Visit Homepage
Skip to content

Stamping Ground: London as disputed territory in the plays of Harold Pinter

Harry Derbyshire

In 2000, Harold Pinter directed a double bill of his own work at the Almeida Theatre, Islington. The show opened with a revival of his very first play, The Room, written in 1958. Set in a large, dilapidated house divided into flats, the play is a study of urban dislocation. The world outside is a frightening place: ‘It’s very cold out… it’s murder’,[1] we’re told, ‘those roads’ll be no joke’.[2] Inside, the pipes aren’t working, the landlord is a shady character who speculates about his own racial provenance (‘I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that she was a Jewess’, he says of his mother), and there is a mysterious new tenant in the basement. At the Almeida, The Room was followed by Celebration, Pinter’s most recent play and, he has since insisted, his last. Celebration is set in ‘the best and most expensive restaurant in the whole of Europe’,[3] in which boorish nouveau-riche arms dealers exchange pleasantries and crudities over haute cuisine and fine wine. The author joked at the time that the double bill could have been subtitled ‘Islington Then and Now’.[4]

The joke is a revealing one. As someone who had grown up only minutes away in neighbouring Hackney, Pinter’s awareness of the transformation undergone by the area in the forty-two years that had separated the two plays was acute. Once run-down and unfashionable, Islington was now the setting for the ironically-titled Private Eye cartoon It’s Grim Up North London, a place where wealthy left-wingers indulged in champagne socialism of the kind that Pinter had himself been accused of pioneering in the 1980s. It had also been the home, prior to the 1997 general election, of Tony Blair, a figure about whom the playwright already had mixed feelings.[5] If the rueful tone of his comment about ‘Islington then and now’ conveys a suggestion that the change had not been entirely for the better, then that must be considered in relation to Pinter’s own transformation over the same period, which in many ways had paralleled that of London N1.

Born the son of a Jewish tailor in Hackney, Pinter’s distinguished career as a writer, actor and director has brought him both wealth and social mobility: he is now married to Lady Antonia Fraser, was made a Companion of Honour in 2002 and in 2005 became a Nobel Laureate. One way of seeing Pinter’s life is as a journey from the London of The Room to the London of Celebration, from the lowly to the grand, from the impoverished to the affluent and from the periphery to the centre, and it is a journey about which he has offered a trenchant commentary in the plays that have reflected and documented his progress. Though his work has continually developed in stylistic and thematic terms, London has remained central to his dramatic imagination, so that a discussion of the city in Pinter’s drama sheds much light on his evolution as a playwright. In this article I identify the treatment of London as illustrative of the empathetic concern for the dispossessed that characterises much of his early work, the increasing preoccupation with the emotional and ethical problems of status that is evident in his plays of the 1970s, and the political concerns that are apparent in some early work and which are fully expressed in his drama of the 1980s and beyond. The overall arc of his development, I believe, reflects a move from periphery to centre, followed by an ever-increasing conviction that those at the centre must accept moral responsibility for the suffering of those at the periphery.

From the first, London has been central to Pinter’s existence and, though he may have left the East End in which he grew up, the area retains a special status in his imagination. In a poem written in 1977, he recalls one formative relationship, with the English teacher who inspired his love for literature, in terms of the walks the two would take through the Hackney of his youth:

I’d like to walk with you
From Clapton Pond to Stamford Hill
And on,
Through Manor House to Finsbury Park,
And back,
On the dead 653 trolleybus,
To Clapton Pond,
And walk across the shadows on to Hackney Downs …[6]

This was an urban geography which imprinted itself firmly on Pinter’s mind and which was to find its way into many of the plays that he would go on to write. Hackney, to Pinter, forever represents the excitement of youth, of intellectual awakening, and he has remained fiercely loyal to the area in which he grew up. In the 1973 piece Monologue, the unnamed speaker remonstrates with an unseen addressee for acting as if ‘the Balls Pond Road… never existed… as if our sporting and intellectual life never was’.[7] The very fact that his friend has moved away from the area represents, for this character, a desertion and a betrayal:

You’d pissed off to live in Notting Hill Gate. Naturally. They all end up there. I’ll never end up there. I’ll never end up on that side of the Park.[8]

This is a criticism that may have been aimed inwards: when he wrote these lines, Pinter was living in Regents Park, and by 1980 he was installed in Holland Park, where he still lives today: his house is five minute’s walk from Notting Hill Gate tube. Nonetheless, he continues to hold a candle for Hackney and to visit: ‘there’s still a pulse somewhere’,[9] he said in 2005.
Informed by his own background as the grandson of immigrants and his experiences of the low-rent lifestyle he was obliged to lead as a struggling actor, Pinter’s early drama repeatedly explored a London inhabited by those on the periphery of society. The central character of The Caretaker (1960) is what was called in those days a tramp, scraping a living cleaning the floor in an all-night café and complaining of the ‘Poles, Greeks, Blacks… all them aliens’[10] who are encroaching on his territory. There is some doubt as to whether he is a native Londoner himself, especially given the various names he volunteers, which include Bernard Jenkins and Mac Davies,[11] but the furthest edges of the city now seem to circumscribe his movements. His travels have taken him west to Acton, and North to Hendon and Watford, though the journey south to Sidcup, where he claims his papers are being kept for him, is too much to undertake, at least until the weather breaks.[12] Paranoid, bigoted and fearful, Davies eventually alienates those who offer him shelter and ends the play once more facing exile on the dark streets of London. As he waits in vain for a response to his question, ‘where am I going to go?’, we feel sympathy for Davies’ plight despite the selfishness and ingratitude he has shown. The play conveys a clear sense of the unforgiving nature of life on the capital’s streets and the emotional damage it can inflict.

Something more of what life was like for the homeless in the early sixties is conveyed in the revue sketch ‘The Black and White’, in which two old women compare notes over a bowl of soup in another all-night café. For these women, shelter is afforded by cafés like this and by all-night buses, the timetables of which provide their chief topic of conversation. Shelter is certainly needed in this environment, not only from the cold (‘there’s a wind out’[13] ), but from potential harassment (‘clear out of it before I call a copper’[14] ) and potential arrest (‘you talk to strangers they’ll take you in’[15] ). It’s a bleak existence but the women find some comfort in their companionship, and from the activity that surrounds them: ‘you can see what goes on from this top table’, says one, and the other agrees that ‘there’s always a bit of life’.[16] Both ‘The Black and White’ and The Caretaker reflect one reason why homeless people so often make their way to the nation’s capital: not only for the concentration of wealth and opportunity, but for the constant buzz of human activity which acts as both a comfort and a distraction.

Other early revue sketches convey a similar sense of the observed life of Londoners on the periphery of mainstream society. ‘Request Stop’ shows a woman at a bus stop accusing a fellow member of the queue of verbal harassment: ‘All I asked you was if I could get a bus from here to Shepherd’s Bush… Nobody asked you to start making insinuations’.[17] As she goes on, it becomes increasingly clear that her accusations are groundless, tinged as they are with muddled racism similar to that displayed by Davies. We are left to surmise that she is socially isolated, emotionally deprived and probably mentally ill. In ‘Last to Go’, a newspaper seller engages with the barman at a tea stall in a late night conversation about which of his newspapers was the last to be sold, a desultory exchange that situates these two traders as a still point in the ceaseless bustle of metropolitan life.[18] In putting forward these images of isolation, marginalisation and destitution, Pinter insists on the validity of these peripheral Londoners as subjects for dramatic treatment, and provides a reminder to West End audiences of the range of people with whom they share the city that is simultaneously comic and sobering.

Though these works, I argue, have a social agenda and make implicit moral points about class and inclusion, Pinter has never been solely concerned with objective practicalities, something which became increasingly evident in his work of the mid-1960s and 1970s. The Homecoming (1965), though still rooted in the working class East End, looks inward to the complexities of human psychology rather than outward to observable social reality; even so, London, as exemplified through contrast with an antithetical alternative locale, is central to the dramatic vision of the play. The Homecoming hinges on the decision of Ruth, a lecturer’s wife, to abandon her husband and the children who wait for her in the United States and instead remain in London, where she says she grew up, there to be kept by her husband’s father, uncle and brothers as a prostitute. This decision has been much discussed, and I would not want to suggest that it can be entirely accounted for by the intrinsic merits of London, but nonetheless the way in which the city is presented in this play may help us to understand Ruth’s motivations.

The Homecoming gives very little explicit information about Ruth’s life in the US, necessitating a series of deductions based on veiled textual hints if her behaviour is to be explained in naturalistic terms. Usually it is concluded that she is emotionally alienated from the life of her husband and children,[19] a crucial indicator of this being her description of America:

It’s all rock. And sand. It stretches … so far … everywhere you look. And there’s lots of insects there.[20]

This brief description speaks volumes. Michael Billington notes that the speech ‘conveys an Eliotesque dryness’;[21] it also suggests a detachment or alienation from nature reminiscent of early existentialist writings[22] and a sense of aridity and lifelessness which, we may infer, Ruth feels to be characteristic of her existence in the States. In contrast, she seems to associate London with water and satiation, draining a glass soon after her arrival, for instance, and saying, ‘Oh, I was thirsty’.[23] More broadly, the discourse of the household she infiltrates, while one of bitter rivalry and poisonous rancour, is enlivened by frequent references to the city beyond, portrayed as a colourful world of low-level criminality,[24] and habitual effusions of language very unlike Ruth’s choked utterances.[25] All this stands in contrast to the pristine, lifeless environment provided by Teddy. It can be argued, therefore, that the role of London in The Homecoming is to symbolise, for Ruth, the antithesis of her arid existence in the US. Her vision of the city is subjective, and may well prove disastrously inaccurate, but even so it can be said that what draws her to London is what consoles the women of ‘The Black and White’: ‘there’s always a bit of noise… always a bit of life’.[26]

The versions of London presented in Old Times (1971) are more subjective still, and here too an opposition between immersion in the vibrancy of the city and isolation in the silence of the countryside is established and explored. Married couple Deeley and Kate live on the coast, and are visited by Anna, once Kate’s housemate in London. Kate describes her current existence in terms reminiscent of Ruth’s account of America, saying, ‘sometimes I walk to the sea. There aren’t many people. It’s a long beach.’[27] Against this, Anna’s breathless account of their former life in London forms an acute contrast:

Queuing all night, the rain, do you remember? my goodness, the Albert Hall, Covent Garden, what did we eat? to look back, half the night, to do the things we loved, … and to work in the morning, and to a concert, or the opera, or the ballet, that night, you haven’t forgotten? and then riding on top of the bus down Kensington High Street … and all the hustle and bustle in the morning, rushing for the bus again for work, lunchtimes in Green Park […] and then the night to come, and goodness knows what excitement in store, I mean the sheer expectation of it all, the looking-forwardness of it all, and so poor, but to be poor and young, and a girl, in London then …[28]

The recalled excitement of their time in London constitutes part of Anna’s emotional claim on Kate, and indeed Old Times essentially consists of a contest between Deeley and Anna for possession of Kate. This contest is a psychological one, fought in a remembered London that the characters vie to describe, each seeking to assert dominance over the present by taking control of the past. Deeley attempts to substitute his own version of the city for that created by Anna: where she recalls a London of cultural superabundance, Deeley’s version is a city of ‘fleapit’ cinemas whose ushers stroke each other’s breasts,[29] a place where the pubs are frequented by ‘poets, stunt men, jockeys, stand-up comedians’,[30] and where parties are held at which men sip light ale and look up women’s skirts.[31] This is an unreconstructed male view of swinging London, where the opportunities are sexual more than they are cultural, and a place where Deeley feels much more at home.

The competing versions of London through which the dispute is conducted say more about each character than they do about the real city to which they refer and, accordingly, they are charged with very different, gender-specific, associations, both erotic and emotional. Like Ruth, Anna and Deeley are distanced from London and are therefore free to inscribe their own meanings onto the city: it has come to represent, for Anna, a youthful energy that may be recaptured and, for Deeley, a virility that seems forever lost (though the contest concludes ambiguously, Deeley, who ends the play ‘sobbing’ and ‘slumped’,[32] certainly does not triumph). This is London seen from the perspective of the countryside, just as it is youth seen from the perspective of middle age; that both are considered at a remove is illustrative of the stage of development that Pinter’s writing had reached in the 1970s. A firmly established success, living in grand opulence in Regent’s Park, his writing had become correspondingly reflective. Old Times, it might be said, is written from a position of security which has begun to breed insecurity; established at the centre, Pinter is writing about isolation.

This theme is further developed in No Man’s Land (1975) whose central character is Hirst, an eminent writer whose large residence in Hampstead is not dissimilar to the house in which Pinter wrote the play.[33] Hirst is waited on by Foster and Briggs, his two male employees, and surrounded by the trappings of wealth and success, but at the same time he is reliant on alcohol and creatively sterile. In this suggestively-titled play with an all-male cast, London is imbued with entirely masculine if, at times, homoerotic associations, a motif signalled in the play’s opening moments when Hirst is asked by Spooner, the down-at-heel poet he has invited back to his house, ‘Do you often hang about Hampstead Heath?’[34] As in The Homecoming, the absence of women has created a harsh and barren environment and, as in The Caretaker, an outsider without scruples seeks to gain access to security and status, represented here by a position on Hirst’s staff. Briggs, intent on repelling this incursion, tells Spooner a story about giving directions to Bolsover Street, London W1:

I told him his best bet, if he really wanted to get to Bolsover street, was to take the first left, first right, second right, third on the left, keep his eye open for a hardware shop, go right round the square, keeping to the inside lane, take the second Mews on the right and then stop. He will find himself facing a very tall office block, with a crescent courtyard. He can take advantage of this office block. He can go round the crescent, come out the other way, follow the arrows, go past two sets of traffic lights and take the first left indicated by the first green filter he comes across. He’s got the Post Office Tower in his vision the whole time. All he’s got to do is reverse into the underground car park, change gear, go straight on, and he’ll find himself in Bolsover street with no trouble at all.[35]

Here Briggs presents London as a treacherous place that only those with knowledge and skill can negotiate successfully, a city that the uninitiated may be well-advised to avoid. The implication is that Brigg’s knowledge of the one-way system of which Bolsover Street is a part reflects a similar degree of expertise in his running of Hirst’s affairs, and that Spooner would be just as out of his depth on the staff as is the hapless motorist of the story. Thus Briggs’s version of the city is used to shore up his position at the centre and keep Spooner, who is on the periphery, out. This association of London with a jealously guarded wealth and status which has no justification in ethical or spiritual terms (as signalled by the expiration of Hirst’s creative powers) is developed in Pinter’s political plays of the 1980s, albeit in much more concrete, social terms.

Further criticism of the metropolitan cultural elite can be found in Betrayal (1978), in which knowledge of the city’s more remote areas is presented as a prerequisite for the successful conduct of an illicit affair. Jerry, a literary agent, and his mistress Emma have a flat where they meet in the afternoons, meetings which they hide from Jerry’s wife and Emma’s husband Robert, who is a publisher. The flat is in Kilburn, an area with a large black and Irish population in North West London. After the affair is over, Jerry celebrates the success with which they conducted their deceit:

We were brilliant. Nobody knew. Who ever went to Kilburn in those days? Just you and me.[36]

The assumption that allows Jerry to reach this conclusion is that, because they do not move in his social circles, the residents of Kilburn do not really exist, and this is one small indication of the arrogance and insularity that Pinter ascribes to these privileged Londoners.[37] Jerry’s confidence in his own skill at deceit is misplaced, however, in that Robert has known about the affair for four years. Pinter’s story is one of deception and counter-deception, portraying a decadent, corrupt metropolitan elite whose knowledge, wealth and abilities are all placed in the service of treachery. This is London as a culturally wealthy but morally bankrupt site of gratification and betrayal, where the taking of sexual opportunities may come at a high ethical and spiritual cost.

Since the 1980s, Pinter has become increasingly known as a political writer and activist but, as I hope to show, the ideas he expresses in this later period are in many ways a continuation of concerns that have been present and evolving throughout his career. This can be illustrated through a discussion of the treatment of London in Pinter’s more political drama and, in particular, a focus on the relationship between the centre and the periphery as manifested within it. One interesting aspect of the most recent phase of Pinter’s development is that a playwright whose gaze has, in the past, seemed to be fixed solely on Britain, has become much more international in his scope,[38] while retaining London as a central signifier. In his more political work, Pinter proposes the UK capital not only as a locus of activity, wealth and cultural status but also as a locus of power, the exercise of which causes suffering elsewhere in the country and around the world.

We have already noted how London draws some of Pinter’s characters to it from elsewhere, such as Davies in The Caretaker and Ruth in The Homecoming, and how others, including Deeley and Kate in Old Times, have sought to escape from its corrupting temptations. In all these instances, the corollary of London’s centrality is the marginality ascribed to an alternative location, a location that is seen largely or entirely in terms of its distance from or difference to the capital. In the political plays, this relationship becomes more charged. An early political drama, The Birthday Party (1958), is a case in point. Stanley, the play’s protagonist, seems to have sought out, in Harold Hobson’s perceptive words, ‘the most obscure lodgings in the least popular of towns’[39] and he has done so deliberately to escape the attention of the authorities. What exactly he has done to offend them is never made clear, but Stanley does recall a concert he gave at Lower Edmonton, London N9, at which he may have attracted unwelcome attention.[40] We don’t know where Goldberg and McCann, Stanley’s mysterious persecutors, have come from, or where they take him in their car in the play’s final act, but it seems more than likely that their orders come from the centre, from London.

The later political work sees the influence of this powerful centre extend beyond national boundaries. It is not clear where in the world One for the Road (1984), Mountain Language (1988), The New World Order and Party Time (both 1991) are set, but in each case it is notable that the oppressors speak in a recognisably English idiom while the language given to the oppressed, where they are able to speak at all, is neutral. In One for the Road the torturer Nicholas invokes the Christian God as the source of his authority;[41] the Sergeant in Mountain Time tells a prisoner’s wife that ‘the computer’s got a double hernia’ but that there’s a ‘bloke’ she can ‘give… a tinkle one of these days and he’ll see you alright’;[42] and the torturers in The New World Order, in their statement that they are ‘keeping the world clean for democracy’,[43] clearly link themselves to US and British foreign policy. In Party Time, we see well-heeled revellers chink glasses at a ‘gorgeous party’[44] while dissident elements are rounded up on the streets below – on the orders of the genial host. Finally, in Pinter’s last play Celebration two of the characters enjoying the restaurant’s expensive luxury are Lambert and Matt, ‘strategy consultants’ who boast of ‘keeping the peace’ ‘worldwide’, though they are keen to stress that they ‘don’t carry guns’.[45] What happens around the world as a result of their activities is left unclear, but the implication is clearly that the high life lived at the centre comes at a high price for those on the periphery and, moreover, that this applies on an international scale.

Though there is no doubt more that could be said on the subject, I hope that I have established the importance of London in Pinter’s dramatic imagination. The city has particular resonance when considered in connection to the theme of the centre and the periphery, and more specifically the dramatist’s interest in the tendency of those at the periphery to gravitate to and seek access to the centre and the corresponding tendency of those at the centre to deny that access. These are ideas that Pinter has explored first from the perspective of those on the periphery and then from the apparent security of the centre, before finally assuming the role of artistic advocate for those who suffer worldwide as a result of decisions made at the hubs of political power. London, as the political, economic and cultural centre of Britain, represents for Pinter everything that is desirable about human society –- companionship, activity, culture, sexual opportunity –- but, for this very reason, the city also represents a concentration of greed, selfishness and cruelty, as those who have gained life’s advantages for themselves are constantly seeking to keep them from those who have not. London brings into sharp focus everything that Pinter’s work celebrates and everything which it castigates about human beings; it is, then, unsurprising that it is so recurrent a setting of his drama, and entirely fitting that it should remain his home to this day.


[1] Harold Pinter, Celebration and The Room (London: Faber, 2000), p. 79.

[2] Celebration and The Room, p. 95.

[3] Celebration and The Room, p. 24.

[4] See Jojo Moyes, ‘Pinter unveils his secret “Celebration”’, Independent, 23.03.00, p. 9.

[5] As recorded in his ‘Open Letter to the Prime Minister’, printed in the Guardian, on 17.02.98 and reprinted in Various Voices: Prose, Poetry, Politics 1948-2005 (London: Faber, 2005), pp. 235-7.

[6] ‘Joseph Brearley 1909-1977’ in Pinter, Various Voices, p. 163.

[7] Harold Pinter: Plays 4 (London, Faber, 1996), p. 277.

[8] Plays 4, p. 278.

[9] Pinter, being interviewed by Ian Rickson at the Royal Court Theatre, 20.10.05.

[10] Harold Pinter: Plays Two (London: Faber, 1991), p. 6.

[11] Pinter, Plays Two, p. 18.

[12] ‘I used to know a bootmaker in Acton’, Davies claims on p. 13; he mentions Watford and Hendon on p. 14; and first expresses his yearning to reach Sidcup on p. 17.

[13] Pinter, Plays Two, p. 230.

[14] Pinter, Plays Two, p. 228.

[15] Pinter, Plays Two, p. 230.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Pinter: Plays Two, p. 231.

[18] Pinter: Plays Two, pp. 233-6.

[19] Martin Esslin, for instance, concludes that ’she does not like the life of a college professor’s wife… her marriage to Teddy is on the point of breakdown’ (Pinter the Playwright, 5th edn, [London: Methuen, 2000], p. 140); Michael Billington surmises that her life as Teddy’s wife has placed her in a ‘subordinate, supportive, little-wife role’ (The Life and Work of Harold Pinter [London: Faber, 1996], p. 173; and Roger Michell, who directed The Homecoming at the National Theatre in 1997, believes ‘she’s having some kind of nervous breakdown in America… she’s stuck at home with all the other campus wives doing campus hamburger parties. She doesn’t like the sun, she doesn’t like the dust, she doesn’t like the insects’ (unpublished interview, 14.03.97).

[20] Harold Pinter: Plays Three, London: Faber, 1991, p. 61.

[21] Billington, The Life and Work of Harold Pinter, p. 173.

[22] In The Myth of Sisyphus, for example, Camus describes part of the awakening to the absurdity of life as ‘sensing to what degree a stone is foreign and irreducible to us, with what intensity nature or a landscape can negate us’ (The Myth of Sisyphus, trans. Justin O’Brein [London: Penguin, 2000], p. 20).

[23] Plays: Three, p. 43. Later Ruth recalls a modelling engagement before she left for the US, on the way to which she passed ‘a large white water tower’, at which there was ‘a lake’ and where she had ‘a drink’ (p. 65)

[24] For instance, Lenny’s vivid descriptions of prostitution, pp. 38-9, snow clearing, pp. 40-41 and sexual assault, pp. 75-6.

[25] For instance, Max’s memories of MacGregor: ‘We were two of the worst hated men in the West End of London. I tell you, I still got the scars. We’d walk into a place, the whole room’d stand up, they’d make way to let us pass. You never heard such silence’ (p. 16).

[26] Pinter, Plays Two, p. 230.

[27] Pinter, Plays Four, p. 16.

[28] Ibid., pp. 13-4.

[29] Ibid., p. 25.

[30] Ibid., p. 45.

[31] Ibid., p. 47.

[32] Ibid., p. 70.

[33] Pinter’s second wife Antonia Fraser has commented, ‘It was the grandest house I’ve ever been in. I went there once and it was absolutely, totally silent. I don’t think I’d have understood No Man’s Land if I hadn’t seen it.’ (Billington, p. 180)

[34] Ibid., p. 81.

[35] Ibid., p. 124.

[36] Ibid., p. 173.

[37] There is a hint, too, that Kilburn is no longer as remote as it was ‘whoever went … in those days?’), suggesting an urban transformation similar to that undergone by Islington, and about which Pinter may well have had similarly mixed feelings.

[38] Prior to the 1980s, all Pinter’s drama at least appeared to be set in Britain, whereas One for the Road (1984), Mountain Language (1988) and The New World Order (1991) seem to be set overseas, in repressive states, and there is also an international aspect to Party Time (1991), Ashes to Ashes (1996) and Celebration (2000).

[39] Harold Hobson reviewing The Birthday Party in 1958, quoted in Martin Esslin, Pinter the Playwright, 6th edn (London: Methuen, 2001), p. 10.

[40] Harold Pinter: Plays One (London: Faber, 1991), pp16-7.

[41] ‘God speaks through me. I’m referring to the Old Testament God, by the way, although I’m a long way from being Jewish’ (Plays Four, p. 374).

[42] Plays Four, p. 411.

[43] Ibid., p. 423.

[44] Ibid., p. 443.

[45] Pinter, Celebration and The Room, p. 60.

To Cite This Article:

Harry Derbyshire, ‘Stamping Ground: London as disputed territory in the plays of Harold Pinter’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 4 Number 2 (September 2006). Online at Accessed on [date of access]