Harold Pinter is that rare writer whose name has inspired an adjective: "Pinteresque,'' generally taken to suggest anxious, unsettling scenes of cryptic dialogue and long silences.
"I think it has to do with everything that is unsaid, with a portentous world where anything can happen,'' says Todd Olson, producing artistic director of American Stage, which this week is presenting its first play by the English playwright, Betrayal.
There are other author-adjectives, of course, such as Orwellian, Kafkaesque and Chekhovian, terms that are more or less universally understood, but "Pinteresque'' has inspired a veritable cottage industry of word parsing. Google it and up pops everything from academic formulations ("pause + failure to communicate + a threat shrouded in everyday speech'') to novelist Margaret Atwood's poetic description:
"A comet, but a comet shaped like hedgehog or a blur, not a cosy presence: not comforting, not cuddly, nor flannel. Prickly, bothersome, mordant and dour. Always unexpected, coming on you sideways with an alarming glare.''
When Pinter was awarded the 2005 Nobel Prize in literature, Swedish writer Per Wastberg took a shot at defining his style in the presentation speech:
"The abyss under chat, the unwillingness to communicate other than superficially, the need to rule and mislead, the suffocating sensation of accidents bubbling under the quotidian, the nervous perception that a dangerous story has been censored — all this vibrates through Pinter's drama."
Just don't ask the playwright himself what "Pinteresque'' means.
"Pinter hates it, the term,'' says Francis Gillen, co-founder and co-editor of the Pinter Review, a scholarly journal on the playwright published by the University of Tampa. It's where Atwood's meditation appeared in the 1999-2000 edition.
Pinter fiercely resists explaining his work. "I can sum up none of my plays,'' he says. "I can describe none of them, except to say: 'That is what happened. That is what they said. That is what they did.' ''
Pinter, 77, has written 29 plays. One of his earliest, The Birthday Party (1958), in which two menacing strangers arrive at a seaside boarding house, was met with critical assessments that ranged from "half gibberish'' to "a baffling mixture.'' But since The Caretaker (1960), about the relationship of two brothers and a tramp who comes to stay with them, he has been recognized as a profoundly original voice in the theater.
Pinter's work is often compared with that of Samuel Beckett, author of masterpieces such as Waiting for Godot and Endgame (which Pinter has called the perfect play). "Pinter is far less abstract than Beckett,'' Gillen says. "With Beckett, his characters are symbolic. Where Pinter has gone beyond Beckett is to put flesh on these characters and make them recognizable to an audience. I think he pulls in an audience that is greater and more widespread than those drawn to Beckett.''
Pinter, who has also written 26 screenplays (The French Lieutenant's Woman and Betrayal were nominated for Academy Awards), influenced several generations of playwrights, including Joe Orton, David Mamet and Neil LaBute. His last stage play was Celebration in 2000, not long before the playwright was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus, for which he was successfully treated, though he has been in ill health. Recent works include a volume called Six Poems for A, written for his wife, the writer Antonia Fraser, and the screenplay for the remake of Sleuth.
Pinter has long been politically outspoken, especially in his strident anti-Americanism and opposition to the war in Iraq. In his Nobel lecture, he denounced U.S. foreign policy as guilty of "systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless'' crimes. He has called President Bush a "mass murderer'' and compared his administration with Nazi Germany.
Betrayal (1978) is about a seven-year adulterous affair. The story is told backward, starting with the end of the affair and closing with the hopeful beginning.
"I think Betrayal is a great play for American Stage to start with,'' Gillen says. "It is probably the most accessible of Pinter's full-length plays. It is very funny. Audiences laugh a great deal.''
Betrayal is based on an affair Pinter had in the 1960s with the wife of a BBC producer who championed the playwright's work. "The play is full of all kinds of betrayals,'' Gillen says. "Jerry and Robert have betrayed each other, they've betrayed their wives, but they've also betrayed their youthful idealism. They had both wanted to be writers, poets. One becomes an agent, the other, a publisher.''
The play's nine scenes are loaded with the famously pregnant Pinter pauses, about 140 of them written into the script.
"Pinter is all subtext. That's what his silences come out of,'' Gillen says. "It's like the characters are playing poker. Pinter says that we don't speak to reveal ourselves very often. We speak either to project an image or to hide ourselves.''
Pinter's pauses can last as long as 10 seconds. "I directed Betrayal once before about 11 years ago, and I found the pauses and the silences and the little action he includes to be like a musical score,'' Olson says. "There is a lot of weight on us to create this very active inner life. So the things we are not saying are as compelling as the things we are saying.''
Telling the story backward is an ingenious concept, most prominently matched in theater by Stephen Sondheim's musical Merrily We Roll Along. The movie thriller Memento unfolds in reverse order. On TV, Seinfield had an episode that paid homage to Pinter, called The Betrayal, which took place in reverse chronological order.
Gillen says the backward structure is more than a gimmick. "By starting at the end, the play becomes a little bit like a Greek tragedy. By knowing the end of the story, we get the irony of the closing in which all the youthful, romantic expectations have been betrayed. By doing this in reverse order, we see that somehow things have gotten lost, and we don't quite know where and how.''
The American Stage cast for Betrayal includes Julie Rowe as Emma, Kevin Bergen as Jerry and Drew DeCaro as Robert. The sound design features music of Philip Glass. "I find that Glass' work matches Pinter's in a way,'' Olson says. "Both are simultaneously very rich and very economical. There's so much to delve into, to listen to, in both of them.''
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716.