To those who knew him, Harold Pinter was more than a gifted playwright.
Published Jan. 4, 2009|Updated Jan. 5, 2009

Editor's note: Frank Gillen is the Dana Professor of English at the University of Tampa and the editor of the Pinter Review.

My grief over Harold Pinter's death on Dec. 24 is both public and private - sorrow for the loss to the theater, for his wife, Lady Antonia Fraser, and all who loved and admired him, and, finally, for the passing of a friend.

Harold Pinter changed theater forever in ways that have yet to be fully realized. He created a body of work that will be performed as long as there is theater, one that will continue to perturb and keep audiences thinking and questioning well after they have left their seats.

His work transcends efforts to classify it because it requires every individual who watches a Pinter play to surmise, often differently from the people sitting next to him or her, what is being said underneath what is being spoken.

Pinter understood that the most significant dramas of our human lives take place in that region, that language hides more often than it reveals, and that the deeper the emotion the more inarticulate it is likely to be, often not even rising to speech but forcibly present in the silences between words and sentences, in what is not said much more than what is spoken.

American actors and audiences alike are not used to subtext, and Pinter is all subtext.

Harold Pinter's politics, personal and international, might be said to have grown out of that intuitive understanding of language and its relation to perception. As one of my students at the University of Tampa wrote just a few weeks ago in her exam on Pinter's The Homecoming, "We are what people see us to be, what they call us - if we let them." His most famous play, The Homecoming indeed dramatizes a woman's struggle to find a space in which to be herself - all that she is - amid differing and partial male perceptions of women.

The seemingly esoteric terms used to describe Pinter's plays - menace, absurdity, the struggle for dominance - really rise out of the disconnection we all feel from time to time between our self-perception and the way others see us. That disconnection becomes menacing when those others have or seem to have power over us, and doubly menacing when others control the language which frames the perceptions, and when the words to express who we are have not yet become culturally or even personally available.

The only recourse, and the source of tension in Pinter's drama, is the refusal to be named by another or restricted by inadequate language - in short, the famous Pinter pauses and silences.

Pinter's overt politics are based on that same sense of disconnection - one that most of us have become aware of since our invasion of Iraq - between what a country like ours (though Pinter was an equal-opportunity critic of all such countries) claims to be doing, our words, and what a country's actions demonstrate as the unspoken reality.

Privately I have many fond memories of Harold Pinter, and will mention a few of them only to show how different he was from the angry person many felt him to be. I think first of his great kindness. When the late Martin Esslin recommended I read the as-yet unpublished manuscript of Pinter's early novel The Dwarfs for an essay I was publishing, Pinter had his secretary hand me the only existing copy to take away and bring back when I was finished.

When we talked over lunch about the scholars who would not have the funds to get to London to use the archive of Pinter manuscripts in the British Library, he allowed me to publish in the Pinter Review the successive drafts of The Homecoming.

In 1987 when I, along with fellow Pinter scholar Steve Gale, began to publish the Pinter Review at the University of Tampa, Harold was grateful for what he called the journal's "serious attention to my work." He felt that for the most part the British press, with a few notable exceptions like the Guardian's Michael Billington, wasted far too much print on his personal affairs and treated his plays superficially.

Starting with Moonlight, he began sending me his plays and screenplays when he finished them, before they were produced, and, as I quickly found out, expected a thorough, intelligent commentary in return.

Moonlight is one of Pinter's more difficult plays and, flattered and wanting to write back clever things, I sat on the script for two weeks. On a Sunday morning while I was at church at nearby St. Brendan's in Clearwater, the phone rang at home. When my late wife, Marie, answered, Harold boomed in his stage voice, "This is Harold Pinter, and I want to know what Frank thinks about my g-- d----- play."

Marie assured him that we both liked it, that I would return the call as soon as my devotions were over, and then skillfully turned the conversation to our recent lunch with him in London. Needless to say, my replies to successive scripts were prompt.

About his own view of the meaning of his work, Harold never gave anything away. His response to five or six pages of critique was usually something like "I am glad you liked my play" or "Thank you for your interesting comments."

Only twice did he hint that I had "gotten it." When he wrote just once that I had a "golden understanding" of one of his political plays, I was ecstatic for weeks. He told me after a lunch at which we both had drunk quite enough that the Pinter Review would really come of age when we could print that one of his plays was "a piece of crap." I never took that seriously, and, as a matter of fact, when I did publish an article recently that was somewhat critical of him, he returned a line-by-line rebuttal and thanked me for "the rest of the volume."

I last saw Harold Pinter in Turin, where I gave a talk at the ceremonies surrounding the awarding to him of the Europe Theatre Prize in 2006. He was frail, for one of the sad ironies of his life was that just when he was receiving the honors of that and the Nobel Prize in Literature, his health was declining.

His spirits, though, were high. I shall never forget him waving at all of the cultural representatives of the European Union the cane he had used to walk on stage, reprimanding them for not understanding the ultimate powerlessness of military power.

Nor shall I forget sitting with him and a few close friends in the hotel bar until the early hours of the morning. He was more open than I had ever seen him be. When he finally tired and had to leave, he hugged Marie and me and the others, looking into us with those deep, piercing eyes.

I know that mine was a friendship on the fringes of his life, that he was most at ease with old friends and fellow actors like Jeremy Irons, who had flown over from England that evening just to read from Harold's work at the ceremonies. Pinter's friendship was an unearned grace given me, one that, with my memories of him, and his work, will always be a part of my life.