Harold Pinter was a Nobel Prize winning English playwright (Ireland can't win them all, apparently) and is arguably the most influential modern British dramatist of the past half-century.
But as the programmers at the Irish Repertory Theatre in New York know, it was his repertory training as a young actor in Ireland and England that taught him most about the craft of theater.
Touring Ireland with the revolutionary Anew McMaster repertory company in the early fifties, Pinter played over a dozen roles in a formative experience he would never forget. McMaster led a freewheeling, anarchic company, exactly the kind of free-thinking bunch that were calculated to scandalize conservative communities with their loose morals and even looser garments.
According to biographers, McMaster himself was born in Co. Monaghan on Christmas Eve 1894, or at least that's what he liked to tell people.
In fact he was born in England, in hardscrabble Birkenhead, in Merseyside in 1891. His father was an Ulster Presbyterian who worked as a stevedore, which his son hilariously recast by telling people he worked "in shipping."
McMaster belonged to the same 19th century actor-manager tradition that fellow non-Irish Irish theatrical luminaries like Micheal Mac Liammoir and Hilton Edwards were also members of. Indeed they knew each other intimately, and he would marry Mac Liammoir's sister.
So simply by being hired for the gig, Pinter had found himself at the cozy inner circle of Irish theatrical life at the time.
"I toured Ireland with Mac for about two years in the early fifties," Pinter later recalled. "He advertised in The Stage for actors for a Shakespeare tour of the country.
“I sent him a photograph and went to see him in a flat near Willesden Junction. He offered me six pounds a week, said I could get digs for 25 shillings at the most, told me how cheap cigarettes were and that I could play Horatio, Bassanio and Cassio. It was my first proper job on the stage."
Now the Irish Repertory Theatre is staging A Celebration of Harold Pinter (the show has been extended through November 25) in it's more intimate second stage space, featuring an already critically acclaimed performance by British actor Julian Sand (A Room With a View) who fondly remembers him as a good friend, a poet, and a devoted husband.
Sands became close to Pinter when the writer, suffering from the cancer that eventually killed him, invited him to recite some of his poems at a public event. It was where Sands learned how to pronounce and deliver Pinter's language in the master’s own terms.
After Pinter passed away, Sands created the show as a homage to his friend, and with help from actor (and the show's director) John Malkovich they premiered it at the 2011 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where it became a hit that has toured Britain, San Francisco and Los Angeles before arriving in New York.
Pinter's work can in part be seen as a furious rejoinder to the horrors of the 20th century, but what is certain is that the Irish fascination with his work leads to multiple productions (The Gate theater in Dublin is currently staging a celebration of his works, for the second time in two decades) year after year. Ireland and Yeats had a formative influence on most post-war English poets and Pinter was no exception, but his actual presence in the country changed him.
Pinter fell in love with the countryside and with the idea of Ireland, with both the scenery and the language, and it resulted in poems where he accesses lyrical images that convey his emotions in a new way, such as in “The Islands of Aran Seen From the Moher Cliffs.”
Alongside A Celebration of Harold Pinter, the Irish Repertory Theatre’s 25th anniversary season also includes the critically acclaimed production of Brian Friel's Freedom of the City playing upstairs in its main space.
Ireland was a theatrical crucible for Pinter, where he learned how to stage works as diverse as detective thrillers to Shakespeare's tragedies. He also learned exactly how long a ham actor can hold a rural audience's rapt attention with silence. That last lesson proved the most enduring.
For more information, visit www.irishrep.org.