Much of our time on the Harold Pinter: Histories and Legacies project is concerned with locating, exploring and documenting ‘official’ historical traces of the life and work of Harold Pinter via various archives, libraries and published works. What we have also discovered however, is that a project of this scale focused on the creative output of one person is bound to uncover, solicit or otherwise happen across its fair share of personal, anecdotal insights. These are essentially memories – sometimes based on an individual’s personal experience and sometimes passed on through the ages – and as such represent some of the most unique but also some of the most contentious traces we as researchers have of people, performances or places that are now lost to us. Often, anecdotes tantalisingly purport to offer a first-hand or ‘insider’ perspective on theatrical titans like Pinter, but at the same time are charged with the risk of misremembrance and fabrication.
(Hi)story Telling: Anecdotes and Historical Practice
This mix of fascination and fallibility means that anecdotes have occupied a contested role in historical practice and discourse. In his survey of the evolution and application of anecdotes in history, Lionel Gossman explains that anecdotes have ‘always stood in relation to the longer, more elaborate narrative of history, sometimes in a supportive role, as examples and illustrations, sometimes in a challenging role, as the repressed of history’ (‘Anecdote and History (2003), p. 143). Despite – or perhaps because of – this duality, Malina Stefanovska positions the anecdote as ‘the matrix of any (hi)story telling and the very substance of historiography’, defining the anecdote as ‘a short, and sometimes humorous account of a true, interesting, if minor, event’ (‘Exemplary of Singular? The Anecdote in Historical Narrative’ (2009), p. 16).
But what role do anecdotes play in theatre history specifically? As Aoife Monks has explored, in theatrical contexts these stories most frequently pertain to actors, either as individuals or, by extension, the professional as a whole. In ‘Collecting Ghosts: Actors, Anecdotes and Objects at the Theatre’, she explains how,
‘Influenced by the post-structuralist interrogation of grand narratives, new historicist scholars aimed to unsettle the received methods of literary analysis by deploying the anecdote. However, while the anecdote may function to unsettle the official narratives of literary history, the theatrical anecdote functions rather differently, gesturing to the relative absence of official histories of acting. Rather, it is the sketches, reminiscences and tall tales relayed by theatrical raconteurs, published in collections, reinvigorated in programme notes and museum displays that are at the heart of the way in which the acting profession has narrated its own history’ ((2013), p. 148).
While anecdotes pertaining to Pinter’s acting career certainly feature in the various records of his life and work, more ubiquitous are those concerned with his demeanour, particularly as a writer and director. As with most anecdotes, these tales of Pinter are often shared in good humour and with great affection for their subject. Nevertheless, they tend to recount the more taciturn, intractable or inscrutable facets of Pinter’s personality. This is important because, as Monks points out, anecdotes ‘capture a moment of reality, but immediately transform this ‘real’ event into an exemplary stand-in for the theatre’s past and future’ (Monks, pp. 149-150). The cumulative effect of anecdotal evidence concerning individual people like Pinter is to create a specific version of that person. They become the primary way that those who did not know Pinter personally imagine him to be; that is, gruff, direct and single-minded.
Writing for The Independent in 2007, critic Paul Taylor recounts,
There’s a story (possibly apocryphal) that when Harold Pinter was lobbying to have the Comedy Theatre renamed the Pinter Theatre, Tom Stoppard’s response was to ask: “Have you thought of changing your name to Harold Comedy?” It’s a rib-tickling anecdote because Pinter is not exactly a byword in the public mind for the ability to see the funny side of himself. On the other hand, he can be a very funny writer. (The Independent, 5 February 2007)
The notion of Pinter’s supposed inability to ‘see the funny side’ resonates with other first-hand encounters with Pinter, such as those found in the Questor’s archive pertaining to the company’s 1959 production of The Birthday Party that I discussed in a previous post. Recounting her memories of the play’s opening night, Ffrangcon Whelan, Questors member and wife to the late Peter Whelan who played Stanley in the production, recalls,
[T]he author seemed so fed up and depressed at the bad critical reaction the play had received [during its West End premiere]. When Pinter had seen the first night he was then depressed again as he did not like the production. Peter [Whelan] somehow seemed to be amused by this, I think because Pinter was so vehement.
Fellow Questors member Jo Irvin (née Arundel) who starred as Meg in the production similarly recalls Pinter’s less than favourable response to the show as well as his trademark reluctance to offer further clarification or guidance on approaching the play:
At the time we were all a bit bewildered by it, and waited for Pinter to give us a clue or two, but he remained quiet at the audition, and continued to be so, when [director Michael] Almaz outlined his ideas for the play, and the set. […] Pinter turned up for the first night, as I remember, and although he had been told about the set becoming less and less during the play, and said not a word … he was in the bar yelling his head off because of it, much to the amusement of the bar staff, who had no idea who he was and why.
Over the course of the project, members of the public have contacted the Histories and Legaciesresearch team directly to share their own Pinter anecdotes and again, a similar ‘character’ or version of Pinter appears. One such memory was shared with us by Michael Dore, son to theatre director Alexander Dore who directed Mixed Doubles: An Entertainment on Marriage in 1969 and which featured a short sketch by Pinter, Night. Michael recounted the origins of that work to us, recalling how one night before the show’s transfer from the Hampstead Theatre Club to the Comedy Theatre,
[M]y father took Vivien [Merchant] back to the house in Regents Park she shared with Harold […] whereupon they again set about asking Harold to write a piece for the show and Vivien getting more irate stating that all the time they had been together Harold had never written anything for her. With this Harold stormed off upstairs. About 45 minutes later he comes stomping down the stairs throws a bunch of papers at Vivien and states that “if you can’t play that then you’re not the actress I thought you were”. My father said they did not have to edit a single thing and produced it exactly as he had written. When my father was directing Night he kept asking Harold if he felt the “pauses” or silences implied in the writing were to Harold’s taste but as usual Harold would make no comment as he did with all other directors of his works.
Michael, it transpires, was in the room during this exchange: ‘I was a friend of their son and was waiting for my father to pick me up’. Pinter’s reticence to offer clarification or instruction in the staging of his work is now – thanks in no small part to anecdotes like these – the stuff of legend. As Michael’s memory suggests, this is particularly true in relation to the infamous ‘Pinter pause’ or his use of silences. Another story shared with us by a member of the public, Gillian Gehring, underscores this further while also offering a striking comment from Pinter himself:
I attended the 1962 NUS Drama festival as part of the group from Manchester University [who]brought The Birthday Party to the Festival and in the discussion afterwards Pinter attacked our production. He was particularly outraged because not all the words were audible in the birthday scene. The producer defended himself by saying that at a party not everything is audible but memorable phrases rise up out of the general hubhub. This produced a really memorable response from Pinter. “All the words I write are meant to be heard. If I had meant there should be general background noise I would have written that. There are two kinds of silence: the silence where nothing is said and the silence that is covered up by a torrent of words”. […] As we filed out from the discussion one of our group heard another student comment to a friend: “Well that’s a good reason to perform only plays by dead playwrights!”
Quite the Character
Of course, stories like these are inherently partial, offering a valuable but not definitive insight into their subject. What is striking, however, is how when read collectively these stories work to construct a version of Pinter that is not dissimilar to some of his own characters. Perhaps that is part of their function and appeal, to collapse the distinction between the man and the work? To imbue his plays with a sense of their author and, by turn, ensure Pinter retains certain ‘character’ traits?
Anecdotes, then, are an essential and complex – though still often overlooked – part of sharing and assuring the status of a given actor, writer or institution.They not only contribute to shaping popular understandings of these key people and places, they create these understandings, functioning as partial, personalised histories. In reflecting and reiterating some of Pinter’s personality traits, these stories also constitute their significance and work collectively to place Pinter somewhere between person and persona, author and character.
My sincere thanks to Ffrangcon, Jo and John at the Questors Theatre and to Michael and Gillian for sharing their memories of Pinter and allowing me to reproduce them here.
If you have your own story about Pinter that you’d like to share, you can get in touch with me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.