This Day In Literary History
On October 18th, 1773, the legendary African-American poet Phillis Wheatley was emancipated from slavery. She was born in Gambia, Senegal sometime in 1753. At the young age of seven, she was captured by slave traders.
Phillis was shipped to Boston, Massachusetts. Not long after she arrived in America, (which was still under British rule at the time) she was sold on the auction block to John Wheatley, a wealthy merchant and tailor.
He bought the little girl so his wife, Susanna, could have her own personal servant. Since she had come on a slave ship called The Phillis, she was given the name Phillis Wheatley.
The Wheatley family was known for their liberalism and progressive ideas, one of which was that slaves should be taught how to read and write. That was a very controversial idea, especially in the Southern states.
In the South, it was actually illegal to teach a slave to read and write. And the idea of any female receiving an education was highly unusual and considered radical in 18th century America.
Nevertheless, little Phillis began her education, tutored by the Wheatleys' teenage daughter, Mary. As the lessons continued, Mary was amazed by the little slave girl's intellectual gifts and hunger for learning.
John Wheatley was so impressed he decided that Phillis' education should take precedence over her work as a slave. Most of her household chores were done by other slaves.
By the time she was twelve, Phillis Wheatley had become fluent in Greek and Latin, translating difficult Biblical passages from those languages into English.
She began studying the works of Alexander Pope, John Milton, Virgil, Homer, and Horace, which would kindle her passion for poetry and influence her own writing.
In 1773, the Wheatleys sent an ailing Phillis, accompanied by their son Nathaniel, to London to recover her health. There, she would meet the Lord Mayor of London and other prominent members of British society. She dazzled them with her poetry.
Phillis' admirers couldn't believe that a Boston publisher had refused to publish her work simply because she was a black slave. She made some powerful new friends, including the Countess of Huntingdon and the Earl of Dartmouth.
With their help, her classic poetry collection, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was finally published - not in Boston, but in London. It became a huge hit in England.
Later that year, in October of 1773, Phillis Wheatley was emancipated from slavery - freed by the family that owned her. Unfortunately, under Massachusetts law, she would not gain her full rights as a free woman until her former master died.
Phillis' poetry went practically unnoticed in America until 1775, when her poem To His Excellency George Washington was published. Washington read the poem and was moved by her words.
Washington was so moved, in fact, that he invited Phillis to his home so he could thank her personally. The legendary writer and philosopher Thomas Paine republished her poem in the Pennsylvania Gazette.
Another of her admirers was the legendary Scottish-American naval hero John Paul Jones, who had an officer deliver some of his own writings to "Phillis the African favorite of the Nine [muses] and Apollo."
Phillis supported the American Revolution. Unfortunately, during the revolution, Americans lost interest in poetry, devoting most of their reading time to newspapers, magazines, pamphlets and other publications related to the war.
In 1778, John Wheatley died, and Phillis became a legally free woman with full rights guaranteed and protected by Massachusetts state law. Sadly, for her, freedom wasn't much of a blessing.
She married John Peters, a free man and grocer, but the marriage was rocky as John's financial mismanagement plunged them into poverty. After John was sent to debtor's prison, Phillis took a job as a scullery maid to support herself and their sickly infant son.
The backbreaking work took a toll on her already frail health. Phillis Wheatley died of illness on December 5th, 1784, at the age of 31. Her infant son died a few hours later.
Phillis is rightfully considered the founding mother of African-American literature. As a black writer and intellectual, she disproved the racist theories used to justify slavery.
She summed up her views on slavery and race in these lines from her classic poem, On being brought from Africa to America:
Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there's a God, that there's a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
"Their colour is a diabolic dye."
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train.
Quote of the Day
"The world is a severe schoolmaster, for its frowns are less dangerous than its smiles and flatteries, and it is a difficult task to keep in the path of wisdom." - Phillis Wheatley
Today's video features a complete reading of Phillis Wheatley's classic poetry collection, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. Enjoy!
Wednesday, October 18, 2017
Tuesday, October 17, 2017
This Day In Literary History
On October 17th, 1903, the famous American writer Nathanael West was born. He was born Nathan Weinstein in New York City. His parents were German-speaking Russian Jews who had emigrated from Lithuania.
Although his lifelong passions for reading and writing began in childhood, West had little interest in school. He dropped out of high school, then gained admission into Tufts College by forging his high school transcripts.
Expelled by Tufts, West got himself into Brown University by submitting the transcripts of another Tufts College student with the same name. He spent more time at the library than in the classroom, and read extensively.
Uninterested in contemporary American fiction, West became enamored with the French surrealists and English and Irish writers. The legendary Irish playwright, poet, and novelist Oscar Wilde was a huge influence.
West determined to become a writer himself, and began working on his first novel while studying at Brown. After barely graduating and obtaining his degree, he went to Paris and stayed there for a few months.
Disturbed by the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe (and America) in the mid 1920s, he changed his name to Nathanael West. After returning home to New York City, West completed the first draft of his novel.
The Dream Life of Balso Snell was published in 1931. An experimental, surrealist allegorical novel, it told the story of the title character, who happens upon the fabled Trojan Horse sitting in the grass around the city of Troy.
After he finds a way to get inside the giant wooden horse, Balso Snell enters the structure. Inside, he encounters a series of strange characters whom he realizes are "writers in search of an audience."
The characters also represent various religious, political, and artistic ideals. Snell listens to each of their stories and rejects them one by one in a nihilistic fashion. The novel is filled with juvenile and often scatological humor.
The Dream Life of Balso Snell received mostly negative reviews at the time of its publication and was commercially unsuccessful. Today, it's recognized as an important first work by a major talent. The best, however, was yet to come.
Unfazed by the reaction to his first novel, West began work on his second. He had taken a job as night manager of the Hotel Kenmore Hall in Manhattan, which provided him lots of downtime he could use for writing.
West's second novel would make his name as a writer. Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) is a surreal, expressionist black comedy. The main character is an unnamed male newspaper columnist known only as Miss Lonelyhearts because he writes the paper's advice column under that name.
Miss Lonelyhearts loathes his job. His co-workers consider him and his column a joke. Though he writes the column because he needs the money, he can't help feeling for his fellow New Yorkers who besiege him with their desperate and often disturbing letters.
Driven to drink and despair, Miss Lonelyhearts tries various means to cope with his miserable life. He takes up religion, takes his fiancee Betty out on trips to the countryside, and engages in affairs with unhappily married women. Nothing helps.
After Miss Lonelyhearts has an affair with Mrs. Doyle, he meets her poor, crippled husband. The Doyles invite him to dinner, where Mrs. Doyle grotesquely tries to seduce him again. He snaps and beats her, and she falsely accuses him of trying to rape her.
The novel ends with Mr. Doyle going to Miss Lonelyhearts' apartment to take revenge on him. He hides a gun inside a newspaper. After spending three days in bed sick, Miss Lonelyhearts recovers and awakens to have a religious epiphany.
When he sees Mr. Doyle, he runs over to embrace him. Doyle's gun goes off and both men tumble down a flight of stairs. Miss Lonelyhearts would be adapted as a feature film, a TV movie, a Broadway play, and an opera.
Nathanael West published his third novel, A Cool Million, in 1934. He bought a farm in Pennsylvania, then gave it up and moved to California when he got a job as a contract screenwriter for Columbia Pictures.
West would write or co-write over a dozen screenplays. The pay was good and he needed the money, as he had been barely scraping by on his novel royalties. By the time his fourth and final novel was published, he had been writing B movies for RKO Radio Pictures.
The Day of the Locust (1939) is considered by many to be West's masterpiece. This surreal black comedy about the dark side of 1930s Hollywood was inspired by the author's time spent working as a Hollywood screenwriter.
The characters include Tod Hackett, a talented young artist who has come to Hollywood to work as a set painter. He does this to support himself until he becomes a famous artist. Faye Greener is a beautiful young aspiring actress.
Faye's father, Harry Greener, is an aging, failed actor and former vaudeville comic who earns a meager living as a door to door salesman. Despite all the doors slammed in his face, Harry, the ultimate huckster, pushes on, oblivious to the effects of his job on his frail health.
Homer Simpson (yes, that's really his name) is a good natured oaf who's not very bright. Also a neurotic depressive, he has come to California for reasons of health. The poor, pathetic Simpson will become the most tragic character in this dark and grotesque story.
Other memorable characters include Abe Kusich, a conceited midget actor with a huge chip on his little shoulder, and Adore Loomis, an obnoxious aspiring child star with a talent for blues singing and a stage mother so ambitious (and demented) that she passes him off as a girl, hoping he'll become the next Shirley Temple.
The price of stardom - the depths one would sink to in Hollywood in order to reach the height of success - is one of the main themes of the novel. Another theme is the garishness of excess.
One film producer keeps a lifelike, life sized dead horse made of rubber at the bottom of his swimming pool. Mrs. Jenning, a retired silent film star, runs a brothel, where she also screens pornographic films for her guests.
Faye Greener is the catalyst for the tragic undercurrent of the story that drives it to a shocking and brutal conclusion. She's a thoroughly amoral young woman, a manipulative sociopath willing to do anything and use anyone to get what she wants.
Of course, Tod ends up falling in love with her, but grudgingly settles for friendship, recognizing her amoral nature. He fantasizes about raping Faye or physically harming her in other ways as both a subconscious attack on her immorality and an attempt to suppress his secret desire to be just like her.
Homer Simpson also falls in love with Faye, but unlike the more realistic Tod, the poor, deluded Homer actually dreams of marrying Faye, settling down, and starting a family with her. When he accidentally discovers Faye having casual sex with a would-be actor called Miguel the Mexican, his delusion is suddenly shattered.
Homer decides to return to his Iowa hometown, but in the novel's violent, surreal ending, he wanders the streets in a state of shock and happens upon a crowd gathering outside a theater for a major movie premiere. While he stares blankly at the crowd, Adore Loomis appears and teases him yet again.
Homer's mind finally snaps, and in the novel's most shocking scene, he literally stomps the child to death. When the crowd sees Homer attack Adore, they riot and descend on him like a plague of locusts, killing him. Tod tries to save Homer, but gets lost in the milling throng.
The Day of the Locust was adapted as an acclaimed feature film in 1975. Directed by John Schlesinger from a screenplay by Waldo Salt, the film starred William Atherton as Tod Hackett, Donald Sutherland as Homer Simpson, and Karen Black as Faye Greener.
In 1940, Nathanael West married Eileen McKenney, sister of writer Ruth McKenney and the inspiration for Ruth's classic short story collection My Sister Eileen, which would be adapted as a Broadway play and a TV series.
Sadly, in December of 1940, while West and Eileen were driving home to Los Angeles from a hunting trip in Mexico, they ran a stop sign and collided with another car. They were both killed. West was 37 years old, his wife Eileen only 26.
Never a huge critical or commercial success as a writer during his short life, after his death Nathanael West would be rightfully recognized as one of the best American writers of the 1930s.
Quote Of The Day
"I have spent my life in books; literature has deeply dyed my brain its own color. This literary coloring is a protective one - like the brown of the rabbit or the checks of the quail - making it impossible for me to tell where literature ends and I begin.” - Nathanael West
Today's video features a photo essay on Nathanael West. Enjoy!
Monday, October 16, 2017
Hi, I have a story out in The Rumpus today, "The Whole World Is Desert."
My review of Androcide - Intel 1 Series, Book 5 by Erec Stebbins, has been published by the Internet Review of Books.
Joanna M. Weston
A prose piece up at Lost Paper; the theme is 'red'. Scroll down as they are alphabetical by first name.
Theresa A. Cancro
A flash piece of mine appears on the Lost Paper blog this month, "flash: RED short-shorts on a theme." Joanna Weston is also there. It's arranged alphabetically by writers' first names.
Friday, October 13, 2017
This Day In Literary History
On October 13th, 1943, the famous American poet Robert Lowell was sentenced to a year in prison for evading the draft. A conscientious objector, he refused to be drafted.
He opposed saturation bombings and other tactics used by the Allies that targeted civilians in enemy countries, which he saw as crimes against humanity. He served his time at New York's West Street jail.
Robert Lowell was born into a prominent Boston family whose ancestors included William Samuel Johnson, (a signer of the United States Constitution) Calvinist theologian Anne Hutchinson, the second governor of Massachusetts, and two passengers on the Mayflower.
Lowell sought to separate himself from his family's history and rejected their Episcopalian religious tradition, converting to Catholicism.
Although his new faith would influence the writing of his first two books, Lowell left the Catholic Church not long after his second book was published in 1946.
Lord Weary's Castle (1946), a poetry collection, won Robert Lowell a Pulitzer Prize at the age of 30. It featured one of his classic poems, The Quaker Graveyard In Nantucket.
Like the other poems in the book, it featured Lowell's trademarks: rigorous formality, violent imagery, and powerful use of meter and rhyme. A good example can be found in these lines:
The bones cry for the blood of the white whale,
the fat flukes arch and whack about its ears,
the death-lance churns into the sanctuary, tears
the gun-blue swingle, heaving like a flail,
and hacks the coiling life out: it works and drags
and rips the sperm-whale's midriff into rags,
gobbets of blubber spill to wind and weather.
Lowell returned to Boston in 1954 after living abroad for several years. He became involved with the Beat Generation of writers and artists, watching other Beat poets such as Allen Ginsberg perform readings.
He incorporated their open, confessional narrative voices into his own more formal style of poetry. In his 1959 poetry collection Life Studies, Lowell wrote of his breakdown, his struggle with mental illness, and the breakup of his marriages.
In the 1960s, Lowell became a champion of the civil rights movement and a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War. He was among a group of writers who led a march to the Pentagon in 1967.
Robert Lowell published many books and divided his time between Boston and London. He died of a heart attack in 1977 at the age of 60.
Quote Of The Day
"If youth is a defect, it is one we outgrow too soon." - Robert Lowell
Today's video features a recording of Robert Lowell reading his poem, Old Flame. Enjoy!
Thursday, October 12, 2017
This Day In Literary History
On October 12th, 1920, the famous African American novelist, playwright, and actress Alice Childress was born in Charleston, South Carolina. When Alice was nine years old, her parents separated.
She moved to New York to live with her grandmother in Harlem. Her grandmother, who was uneducated, encouraged her to develop her passion for reading and talent for writing.
After she graduated high school, Alice took up drama and studied acting at the American Negro Theatre. She won acclaim as an actress on the black and off-Broadway stages and appeared in numerous productions.
A social activist, she also formed the first union for off-Broadway actors. She continued her acting career, but writing was her main passion, so she switched to play writing.
When Alice's first play Florence (1949) was produced in 1950, she became the first black woman to have a play produced off-Broadway. Set in the waiting room of a segregated railway station in the Jim Crow South, the play's main character is Miss Whitney, an elderly black woman.
Her daughter, Florence, ran away to Harlem hoping to become a successful actress. Worried about her, Miss Whitney, accompanied by her other daughter Marge, hopes to persuade Florence to come home.
Alice Childress' 1955 play, Trouble In Mind, made her the first black woman to win an Obie award. The play, a masterpiece of scathing satire, is actually a play-within-a-play. A multiracial cast of actors is rehearsing a play called Chaos in Belleville.
The play was written by a white playwright and is filled with derogatory, stereotyped black characters. The black actors must deal not only with having to play stereotypical black characters, but also with a condescending, racist white director.
Childress followed Trouble In Mind with her most controversial play, Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White), better known by its shortened title, Wedding Band. First published in 1966, the play was so controversial that no one dared produce it until 1972, when it opened in New York.
Set in 1918 South Carolina, the play featured Childress' most potent attack on racism. Herman, a white man, and Julia, a black woman, are very much in love and want to marry. Unfortunately, it's illegal for them do so, as interracial marriage is against the law in South Carolina.
The play opens with Herman and Julia celebrating their tenth anniversary as a couple. They want to leave the South and move North where they can legally marry, but Herman must stay until he repays his mother the money she loaned him to buy his bakery.
Meanwhile, the couple faces racist harassment from whites and blacks alike, who both disapprove of their relationship. When Wedding Band was produced for television and aired on the ABC TV network in 1973, several of the network's affiliate stations refused to broadcast it.
In addition to her plays, Alice Childress wrote several novels. Her second and most famous novel, A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich, was published in 1973. Aimed at young adult readers, the novel told the brutally honest tale of Benjie Johnson, a 13-year-old heroin addict.
It was the first young adult novel to deal with the subject of heroin addiction. Benjie Johnson lives in a tough inner city neighborhood with his mother, her boyfriend, and his grandmother.
Seeking a release from his stressful life, Benjie starts cutting class and hanging out with a group of older boys who are into drugs. He smokes marijuana with them and succumbs to peer pressure to try heroin.
Benjie quickly turns from casual user to full fledged heroin addict, first denying that he's an addict, then doing anything to support his habit, including stealing.
The novel uses alternating first person narratives to look at Benjie's addiction from different people's perspectives, including his family members, his teachers, his pusher, and of course, Benjie himself.
Controversial and often appearing on banned and challenged book lists, A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich would be adapted as an acclaimed independent feature film in 1978.
All together, Alice Childress wrote ten plays and five novels, establishing herself as one of the best 20th century African American writers. She died in 1994 at the age of 73.
Quote Of The Day
“I continue to create because writing is a labor of love and also an act of defiance, a way to light a candle in a gale wind: in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God.” - Alice Childress
Today's video features a clip from the acclaimed 1978 feature film adaptation of Alice Childress' controversial and classic young adult novel, A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich. Enjoy!
Wednesday, October 11, 2017
This Day In Literary History
On October 11th, 1925, the famous American writer Elmore Leonard was born. He was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, but due to his father's position as a site locator for General Motors, the family moved frequently. In 1934, the Leonards finally took up permanent residence, settling in Detroit, Michigan.
Growing up during the Great Depression, Elmore Leonard became fascinated with gangsters - the folk heroes of the time. He read sensational accounts of the exploits of famous gangsters such as Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker in the newspaper. He was most interested in their guns.
Leonard's writings would become famous for their incredibly accurate depictions of the mechanics of all sorts of firearms, yet throughout his entire life, he never had any interest in owning a gun.
With his father rarely home, he found father figures in the heroes of the big screen. Movies were his passion, and fortunately for him, they were an affordable pastime, even during the Depression.
It was in the movie theater that his pitch perfect ear for dialogue and his knack for creating memorable characters began to develop. He would entertain his friends by telling them stories – vivid accounts of the movies he'd seen, including actual dialogue.
For his fifth grade class project, he wrote and directed the class play, recreating a grim scene from Lewis Milestone's classic 1930 film adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque's classic antiwar novel All Quiet On the Western Front (1929).
Leonard also became an avid baseball fan, his favorite team being, of course, the Detroit Tigers, who won their first World Series championship in 1935. His friends gave him the nickname Dutch, after the famous pitcher Dutch Leonard, (no relation) a right-handed knuckleballer.
After graduating high school in 1943, Elmore Leonard joined the Navy and served with the Seabees in the Pacific. In 1946, he enrolled at the University of Detroit. He determined to make his dream of becoming a writer a reality.
He supported himself by working as an advertising copywriter - a position he took while a senior at university, where he would graduate with a degree in English and philosophy.
Though he originally wanted to write crime fiction, Leonard began his literary career writing pulp Westerns, which were the most popular and biggest selling stories at the time. In 1951, he sold his first short story, a Western called Trail of the Apaches, to the famous pulp fiction magazine Argosy.
He would publish some 30 pulp Western short stories, two of which, The Tall T and 3:10 to Yuma, would be adapted as feature films. His first published novel, The Bounty Hunters (1953) was a Western, and he would write four more Western novels.
By the 1960s, the popularity of Western novels had begun to decline rapidly, so Elmore Leonard switched genres and started writing the kind of novels he would become famous for - quirky crime thrillers. His first, The Big Bounce, was published in 1969.
The Big Bounce told the story of Jack Ryan, an aspiring baseball player turned petty crook who gets a chance to go straight when he's hired by Walter Majestyk, (no relation to the title character of Leonard's 1974 novel) a justice of the peace, to work at his beach resort.
Jack falls for Nancy, a psychotic young siren who gets her kicks by seducing married men, taking them for what she can get, then breaking their hearts - and their windows. When Nancy learns of Jack's shady past, she manipulates him into stealing $50,000 from her current patsy, a married millionaire.
The Big Bounce would introduce Elmore Leonard's trademark literary style - gritty realism and razor sharp dialogue. He is rightfully considered one of best writers of dialogue there is.
His skill with dialogue would bring him success as a Hollywood screenwriter. He adapted his own novels for the screen and wrote original screenplays. His best known original screenplay was for the acclaimed 1973 Western feature film, Joe Kidd.
Joe Kidd starred Clint Eastwood as the title character, a gunfighter and ex-bounty hunter hired by wealthy landowner Frank Harlan to be part of his posse, who are hunting Luis Chama, a fugitive Mexican revolutionary-bandito.
As he partakes in the mission, Joe Kidd begins to understand who the real bad guys are. Chama's major crime turns out to be organizing a peasant revolt against the wealthy landowners, who are evicting the poor people from land that is rightfully theirs.
Elmore Leonard's most popular feature film screenplay adaptations of his own novels include Mr. Majestyk and 52 Pick-Up, both of which were published in 1974. Mr. Majestyk is Vince Majestyk, a Vietnam veteran now living a quiet life in Arizona.
Majestyk owns and operates a melon farm. When a two-bit hood tries to coerce him into paying protection money, Majestyk drives the punk off his land with a punch in the face and a shotgun.
The hood files assault charges and Majestyk is taken to a local jail. He later finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time - aboard a prison transfer bus with Frank Renda, a notorious mafia hit man.
The mobsters attack the bus to break Renda out, but Majestyk drives off in the bus, with Renda still in handcuffs. He plans on trading Renda to the police in exchange for his freedom.
Renda vows revenge and orders his men to destroy Majestyk. What Renda and his mafia cohorts don't know is that Mr. Majestyk is a highly trained soldier - a former Army Ranger - and is about to take them to war.
In 52 Pick-Up, Harry Mitchell is a wealthy businessman whose wife, Barbara, is running for office. He becomes the target of blackmailers who claim to possess evidence of him cheating on Barbara.
Knowing that he can't go to the police, Harry decides to handle the situation his own way - by trying to turn the blackmailers against each other. But these psychopathic criminals are smarter than he thinks. And much more dangerous...
More of Leonard's novels would be adapted as memorable feature films, including Rum Punch, (as Jackie Brown) and Get Shorty, and its sequel, Be Cool, both of which feature one of his most popular characters, Chili Palmer - an affable gangster who wants out of the loan sharking business.
In Get Shorty, Chili has his heart set on becoming a movie producer. In Be Cool, having tired of the movie business, Chili decides to return to loansharking, only to get mixed up with the music industry.
Leonard's final novel, Raylan, was published in January of 2012. It features U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, the iconic character and star of the TV series Justified, in a new adventure.
This time, Raylan is on the trail of drug trafficking brothers Dickie and Coover Crowe. What the marshal doesn't know is that the Crowe brothers are trafficking a new cash crop - human organs for transplant operations harvested from unwilling donors.
Elmore Leonard died in August of 2013 at the age of 87.
Quote Of The Day
"My most important piece of advice to all you would-be writers: when you write, try to leave out all the parts readers skip." - Elmore Leonard
Today's video features a 2006 interview with Elmore Leonard, where he discusses the craft of writing. Enjoy!
Tuesday, October 10, 2017
This Day In Literary History
On October 10th, 1930, the legendary English playwright and screenwriter Harold Pinter was born in Hackney, East London, England. At the age of ten, Pinter found himself caught up in the terror and chaos of the Blitz. It would have a lasting effect on him as both a human being and as a writer.
When he wasn't caught up in the war, Pinter attended Hackney Downs School, a grammar school in London, where he discovered his talents for writing and acting. He wrote for the school magazine and played Macbeth and Romeo in school productions of the Shakespeare plays.
Pinter excelled in athletics as well. He was an avid cricket player and runner. As a runner, he broke his school's sprinting record, but his passion was cricket. He would serve as chairman of the Gaieties Cricket Club.
In 1948, at the age of eighteen, Pinter began studying drama at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. A year later, he was drafted for military service but declared himself a conscientious objector.
He did this not because he was a pacifist, but because he loathed the Cold War and believed that the governments of England and the United States were just as corrupt and immoral as the Soviet Union. After being tried twice as a draft evader, he was given a fine.
Disliking the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Pinter transferred to the Central School of Speech and Drama. By 1951, he had joined the Anew McMaster repertory company and begun his career as an actor.
For the next five years, taking the stage name David Baron, Pinter played over twenty roles in the company's productions. To supplement his income, he worked at various jobs including that of a waiter, a postman, and a pub bouncer.
Though he was making a name for himself as an actor, Harold Pinter's real ambition was to be a writer. The actor Henry Woolf, a close childhood friend, encouraged Pinter to write his first play and then starred in it - as part of his postgraduate work.
The play, The Room (1957), caught the attention of a young producer named Michael Codron, who would stage a production of Pinter's next play, a breakout work that made Pinter's name as a playwright.
In The Birthday Party (1958), a surreal dark comedy, Stanley Webber, a disheveled piano player in his late thirties, lives in a seaside boarding house run by Meg and Petey, a couple in their sixties.
Meg exhibits strange affection for Stanley; sometimes she flirts with him, sometimes she acts like his mother. One morning, Meg wishes Stanley a happy birthday and gives him a present - a toy drum.
Stanley tries to convince her that it's not his birthday, but she won't listen. She has planned a party which includes some unusual guests - McCann and Goldberg, two strangers to Stanley who may be dangerously psychotic - or maybe it's Stanley who's mad...
Although it's now considered Pinter's first masterwork, The Birthday Party was trashed by most critics when it debuted in 1958. The famous drama critic Irving Wardle gave it a glowing review in which he called it a "comedy of menace." Unfortunately, the review was published just after the play closed.
Undaunted, Harold Pinter kept writing. His next play, The Dumb Waiter (1959), opened in Germany before it hit the London stage. It was a two character play. The characters are Ben and Gus, two hit men waiting in a basement room to receive their orders for their next hit.
While they wait, Ben and Gus make tea and engage in conversations where they argue semantics and discuss the stories in the newspaper that Ben is reading. Meanwhile, in the background, the dumb waiter in the room occasionally - and strangely - opens to deliver food orders.
Ben tries to explain via the dumb waiter's speaking tube that the orders were sent to the wrong room. At the play's climax, the speaking tube whistles and Ben answers it while Gus is getting a drink of water in the bathroom. It's their orders for their next hit. The play ends with Ben drawing his gun on the target - Gus.
Harold Pinter would write nearly thirty plays and fifteen sketches. Between 1968 and 1982, he wrote a series of "memory plays" that explored the nature of memory - its vagaries, ambiguities, and mysteries.
Pinter also wrote 27 screenplays, adapting his plays and the works of others for the screen. He won an Academy Award for his 1981 screenplay adaptation of John Fowles' novel, The French Lieutenant's Woman.
In October of 2005, Pinter won the Nobel Prize in Literature. The award came as quite a shock to right wingers around the world. A prominent liberal political activist, Pinter railed against the Cold War arms race, nuclear weapons, the blockade of Cuba, the South African apartheid regime, the Gulf War, and the later wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He believed that the George W. Bush administration "was charging towards world domination while the American public and Britain's mass-murdering prime minister sat back and watched." Pinter described the war in Iraq as "a bandit act, an act of blatant state terrorism, demonstrating absolute contempt for the conception of international law."
The most controversial aspect of Pinter's political activism was his strong rebuke of the Israeli government for its persecution of the Palestinian people. Although Jewish himself, he expressed his contempt for the Israeli regime, signing the mission statement of the activist group Jews for Justice for Palestinians.
Harold Pinter was also awarded the French Légion d'honneur. He died of liver cancer in 2008 at the age of 78.
Quote Of The Day
"Good writing excites me, and makes life worth living." - Harold Pinter
Today's video features Harold Pinter giving his Nobel lecture. Enjoy!