; even though his sitting down scenes may look static they actually seethe with an outcome oriented life. Even when characters like Meg and Petey in The Birthday Party try to keep things as they are they are swept away by Goldberg’s urgency, for example. There are no rest breaks in Pinter. Energy. Urgency. But nothing must be rushed either, contrariwise. Goldberg smoothly, almost sedately forges ahead like the Titanic on a good day. (Mind you, he too has his queasy moments, not so?)

The second, more important point is that actors tend to become paralyzed by reverence for Pinter and invent delicious ‘difficulties’ in playing him. Sod that. Pinter, like all decent playwrights, rewards freedom and adventure. I’ve buggered Pinter pauses many a time and oft. And so has he. There’s nothing worse for an actor than to be caught like a deer in the headlights. That’s one of the traps in playing Pinter too carefully.”

Something that Henry did not address in what he wrote, but which I know he would insist upon, is the absolute necessity of performing these plays with British diction, inflections and rhythms (I am self-consciously avoiding the use of the word “accent” here, a word which has always struck me as reductive if not simplistic.) No one would find acceptable Willy Loman with a Yorkshire drawl; Max in The Homecoming would sound equally ludicrous with a Midwestern one. Which of course stipulates that American actors must possess sufficient ability with British dialects to do proper justice to the wide range of characters populating Pinterland. More simply, the plays just don’t sing without these indigenous intonations.

Of course, learning to play Pinter is best served by actually having the opportunity to come to grips with a Pinter play. For some time, at least in Seattle, this has been more easily said than done. The majority of the actors who have participated in the Fortnightly series had never had that opportunity before, no matter how lengthy or prolific their careers may have been. With the exception of Betrayal—the “accessible” Pinter play which has been given three productions in Seattle and Tacoma over the last twenty-five years—none of the major theatres there have programmed any other Pinter during that time. But as I said, that drought will end this summer when ACT—which in its early days in the late sixties and early seventies produced Pinter often—will present The Dumbwaiter coupled with Celebration as well as separate evenings of Old Times and No Man’s Land.

It will be instructive to learn, with a company of actors most of whom have had the chance to work on Pinter in the reading series, how a grounding in the playwright’s language and “aesthetic” pays off in full production.

For more information, please visit A Contemporary Theatre’s website  or the Pinter Fortnightly Blog.

Frank Corrado has worked in the theatre as actor, playwright, director, producer and curator for close to four decades. In March 2009, he launched the popular play-reading series “Pinter Fortnightly” at A Contemporary Theatre (ACT), a series which he produces, curates and performs in and which has inspired a festival of four Pinter plays at ACT this summer.