I remember reading one of my favorite writers, Harold Pinter, on the eve of my wedding at age 22. As tomorrow marks my fortieth wedding anniversary, I remain struck by how Pinter's method and themes, if anyone has ever adequately described them, reflected my life and mindset then, and still does. The ideas he expresses have always been rooted in my pathos, and they surface for the first time when his characters utter them.
Forty years ago today, I was living in a 500-square-foot, one-bedroom basement apartment in the Bronx, just a four-block walk from the noisy 180th Street train station, whose tracks ran behind a high concrete wall topped with barbed wire to the noisy 180th Street train station. In one semester, I would graduate with a B.A. in English from the City University of New York. My earnings as a part-time taxicab driver and homework tutor for a social services agency were not much more than $100 a week, which was not bad considering my rent was only $100 a month and the subway was 50 cents a ride. But my prospects of becoming a high school English teacher were dimming at a time when the New York City Board of Education was not hiring because of budget problems. The new responsibilities of becoming a husband, college graduate, and licensed teacher were weighing on me.
Yet without any good reason, I thought somehow everything would turn out all right. Even back then I knew that life was inexplicable. Just six years earlier, at 16, my ambitions as a denizen of the James Monroe housing projects were like those of many of my friends: to drop out of high school, find a job for six months, and figure out a way to get fired so that I could collect unemployment. I certainly had no idea that I would find a job with a nonprofit organization, where I would stay for 19 years before running my own communication consulting business for the past 20 years.
I saw my first Harold Pinter play at the Classic Stage Company's 1973 production of The Homecoming. I was 19, in my second year of college, liberated by having changed majors from business to English. I believed that since New York City was in its worst fiscal crisis ever, I had nothing to lose by focusing on what I loved. Sure I might not find a job right away. But why chase after a career I would later regret?
What I saw on stage that evening hypnotized me. I had no idea what these characters were talking about, but I knew every word was meaningful. Without seeing any overt act of violence or hearing one subversive statement, I was certain I had witnessed the most disturbing sort of subversive violence, the kind we either don't recognize or dare not acknowledge as violence. Without completely understanding the dialogue, I believed that the actors' words could not be more real. I walked away from that theatrical experience transcendent, realizing the limitless potential of drama to depict the human condition. I have measured every other play I've seen since The Homecoming against that standard.
Is this a review of Pinter's work? You bet. I cannot separate the very details of my life from The Caretaker, The Homecoming, Old Times, No Man's Land, Betrayal, Family Voices, Moonlight, and many of Pinter's other plays and sketches. His dramas unfold as my life has, does, and likely will.
The Essential Pinter: Selections from the Work of Harold Pinter offers a good starting point if for those new to this playwright's playwright. It includes a sufficient sampling of his plays to make readers want to discover more of them. The poetry does not reach the same level as the drama, but this volume also includes Pinter's defiant 2005 Nobel Prize controversial and underappreciated acceptance speech.