Wedded bliss ... Harold Pinter and Antonia Fraser at their wedding in London. Photograph: PA
Does Harold Pinter's private life shed light on his plays?
Antonia Fraser's memoir of her life with Harold Pinter may focus on their marriage, but paints a revealing portrait of the dramatist too
Does knowledge of a writer's private life help to illuminate the work? It's an age-old question. But it's also one thrown into sharp relief by the publication of Antonia Fraser's book about her life with Harold Pinter, Must You Go?, which I wrote about at length recently. The book is obviously a personal memoir rather than a study of the plays. All the same, I'd argue it sheds a good deal of light on Pinter the dramatist.
I start from the belief that all information about a writer is helpful. In fact, one of the pleasures of writing Pinter's biography was discovering that virtually all his plays were triggered by some strong personal memory. This got me into trouble with some critics. I recall the late Martin Esslin, himself a great Pinter scholar, arguing that I had trivialised Betrayal by linking it to the dramatist's seven-year-long affair with Joan Bakewell. But, as I saw it, that was simply the play's genesis. Pinter's imagination then took over to create a complex drama about the infinity of betrayal. All I had done, I hoped, was remind people that Pinter was not an impersonal writer who began with an abstract idea.
That point also emerges from Antonia's book, which is revealing in myriad ways. There's a fascinating account of a dinner with Tom Stoppard where Pinter says that he doesn't plan his characters' lives and then asks his fellow dramatist: "Don't you find they take you over sometimes?", to which Stoppard firmly replies: "No." That says a lot. One reason that The Homecoming is a great play is that Pinter allows the character of Ruth, almost unconsciously, to take over and at the end achieve an ambivalent dominance. For all Stoppard's many virtues – such as a formidable intellect and a coruscating wit – he tends to keep his characters on a much tighter, almost Shavian leash.
Again, there's an eye-opening passage in Antonia's book where she recalls a moment in 1983 when Pinter harks back to his relationship with his late wife, Vivien: "While she was alive, if you think about it, so much of my work was about unhappy frozen married relationships." Not all of it, of course: in some cases, such as The Lover, Vivien was a very productive muse. But plays such as Landscape and, most especially, No Man's Land strike me as the result of a sad, barren period when the marriage was clearly on the rocks. It no more trivialises Pinter to say this than it does to suggest that Eliot's The Waste Land was influenced not only by his despair at modern civilisation, but also by his fraught first marriage.
In short – as Stoppard once wrote – information, in itself, about anything, is light. And modern biography, particularly in the hands of masters such as Michael Holroyd and Peter Ackroyd, has done literature a service by opening writers' lives to public gaze. For that reason, among many others, I welcome Antonia Fraser's book. It gives us the most intimate portrait of a contemporary dramatist I have ever read.