Lost Harold Pinter Sketch Found After 50-Year ‘Pause’

Harold Pinter at London's National Theatre in Dec. 2004. (Ian West/AP Images)

A short sketch by playwright Harold Pinter has been rediscovered in the archives of the British Library after being performed only once in 1960 and then essentially forgotten.

The playlet, called “Umbrellas,” is ostensibly about two men discussing that most British of subjects, the weather, and the need to always have an umbrella handy.  The sketch was part of You, Me and the Gatepost, a review to which Pinter contributed, along with other writers, including John Mortimer and Shelagh Delaney, author of A Taste of Honey. Pinter, who died in 2008, wrote “Umbrellas” at the same time that his play The Caretaker opened in the West End to great success.

The play is short – the script runs a mere 247 words, 12 of which are “pause,” the playwright’s signature stage direction.

Pinter’s widow, Lady Antonia Fraser, told The Guardian that she was “completely unaware” of the existence of “Umbrellas” but that the Pinter family has had “fun” playing around with it.

“We’ve all been quarrelling over acting it in the family,” said Lady Antonia. “I want to act B, which is the better part, but so far I’ve only managed to act A, so we’re waiting for some really good actors to do it.”

Like much of the Nobel Prize winner’s work, the sketch is spare but funny. Critic Michael Billington writes in the Guardian sidebar piece that the sketch’s humor is heavily dependent on the pauses, which Pinter told him he developed after watching Jack Benny at the London Palladium in the late 1940s.

As short as it is, the sketch feels undeniably Pinteresque, yet if you didn’t know it was by Pinter, you might say it was a clever parody.

You can read the play in its entirety in The Guardian, which the paper has published for the first time anywhere.

In other Pinter-related news:

• Ariel Dorfman’s play Death and the Maiden opened this week at the newly named Harold Pinter Theatre in London. Formerly known as the Comedy Theater, it was the playhouse perhaps most closely associated with Pinter’s work.

The name change was announced at the end of the run of theater’s previous production, a revival of Pinter’s Betrayal.

Fraser told The Guardian she burst into tears when she heard the news.

“It is an extremely moving day for me,” she said. “Harold would have been completely thrilled, there’s no question at all about that.”

Writing in The Telegraph, Dorfman says he finds it “magical” that his play is the first one to be performed in the renamed theater because, he says, without Pinter, his own play might never have made it to the stage in the first place.

Dorfman first met Pinter in 1990, at a reading of an earlier version of Death and the Maiden. Pinter was taken by the parallels between Dorfman’s play and his own play, One for the Road. On the advice of Philip Roth, Pinter had been considering a sequel.

“And now I don’t have to write that sequel,” Pinter told Dorfman, “because you’ve done it for me!”

• Although critics love Dorfman’s play at the Pinter, they’re less impressed, to say the least, with Thandie Newton, making her West End debut, in the lead.

 

Writing in The Telegraph, Charles Spencer says, “Unfortunately the Hollywood actress Thandie Newton almost entirely misses the flayed intensity, horror and exhilaration that Juliet Stevenson brought to central character 20 years ago. Indeed this strikes me as a classic case of the dangers of star casting.”

Calling Newton “disappointingly feeble” in its headline, The Arts Desk writes: “Newton’s voice is chirpy and cheery, and her performance lacks the pain of experience and the depth of, well, character. Her sobs are as superficial as shrugs; her passion is as bloodless as thin broth. When she talks dirty, it sounds like a schoolgirl taking a dare.”