On a grisly London evening last October, as the Victorian street lamps of Holland Park were flickering in the twilight, I arrived too early for an appointment at Harold Pinter’s handsome town house. Pinter, who is seventy-seven, and who, for the past five years, has battled esophageal cancer and a rare skin disease that has twice brought him near death, had insisted that I come by, even though he’d been ill earlier in the week. “Better strike while the iron is hot,” he’d said. I could see him through the high, arched window of his living room, parked in an armchair by the fire, almost sculptural. A walker was strategically positioned behind him. For decades a dynamo—the author of some thirty plays and two dozen screenplays, the director of more than twenty productions, and an influence on such dramatists as Heathcote Williams, Joe Orton, David Hare, and David Mamet—Pinter was winding down.
Over the years, Pinter’s work has inspired a journal (The Pinter Review), added words to the English language (the Oxford English Dictionary lists “Pinteresque,” “Pinterism,” “Pinterian,” and “Pinterishness” as acceptable terms), won dozens of awards, including the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 2005, and made him an object of perpetual public fascination in Britain. (His recent performance in Samuel Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape,” at the Royal Court—he began his career as an actor—sold out its entire run in sixteen minutes.) No other British playwright since Noël Coward has so dominated and defined the theatrical landscape of his time. Even Coward, who hated the New Wave that put him out of fashion, considered Pinter an exception. “Your writing absolutely fascinates me,” he wrote to Pinter in 1965 after seeing his third full-length play, “The Homecoming.” “You cheerfully break every rule of the theatre that I was brought up to believe in, except the cardinal one of never boring for a split-second. I love your choice of words, your resolute refusal to explain anything and the arrogant, but triumphant demands you make on the audience’s imagination. I can well see why some clots hate it, but I belong to the opposite camp—if you will forgive the expression.”
I leaned against a wall rereading “The Homecoming,” which was what I’d come to discuss with Pinter and which was about to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of its début on Broadway with a new production at the Cort Theatre (directed by Daniel Sullivan). The paperback copy of the play that I held in my hands had been purchased during the Broadway début, at the Music Box, under the sensational direction of Peter Hall, in 1967. I’d seen the show on a Tuesday, bought the play at intermission, and returned to the Wednesday matinée to notate the blocking.
“The Homecoming” changed my life. Before the play, I thought words were just vessels of meaning; after it, I saw them as weapons of defense. Before, I thought theatre was about the spoken; after, I understood the eloquence of the unspoken. The position of a chair, the length of a pause, the choice of a gesture, I realized, could convey volumes. In 1967, I didn’t know quite what I’d seen; I knew only that the play’s spectacular combination of mystery and rigor had taught me something new about life, about language, about the nature of dramatic storytelling. Pinter had taken the narration out of theatre: “The Homecoming” offered no explanations, no theory, no truths, no through line, no certainties of any kind. I was drawn to the charisma of the work in the same way that Pinter—I later learned—had been compelled by Shakespeare. “You are called upon to grapple with a perspective in which the horizon alternately collapses and re-forms behind you, in which the mind is subject to an intense diversity of atmospheric,” he wrote in “A Note on Shakespeare,” in 1950, six years before he started to do a similar thing with his own plays.
I was teaching night school when I first saw “The Homecoming,” and I wanted to use the play in my class. I wrote to Pinter in care of the theatre. To my amazement, he replied. We met at Sam’s, near the Music Box, on Forty-fifth Street. I was twenty-six. I had never met a playwright before. I couldn’t have known then how frequently our paths would intersect over the decades: “The Homecoming” was the subject of my first book; for a few years in the early eighties, Pinter’s son, Daniel Brand, from whom he is now estranged, was a tenant in my house; and my friend and downstairs neighbor in London, the director Karel Reisz, was probably the best interpreter of Pinter’s later plays and the director of one of Pinter’s best screen adaptations, “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” (1981). While Reisz and Pinter were working on their screenplay, Pinter’s silver Mercedes convertible was often parked outside our house. Once, just before a work session, my wife and our four-year-old son, Chris, sat at Reisz’s kitchen table with Pinter as he held forth in his commanding manner. When Pinter left the room, Chris turned to us and asked, “Is he a policeman?” “No,” his mother said. “He’s a very good writer.” “Can he make a ‘W’?” Chris asked. (Pinter alluded to that incident in his introduction to Volume IV of his “Plays”; “One of the most interesting—and indeed acute—critical questions I’ve ever heard,” he wrote.)
“The Homecoming” is the last and best play of Pinter’s fecund early period (1957-65). It is a culmination of the poetic ambiguities, the minimalism, and the linguistic tropes of his earlier major plays: “The Birthday Party” (1958), whose first production lasted only a week in London, though the play was seen by eleven million people when it was broadcast on TV in 1960, and “The Caretaker” (1960), an immediate international hit. “The Homecoming” is both a family romance and a turf war. A professor of philosophy, Teddy, returns to London after six years in America to introduce his wife, Ruth, to his father, a butcher named Max, to his uncle Sam, a chauffeur, and to his brothers, Lenny, a pimp, and Joey, an aspiring boxer, all of whom haunt Max’s cavernous living room, a sort of cave for the barbarians within.
By contrast, Pinter’s living room is capacious and elegant, overflowing with books, family photographs, paintings, and flowers. The first time I met Pinter to talk about “The Homecoming,” he was dressed in a black leather jacket, a black turtleneck, and black pants; forty years later, he was still in black, except for a raffish pair of pink wool socks that he wore, he explained, for circulation reasons. Pinter has always been as vigilant about his look as about his prose. He is not a dandy; he is an actor in the habit of watching himself go by. The beloved only son of a Jewish East End tailor, he was, even as a young man, what might then have been called “natty.” Black, his favored color, set him apart and generated an aura of authority about him; it also worked as a kind of spotlight, focussing the viewer’s eye on the sharp features of his large head. Like his plays, the young Pinter combined an external formality with an internal ferocity.
Even now, recuperating from illness, he had an exactness, a scrupulousness of mental focus, that generated a palpable tension. In his negotiations with the world, Pinter always seems braced. “There is a sense of danger about him all the time,” Peter Hall, who has directed seven of Pinter’s plays, including “Betrayal” (1978), the best drama of his middle period, told me. “Although he’s the most good-hearted and generous man, people are frightened of him. He has this stentorian voice and a very rich vocabulary. He also has a kind of physical presence. You can quite see him hitting somebody.” When I leaned forward to pour the wine that had been set out for us, Pinter took the bottle away from me. “I can still pour a glass of wine,” he said.
The author’s position is an odd one,” Pinter said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. “The characters resist him; they are not easy to live with; they are impossible to define. You certainly can’t dictate to them. To a certain extent, you play a never-ending game with them, cat and mouse, blind-man’s bluff, hide-and-seek.” In “The Homecoming,” Pinter’s game of hide-and-seek begins with the play’s ironic title. Whose homecoming is it? At first glance, it seems to be Teddy’s. Or is it Ruth’s? As we discover, she was born nearby. Ruth knows the lay of this desiccated land, with its reservoirs of furious disappointment. Her comfort in this milieu is what makes credible her eventual outrageous decision to leave Teddy and her three children and stay in Max’s female-starved household. In this neglected environment, Ruth, at last, feels needed. In one way or another, she is the object of each man’s hidden desires: the aging Max wants to feel potent; Sam wants company; Joey wants to be nurtured; and Lenny wants a trick to put on the game. Sensual, elegant, and private, Ruth hides her anger behind a façade of self-control—which Pinter makes clear, in a scene in which she encounters Lenny on the night of her arrival. Ruth knows Lenny’s argot; she reads the vulnerability behind his brazen aggression. Later, when Lenny tries to take a glass of water from her hand, Ruth calls his bluff. She holds her glass toward him:
RUTH: Have a sip. Go on. Have a sip from my glass.
He is still.
Sit on my lap. Take a long cool sip.
She pats her lap. Pause.
She stands, moves to him with the glass.
Put your head back and open your mouth.
LENNY: Take that glass away from me.
RUTH: Lie on the floor. Go on. I’ll pour it down your throat.
LENNY: What are you doing, making me some kind of proposal?
She laughs shortly, drains the glass.
“”The Homecoming” ’s territorial free-for-all is waged with a rhetorical panache that is almost Jacobean in its richness and its ferocity. Its vulgar verbal impasto created a stage sound that was entirely new. Pinter, according to David Hare, “cleaned the gutters of the English language.” “He kicked the whole thing down,” David Mamet said. Nowhere in the decorous restraint of postwar British theatre could you hear, for instance, anything approaching the brio of Max’s roaring tirades at his “wet wick” brother: “One lot after the other. One mess after the other. . . . Look what I’m lumbered with. One cast-iron bunch of crap after another. One flow of stinking pus after another.” Until Pinter, contemporary British playwrights had purveyed a series of well-made forms of exposition. Terence Rattigan admonished society in neatly resolved problem plays; John Osborne hectored Britain and took its temperature; Noël Coward made charm his solution; Arnold Wesker sent a Socialist message through his characters, and T. S. Eliot a Christian one. “The attitude behind this sort of thing might be summed up in one phrase: ‘I’m telling you,’ ” Pinter said in 1962.
Pinter’s plays, on the other hand, offered no exhortations, no admonitions, no solutions, no common ground among people. “I think there’s a shared common ground all right, but that it’s more like a quicksand,” he wrote. “We are faced with the immense difficulty, if not the impossibility, of verifying the past. I don’t mean merely years ago, but yesterday, this morning. What took place, what was the nature of what took place, what happened?” Pinter’s plays reënact this difficulty of knowing. “Meaning which is resolved, parceled, labelled and ready for export is dead . . . and meaningless,” he wrote in a letter to the first director of “The Birthday Party,” in which he refused to explain his characters. In another letter, to a British theatre magazine, in 1958, Pinter wrote, “To supply an explicit moral tag to an evolving and compulsive dramatic image seems to me facile, impertinent, and dishonest. Where this takes place it is not theatre but a crossword puzzle. The audience holds the paper. The play fills in the blanks. Everyone’s happy. There has been no conflict between audience and play, no participation, nothing has been exposed. We walk out as we went in.”
At the brilliant finale of “The Homecoming,” as Ruth is enthroned in Max’s chair, with the new order established and the men grouped around her, Max falls to the floor and sobs; he crawls toward Ruth, who is stroking Joey’s hair like a lap cat. “I’m not an old man,” Max says. “Do you hear me? Kiss me.” As the curtain falls, it is clear that the distribution of power among the people onstage is poised to change. But neither the characters nor the audience knows what that rearrangement will be. Earlier in the play, Lenny tells a tall tale about having beaten a woman who was “falling apart with the pox.” Ruth punctures his story with a practical question: “How did you know she was diseased?” “How did I know?” Lenny says. “I decided she was.” The truth, in other words, is anybody’s guess. Meaning is what you make it. (Pinter’s refusal to draw conclusions in his plays means that some productions capitulate to the anxiety of the unknown. When the curtain came up on a Bulgarian staging of “The Homecoming,” he thought he was in the wrong theatre. “A large man and a small woman were running around the stage, looking into a lighted house,” he said. “They kept coming back, these two, in various guises and modes.” These additions turned out to be two frequently invoked but always offstage characters—MacGregor, Max’s legendary mate, and Jessie, Max’s faithless wife.)
The territorial battle being waged in “The Homecoming” is ultimately not about the house or the woman but about whose perception of reality will prevail. Teddy, a professional maker of meanings, insists, “I’m the one who can see. That’s why I can write my critical works.” Ruth, however, has a physicality that overrides Teddy’s epistemology. “Look at me,” she says. “I . . . move my leg. That’s all it is. But I wear . . . underwear . . . which moves with me . . . it . . . captures your attention. . . . The action is simple. It’s a leg . . . moving. My lips move. Why don’t you restrict . . . your observations to that? Perhaps the fact that they move is more significant . . . than the words which come through them.” The thrill of the play is its realization of Pinter’s aesthetic: a precarious balance between ambiguity and actuality. “There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false,” Pinter said in his Nobel speech. “A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.” This paradoxical approach forces both the actors and the audience to play harder. Both are drawn into a highly charged dramatic metaphor in which, as Pinter said, “everything to do with the play is in the play.”
The characters’ parries, challenges, and volte-faces are violently emotional improvisations, whose drama is only underscored and heightened by Pinter’s signature pauses. “The speech we hear is an indication of that which we don’t hear,” he once wrote. “It is a necessary avoidance, a violent, sly, anguished or mocking smoke screen which keeps the other in its place.” “When we were rehearsing ‘The Homecoming,’ ” Peter Hall told me, “I remember Paul Rogers saying to me, very early on, ‘What’s all this about the pauses? We decide where the pauses are.’ And I said, ‘No, you don’t. Not anymore. The author has decreed where the pauses are. It’s our job to find out why they’re there.’ ”
“One pause is quite unlike another pause,” Pinter said suddenly as we were talking, then stopped. “There, I just paused. That didn’t take me very long. A pause can be a breath. What it has to do with is thought: what has just been said and how to respond to what has been said. Pauses are not musical devices. They should be natural.” Pinter’s wife, the historian and biographer Lady Antonia Fraser, describes pauses as “the curse of Pinter.” Pinter has sometimes cursed them as well. He attended a rehearsal for one all-star production of “The Homecoming” (with Pierre Brasseur, Emmanuelle Riva, and Claude Rich, at the Théâtre de Paris) that he thought ran an hour too long. “They took my word ‘pause’ literally,” he said. “It was an extremely tedious enterprise.”
“The Homecoming” is a summation of the iconoclasm and the truculence that brought Pinter to the peak of his writing career. When he was a young man, anger defined him. “I’d never met anyone like this before,” Dilys Hamlett, an early girlfriend of Pinter’s, told his biographer Michael Billington. “I always have an image of Harold striding down the street in his navy-blue coat with a rage against the world. But it was also a rage for life, a rage to do something, a rage to achieve something.” By the time he was twenty, Pinter had renounced Jewish orthodoxy, military service (he was a conscientious objector), and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art; by the time he was thirty, he had abdicated the principles of contemporary dramaturgy.
He wrote “The Homecoming” in six weeks in 1964. “It kind of wrote itself,” he said. He remembers being surprised by the process and laughing a lot at the toxic, belligerent family that was emerging from him. By then, Pinter had got together enough money to move, with his first wife, the actress Vivien Merchant, and their infant son, from a cramped flat in Chiswick to a bow-fronted Regency house in Worthing, on the Sussex coast. The magnificent barrenness of the play’s North London setting was imagined as he sat at his writing desk overlooking gardens, within earshot of the sea.
When Pinter finished the play, he gave it to Joe Brearley, the inspirational teacher who had first introduced him to drama when he was still a student at Hackney Downs Grammar School, in the mid-forties. (Brearley had also cast Pinter as Macbeth in a school production in which he got national attention—“Master Harold Pinter made a more eloquent, more obviously nerve-racked Macbeth than one or two professional grown-ups I have seen in the part of late years,” Alan Dent wrote in the News Chronicle.) Brearley had been adopted as an honorary paternal member of Pinter’s close-knit gang of friends, whose competitive camaraderie played a crucial part in his coming-of-age, and he happened to be visiting Pinter in Sussex. “I gave him the play to read,” Pinter recalled. “I waited in another room. About two hours later, I heard the front door slam. I thought, Well, here we are. He doesn’t like it. About an hour later, the doorbell rang. I answered it. He said, ‘I had to get some air.’ He said, ‘It is your best.’ ”
Pinter, on some level, agrees. “I think it’s the most muscular thing I’ve written,” he told me. “I delight and relish in language. I certainly did with ‘The Homecoming’ to an extent that I probably haven’t done in any other play.” Pinter, who wrote poetry long before he attempted a play, creates drama like a poem, working entirely out of the unconscious. He starts with an image or a phrase; he teases it out, listening and rearranging until the words suggest a character and the character suggests an action. In an early note for “The Homecoming,” he scrawled the word “jealousy.” Beside it, like a sort of rhyme scheme, he wrote:
A of B and C
C of B and A
B of A and C
When the characters finally arrive on the page, Pinter knows no more than what they tell him. As he told a group of drama students in 1962, “You and I, the characters which grow on a page, most of the time we’re inexpressive, giving little away, unreliable, elusive, evasive, obstructive, unwilling. But it’s out of these attributes that a language arises. A language, I repeat, where under what is said, another thing is being said.” In this sense, Pinter took the actor’s understanding of subtext and turned it into a metaphysic. This discovery allowed him to distill and reconfigure the inspiration of Samuel Beckett—he was reading Beckett from 1950 on—into his own distinctive rhythmical, alliterative idiom, which made a drama of utterance, not explanation, and where the appearance of reality was an uncompromising dissection of the unknown. Mamet, speaking of Pinter and Beckett, said, “They did what few dramatists have done in modern times: they construed the drama not as the interplay of ideas but as the interplay of sounds. That is, they understood the drama as a poem, which had the capacity to move, as does a real poem, musically—to affect on a pre-rational level.”
“Over the previous ten years, there’d been quite a lot of talk about the regeneration of theatre in poetic terms—Eliot, Fry, Auden,” Hall told me. “Harold seemed to me to encompass all that and more. He should be seen as a poetic dramatist. It’s the use of words in an extremely disciplined, contained way. It uses, in fact, all the time-honored devices of rhetoric, but it doesn’t parade them. Harold didn’t want something that made a statement, because a statement was lacking in ambiguity.” After years of performing thrillers and melodramas in repertory, Pinter also wanted, he said, “nothing from the bargain basement” of boulevard entertainment.
For “The Homecoming,” he began with a sentence, the play’s opening words: “What have you done with the scissors?” “I didn’t know who was saying it,” he said. “I didn’t know who he was talking to. Now, the fellow he was talking to—if he had said, ‘Oh, I’ve got them right here, Dad,’ there would have been no play. But instead he says, ‘Why don’t you shut up, you daft prat?’ Once that’s said, there’s a spring of drama, which develops and follows its own course. I had no idea what the course was going to be. I hadn’t planned anything. In the back of my mind, I think I knew there was another brother going to come back. I think I saw them quite early in a big house, with the doors being taken down, leading to a stairway. I saw them moving in that space.”
“An old house in North London”: “The Homecoming” ’s first stage direction situates the play both in an internal landscape and in the atmosphere and the idiom of Pinter’s Hackney youth. “It’s all to do with me in some way or another,” he said in a television interview in 1965. “You’re not consciously looking back to Hackney, to the life, the values, the threats. Not at all. . . . But it’s a world related to you, otherwise you wouldn’t write it.” The play’s dialogue, a kind of constant face-off between characters, is lifted from the Cockney lingua franca with which Pinter and his mates used to tease each other, as well as the local fascists who bullied them. “We’d go into one of their cafés and say, ‘Cup of tea and a sort-out, please,’ ” Pinter’s longstanding friend the actor Henry Woolf told me. “We had a few encounters. I’ve seen Harold hold off a whole mob of them.”
Even then, among his friends, Pinter was a pathfinder. “He was extremely adventurous,” Woolf said. “I must give him credit for that. We were just beginning to trot, and he was galloping. Socially, sexually, he was precocious. He was sniffing around London.” In “The Homecoming,” the characters also bowl around London—the docks, the West End, Eaton Square, Wormwood Scrubs. Like the claustrophobic dereliction of Max’s house, Hackney was, for Pinter, “a kind of prison.” In time, that oppressiveness fuelled a group exodus. One of Pinter’s closest friends, Morris (Moishe) Wernick, having secretly married, immigrated to Canada, where he taught high-school history; eight years later, in 1964—just before “The Homecoming” was written—Wernick returned for the first time to introduce his wife and his children to his father. That situation was Pinter’s springboard. Max was also fabricated partly from Pinter’s Wernick-family memories. “The image of Moishe’s father in cap and plimsolls was one I carried with me,” he told Michael Billington. “I knew him to be a pretty authoritarian figure. A really tough old bugger.” When Woolf saw the play, he called the resemblance “otherworldly.” “Harold had captured the tone of the voice and the environment,” he said. “There was just the same sniff in the kitchens of the two houses.”
The success of “The Homecoming” catapulted Pinter into an unmooring few years. In 1964, he moved Merchant and their son into an imposing six-story town house on Hanover Terrace, overlooking Regent’s Park. “Nobody just rings the door and comes in,” he said. Antonia Fraser told Billington, “It was the grandest house I’ve ever been in. . . . Every room was immaculate with this terrible silence.” As Pinter’s circumstances changed, so did his plays. They became smaller in scale, more internal, more mannered and abstract. (Only in his late masterpiece “Moonlight,” of 1993, did Pinter provide a metaphor as searing and complete as in “The Homecoming.”) Increasingly cut off by his celebrity from the roiling world that had made him, Pinter soon hit an impasse. “I am writing nothing and can write nothing,” he said, while accepting the Shakespeare Prize, in 1970. “I don’t know why. It’s a very bad feeling, I know that, but I must say I want more than anything else to fill up a blank page again, and to feel that strange thing happen, birth through fingertips.” He added, “When you can’t write, you feel you’ve been banished from yourself.”
Pinter waited out his unconscious by hiring himself out as a director and screenwriter between plays. The screenplays—including “The Quiller Memorandum,” “The Go-Between,” “Accident,” and “Langrishe, Go Down”—allowed him to practice his craft and bide his time until his own characters returned.
In the forty years since the début of “The Homecoming” on Broadway (it received a lukewarm critical reception before becoming a cause célèbre), the play has gone from controversy to classic. As one of drama’s preëminent stylists, Pinter has had the good fortune to live long enough to instruct other theatricals about his idiom and to have enjoyed a number of first-rate productions of his work. In the beginning, “The Homecoming” was a vexing avant-garde conundrum; now it’s essential reading on every modern-theatre syllabus. Time has made the audience and the actors more aware of Pinter’s game; this relaxation allows for a greater appreciation of the gusto of his humor, as well as of his intellectual daring. Among the many pleasures of the current Broadway revival—a fine ensemble, adroit playing, limpid interpretation—the most piquant is the revelation that the play is profoundly funny.
Laughter can excuse many things; here, it triumphs over Eugene Lee’s misjudged set, which sits like a lean-to in the middle of the Cort’s wide stage, flanked on either side by flats designed to look like shiny black brick walls—which have neither the whiff of authenticity nor the appropriate atmosphere of collapse. This incongruity is not as bothersome, however, as the set’s lack of containment—there are no sidewalls—which allows the psychic pressure of the jousting to dissipate somewhat. “What do you think of the room? Big, isn’t it?” Teddy (the excellent James Frain) says, when he introduces Ruth (Eve Best) to the place. The line is startling not because the room is vast but because it isn’t. From the tattered hallway wallpaper and the exposed beams above the living room’s threshold, it’s clear that Max’s house is dilapidated; however, it is still, to my eyes at least, overdecorated, with a colored pitcher and glasses, a mirror, Joey’s dumbbells visible under a record-player. The set does little to enhance the play’s minimalist resonances, but at least it doesn’t impede the nuance of Pinter’s language, which like all great poetry yields up more insight with each viewing.
There are many tasty interpretations here—the punishing punctilio of Michael McKean’s Sam, the lapdog loneliness of Gareth Saxe’s Joey—but Eve Best’s Ruth is the most revelatory. The original Ruth—Pinter’s first wife, Vivien Merchant—was memorable but arch. Best is soft and accessible, which makes Ruth’s battened-down alienation all the more exciting. At one point in Act II, Ruth, perched on the arm of a chair, looking into the middle distance, and holding a cup of coffee, begins to tell Max about her past. “I was . . . different . . . when I met Teddy . . . first.” “No, you weren’t,” Teddy says. “You were the same.” Teddy refuses to see Ruth as she is. Best turns her head away; her cup chinks against the saucer. The sound, like that of a stone dropped into a well, registers the depth of the distance between them.
Best’s articulate energy raises Frain’s game. His Teddy unearths from the script’s buried treasures something new to me: he makes us see the ruthlessness of Teddy’s indifference. Teddy doesn’t give a damn about Ruth. (“You can help me with my lectures when we get back,” he says, by way of trying to lure her home to their American life.) Just as Teddy comes downstairs with their bags packed, Lenny (Raúl Esparza) asks Ruth for a dance. They sway together to a moody tune, then they kiss. As Best pulls out of the embrace, her head tilts back as if she were gulping water after a long thirst. The moment is terrific. Ruth’s desire is finally both acknowledged and answered. Because Best is able to chart this emotional desert with such depth and precision, Ruth’s final line to Teddy as he leaves—“Don’t become a stranger”—illuminates the enormity of her perverse revenge, at once devastating and tormenting.
Ian McShane, as Max, knows the Pinter terrain well; he gets all the music he can out of Max’s scatological rants. Max’s vituperative gas, as McShane deftly demonstrates, is a coverup for his sexual inadequacy. McShane’s biggest acting challenge—he’s a handsome, virile sixty-five—is to make the audience believe in both Max’s age and his impotence. McShane pulls it off, but some padding in his costume and some cumbersome weight on the cane that he brandishes with a majorette’s aplomb wouldn’t go amiss.
“I’ve stopped writing plays,” Pinter told me, as our conversation was drawing to a close. “I’m weary.” The previous week, he’d gone to the hospital for a brain scan. “You know what you’ll find in there,” he had told the lab technician. “A lot of unwritten plays.” I asked him if writing required a ferocity that he no longer had. Pinter smiled wanly. “I still have quite a bit of ferocity knocking around,” he said. “It’s how to embody it.”
Pinter’s literary strength—his easy access to his own turbulent internal climate—has also been his public weakness. The press, which has consistently berated him for what it portrays as his vainglorious diatribes, has never quite understood that his arrogance is the flip side of his brilliance; you couldn’t have the big artist without the big mouth. “I’m well aware that I have been described in some quarters as being ‘enigmatic, taciturn, terse, prickly, explosive and forbidding,’ ” Pinter said in 1995. “Well, I do have my moods, like anyone else.” To call Pinter’s outbursts “moods” is like calling a tsunami a wave. Pinter, like his characters, is porous; bellicosity is the firewall that he has built against threats to his interior, whether from people or ideas. On the page, his volatility has made art; in life, all too frequently, it makes headlines. It can be argued that Pinter’s dramas, with their undermining of authority and their dissection of the power plays in group dynamics, are essentially political. (The 1984 play “One for the Road” and 1988’s “Mountain Language,” among others, are specifically political plays.) In the last twenty years, as the gaps between plays have grown longer, Pinter has channelled some of his anger onto the world stage. Nothing if not unpredictable—he voted for Margaret Thatcher in 1979 (“the most shameful act of my life,” he later said)—he has lent the muscle of his voice to a variety of causes, among them the Sandinistas, the freedom of Slobodan Milosevic, the end of the Iraq war, and the trial of Tony Blair as a war criminal. But his preëminent target is American foreign policy. “The crimes of the United States have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless, but very few people have actually talked about them,” Pinter said in his Nobel speech. In the rhetorical fulminations of his political poetry, he has aspired to smash through America’s self-portrayal “as a force for universal good.” “American Football,” a salvo against the 1991 Gulf War, ends almost as “The Homecoming” does:
We blew their balls into shards of dust,
Into shards of fucking dust.
We did it.
Now I want you to come over here and
kiss me on the mouth.
For such outcries, Pinter has found himself both lambasted and lampooned. But, since the conferring of the Nobel, and since the fiasco of the current Iraq war has borne out some of Pinter’s dire warnings, the tabloid teasing has diminished, though not Pinter’s attitude toward it. “Fuck the press,” he told me, leaning slowly forward. “That is exactly what I felt then, even more so what I feel now.” He paused. “They can just go fuck themselves,” he said.