Hob-Nobbing With the Literati: Dinner with Harold Pinter

Since many would describe their first "discovery" of a writer as a moment in a college or high school literature class, my first exposure to British playwright Harold Pinter stands a bit outside the norm.

One Saturday morning, when I was still young enough to rise early for cartoons, I noticed an advertisement, run rather frequently, about a special television presentation of a play called The Dumb Waiter. As my parents had fostered in me an interest in the arts at a young age, I was actually intrigued by watching the ads for this play, and that afternoon returned to the television set.

I watched as two hired killers, one played by Robert Blake (who, at that time, was associated with his role as the very cool TV cop Tony (?) Barretta), received a series of cryptic messages that were sent up to them on a dumb waiter as they awaited their next victim. This was particularly strange because the building in which they waited was abandoned. They discuss and generally follow the instructions brought by the dumb waiter, until finally, the last message comes and the play ends as one of the assassins prepares to kill his target-- the other assassin, obviously identified by the last message.

Needless to say, I was bewildered by the action, or apparent lack thereof, and didn't give The Dumb Waiter much thought afterwards. Years later, in a college-level British literature survey, I had the opportunity (well, assignment) to read this early work by Pinter. While my appreciation certainly grew, I still found myself at a loss to say much of anything substantial about this play.

Since the opening of his first play The Room in the late 1950s, Harold Pinter has likely become accustomed to responses such as mine-- his first two plays, in fact, didn't last more than a week on stage. Despite my and others largely confused responses to Pinter's work, though, he has, in subsequent years, become internationally recognized as one of the most original and provocative playwrights of the late twentieth century. Thus, as I got off the Tube to walk a block to London's Hotel Russell on June 15th, I tingled with excitement. Not only had I been asked to present a paper on Pinter's The Homecoming, a play now considered a classic of contemporary British theater, but, in just over 24 hours, I and the other conference participants were going to join him for a reading of his newest play, Celebration, and then share drinks and a meal with him and his wife, Lady Antonia Fraser.

While the paper was important for my still-budding academic career, the evening with this literary legend stood at the forefront of my thoughts as I made my way to the hotel.

A few hours after reading my paper, I and the other guests stood around nervously holding our drinks as we awaited Pinter's arrival. Everyone was in a great mood, and talk and drink flowed freely. Yet, when our guest of honor entered the room, a hush literally fell over the room-- despite an unobtrusive entrance, Pinter's presence captured the roomful of people.

Once the initial shock of recognition wore off, we returned to socializing, although I and everyone else tended to look around the room quite a bit: who was he talking to? What was he drinking? Did he seem to be having a good time, surrounded by all these scholarly groupies?

We soon moved into the ornate Victorian ballroom where Pinter would read to us. As he was escorted in by Pinter Society President Dr. Ann Hall, we gave our guest a rousing round of applause as he took his place at the front of the room. The reading itself was magnificent as Pinter demonstrated his gift for acting (his first profession in the theater). Probably the most poignant moment of the evening, though, came at the beginning of his presentation: while he exhibited almost stereotypical British modesty in claiming that he was "a bit bewildered" by this international gathering in celebration of his work, he also had trouble holding back genuine emotion. I'm sure I saw him wipe away a tear as he began to read/perform Celebration.

I could go on: the thrill of having Pinter sign a newly-bought copy of Celebration, the generosity he exhibited as we lined up to shake his hand and ask for autographs and pictures, his making sure to say "Good night" to everyone before he left after dinner. As we watched him leave, I couldn't help but reflect on that Saturday afternoon, years ago, when I first encountered this man's work. I'll avoid any clichés about "coming full circle"; rather, I recognized that my own love of the theater, like that of many others, developed mainly because bright, talented people like Harold Pinter have chosen to share a bit of their insight into and passion for the complexities of love and loss, joy and pain-- in other words, those things that make us human.