By Chris Beckett
The British Libraryâs collections of material relating to Harold Pinter continue to grow. Just released into the Manuscripts Reading Room are two small but significant acquisitions, one from Susan Engel, who acted in the first production of The Room (15-16 May, 1957), and another from the Estate of Guy Vaesen, who was Assistant Director to Pinter for the double-bill The Lover and The Dwarfs produced by Michael Codron at the New Arts Theatre in 1963. The third and more extensive deposit also now open to researchers is the archive of Joe Brearley, Pinterâs teacher and mentor at Hackney Downs School.
Susan Engel was a drama student at the University of Bristol when she took the role of Rose Hudd in Pinterâs first play, The Room. The play was produced and directed by Henry Woolf, one of Pinterâs close circle of Hackney Downs friends, who was at the time a postgraduate student in the Drama Department. As well as directing, Woolf also played Mr. Kidd. Woolfâs passion for the theatre, like Pinterâs, was strongly inspired by Brearleyâs enthusiasm for poetry and drama. Engel has provided her programme for the play, seven original photographs of the production and her typescript copy of the play. Roseâs part is underlined throughout, and Engelâs occasional annotations show something of Woolfâs direction.
Programme front cover and inside page showing the cast for The Room, University of Bristol, 15-16 May, 1957.
Michael Billingtonâs biography of Pinter tells how, one evening in July 1957, Engel was instrumental in bringing together Pinter and his future theatrical agent, Jimmy Wax. Engelâs papers include a letter and a card from Pinter that show he kept her informed. Following Harold Hobsonâs influential review of The Room (when it was revived at the National Student Drama Festival, again at Bristol, in December 1957), Pinter wrote to Engel (January 1958) that The Birthday Party, âmy 3-acter is expected to go on at the Lyric Hammersmith. Quite a thing. Thank God you were Roseâ. Although the play flopped badly on its first run, Pinter remained resolute: âa cheer for Hobson. I ainât finished yet!â (postcard to Engel, 4 June 1958).
Guy Vaesen kept a fascinating theatre journal in which he recorded, over eighty-eight closely-written notebook pages, the 1963 Pinter-led rehearsals for The Lover and The Dwarfs. Pinter and Vivien Merchant, who played âSarahâ in The Lover, had previously acted together in several of Vaesenâs productions in repertory. At Bournemouth, in the summer of 1956, Merchant played Jane Eyre to Pinterâs Rochester; at the end of the season, they married. Vaesenâs journal is therefore not only illuminating about Pinterâs approach to stage direction but is enriched by personal observation and it displays particular insights that only close association brings. Of the two plays, it was The Dwarfs that proved the more challenging in rehearsal. Pinterâs response to the actorsâ difficulties with some of his lines was that they should simply follow the rhythm of the words: âIn short,â Vaesen reports Pinter as saying, âif you hit a line with particular emphasis (within the rhythm) the line will become clear. Listen to the sound first â and the meaning will clear through this [âŠ]. Music and rhythm. They must be your guides.â Here, Pinterâs approach to performance exhibits a poetâs confidence in the cadence of his words.
Extract from Guy Vaesenâs rehearsal journal (19 August 1963).
Vaesenâs papers include thirty-two letters and cards from Pinter, beginning in 1963 with a letter confirming that he is to work with Pinter in directing the double bill: âCodron is completely happy about the idea! So am I, as you know.â In typical Pinter style, the letters tend to be brief and direct. They continue until 1995, when we find Pinter âoff today to Chichester where Iâm directing Harwoodâs new play.â Lifelong friends, Pinter kept Vaesen abreast of his writing and directing projects for stage and screen. In later life, Vaesen enjoyed considerable success as an artist. Pinter bought his cricket scenes. In 1980, he wrote to say that he has a Vaesen âin almost every room in both houses nowâ.
Pinterâs acceptance speech for the Cohen Literature Prize (1995) included a warm tribute to his âinspirationalâ teacher at Hackney Downs, Joe Brearley, who âpossessed a passionate enthusiasm for English poetryâ, especially the dramatic poetry of Shakespeare and John Webster. Pinter said that Websterâs words made him feel âdizzyâ. Henry Woolf has recalled the vivid impression that Webster made on âthe Hackney gangâ when Brearley took some of his pupils to see The White Devil. In his Cohen speech, Pinter remembered long walks with Brearley when they would âdeclare into the wind, at the passing trolley-buses or indeed to the passers-by, nuggets of Websterâ. Betrayal, cruelty, moral corruption, and torture â mainstays of dark Jacobean theatre â were to be repeatedly re-inscribed in Pinterâs plays. The memorial poem he wrote for Brearley, who died 19 November 1977, evokes these excited walks and talks of his youth, perambulations so indelible that it seemed to Pinter he was, in some ever-necessary way, undertaking them still: âYouâre gone, Iâm at your side, / Walking with you from Clapton Pond to Finsbury Park, / And on, and on.â When Mr. Kidd in The Room says âSo I thought to myself, Iâd better have a look at those pipesâ, one can imagine an inward chuckle as Woolf performed, reminded as he surely must have been of Websterâs visceral line, cited by Pinter in his Cohen speech: âThereâs a plumber laying pipes in my gutsâ.
Joe Brearley retired from Hackney Downs School in 1971, at the age of 62. He spent the next six years of his life â all that was to remain to him â in Germany. A German speaker, and a teacher of German as well as English, Brearley had spent his summers in the 1930s in Germany as a private English tutor, where he witnessed at first hand the rise of the National Socialist Party. In 1933, he heard Hitler speak at a rally at RĂŒdesheim on the Rhine. After the War, he returned to teach at Hackney Downs School, where fifty per cent of the pupils, including Pinter, were from Jewish families. Although Brearleyâs final years in Germany were few, they were nevertheless eventful. At the Gymnasium where he taught English (his retirement did not bring an end to the impulse to teach), Brearley met the artist and teacher Mara Loytved-Hardegg, thirty-three years his junior, with whom he was to share his last years (and who has now donated Brearleyâs papers to the British Library). They lived in Nuremburg. To an out-going yet conservative former Deputy Head, Maraâs circle of young friends â avant-garde artists, teachers, film-makers, and Marxists â were a rich source of intellectual stimulation (although, as the papers show, he drew the line at Marxism and at smoking cannabis).
Joe Brearley, 1973 (credit: Mara Loytved-Hardegg).
Brearleyâs archive is weighted towards these final and personally-fulfilling years: there are extensive files of correspondence and two journals that record, in poetry, photographs and watercolours, holidays with Mara in Greece and Ireland. But the collection also includes some earlier Hackney Downs material. There are printed programmes for the school plays that Brearley produced, and school exercise books that record the staging and lighting schemes for the two plays by Shakespeare in which Pinter acted, as Macbeth and as Romeo. Brearley did not act in his production of Macbeth, but in Romeo and Juliet he played Prince Escalus.
A page from Joe Brearleyâs lighting scheme for his school production of Macbeth (1947).
In September 1977, only weeks before his death in November, Brearley returned to England to meet up with a longstanding American friend and his wife. Much to Brearleyâs frustration, they are determined to visit â whistle-stop fashion, guide-book in hand â every cathedral city in southern England. Along the way, however, Brearley manages to augment the repetitive schedule. They visit Henry Woolf, âan old (actor) pupil of mineâ then living in Folkestone. Two days later, they detour to Brighton where Brearley is reacquainted with Pinterâs parents (in 1948, Brearley had interceded on Pinterâs behalf when, much to the dismay of his parents, he decided to register as a conscientious objector). At the end of the exhausting itinerary, on Friday 30 September, Brearley lunches with Pinter, at âThe Little Acropolisâ in Charlotte Street. Inevitably, much of their conversation touches upon Pinterâs changed personal circumstances, sensationally reported at the time in the newspapers: the end of his marriage to Vivien Merchant and his new life with Antonia Fraser. When Brearley and Pinter met for the last time, they were both were embarking on new futures.
Pinter is a presence throughout the archive, which includes his correspondence with both Brearley and Loytved-Hardegg, continuing solicitously until his death in 2008. But there is a second consistent presence who must be mentioned. On the same tour of southern England, Brearley slipped away to make one further personal call. Passing through Cambridge, he called upon his old tutor, F. R. Leavis, whose health was then rapidly declining. Queenie Leavis greeted him: âItâs good to see his really old students from the great days âŠ one has to be so careful now. I have to keep away people who come out of mere curiosity âŠ and journalists out for a story.â Brearley read for the English Tripos at Cambridge under Leavisâs supervision. In an autograph testimonial in the archive, Leavis wrote (14 March 1932): â[Brearley] has in particular studied critical method, especially as it bears upon the problem of teaching English. He is a cultivated man with a trained mind, & is himself well qualified to teach. I recommend him with great confidence.â Among the many letters of condolence Mara received was one from Q. D. Leavis, who admitted to having initially hesitated in agreeing to Brearleyâs visit, âDr Leavis so changed and not able to converseâ. She paints a poignant picture of their last meeting: âI shall never forget how kind and sympathetic [Joe] was to my husband, sitting by his bed & holding his handâ.
Leavis outlived Brearley by five months. His persistent presence in the archive â which extends even to a final brief entry (2 November 1977) in Brearleyâs last journal, written from his hospital bed â serves as a reminder that Brearleyâs enduring influence upon the young Pinter in the late 1940s, including the ârevelationâ, as Pinter described it, of Websterâs plays, had a particular critical and pedagogical setting. It also supplies a context to Pinterâs advice to the actors rehearsing The Dwarfs, that their guide should be the music and rhythm, the movement â to borrow a favoured term from Leavis â of his words. If Brearleyâs teacher was not far from his thoughts in hospital, nor was his pupil. The first note in the same hospital journal (15 October) registers a dream of a dream, a dream of Pinter acting in a âschool productionâ of Midsummer Nightâs Dream.