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Harold and Eartha

Matt Schudel

It's hard to conceive of two cultural figures more opposite than the two who appear on today's obituary pages: Harold Pinter and Eartha Kitt. Pinter, of course, was the playwright of undefined terror and gloom, a Nobel Prize-winning writer who used his Nobel acceptance speech in 2005 to denounce the U.S.-backed war in Iraq.

In one respect, though, they were similar because the purring, bubbly Eartha -- she was practically the definition of "sex kitten" -- also spoke out against an unpopular war. But she did it in even more dramatic fashion, using an appearance at the White House to condemn the Vietnam War in 1968. She was immediately blacklisted and couldn't find much work in the United States for the next 10 years.

People often think we have obituaries of such aging figures "in the can" ready to go at a moment's notice, but that was not the case with either Pinter or Miss Kitt. I'm the only person working over the Christmas holiday, so I tackled the Pinter obit when I came to the office on Christmas morning. When the announcement of Eartha Kitt's death hit the wires at about 4:30 p.m., I asked the Post's longtime "nightside" reporter, Martin Weil -- a stalwart of the paper for more than 40 years -- to give her a proper sendoff, and he did a terrific job. The Style section kicked into gear and ordered up two appreciations. (Drama critic Peter Marks wrote about Pinter, and Style writer Wil Haygood weighed in on Eartha.)

Standard obituaries, of course, are not critical essays, but they do require a great deal of research and critical evaluation. It was hard to leave certain things out of the Pinter obit, including some of the more damning reviews he received early in his career. I quote one, from Milton Shulman of the London Evening Standard, but here I can include a fuller version of the review of Pinter's first major play, "The Birthday Party::

"Sitting through 'The Birthday Party' ... is like trying to solve a crossword puzzle where every vertical clue is designed to put you off the horizontal. It will be best enjoyed by those who believe that obscurity is its own reward."

At the last minute, I also excised a passage in which Pinter responded to a woman who wrote to him asking for an explication of "The Birthday Party," a 1960 play in which a man named Stanley is approached by two men at a seaside resort and subjected to increasingly menacing interrogation and, ultimately, kidnapping.

Here's the letter writer's initial query, followed by Pinter's response:

"These are the points which I do not understand," the woman wrote. "1. Who are the two men? 2. Where did Stanley come from? 3. Were they all supposed to be normal? You will appreciate that without the answers to my questions, I cannot fully understand your play."
Mr. Pinter responded: "Dear Madam... These are the points which I do not understand. 1. Who are you? 2. Where do you come from? 3. Are you supposed to be normal? You will appreciate that without the answers to my questions I cannot understand your letter."

By Matt Schudel |  December 26, 2008; 1:05 PM ET  | Category:  Matt Schudel
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