1957 and all that
Sixty years ago, Harold Pinter’s first play The Room was performed in a converted squash court at the University of Bristol. Pinter’s school chum Henry Woolf was studying drama there in one of the first postgraduate cohorts of the first University drama department in the country, and asked if Pinter were able to supply a play for him to produce on his course. Pinter had previously told Woolf of his encounter, during a party in 1955, with Quentin Crisp in his apartment on Beaufort Street, Chelsea, in which he observed Crisp witter merrily on a range of subjects while cooking eggs and bacon for a second larger man who remained silent throughout, reading a comic. Pinter at the time indicated to his friend that he had felt compelled to write a play inspired by the scene, but had never yet done so. Woolf’s request prompted Pinter finally to put pen to paper in his digs in Torquay in November 1956, where he was staying while touring as an actor in Philip Barrett’s New Malvern Company. He later recalled sending the manuscript off to Bristol just three or four days later. Woolf remembers it took just two.
In May 1957, Woolf’s production inaugurated Harold Pinter’s career as a playwright, with just two performances on 15 and 16 June 1957. It attracted Pinter’s first review, in the Bristol Evening World, which noted that the play offered ‘a strange macabre atmosphere, a commendable quality of natural-looking dialogue, and a dramatically powerfully climax which stabs at the conscience’ and recommended that Pinter ’should go on writing’.
The Room has received a number of revivals over the decades, and was most notably paired with Pinter’s last play, Celebration, at the Almeida Theatre, London, in March 2000 (dir. Harold Pinter). Henry Woolf returned to play the role of Mr Kidd that he had first interpreted 43 years previously. When the University of Leeds put on the play as part of the Artist and Citizen: 50 Years of Performing Pinter conference in 2007 (dir. Katie Read), Woolf flew over from Canada and revived the role once more on the stage of the Workshop Theatre.
Sixty year after that first play, and the Harold Pinter: Histories and Legacies project has begun, with an aim to survey those sixty years of Pinter’s output for stage, screen and radio. Starting with The Room at Bristol in 1957, we aim to capture the details of every professional (and selected non-professional) production of Pinter’s works in the UK, and include TV and radio broadcast of his works and film releases. We’ll be interviewing actors, directors, designers and others who have been involved with productions, collating and digitising archival materials and making as much public and searchable as we might. We’ll be arranging a series of events, publishing traditional and alternative digital outputs and be making arrangements with Schools and theatres. Subscribe to this blog to learn more of what we’re up to, and follow us on social media.
You can see the 2009 BBC4 Arena programme ‘The Room’ on Box of Broadcasts. This documentary, which features Henry Woolf, considers how the rooms in which Pinter wrote his dramas impacted on the works. (start at the 2:16 point)
The Theatre Archive Project at the British Library captured the memories of a number of participants in that first 1957 production. Hear them online or read the transcripts of those interviews:
David Davies (Mr Sands)
Susan Engel (Rose Hudd)
Julia Kellerman (assistant stage manager)
Ruth Serner (backstage)
Auriol Smith (Mrs Sands)
Henry Woolf (Producer and Mr Kidd)
Featured image: Henry Woolf, by Mark Taylor-Batty