Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter dies at 78
LONDON (AP) — Few playwrights but Harold Pinter are known for their deliberate use of silence — a dramatic style now known as "Pinter-esque" to describe the Nobel laureate's use of halting dialogue and pregnant pauses.
Pinter, who died of cancer Wednesday at the age of 78, was considered the most influential British playwright of his generation. His works included 32 plays, one novel and 22 screenplays — dramas that delve into themes of injustice and guilt and inspired American playwrights Sam Shepard and David Mamet.
The American situation comedy Seinfeld once copied Pinter's device of altering the chronology of a story during an episode, as he did in his 1978 play "Betrayal." The same technique was used in the film, Memento. Similarly, a character on the teen drama Dawson's Creek referenced Pinter, saying "You say one thing, but you mean another."
Pinter was a master of language, using deliberately timed dialogue against the contradictory actions of his characters. Words were often framed by a one-room set that amplified and contained unsettling drama.
Many dictionaries now refer to his unique technique as "Pinter-esque."
"The speech we hear is an indication of that which we don't hear," Pinter once said.
"It is a necessary avoidance, a violent, sly and anguished or mocking smoke screen which keeps the other in its true place. When true silence falls we are left with echo but are nearer nakedness. One way of looking at speech is to say that it is a constant stratagem to cover nakedness."
The working-class milieu of his plays like "The Birthday Party" and "The Homecoming" reflected Pinter's early life as the son of a Jewish tailor from London's East End.
He once said: "How can you write a happy play? Drama is about conflict and degrees of perturbation, disarray. I've never been able to write a happy play, but I've been able to enjoy a happy life."
"Betrayal," a story of a woman who cheats on her husband, was reportedly based on the disintegration of his marriage to actress Vivien Merchant, who appeared in many of his first plays.
Their marriage ended in 1980 after Pinter's long affair with BBC presenter Joan Bakewell. He then married writer and historian Antonia Fraser. Merchant died shortly afterward of alcoholism-related disease.
"With his earliest work, he stood alone in British theater up against the bewilderment and incomprehension of critics, the audience and writers too," British playwright Tom Stoppard said when Pinter won the Nobel in 2005.
Most prolific between 1957 and 1965, Pinter relished the juxtaposition of brutality and the banal and turned the conversational pause into an emotional minefield.
His characters' internal fears and longings, their guilt and difficult sexual drives were set against the neat lives they constructed in order to try to survive. Usually enclosed in one room, the acts often illustrated the characters' lives as a sort of grim game with actions that contradicted words. Gradually, the layers were peeled back.
In his first major play, "The Birthday Party" (1958), intruders enter the retreat of Stanley, a young man who is hiding from childhood guilt. He becomes violent, telling them, "You stink of sin, you contaminate womankind."
In "The Caretaker" (1959), a manipulative old man threatens the fragile relationship of two brothers, while "The Homecoming" (1964) explores the hidden rage and confused sexuality of an all-male household by inserting a woman.
In "Silence" and "Landscape," (1967 and 1968) Pinter moved from exploring the underbelly of human life to showing the simultaneous levels of fantasy and reality that occupy the individual.
"Pinter restored theater to its basic elements: an enclosed space and unpredictable dialogue, where people are at the mercy of each other and pretense crumbles," the Nobel Academy said when it announced Pinter's award. "With a minimum of plot, drama emerges from the power struggle and hide-and-seek of interlocution."
Pinter showed the same passion for politics as he did in his plays, though the political messages in his plays were subtle — underlying themes of oppression, injustice, conflict and conscience were clear in many of his best known works.
In real life, the Nobel Prize gave Pinter a global platform to denounce U.S. President George W. Bush and then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
"The invasion of Iraq was a bandit act, an act of blatant state terrorism, demonstrating absolute contempt for the concept of international law," Pinter said in his Nobel lecture, which he recorded rather than traveling to the Swedish capital of Stockholm.
"How many people do you have to kill before you qualify to be described as a mass murderer and a war criminal? One hundred thousand?" he asked, in a hoarse voice.
Weakened by cancer and bandaged from a fall on a slippery pavement, Pinter seemed a vulnerable old man when he emerged from his London home to speak about the Nobel Award.
Though he had been looking forward to giving a Nobel lecture — calling it "the longest speech I will ever have made" — he first canceled plans to attend the award ceremony, then announced he would skip the lecture as well on his doctor's advice.
Pinter turned down a knighthood and attacked Blair when NATO bombed Serbia. He later referred to Blair a "deluded idiot" for supporting Bush's war in Iraq.
He said he deeply regretted having voted for Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and Tony Blair in 1997.
Pinter was born Oct. 30, 1930, in the London neighborhood of Hackney, and in 1939 was forced along with other children to evacuate to rural Cornwall during World War II. By the time he returned at age 14, he was entranced with Franz Kafka and Ernest Hemingway.
By 1950, Pinter had begun to publish poetry and appear on stage as an actor. Pinter started to write for the stage, and published "The Room" in 1957.
A year later, The Birthday Party was produced in the West End, and despite closing after just one week to disastrous reviews, Pinter continued to write.
"I find critics on the whole a pretty unnecessary bunch of people," he once said.
Michael Billington, Pinter's friend and biographer, praised Pinter.
"Harold was a political figure, a polemicist and carried on fierce battles against American foreign policy and often British foreign policy, but in private he was the most incredibly loyal of friends and generous of human beings," he said. "He was a great man as well actually as a great playwright."
During the late 1980s, his work became more overtly political; he said he had a responsibility to pursue his role as "a citizen of the world in which I live, (and) insist upon taking responsibility."
In the 1980s, Pinter's only stage plays were one-acts: "A Kind of Alaska" (1982), "One for the Road" (1984) and the 20-minute "Mountain Language" (1988).
Pinter announced his retirement as a playwright in March 2005 to concentrate on politics. But he created a radio play, "Voices," that was broadcast on BBC radio to mark his 75th birthday.
"I have written 29 plays and I think that's really enough," Pinter said. "I think the world has had enough of my plays."
Former lawmaker Tony Benn, of the governing Labour Party, said Pinter's death "will leave a huge gap that will be felt by the whole political spectrum."
Pinter is survived by his son, Daniel, from his marriage to Merchant.