Playwriting for Dummies: What would Harold Pinter think?

‘Oh look! A competition for a play… I write, I can write a play, can’t I? Yes, easy, I’ll just dash it off over the summer… Right, fresh word document, clean desk, let’s begin. The beginning…so… Where shall I start?’

Following the example of Julie Andrews, I began at the very beginning – a very good place to start – with the title: What Would Harold Pinter Think? It became my play-writing companion, much like my daily equivalent of ‘What Would Beyonce do?’ The genius of this title is that we can pretty assuredly guess that whatever I write – fit for the West End or not – Harold Pinter would hate it, hate it, hate it. One star reviews on every poster and in every publication.

Once my paranoid people-pleasing default is negated by the pre-determined hatred from my play’s namesake, I had a place to start and a style to satirise. Pinter plays are dark, family-driven dramas; simplistic sets, long silences, meaning saturating every word. Again – easy, right? One approach to this ‘easy’ problem of ‘writing a play’ is to tell yourself that it is the meaning we ascribe to things that makes them difficult (that is, unless they are actually difficult. #chemistryalevel).

So, instead of writing ‘a play’, write a scene. Instead of starting with fully-formed characters, take a facet of their personality and develop from there.

I like to host a lot of small parties because BYOB is a much cheaper way of socialising in London, but I have developed a slightly odd – although very useful – habit of not talking, but listening. Once I had created a vague cartoon of my lead characters, I pretended to host a party for them. I set the subject; perhaps women and mental health, or feminism and Nikki Minaj, or Foucault’s theory of Biopower interacting with women.  And then I listened. It’s extraordinary to hear what they come up with (Freud would have a field day). The next step is the hardest and simplest. Just write. Put your head down and fucking write.

I recently found out that Pinter himself asked, whilst accepting the Wilfred Owen Award, ’What would Wilfred Owen make of the invasion of Iraq?’ (Is this too meta yet?) in a condemnation of ‘blatant state terrorism’. I’m deviating, but I am suddenly reminded of the ridiculous way Russell Brand condemned Hugo Boss’s collusion with the Nazi’s, whilst accepting an award sponsored by them.

Our lead in the play, Eleanor, is struggling with niggling acts of hidden misogyny within her life, such as the domestic labour of mothers and housewives that has become, through the use of language, a narrative of apparent truth. Similarly, acts of war are legalised and sanitised by governments and states; Hugo Boss can design Nazi uniforms and still retain its status as a leading designer; acts of sexual violence are normalised because ‘men will be men’; guns apparently protect – and let’s not even mention Trump.

The play deals with problems like these and works to make the normal surreal, in order to question what we consider ‘normal’. I don’t promise to give any answers. But questions are vital.

What Would Harold Pinter Think? is showing on 1st and 2nd of March, 7.30pm in the Judith E. Wilson Drama Studio, English Faculty, Cambridge. Buy tickets here: or email to reserve tickets. An Old Vag Club production.

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