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The Globe and Mail

Must You Go? My Life with Harold Pinter, by Antonia Fraser

Antonia Fraser first saw him across a crowded room at lunchtime in London. He was conversing with actors Robert Shaw and Donald Pleasence, and though her companion's interest was directed at macho, red-headed Shaw, Fraser said thoughtfully: "I'll take the dark one."

The next time, she actually heard his "awesome baritone" when he boomed a vocal attack at an attendant for opening a door in the middle of a recital about Mary, Queen of Scots, at the National Portrait Gallery when his wife, actress Vivien Merchant, took the part of Mary, and Fraser (author of the bestselling history of the queen) read the narrative.

Her third experience of him was at a dinner party after the opening of his play The Birthday Party. She was slightly disappointed at not having been seated next to him. He had looked "full of energy, with black curly hair and pointed ears, like a satyr." As other guests gradually filtered away, she went over and complimented him in a single sentence about the play. "Must you go?" he asked. And that was the start of a love that lights up her affecting book - a memoir that is certainly not the complete story, but rather an essential story where (as she phrases it in her preface), "as with many love stories, the beginning and the end, the first light and the twilight, are dealt with more fully than the high noon in between."

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Harold Pinter's private life was then in turmoil. His marriage to Merchant (who modelled herself after beautiful but tragic Vivien Leigh) had been in crisis for a long time, and he was becoming increasingly estranged from their only son (who would change his surname). Antonia Fraser was a bestselling historical biographer who was married to a Tory MP and the mother of six children. Harold was 44, Antonia 42. Each had been married to their respective partners for "exactly the same period almost to the day." Eighteen years, in fact.

He would confess to her that he had never really known true love until he met her. She, on the other hand, considered herself to be happily married, or at any rate happy in her marriage to a man she admired for his cavalier nature, high spirits, courage, independence, essential decency and kindness. But Hugh Fraser lacked emotional intimacy, and preferred families to individuals, whereas Antonia was intensely romantic. Her love affair with Harold led to a tabloid frenzy, making Pinter's working routine impossible. It also led to a breach with his Jewish parents.

Hugh Fraser eventually discussed the affair with Harold in a scene worthy of the best understated English satire: "Hugh and Harold discussed cricket at length, then the West Indies, then Proust. I started to sleep on the sofa. Harold politely went home." Vivien, however, went almost berserk in the national press, erecting whatever obstacles she could in the way of a divorce as she disintegrated psychologically and eventually drank herself to death.

However, true love in the long run admits no impediment. Antonia and Harold lived together from August, 1975, until Harold's death from cancer on Christmas Eve, 2008. This book is her way of calling back the yesterdays. It is a glorious testament to the very nature of romantic obsession and love, as well as to the dichotomies that folded into one another within Pinter.

Structured from her diaries and amplified by her retrospective commentary, Must You Go? reveals the romantic side of a playwright whose later career became increasingly marked by vitriolic left-wing political passion. The portrait of Pinter is quite different from the popular myths of him. "It may sound like a women's magazine, but with you I have found happiness," he tells her. He sends her flowers, buys expensive gifts, phones her repeatedly, scribbles brief comments in the margins of her diaries (he does not read them in totality) and writes her love poems (superior to the later terrible political ones, where his acid destroys all art).

The usual terseness of her diaries, and the understandable reticence about bedroom intimacies give the book a low pressure, but as Pinter himself noted: "Happiness is not dramatic." Yet discretion does not suffocate wit - as in this telephone exchange with Steve McQueen ("Don't shout at me, Harold. I'm not your butler." "I don't shout at my butler.") or in his retort to when fans ring him up begging for tickets to see him perform in Krapp's Last Tape ("I am not a fucking box office.").

Ironically, such things as Pinter's domestic amenability ("house angel, street devil") and his tender conventionality lead to insights into his complex nature and even, perhaps, his plays. There is, for instance, evidence of the tension between his love of solitude and that for society (his great friendships were with playwright Simon Gray and Samuel Beckett, and he loved good wine and food).

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The diaries show the genesis and evolution of some of his plays. There is also valuable evidence of the role Antonia played as his "editor," though she prefers to see herself as his midwife, saying, "Push, Harold, push." ("The act of creation took place elsewhere and the baby would have been born anyway.")

His creativity found its highest peaks in the course of his marriage to her, and she saw more than rage or menace in his art. His gentleness with Antonia was in stark contrast with his tough attacks on Blair, Bush and others of their rank ilk. Antonia always tried to put brakes tactfully on his outspoken vehemence, though nothing could stop the proliferating gloominess ("Sometimes melancholy spreads across the waters of Harold's life like black water lilies"), especially when disease took relentless hold of him, leading to seven years of horrible pain and suffering, physical humiliation and absurdly scurrilous attacks by conservative columnists (even in Canada) over his Nobel Prize.

This is a love story through and through of two people who loved each other wisely and well. Better than any flowers on his grave (which is something he would have abhorred), this book by his "everlasting bride" is an ever-loving memorial to his stubborn courage in art and life.

Keith Garebian posts theatre reviews on his website

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