Harold Pinter: A Nobel Career on Stage

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

It's been 36 years since an English-language dramatist won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Perhaps more startling for Los Angeles theater-goers is that its been 33 years since a Harold Pinter play has been staged at the Taper or Ahmanson--a regrettable error that seems quickly to be corrected after today's announcement that Mr. Pinter is the recipient of the 2005 Nobel Prize.

Pinter's work, even is it hasn't been seen for a while at the Music Center, has not been completely ignored here in Southern California. Productions of his well known works, such as The Homecoming and Betrayal, pop up at local theaters from time to time. About four years ago, a small troupe called The Lost Studio even began a Pinter Project with plans to stage all of the British playwright's work. I have fond memories of their modest production of The Caretaker so perhaps today's announcement by the Swedish Academy will motivate the small troupe to continue that ambitious venture.

But L.A.'s greatest Pinter moment had to be back in 1985 when the playwright himself came to Los Angeles to star in his 1971 work, Old Times. Pinter played opposite Liv Ullman for three weeks at the Henry Fonda Theater on Hollywood Boulevard and all reports suggest that Pinter was excellent in the role of Deeley. One might think that he should be-after all he wrote the part-but playwrights are usually not very good actors. Pinter is an exception.

Unfortunately, this Theatre Talker was in Little League when Pinter was on stage here at the Fonda, but I did catch up with him four years ago, the last time he performed in this country. The occasion was Lincoln Center's 2001 Pinter Festival, which featured numerous productions of the playwright's work, two of which, I will never forget. One was The Gate Theatre of Dublin's staging of The Homecoming, starring Ian Holm as Max; the other was One for the Road, a short, later work with Pinter himself playing the ruthless interrogator.

Pinter the actor is a throwback to the old school of British acting-he's not afraid of big gestures and his technique is less &quotmethod;" and more &quotshowman.;" Pinter has reportedly retired from writing, but earlier this week it was announced that he'll be acting at the Royal Court in London next season. He'll star in Krapp's Last Tape, a play by Samuel Beckett, the last English-language playwright to win the Nobel and a great mentor, not to mention friend, of Mr. Pinter.

(Those not planning a trip to London next year can get a taste of Pinter's acting on DVD in the film The Tailor of Panama, where he plays the small role of Uncle Benny.)

Of course, Pinter's acting was not what the Nobel committee awarded with its prize, it was his writing, and in the next few weeks, there will no doubt be pages upon pages commenting on Pinter's famous silences, terse dialogue, ambiguous themes, and of course, his left-wing activism.

But politics aside, let's focus on Pinter the performer because his greatness as playwright really stems from his acting. In his twenties, before Pinter started writing, he was a full-time actor, performing in touring shows up and down the British countryside under the stage name David Baron.

Whether performing Shakespeare in Leeds in the 1950's or performing his own work in Los Angeles in 1985, Pinter was not only bringing theater to new audiences, he was also enriching his own knowledge of the stage-which his why his work over the years has continued to stay theatrical.

Not theatrical in the sense of big, flashy visuals (which is how that word is often used today) but theatrical in the sense that his plays thrive on conditions that can only take place in a live performance. Pinter's evolving mastery of how to manipulate these conventions stem directly from his years spent acting, director, and writing for the stage.

Harold Pinter's Nobel Prize is a great moment for modern drama, but his achievement speaks to the necessity of the seemingly trivial notion of professional touring companies and traveling productions that got him started-and that later brought him here to Los Angeles. Politics may have helped make him Nobel's man of the moment, but Harold Pinter is first and foremost, a man of the theater.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.