Sometimes you gain more insight into an artist and his creative process from an oblique perspective than if the writer addressed the subject head-on. Such was my experience reading the history author Antonia Fraser’s memoir Must You Go? My Life with Harold Pinter (2010).
Fraser and Pinter met at a dinner party in London in 1975. As Fraser was making her exit at the end of the evening, Pinter asked, “Must you go?” Fraser replied, “No, it’s not absolutely essential.” That fateful exchange led to a fulfilling 33-year relationship, ended by his death on Christmas eve 2008. At the time of the dinner party each was unhappily married; she to a member of parliament, he to the celebrated (and alcoholic) actress Vivienne Merchant. Her marriage suffered a deficit of companionship, his a surplus of misery. Shortly after their affair began, a London doctor whose patients included many artists kindly cautioned Fraser against a playwright, explaining “They’re the worst.” Fraser ignored his benevolent counsel.
“I love hearing details of writers’ craft, as cannibals eat the brains of clever men to get cleverer,” Fraser confides in her diary. I feel the same way and am grateful to Fraser for opening a window into Pinter with this memoir.
What many don’t know about Pinter is that his aspiration to be a poet was in some ways greater than his dramatist’s ambitions. Fraser says that Pinter would agree with the order on Shakespeare’s grave: ‘Poet and Playwright’, i.e. poet comes first.
His closest playwright friends were Simon Gray and Ronald Harwood. Gray died of cancer four months before Pinter. Pinter deeply admired and was friends with Samuel Beckett and Arthur Miller. Another friend was playwright Alan Ayckbourn, about whom Pinter said: “What a good-natured man! He loves his characters. No one is totally derided.” One does sense a substrate of affection in all of Ayckbourn’s plays. That cannot always be said about Pinter’s scripts.
Fraser records, “Living with Harold the writer was a rewarding experience since he behaved exactly like artists behave in books but seldom do in real life. He never wrote unless he had a sudden inspiration, an image. . . . The image might come to him at any time and anywhere – in a taxi, in a bar, late at night at his desk looking out of his window into the street lamps punctuating the darkness.” This first image, Fraser notes, was never the point with Harold, it’s just what launched the effort. The work usually ended up taking a quite different path. “At the same time he worked on his work, as it were, extremely hard. Poems or plays might be dashed off in the first instance but then a process of grind, revision began. One poem took a year to perfect.”
Pinter often commented that his characters took on a life of their own which had to be respected. He was not the sort of writer who frets about his characters’ histories; he was content to work with them in the present. They just showed up (at least on the good days) and he followed wherever they took him. Fraser shares an amusing contrast with Tom Stoppard, Pinter’s friend and fellow playwright, screenwriter and cricket fan. Pinter: “Don’t you find [your characters] take over sometimes?” Stoppard: “No.” (August Wilson once told me that you have to give your characters their lead but never let them forget who is boss.)
It came as no surprise to learn that the inventor of the many misanthropic, menacing and miserable characters that populate Pinter’s plays was himself well acquainted with darkness. Fraser writes, “Sometimes melancholy spreads across the water of Harold’s life like black water lilies.” Pinter’s favorite phrase was “You have to take the rough with the smooth.” Yes. Always.
Pinter, the Nobel prize-winning playwright, screenwriter, poet, actor and political activist, was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus in December 2001 and died seven years later at age 78. Too frail to travel to Stockholm in 2005 to accept the Nobel Prize, Pinter recorded his acceptance speech “Art, Truth and Politics” at a London television studio. You can view his 46-minute speech on the Nobel Prize website.
(Esophageal cancer, bearing a 92% mortality rate, is what felled Christopher Hitchens last December. Pinter and Hitchens had been heavy smokers. Though often on opposing political sides, the two were forceful personalities who found a rousing argument hard to resist. Mutual friends were Salman Rushdie, James Fenton and Ian McEwan.)
Seattle actor Frank Corrado is a great champion of Pinter’s work. This summer he is presenting “The Pinter Festival” at ACT Theatre, July 20-August 26, including full productions of four Pinter plays: The Dumb Waiter, Celebration, Old Times and No Man’s Land. Pinter’s plays tend to be challenging, uncomfortable and non-reassuring, and as a result are not produced all that often. This Festival is a rare opportunity to engage with Pinter’s work in performance.
Drawn from Fraser’s diaries, Must You Go? has an engaging in-the-moment character. At bottom the book is a love story. Two middle-aged artists had the good fortune to meet (she was 42, he 44) and the wisdom and maturity to appreciate what they had chanced upon. My eyes were wet at the end (a bit embarrassing as I finished it on an airplane).
I’ll wrap this post with a poem Pinter wrote to Fraser 18 months before death.
I shall miss you so much when I’m dead
The loveliest of smiles
The softness of your body in our bed
My everlasting bride
Remember that when I am dead
You are forever alive in my heart and my head