“It’s a strange moment, the moment of creating characters who up to that moment have had no existence. What follows is fitful, uncertain, even hallucinatory, although sometimes it can be an unstoppable avalanche.”
Harold Pinter (1930-2008)
Today I planned to start a run of posts on screenwriter Nick Kazan today but as I was listening to part one of his interview with Mike De Luca Kazan pulls out a sheet of paper and starts reading part of playwright Harold Pinter’s speech for being awarded The Noble Prize in Literature 2005. Kazan who started out as a playwright as well, and without knowing it came to writing in the same organic, perhaps unorthodox manner as Pinter laid out in his Noble Prize speech.
“I have often been asked how my plays come about. I cannot say. Nor can I ever sum up my plays, except to say that this is what happened. That is what they said. That is what they did.
Most of the plays are engendered by a line, a word or an image. The given word is often shortly followed by the image. I shall give two examples of two lines which came right out of the blue into my head, followed by an image, followed by me.
The plays are The Homecoming and Old Times. The first line of The Homecoming is ‘What have you done with the scissors?’ The first line of Old Times is ‘Dark.’
In each case I had no further information.
In the first case someone was obviously looking for a pair of scissors and was demanding their whereabouts of someone else he suspected had probably stolen them. But I somehow knew that the person addressed didn’t give a damn about the scissors or about the questioner either, for that matter.
‘Dark’ I took to be a description of someone’s hair, the hair of a woman, and was the answer to a question. In each case I found myself compelled to pursue the matter. This happened visually, a very slow fade, through shadow into light.
I always start a play by calling the characters A, B and C.
In the play that became The Homecoming I saw a man enter a stark room and ask his question of a younger man sitting on an ugly sofa reading a racing paper. I somehow suspected that A was a father and that B was his son, but I had no proof. This was however confirmed a short time later when B (later to become Lenny) says to A (later to become Max), ‘Dad, do you mind if I change the subject? I want to ask you something. The dinner we had before, what was the name of it? What do you call it? Why don’t you buy a dog? You’re a dog cook. Honest. You think you’re cooking for a lot of dogs.’ So since B calls A ‘Dad’ it seemed to me reasonable to assume that they were father and son. A was also clearly the cook and his cooking did not seem to be held in high regard. Did this mean that there was no mother? I didn’t know. But, as I told myself at the time, our beginnings never know our ends.”
Art, Truth & Politics
The great thing about finding insights like this from a highly accomplished writer is you see how mystical the writing process can be. More than once I’ve read in books and articles things like, “Know characters inside and out before you start” —yet Pinter says, “I always start a play by calling the characters A, B and C.” Forget starting with writing character bios, Pinter doesn’t even know his character’s names when he starts writing.
Another common concept I’ve heard is “Know your ending before you start–you don’t take a trip without knowing where you’re going,” yet here’s Pinter saying he starts with “no further information” than a “word or an image.” It’s like he’s pulling a big vine in the grass in his backyard and just keeps pulling it.
People are all wired differently—find what works for you and just tell your stories.
P.S. Many of Pinter’s plays (including The Homecoming for which he also wrote the screenplay) made it to the big screen. In total, Pinter had a run of work in film and TV beginning in 1960 and that spanned six decades.