It’s just a common stage direction indicating a moment of silence. Except in the iconic plays of Harold Pinter, who died Wednesday.
A Pinter pause - and the two words are synonymous - wasn’t so much a break in the action as a cue to the actor that the real action, the action of human revelation, should now commence.
Very few writers rise to the level of the adjective. There’s Shakespearean (meaning a drama of epic theme and scope), Shavian (at least partly a consequence of George Bernard Shaw’s self-promotion) and maybe Mametian (a rapid-fire spew of profanity).
But everybody in theater, literature or film knows the term Pinteresque.
It implies a drama of mystery, enigma, ritualistic behavior and (above all) menace, all taking place in a seemingly innocuous and immediately recognizable setting.
Paradoxically, mountains of words are being penned this week about a playwright who used words most sparingly. And the major works of Pinter, a beloved and closely scrutinized figure in academe, had already been analyzed within an inch of their lives.
But in some ways, Pinter’s biggest contribution to the literature of the 20th century is deceptively simple to define.
After the Second World War - when the dawning Nuclear Age appended a new sense of our own mortality - writers such as Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco began penning darkly comic dramas of existential angst. But with a play such as, say, Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” you always knew you were in a metaphoric, metaphysical universe. As distinct from a world one actually inhabited oneself.
Pinter took many of those same themes - the absurdity of our existence, our affinity for animalistic and repetitive aggression, intergenerational competition, the prowling circles of our lives - and set them in the kinds of places we all knew well.
A rundown seaside boardinghouse in “The Birthday Party.” A West London flat in “The Caretaker.” A North London house in “The Homecoming.”
A pub, flat, restaurant and hotel in “Betrayal.”
For the most part, Pinter’s plays unspool realistically. “The Homecoming,” for example, concerns the return home to England of an American academic, replete with exotic new wife.
The character types are recognizable, the proceedings credible, especially to anyone who has lived abroad - or journeyed into another social class - and come back home for a visit.
But that’s merely the veneer of the play. Underneath, relationships fester, congeal and simplify. Before you know it, you’ve left that shoddy flat and arrived in some kind of primal jungle where the combatants shoot words as weapons and desire nothing but complete, suffocating, sexualized control of their fellow traveler.
Whether the production is in London’s West End or at the University of Illinois, on Broadway or in a community theater, onstage or on the screen, the principal challenge of realizing a Pinter text is always the same. Anyone doing Pinter has to make us believe both in the reality of his world while exposing the primal emotions and actions under its surface.
It is that simple and that difficult.
It is in that tension, that duality, that the heart of his work lies. It is that tension that is the undoing of all but the best productions of his work.
The connection between Pinter and the European absurdists was first popularized by the scholar Martin Esslin. He included Edward Albee in that analogy. And indeed, Albee is as close to an American Pinter as America has. But Pinter was a working-class Londoner. And that social reality rooted him to an ordinary floor, however deep his plays would dig.
You can understand why the Steppenwolf Theatre Company was one of the major producers of Pinter in Chicago. Pinter may have been an English playwright, but his blend of naturalism and primal subtext was always a fertile hunting ground for Jeff Perry, Gary Sinise, John Malkovich and their restless cohorts. For actors who liked to write their own texts, the sparseness of the Pinter landscape was ideal. There was so much to be filled in.
There is more to Pinter, an avowedly non-political playwright who became a political activist late in life. There is mastery of time, drama and form, perhaps most visible in his brilliant 1981 screenplay for “The French Lieutenant’s Woman.” There is a lighter side - such as his screenplay to the Anthony Schaffer play “Sleuth.” There is his long love affair with his second wife, Lady Antonia Fraser. And his last stage play, “Celebration” pokes some fun at himself and others’ perceptions of him. Many playwrights - Mamet being the most prominent example - affect a certain snide disdain for those who analyze and interpret their work. Not so Pinter.
On Christmas Day, Ann C. Hall, the president of the Harold Pinter Society, described the object of much of her life’s study as generously supportive.
“During a conference I hosted in London many years ago,” Hall said, “Pinter attended, met with every conference attendee, and when a participant from Israel and a participant from Egypt ended up next to one another in line, he said, ‘You two need to talk to one another.’”
Toward the end, this man who knew so much about the basest human motivations became primarily interested in social justice, human dignity, reconciliation and in pressuring obfuscating and lying governments to tell the actual truth.
He always knew all the tricks. And when to stop the noise.