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December 30, 2008

Most Celebrated "Angry Young Man" Dies

Roy Meachum

Sir Harold Pinter may not have been the leader of Britain's "Angry Young Men" playwrights and novelists, but he was certainly the most prominent. He died last week, on Christmas Day.


The body of his work won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2005, although he hadn't produced a significant play for almost 40 years. In his creative days, he certainly mirrored the era. In 1967, I first reviewed "The Birthday Party," directed by Davey Marlin-Jones, at the now deceased Washington Theatre Club; the remembrance of that exposure to Sir Harold's language and the daring silences have remained ever since. And the bitter frustration recalled.


In post-World War II England anger raged, although generally beneath a veneer of good manners. The English are so bloody polite. Who wouldn't be peed-off? They entered World War II as citizens of Great Britain that came out less than great. The Germans ate more and better food and jingled more coins in their pockets.


Moreover, the members of the former Third Reich boasted: "Who really won the war?" They smirked, particularly after the 1948 currency reform that catapulted their D-Mark among the world's strongest money. I heard them. I went into Germany when hundreds of bodies still lay unburied. I came out in the winter of the Berlin Airlift.


Four years later my troopship docked at Southhampton where the bodies were tucked away underground and the debris and twisted remnants of buildings and homes still stood, though tidied up. Many of our former allies obviously hated my American uniform, making bad faces as I approached; they reminded me of the wartime bitter saying: "The Yanks, over here, over paid and oversexed."


Under pressure from the United States, started during the war by Franklin D. Roosevelt, London yielded its empire; pressure from individual colonies helped. Losing Egypt and India may have hurt the most; they were the highest diamonds in the imperial crown.


Britain's failure to retake and hold the Suez Canal, in 1956, demonstrated London's fall from pretensions of world power. Its partners in the outrageous grab suffered different fates. Paris plunged into the coalition as part of its struggle to keep Algeria, which collapsed six years later and precipitated the virtual surrender in Vietnam. While the prime agitator for the invasion, Israel underwent no trauma: its policy has been, from its birth, to keep neighboring nations nervous and off-balance.


Meanwhile, in the first election after Germany collapsed, voters replaced Winston Churchill's Conservatives, meaning the middle class and nobility, with Clement Atlee's Labour Party. Tantamount to socialists, they undertook leveling barriers that amounted to a caste system that was predicated, not only by income and birth, but the way a person spoke. From Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalion" – later to become the "My Fair Lady" musical – foreigners understood Cockneys talked funny. Eric Knight's Flying Yorkshire man, Sam Small, was equally undecipherable to outsiders' ears.


Language was the chink in traditionalists' armor that provided entry into the class war for Sir Harold who was born to a Jewish father, who tailored for a living. Robert Osborne's play, "Look Back in Anger," set the mood. Having seen many of Mr. Pinter's works, I doubt that he was angry at society, as Mr. Osborne obviously was. Britain's sole Nobel laureate for playwriting focused more on troubled individuals and their reactions to those around.


News of his demise reached my ears on Boxing Day, the day following Christmas so beloved of the British, as a second holiday. And I remembered an after-Kennedy-Center-show drink after a performance by Robert Shaw and wife Mary Ure; I can't recall the play they were in. He's best known by American audiences for a mesmerizing role in "Jaws."


Our conversation sitting in a Pennsylvania Avenue bar decorated by circus artifacts had much to do with the "angry young men." A distinguished British actress on her own, Mary had been married to Robert Osborne; he called that day and evidently much of the talk centered on their very good friend, Harold Pinter.


Not yet knighted, it seems that the future Nobel laureate was suffering depression. He had been married for a number of years to actress Vivien Merchant, who received high praise for bringing Mr. Pinter's stage women to life. It could be said, 16 years after the wedding, theirs was not a happy house. In 1980 after legally severing their bond, he took to wife the distinguished author, Lady Antonia Fraser. She wrote critically acclaimed and best selling histories. (Two years later Ms. Merchant succeeded in drinking herself to death.)


Lady Antonia announced Christmas Day she was a widow. Never part of the post-war anger, she laid to rest what may have been the most distinguished survivor of the literary era that marked dimming the lights for "great" in the still self-proclaimed Great Britain.


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