Harold Pinter’s perfectionism included ice-cream sales, letter shows

Harold Pinter was a perfectionist when it came to the theatre, even down to how an ice-cream seller should exit the auditorium, according to a previously unpublished letter.

Nel 1985, the dramatist directed the West End debut of Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth, starring Lauren Bacall, which opened on 8 July at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. Su 24 luglio, he wrote to Anthony Peek, the theatre’s then manager, praising the previous night’s performance: “It was in pretty good shape, ho pensato, and I am delighted that business is so splendid.”

But he went on to air two complaints: “The usher with ice-cream in the dress circle remained standing until the house lights went down. He then marched up the steps and closed the doors, thereby causing reflection of light on to the stage. Can he leave the post earlier, do you think?"

He also grumbled that the curtain had gone up 12 minutes late, “a great pity, come 98% of the audience is seated by 7.30”.

Pinter, che è morto in 2008, was one of the greatest modern dramatists, as well as an actor and director. Awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 2005, his masterpieces include The Caretaker, The Homecoming and The Servant.

The letter has been discovered by Thomas Edsall of leading antiquarian bookseller, the 19th Century Rare Book & Photograph Shop, in Brooklyn, New York. It had been buried in a box of Peek’s miscellaneous letters and Christmas cards, which the bookseller had acquired. Stapled to Pinter’s typed, signed letter is a carbon copy of Peek’s polite reply, accepting the criticisms.

Edsall told the Guardian: “The letter shows Pinter’s … attention to the most minute details relating to the staging of the play. The manager, Anthony Peek, a veteran of the West End, is undaunted by this giant of British theatre. He stands up for the theatre’s policy on the late start, but he admits that the matter of the ice-cream is indefensible, detto: ‘You are absolutely right about the usher’.”

Michael Billington, Pinter’s biographer and former Guardian critic, disse: “Harold was famous for being a perfectionist, particularly when it came to anything to do with rehearsal or performance. He was acutely aware and very conscious of noise and interruptions. He quite rightly wanted from an audience and everyone involved in a play absolute, 100% concentration. This is very much in keeping with his character.”

The discovery comes as a leading American director, Carey Perloff, is publishing a book about her close collaborations with both Pinter and Tom Stoppard on numerous US productions of their plays over several decades.

In Pinter and Stoppard: A Director’s View, published this week by Methuen Drama, Bloomsbury Publishing, she recalls that Pinter was so precise about his approach that he would point out if an actor had not paused sufficiently.

She also remembers that, when her new-born baby was in a carry-cot in a theatre’s dressing-room, he did not acknowledge the child until he needed a way to convey the relationship between a father and daughter.

She told the Guardian: “We were rehearsing Mountain Language, a play about a political prisoner who’s never seen his child. Peter Riegert, a wonderful actor, was playing the prisoner and he was having a hard time with the scene. He couldn’t personalise it. Finally Pinter … walked to the dressing-room, picked up the baby … and brought her into the room.

“He said very calmly: ‘Peter, now this is your child and you have been prevented from ever seeing her because of your politics … It’s completely specific. Now play the scene.’ Peter stared at this baby, started to cry and then he did the scene. Pinter picked the baby up and put her back in the dressing-room … The scene was always amazing after that.”

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