Ever since their much-publicized five-year love affair (while married to other people) and subsequent wedding in 1980, British playwright Harold Pinter and historian-novelist Lady Antonia Fraser have avoided the limelight. But earlier this month they were center stage in—of all places—Providence, R.I., where the Trinity Square Repertory Company was rehearsing a Pinter play for its North American premiere next week. Although the author himself had once described the 1958 drama, The Hothouse, as “purely cardboard,” he enthusiastically threw himself into preparations. “There’s really no sense in coming 3,000 miles,” shrugged Pinter, “and remaining silent.” (Especially since the repertory company paid for his trip.)
The playwright’s performance won mixed reviews. “The interaction between Pinter and the actors was terrific,” said Trinity Square’s director, Adrian Hall. “I was terrified he would be some kind of an alcoholic. Instead, he was a workaholic.” Pinter, 51, also seemed pleased. “The actors,” he predicted, “will do the play damn well.” But at least one Providence dowager, annoyed at the playwright’s skittish attitude toward invitations, was heard to complain, “Pinter is obviously a law unto himself.”
Two years ago Pinter reread The Hothouse and recalls thinking, “What the hell has this play been doing in a drawer for 22 years?” That year, 1980, it was staged successfully in London. The play deals with an institution where all the inmates are locked up and known only by numbers.
Capitalizing on the Pinters’ visit, Brown University invited Lady Antonia, author of such top-sellers as Mary, Queen of Scots (1969) and Royal Charles (1979), to lecture on “The Biographer in Search of a Subject.” Some 800 people showed up to hear the biographer deny that she identifies with Mary (although Antonia is lovely and tall, like the hapless, and eventually headless, monarch). The university also mounted a three-day festival of Pinter’s works and awarded him an honorary doctor of letters degree. The shy Pinter did not attend the festival and spent only a few hours on campus, mostly with university and Trinity Square officials. Though all the attention seemed to make Pinter uneasy, he was obviously pleased when word reached him that his screenplay for The French Lieutenant’s Woman had received an Academy Award nomination.
Lady Antonia, 49, who said the campus environment reminded her of Oxford, where her father was a professor, spent her spare time visiting the state-house in search of a document linking King Charles II and Roger Williams, the founder of the Rhode Island colony. She didn’t find it, but did locate the garden on Benefit Street where Edgar Allan Poe was inspired to write his poem To Helen. She also made two trips to Newport, trying to rent a house for the summer (even though The Hothouse is booked only until April 4). She reportedly found one, and the Pinters will return. Presently working on a British TV series based on her three mystery novels, Lady Antonia will publish her fourth thriller, Cool Repentance, this fall. Another project: a historical survey of 17th-century women.
Pinter’s three new one-act plays will open in London next autumn, keeping the elusive couple busy at home. But someday they might be regular visitors to Providence. Calling London during the recent visit, Antonia told the youngest of her six children, 14-year-old Orlando, that Brown would be a good university to attend if he “could afford it.” (Tuition is $8,200.) His reply: “You pay for the university, and I’ll pay for this call.”