HAROLD PINTER, NOBEL-WINNING PLAYWRIGHT, DIES AT 78
By Mel Gussow and Ben Brantley
New York Times
December 25, 2008
Harold Pinter, the British playwright whose gifts for finding the ominous in the everyday and the noise within silence made him the most influential and imitated dramatist of his generation, died on Wednesday. He was 78 and lived in London.
The cause was cancer, his wife, Lady Antonia Fraser, said Thursday.
Mr. Pinter learned he had cancer of the esophagus in 2002. In 2005, when he received the Nobel Prize in Literature, he was unable to attend the awards ceremony at the Swedish Academy in Stockholm but delivered an acceptance speech from a wheelchair in a recorded video.
In more than 30 plays -- written between 1957 and 2000 and including masterworks like The Birthday Party, The Caretaker, The Homecoming, and Betrayal -- Mr. Pinter captured the anxiety and ambiguity of life in the second half of the 20th century with terse, hypnotic dialogue filled with gaping pauses and the prospect of imminent violence.
Along with another Nobel winner, Samuel Beckett, his friend and mentor, Mr. Pinter became one of the few modern playwrights whose names instantly evoke a sensibility. The adjective Pinteresque has become part of the cultural vocabulary as a byword for strong and unspecified menace.
An actor, essayist, screenwriter, poet, and director as well as a dramatist, Mr. Pinter was also publicly outspoken in his views on repression and censorship, at home and abroad. He used his Nobel acceptance speech to denounce American foreign policy, saying that the United States had not only lied to justify waging war against Iraq, but that it had also “supported and in many cases engendered every right-wing military dictatorship” in the last 50 years.
His political views were implicit in much of his work. Though his plays deal with the slipperiness of memory and human character, they are also almost always about the struggle for power.
The dynamic in his work is rooted in battles for control, turf wars waged in locations that range from working-class boarding houses (in his first produced play, The Room, from 1957) to upscale restaurants (the setting for Celebration, staged in 2000). His plays often take place in a single, increasingly claustrophobic room, where conversation is a minefield and even innocuous-seeming words can wound.
In Mr. Pinter’s work “words are weapons that the characters use to discomfort or destroy each other,” said Peter Hall, who has staged more of Mr. Pinter’s plays than any other director.
But while Mr. Pinter’s linguistic agility turned simple, sometimes obscene, words into dark, glittering and often mordantly funny poetry, it is what comes between the words that he is most famous for. And the stage direction “pause” would haunt him throughout his career.
Intended as an instructive note to actors, the Pinter pause was a space for emphasis and breathing room. But it could also be as threatening as a raised fist. Mr. Pinter said that writing the word “pause” into his first play was “a fatal error.” It is certainly the aspect of his writing that has been most parodied. But no other playwright has consistently used pauses with such rhythmic assurance and to such fine-tuned manipulative effect.
Early in his career Mr. Pinter said his work was about “the weasel under the cocktail cabinet.” Though he later regretted the image, it holds up as a metaphor for the undertow of danger that pervades his work. As Martin Esslin wrote in his book Pinter: The Playwright, “Man’s existential fear, not as an abstraction, but as something real, ordinary and acceptable as an everyday occurrence -- here we have the core of Pinter’s work as a dramatist.”
Though often grouped with Beckett and others as a practitioner of Theater of the Absurd, Mr. Pinter considered himself a realist. In 1962 he said the context of his plays was always “concrete and particular.” He never found a need to alter that assessment.
Beginning in the late 1950s, John Osborne and Mr. Pinter helped to turn British theater away from the gentility of the drawing room. With Look Back in Anger, Osborne opened the door for several succeeding generations of angry young men, who railed against the class system and an ineffectual government. Mr. Pinter was to have the more lasting effect as an innovator and a stylist. And his influence on other playwrights, including David Mamet in the United States and Patrick Marber and Jez Butterworth in England, is undeniable.
The playwright Tom Stoppard said that before Mr. Pinter: “One thing plays had in common: you were supposed to believe what people said up there. If somebody comes in and says, ‘Tea or coffee?’ and the answer is ‘Tea,’ you are entitled to assume that somebody is offered a choice of two drinks, and the second person has stated a preference.” With Mr. Pinter there are alternatives, “such as the man preferred coffee but the other person wished him to have tea,” Mr. Stoppard said, “or that he preferred the stuff you make from coffee beans under the impression that it was called tea.”
As another British playwright, David Hare, said of Mr. Pinter, “The essence of his singular appeal is that you sit down to every play or film he writes in certain expectation of the unexpected.”
Though initially regarded as an intuitive rather than an intellectual playwright, Mr. Pinter was in fact both. His plays are dense with references to writers like James Joyce and T. S. Eliot. The annual Pinter Review, in which scholars probe and parse his works for meaning and metaphor, is one of many indications of his secure berth in academia.
While it was not immediately apparent, Mr. Pinter was always a writer with a political sensibility, which became overt in later plays like One for the Road (1984) and Mountain Language (1988). These works, having to do “not with ambiguities of power, but actual power,” he said, were written out of “very cold anger.”
He and his wife hosted gatherings in their Holland Park town house for liberal political seminars. Known as the June 20th Society, the participants included Mr. Hare, Ian McEwan, Michael Holroyd, John Mortimer, Salman Rushdie, and Germaine Greer. In their discussions Mr. Pinter expressed the great struggle of the mid-20th century as one between “primitive rage” and “liberal generosity,” Mr. Hare said.
Through the years Mr. Pinter became known, especially to the British news media, for having a prickly personality. “There is a violence in me,” Mr. Pinter once said, “but I don’t walk around looking for trouble.” The director Richard Eyre said in a testimonial book published for Mr. Pinter’s 70th birthday that he was “sometimes pugnacious and occasionally splenetic” but “just as often droll and generous -- particularly to actors, directors, and (a rare quality this) other writers.”
Harold Pinter was born in Hackney in the East End of London on Oct. 10, 1930. His father, Jack, was a tailor; his mother, Frances, a homemaker. Mr. Pinter’s grandparents had emigrated to England from Eastern Europe. His parents, he said, were “very solid, very respectable, Jewish, lower-middle-class people.”
With the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Harold, an only child, was evacuated from London to a provincial town in Cornwall. His feelings of loneliness and isolation from that time were to surface later in his plays. When he was 13, he returned to London and was there during the Blitz when his house was struck by a bomb. He rushed inside to rescue a few valuable possessions: his cricket bat and a poem -- “a paean of love” -- he was writing to a girlfriend.
Sports, poetry, and his relationships with women were to remain important to him. Vigorously athletic, he was a fierce competitor in cricket and tennis. Ian Smith, an Oxford don and cricket teammate, equated Mr. Pinter’s art with his bold style of playing cricket. “Everything is focused,” he said. “It’s about performance and economy of gesture.”
Mr. Pinter grew up on a diet of American gangster movies and British war films. From the first he was a great reader and a hopeful poet, with strong political judgments. When he was called up for military service at 18, as a pacifist he refused to serve.
In diverse ways he remained a conscientious objector in the years to come, echoing a line in The Birthday Party, in which Stanley, a lodger in a seaside boarding house, is suddenly taken away by two strangers to some ominous future as a friend cries out, “Stan, don’t let them tell you what to do!” Years later, Mr. Pinter said he had lived that line all his life.
Mr. Pinter’s first poem was published in a magazine called Poetry London when he was 20. Soon afterward he completed a novel, The Dwarfs. After studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and the Central School of Speech and Drama, he signed on with a repertory company and, performing under the name David Baron, toured Ireland in plays by Shakespeare and others, often in villainous roles like Iago.
In 1955, at a party in London, Mr. Pinter was struck by what he referred to as “an odd image.” A little man, who later turned out to be the writer and professional eccentric Quentin Crisp, was making bacon and eggs for a large man who was sitting at a table reading the comics. Mr. Pinter told his friend Henry Woolf about the incident and said he thought he might write a play about it. The next year Mr. Woolf, then a graduate student at the University of Bristol, asked him if he could write that play for a group of drama students.
The resulting work, The Room, was Mr. Pinter’s first play. And with its story of mysterious intruders and its elliptical speech, it showed that Mr. Pinter had already found his voice as a dramatist. It opened in Bristol on May 15, 1957, and was restaged three years later at the Hampstead Theater Club in London.
In 1956 Mr. Pinter married Vivien Merchant, an actress in the company. After their son, Daniel, was born in 1958, they moved to the Chiswick section of London. He wrote The Birthday Party, his first full-length play, drawing on his memories of touring as an actor in Eastbourne, on Britain’s south coast.
The Pinters, who were temporarily unemployed and desperately poor, had an offer to act in Birmingham, and Ms. Merchant wanted to accept it. But Mr. Pinter said: “I have this play opening in London. I think I must stay. Something’s going to happen.” She replied, “What makes you think so?”
They turned down the acting offer. The Birthday Party opened in the West End in 1958 and received disastrous reviews. Then, prodded by the theatrical agent Peggy Ramsay, Harold Hobson, the eminent critic of the *Sunday Times* of London, came to see it at a matinee. What he wrote turned out to be a life-changing review.
“It breathes in the air,” Hobson wrote. “It cannot be seen but it enters the room every time the door is opened.” He continued: “Though you go to the uttermost parts of the earth, and hide yourself in the most obscure lodgings in the least popular of towns, one day there is a possibility that two men will appear. They will be looking for you and you cannot get away. And someone will be looking for them too. There is terror everywhere.” He concluded, “Mr. Pinter, on the evidence of this work, possesses the most original, disturbing, and arresting talent in theatrical London.”
Despite that review the play closed that weekend. By contrast Mr. Pinter’s next full-length play to be produced, The Caretaker, which opened in London in 1960, was a dazzling critical success. “Suddenly everything went topsy-turvy,” Mr. Pinter said.
In that play two brothers live in a seedy house in London and, for inexplicable reasons, invite a homeless man named Davies to share their quarters and to act as a kind of custodian. Michael Billington, a critic for the Guardian and Mr. Pinter’s biographer, has called the play “an austere masterpiece: a universally recognizable play about political maneuvering, fraternal love, spiritual isolation, language as a negotiating weapon or a form of cover-up.”
Mr. Pinter’s next play, The Homecoming, opened in London in June 1965, in a Royal Shakespeare Company production directed by Mr. Hall. The story of an all-male family headed by a Lear-like father and the woman (Ms. Merchant, who starred in many of his plays) who enters and disrupts their domain scored a major success in London. Though it received a mixed reception in New York, *The Homecoming* won a Tony Award as best play and had a long run on Broadway.
After these first three full-length plays -- all stories of raffish characters in shabby environments -- Mr. Pinter shifted his focus. His next three dramas were set in the worlds of art and publishing: Old Times (1971), No Man’s Land (1975) and Betrayal (1978), all studies of the unreliability of memory and the uncertainty of love. In Old Times a husband and wife encounter a woman they may or may not have known in the past.
In No Man’s Land a faded poet visits a wealthy patron for an evening of recollection and gamesmanship, roles played in the original production by John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson, who repeated their performances in New York the next year. The elegant Betrayal is a play about marriage and duplicity and, despite its use of reverse chronology, is among Mr. Pinter’s most accessible works. It was made into a 1982 film starring Jeremy Irons, Ben Kingsley, and Patricia Hodge.
During the run of No Man’s Land Mr. Pinter began an affair with Lady Antonia Fraser, the biographer and historian, who was then married to Hugh Fraser, a conservative politician. In 1980 Mr. Pinter and Lady Antonia were married, with Mr. Pinter becoming the substitute paterfamilias of an extended family.
In addition to his wife, his survivors include his son, Daniel, and his stepchildren, Benjamin, Damian, Orlando, Rebecca, Flora, and Natasha. Years ago his son changed his last name to Brand, his maternal grandmother’s maiden name. He had been estranged from his father, living as a recluse in Cambridgeshire.
After Betrayal Mr. Pinter’s plays became shorter (like A Kind of Alaska) and then, for about three years, they stopped. “Something gnaws away,” he explained, “the desire to write something and the inability to do so.” He added, “I think I was getting more and more imbedded in international issues.”
At the same time he continued his involvement in films, highlighted by his close collaboration as screenwriter with the director Joseph Losey, which began in 1963 with "The Servant," a depiction of class relations in Britain. That was followed in 1967 by “Accident,” about a professor infatuated with a student (Mr. Pinter and Ms. Merchant each had minor parts), and “The Go-Between” (1971), about a boy’s complicity in an adult affair in turn of the century Britain, with Julie Christie and Alan Bates.
His many screenplays for other directors include “The Pumpkin Eater” (1964), about a woman (Anne Bancroft) drifting through multiple marriages, directed by Jack Clayton; “The Last Tycoon,” Elia Kazan’s 1976 adaptation of the Fitzgerald novel; and “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” (1981), a Karel Reisz film with Meryl Streep and Mr. Irons.
With his plays Moonlight (a portrait of family relationships undermined by years of divisiveness) and Ashes to Ashes (a story of “torturers and victims” reflected in a typically uncommunicative marriage), Mr. Pinter returned to the longer, somberly meditative form.
His final work, Celebration (2000), is a wry look at power-conscious couples dining in a chic restaurant that bears a striking resemblance to the Ivy, a famous theater gathering place in London. Celebration was inspired by the playwright’s early days as an unemployed actor, when he took a job as a busboy at the National Liberal Club. Because he dared to intrude on a conversation among several diners, he was fired.
He often directed plays by others, especially those by Simon Gray (*Butley*, *Otherwise Engaged*), and occasionally his own work. Increasingly and with greater zeal he appeared as an actor -- onstage with Paul Eddington in No Man’s Land and in films like "Mojo," "Mansfield Park," and "The Tailor of Panama." Throughout his life he specialized in playing menacing characters, including several in his own plays (The Hothouse, One for the Road).
In July 2001 the highlight of the Lincoln Center Festival in New York was the presentation of nine Pinter plays, including a revival of The Homecoming, and a pairing of his first and last plays, The Room and Celebration. Mr. Pinter participated as a director and also acted in One for the Road in the role of a dapper and sadistic government interrogator.
The Pinter festival was the capstone of a season that, in London, featured the premiere at the National Theater of a stage version of his film script for Remembrance of Things Past. Late in 2001 he directed an acclaimed revival of No Man’s Land, starring John Wood and Corin Redgrave at the National Theater.
In December 2001, during a routine medical examination, he was found to have cancer of the esophagus. In January 2002, while undergoing treatment, he acted in his brief comic sketch Press Conference at the National Theater in a malicious role as a minister of culture who was formerly the head of the secret police. In 2006 he appeared in a weeklong, sold-out production of Beckett’s one-man play, Krapp’s Last Tape, at the Royal Court Theater.
“Pinter looks anxiously over his left shoulder into the darkness as if he felt death’s presence in the room,” Mr. Billington of the *Guardian* wrote. “It is impossible to dissociate Pinter’s own recent encounters with mortality from that of the character.”
Revivals of Mr. Pinter’s work have become increasingly frequent in recent years. Last December an acclaimed production of his Homecoming opened on Broadway.
Mr. Pinter said he thought of theater as essentially exploratory. “Even old Sophocles didn’t know what was going to happen next,” he said. “He had to find his way through unknown territory. At the same time, theater has always been a critical act, looking in a broad sense at the society in which we live and attempting to reflect and dramatize these findings. We’re not talking about the moon.”
Speaking about his intuitive sense of writing, he said, “I find at the end of the journey, which of course is never ending, that I have found things out.”
“I don’t go away and say: ‘I have illuminated myself. You see before you a changed person,’” he added. “It’s a more surreptitious sense of discovery that happens to the writer himself.”
Few writers have been so consistent over so many years in the tone and execution of their work. Just before rehearsals began for the West End production of The Birthday Party half a century ago, Mr. Pinter sent a letter to his director, Peter Wood. In it he said, “The play dictated itself, but I confess that I wrote it -- with intent, maliciously, purposefully, in command of its growth.”
He added: “The play is a comedy because the whole state of affairs is absurd and inglorious. It is, however, as you know, a very serious piece of work.”
--Mel Gussow, a critic and cultural reporter for the *Times*, died in 2005.
HAROLD PINTER, BRITAIN'S TOP CONTEMPORARY DRAMATIST, DIES AT 78
By Haroon Siddique
December 25, 2008
The Nobel laureate Harold Pinter, one of the greatest playwrights of his generation, has died. Pinter, who was suffering from cancer, died yesterday aged 78.
His second wife, Lady Antonia Fraser, said in a statement to the Guardian: "He was a great, and it was a privilege to live with him for over 33 years. He will never be forgotten."
Pinter had a number of awards bestowed on him during a long and distinguished career, including the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005. In its citation, the Nobel academy said Pinter was "generally seen as the foremost representative of British drama in the second half of the 20th century" and declared him to be an author "who in his plays uncovers the precipice under everyday prattle and forces entry into oppression's closed rooms".
Pinter was best know for his plays, including his 1960 breakthrough production The Caretaker, The Dumb Waiter, and The Birthday Party. But he was also a screenwriter, actor, and director and in recent years a vociferous campaigner against human rights abuses, including the occupation of Iraq by Western armed forces. He joined other artists such as Blur and Ken Loach in sending a letter to Downing Street opposing the 2003 invasion.
In 2004 he received the Wilfred Owen award for poetry for a collection of work criticizing the war in Iraq.
His screenplays for film and television, included the 1981 movie "The French Lieutenant's Woman" based on John Fowles' novel. He also wrote the screenplay for "The Comfort of Strangers" (1989), adapted from Ian McEwan's novel, and adapted many of his own stage plays for radio and television.
He was awarded a CBE in 1966, the German Shakespeare Prize in 1970, the Austrian State Prize for European Literature in 1973, and the David Cohen British Literature Prize in 1995. He was also awarded a number of honorary degrees.
Pinter was born into a Jewish family in the London borough of Hackney. His grandparents had fled persecution in Poland and Odessa. He was attracted to acting from an early age and his political activism was evident when in 1948 he refused, as a conscientious objector, to do National Service.
After two spells at drama school he joined he joined Anew McMaster's Shakespearean Irish touring company in 1951 and wrote his first play, The Room, for Bristol University's recently established drama department in 1957. His agent said a private funeral would be held and a memorial service open to all.
NOBEL-WINNING PLAYWRIGHT HAROLD PINTER DIES AT 78
By Paisley Dodds
December 25, 2008
LONDON -- Harold Pinter, praised as the most influential British playwright of his generation and a longtime voice of political protest, has died after a long battle with cancer. He was 78.
Pinter, whose distinctive contribution to the stage was recognized with the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005, died on Wednesday, according to his second wife, Lady Antonia Fraser.
"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."
The Nobel Prize gave Pinter a global platform which he seized enthusiastically 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 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 -- "the longest speech I will ever have made" -- he first canceled plans to attend the awards, then announced he would skip the lecture as well on his doctor's advice.
Pinter wrote 32 plays; one novel, The Dwarfs, in 1990; and put his hand to 22 screenplays including "The Quiller Memorandum" (1965) and "The French Lieutenant's Woman" (1980). He admitted, and said he deeply regretted, voting for Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and Tony Blair in 1997.
Pinter fulminated against what he saw as the overweening arrogance of American power, and belittled Blair as seeming like a "deluded idiot" in support of Bush's war in Iraq.
In his Nobel lecture, Pinter accused the United States of supporting "every right-wing military dictatorship in the world" after World War II.
"The crimes of the United States have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless, but very few people have actually talked about them," he said.
The United States, he added, "also has its own bleating little lamb tagging behind it on a lead, the pathetic and supine Great Britain."
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 are set against the neat lives they have constructed in order to try to survive.
Usually enclosed in one room, they organize their lives as a sort of grim game and their actions often contradict their words. Gradually, the layers are peeled back to reveal the characters' nakedness.
The protection promised by the room usually disappears and the language begins to disintegrate.
Pinter once said of language, "The speech we hear is an indication of that which we don't hear. 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."
Pinter's influence was felt in the United States in the plays of Sam Shepard and David Mamet and throughout British literature.
"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 the Nobel Prize was announced.
"Not only has Harold Pinter written some of the outstanding plays of his time, he has also blown fresh air into the musty attic of conventional English literature, by insisting that everything he does has a public and political dimension," added British playwright David Hare, who also writes politically charged dramas.
The working-class milieu of 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 began his career in the provinces as an actor.
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."
And in The Caretaker, a manipulative old man threatens the fragile relationship of two brothers while *The Homecoming* explores the hidden rage and confused sexuality of an all-male household by inserting a woman.
In Silence and Landscape, Pinter moved from exploring the dark underbelly of human life to showing the simultaneous levels of fantasy and reality that equally occupy the individual.
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).
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 March 2005 Pinter announced his retirement as a playwright 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."
Pinter had a son, Daniel, from his marriage to actress Vivien Merchant, which ended in divorce in 1980. That year he married the writer Fraser.
"It was a privilege to live with him for over 33 years. He will never be forgotten," Fraser said.
HAROLD PINTER, BRITISH PLAYWRIGHT, NOBEL LAUREATE, DEAD AT 78
By Alex Morales
December 25, 2008
Harold Pinter, the British playwright and political activist who won the 2005 Nobel Prize for Literature, has died. He was 78.
Pinter passed away yesterday, the BBC said on its web site, citing the playwright’s second wife, Antonia Fraser. Pinter had been suffering from liver cancer, the BBC said on its web site.
The Swedish Academy awarded him the prize for works that include The Caretaker and The Birthday Party.
“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 academy said on its web site after making the award.
Silences are one of the main characteristics of Pinter’s plays, and the author used them to increase tension and indicate menace. Politically, the Briton was far from silent, speaking out against Western foreign policy and saving his most vehement criticism for the U.S., which in his Nobel lecture he called “brutal, indifferent, scornful, and ruthless.”
“The crimes of the United States have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless,” said Pinter, who dedicated more than half the talk to a condemnation of U.S. foreign policy and U.K. support for it. “The United States supported and in many cases engendered every right-wing military dictatorship in the world after the end of the Second World War.”
In his speech, the playwright criticized U.S. support since 1945 for regimes in Nicaragua, Indonesia, Greece, Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay, Haiti, Turkey, the Philippines, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Chile. In recent years, he saved his most vociferous criticisms for the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
'MONSTER OUT OF CONTROL'
“The United States is a monster out of control,” Pinter said at an anti-war demonstration in London’s Hyde Park a month before the invasion. “Unless we challenge it with absolute determination, American barbarism will destroy the world. The country is run by a bunch of criminal lunatics, with Blair as their hired Christian thug.”
Calling the planned attack an “act of premeditated mass murder,” and urging U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair to resign, Pinter elicited applause from demonstrators on the city’s biggest-ever march, estimated by police at 1 million people and by organizers at as many as double that. His political activism drew criticism from other quarters.
Slamming the Nobel committee’s decision as a “selection of absurdity,” U.K. writer Christopher Hitchens described anti-war poems written by Pinter as “a preference for dictatorship larded with obscenity and fatuity,” in a Wall Street Journal piece titled “The Sinister Mediocrity of Harold Pinter.”
Hitchens said the decision to award Pinter the prize was driven by “pseudo-intellectual European hostility” to the war in Iraq. James Traub, writing in the New York Times magazine, said that while Pinter’s politics “are so extreme, they’re almost impossible to parody,” he deserved the prize.
“Pinter has written works that will remain long after his polemics are forgotten,” Traub wrote.
Pinter wrote his first play, The Room, in 1957, a year in which he also wrote The Dumb Waiter, and what would become one of his most performed plays, The Birthday Party. The latter play flopped on its London release before the Sunday Times newspaper published a review praising the work.
“I am well aware that Mr. Pinter’s play received extremely bad notices,” Sunday Times critic Harold Hobson wrote in May 1958. He then said that he was prepared to “risk my reputation” to say “Pinter, on the evidence of his work, possesses the most original, disturbing, and arresting talent in theatrical London.”
The author’s breakthrough play was The Caretaker, (1959), which dealt with the struggle for personal power between two brothers, Aston and Mick, and a tramp called Davies, whom Aston invites to stay at their house. The play, first performed in 1960 in London, was well-received by audiences and was described by the Observer critic Alan Pryce-Jones as “the most dazzling evening to reach the London theatre this year.”
Pinter’s plays, written in a style that gave the English language the word “Pinteresque,” are characterized by a minimum of plot and the use of silence to increase tension. They are often set in a single room where characters are threatened by forces or people whose precise intentions can be difficult to define. One of Pinter’s recurring themes is of menace, both spoken and unspoken.
'FRENCH LIEUTENANT'S WOMAN'
Some critics have divided Pinter’s work into three phases, starting with a period of psychological realism illustrated by plays such as The Birthday Party and The Hothouse (1958). The next stage showed a more lyrical phase with plays including Landscape in 1967 and Silence in 1968. In his third phase, Pinter’s works are more political with plays such as One for the Road in 1984 and Mountain Language (1988).
In all, Pinter wrote 32 plays according to his Web site, the last of them a 2000 adaptation of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. He also wrote 22 screenplays, including an adaptation of John Fowles’s novel for the 1981 film “The French Lieutenant’s Woman,” which starred Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons, and the 1976 film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book The Last Tycoon, starring Robert De Niro and Jack Nicholson.
In 2003, Pinter published a collection of anti-war poetry and a speech on the conflict in Iraq called War. He supported numerous human rights groups including Amnesty International and political endeavors such as the Campaign Against Sanctions in Iraq and the Cuba Solidarity Campaign.
Earlier causes embraced by Pinter included the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the Kurds in Turkey. In 1985, on a visit to Turkey with U.S. playwright Arthur Miller, the two were invited to the U.S. Embassy for dinner. Both criticized human rights abuses and the lack of free speech in Turkey, and U.S. support for the country. They were ejected from the mission after the meal.
“Being thrown out of the U.S. Embassy in Ankara with Arthur Miller -- a voluntary exile -- was one of the proudest moments of my life,” Pinter said on his Web site.
He also spoke out against allied bombing of Serbia during the conflict in Kosovo, calling for Blair and then U.S. President Bill Clinton to be tried for war crimes. In an April 8, 1999, letter to the Guardian, the playwright described U.S. foreign policy as: “Kiss my arse or I’ll kick your head in.”
“Since 1973, Pinter has won recognition as a fighter for human rights, alongside his writing,” the Swedish Academy said. “He has often taken stands seen as controversial.”
Pinter in 2002 was made a Companion of Honor in the U.K., one of Britain’s highest awards, and bestowed on only 65 people at a time. He shares that distinction with former Prime Minister John Major -- whose offer of a knighthood Pinter rejected in the 1990s. The award of the Nobel Prize left him -- for once -- without words: “I was speechless and remained so for another couple of minutes,” he wrote in the *Guardian*, describing his initial reaction.
Other awards included the 1996 Laurence Olivier Award for lifetime’s achievement in theater, and the 1973 Austrian state prize for European literature.
The son of a Jewish dressmaker, Pinter was born in Hackney, a working-class neighborhood in East London on Oct. 10, 1930. He was evacuated from London for three years at the start of World War II, at age 9, and has said the experience of wartime bombing left a lasting mark on him. He trained as an actor in the late 1940s and toured the country with performances under the stage-name David Baron in the 1950s, before turning to writing.
His later years were characterized by ill health, and he was operated on to remove a tumor of the esophagus in 2002. His health problems meant he had to walk with a stick, and four days before the Nobel announcement, a fall left him with a bloodied forehead. Although unable to attend the Nobel ceremony, he recorded a 45-minute speech.
Pinter was married between 1956 and 1980 to the actress Vivien Merchant, who died in 1982. The couple had a son, Daniel, who became estranged from the playwright in 1993. Pinter remarried in 1980 to writer and historian Lady Antonia Fraser, who survives him.
NOBEL-WINNING PLAYWRIGHT HAROLD PINTER DIES
By Patrick Foster
December 25, 2008
Harold Pinter, universally acclaimed as one of the greatest British playwrights of his generation, has died.
The Nobel Prize winner lost his battle with cancer on Christmas Eve, his agent confirmed. He was 78.
Pinter, who also enjoyed success as a screenwriter for film and television, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005, being hailed by the awarding committee as "the foremost representative of British drama in the second half of the 20th century."
However he was too frail to travel to the ceremony, having been diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus in 2002.
Pinter was due to pick up an honorary degree earlier this month from the Central School of Speech and Drama in London, but forced to withdraw from the event due to illness.
Lady Antonia Fraser, his second wife, said: “He was a great man, and it was a privilege to live with him for over 33 years.”
Pinter was best known for his plays, including The Birthday Party, The Dumb Waiter and The Homecoming, but he was also a director, actor, and screen-writer. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005.
The Nobel academy described him as “generally seen as the foremost representative of British drama in the second half of the 20th century.”
Pinter, who was born in Hackney, East London, was given a diagnosis of cancer of the esophagus in 2002, but later said that he was recovering from the illness. In the later years of his life he gave up writing plays to become a political activist and vocal critic of the Iraq war, which he said constituted a “bandit act.”
He died at Hammersmith Hospital, West London, soon after being admitted on Wednesday. He will have a small, private funeral, followed by a public memorial service, to be held on a date to be confirmed.
Born in Hackney, East London, the son of a Jewish tailor, Pinter threw himself into acting from an early age.
In the mid-1950s he began to write for the stage and The Room was published in 1957. A year later his first full length play, The Birthday Party, was produced in the West End but closed after just one week to disastrous reviews.
It was his second full-length play, The Caretaker, with which Pinter secured his reputation as one of the country’s foremost dramatists and playwrights.
He has long been known as politically minded, having refused to do national service in 1948 and turned down John Major’s offer of a knighthood
Most recently he had campaigned against the occupation of Iraq, being awarded the Wilfred Owen award for poetry in 2004, for a collection of work criticizing the war.
Tony Benn said Pinter would be greatly missed. The former Labor MP said: “Harold Pinter was a great playwright and a great figure on the political scene.
“His death will leave a huge gap that will be felt by the whole political spectrum.”
He was married twice, and is survived by his second wife, the writer and historian Lady Antonia Fraser.
"He was a great, and it was a privilege to live with him for over 33 years. He will never be forgotten," Baroness Fraser told the *Guardian* today.
Alan Yentob, the BBC Creative Director, said: “He was a unique figure in British theater. He has dominated the theater scene since the 1950s.”
PINTER: LIFE AND WORDS
Born: October 10, 1930, East London.
Education: Hackney Downs grammar school, Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Central School of Speech and Drama.
Married: 1956 Vivien Merchant, one son (marriage dissolved 1980); 1980 Lady Antonia Fraser.
-- 29 plays including The Birthday Party (1957), The Caretaker (1959), The Homecoming (1964), and Betrayal (1978).
-- 21 screenplays including "The French Liutenant’s Woman" (1980) and "Betrayal" (1983) for which he was nominated for an Academy Award.
Stage career: Actor 1949-60; director 1962-, theaters including Aldwych (The Birthday Party, 1964, etc.); National (Blithe Spirit, 1977, etc.); and Royal Court (Oleanna, 1993).
Awards: CBE (1966), Laurence Olivier Special Award (1996), BAFTA Fellowship (1997) Companion of Honor (2002), Nobel Prize for Literature (2005), Légion d’Honneur (2007). Honorary degrees from 17 universities
In his own words:
“I can sum up none of my plays . . . but my writing life has been, quite simply, one of relish, challenge, and excitement.”
"It was difficult being a conscientious objector in the 1940's, but I felt I had to stick to my guns."
“The crimes of the U.S. throughout the world have been systematic, constant, clinical, remorseless, and fully documented but nobody talks about them.”
“I tend to think that cricket is the greatest thing that God ever created on earth -- certainly greater than sex, although sex isn’t too bad either.”
“If you have only one of something you can’t say it’s the best of anything.” Old Times, 1970.
“I know little of women. But I’ve heard dread tales.” Moonlight, 1993.
“Rationality went down the drain donkey’s years ago and hasn’t been seen since.” Moonlight, 1993.
“Nothing is more sterile or lamentable than the man content to live within himself.” Tea Party, 1964.
“I hate brandy . . . it stinks of modern literature.” Betrayal, 1978.
“I would never use obscene language in the office. Certainly not. I kept my obscene language for the home, where it belongs.” Moonlight, 1993.
“I made a terrible mistake when I was young, I think, from which I’ve never really recovered. I wrote the word ‘pause’ into my first play.” Interview, 1989.
“I’ve never been able to write a happy play. I’ve been able to enjoy a happy life.” Interview, 2007.
Source: haroldpinter.org; Times Database
HAROLD PINTER: A MASTER OF THE SOUND OF SILENCE
By Michael Kuchwara
December 25, 2008
NEW YORK -- No one made the sound of silence more ominously theatrical than Harold Pinter.
The influential British playwright, who died Christmas Eve after a long battle with cancer, created unforgettable moments of quiet, often filled with terror, outrage, or the blackest of humor.
The "Pinter pause," as those silences were known, could send a shiver through an audience, jolting it into an unease that permeated many of his best plays, particularly such classics as The Caretaker and The Homecoming.
"Pinter-esque" became an adjective bandied about in all the best drama schools and playwriting classes.
Yet Pinter knew how to make words count. As he grew older, his plays became leaner, more succinct in their language and frequently ferociously political.
There was an economy to his writing, a paring away that suggested an affinity with another Nobel Prize-winning playwright, Samuel Beckett, who often examined the human condition in the most terse and terrifying way possible.
It took a while for theatergoers, especially American audiences, to get used to Pinter. He made his Broadway debut in 1961 with The Caretaker, which starred Alan Bates, Robert Shaw, and Donald Pleasence.
The play, a bleak treatise on identity and possessiveness set in a squalid London attic, puzzled theatergoers who were unnerved by its menace and bewildered by its seemingly inconclusive tale of cat-and-mouse games.
No such problem greeted The Homecoming, usually considered Pinter's masterwork. A best-play Tony winner in 1967, it has had several New York revivals since then, including a critically acclaimed Broadway production last year.
This distinctly atypical family drama of a tyrannical father, his dysfunctional sons, and an obliging, sexually provocative daughter-in-law has become a contemporary masterwork.
In Pinter, linguistic clarity is all. From such early works as The Room and The Birthday Party right up through more recent efforts such as Moonlight and Ashes to Ashes, his preciseness of language is imperative even if an exact meaning can't always be discerned.
It's that ambiguity which has posed a special challenge to actors, a challenge readily accepted by many on both sides of the Atlantic. Pinter's plays have provided memorable stage performances by a diverse parade of mesmerizing actors such as John Gielgud, Jason Robards, Ian McShane, Christopher Plummer, Eve Best, Ralph Richardson, Raul Esparza and Vivien Merchant, among others.
Pinter's best writing wasn't limited to theater. He wrote several elegant screenplays, particularly "The Go-Between" (1970), the tale of an illicit romance which starred Julie Christie and Alan Bates, and "The French Lieutenant's Woman," starring Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons (1981).
In recent years, he found a renewed vigor and moral passion as politics bubbled to the surface of many of his later plays. A vociferous critic of the American and British involvement in Iraq, he often wrote of political violence, particularly in such works as One for the Road.
In 2005, when Pinter won the Nobel Prize, he was too frail to travel to Sweden to accept the award. But in a recorded lecture presented at the Swedish Academy, he said: "The invasion of Iraq was a bandit act, an act of blatant state terrorism, demonstrating absolute contempt for the concept of international law." He castigated both British Prime Minister Tony Blair and President Bush.
Right to the end, Pinter's outrage remained undiminished.
PLAYWRIGHT PINTER LOSES BATTLE WITH CANCER
By Martyn McLaughlin
Scotsman (Edinburgh, Scotland)
December 25, 2008
The Nobel laureate Harold Pinter, one of the most celebrated and distinctive dramatists of the 20th century, has lost his long battle with cancer. He died on Christmas Eve, aged 78.
Tributes poured in yesterday for the playwright, author, actor, screenwriter, and political radical, who influenced generations of stage actors, writers, and directors.
Acclaimed for his brooding portrayals of domestic life, Pinter was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 2005.
He was hailed by the awarding committee as "the foremost representative of British drama in the second half of the 20th century".
His works, including the plays The Caretaker and The Homecoming, are regarded as among the finest in the past half century. So enduring were his plays, they introduced a new word into the English language -- Pinteresque -- to convey the atmospheric silence of a pregnant pause.
Pinter won a host of awards and critical acclaim during his lifetime. He was made a CBE at the age of 36 and a Companion of Honor in 2002.
In recent years, he reached a new audience with his vociferous attacks on British and American foreign policies, notably his opposition to the occupation of Iraq by Western armed forces, which he described as "a bandit act, an act of blatant state terrorism, demonstrating absolute contempt for the conception of international law."
He was awarded the Wilfred Owen award for poetry four years ago for a collection of work criticizing the war.
Few other writers have attracted such critical analysis as Pinter, but he was always reluctant to analyse his plays in detail.
"I can sum up none of my plays," he said. "That is what happened. That is what they said. That is what they did.
"I have my moods like anyone else, but my writing life has been, quite simply, one of relish, challenge, and excitement."
Born in Hackney in 1930, Pinter was the only son of Jewish immigrants who ran a tailor's shop.
He developed a love of acting, but, frustrated at his lack of opportunity, began to write for the stage instead, and published his first play, The Room, in 1957.
It was his second full-length play, The Caretaker, which launched his career. Several more works followed in quick succession, and in 1965, one of his most famous plays, The Homecoming, was published.
The work won a host of awards including a Tony and the Whitbread Theatre Award.
Pinter also wrote extensively for the cinema, including "The Servant," "The Last Tycoon," and "The French Lieutenant's Woman."
He married the actress Vivien Merchant in 1956, and the couple had a son, Daniel.
However, they split and he later remarried in 1980 the historian and biographer, Lady Antonia Fraser. In a statement yesterday, she said: "He was a great, and it was a privilege to live with him for over 33 years. He will never be forgotten."
Michael Billington, Pinter's friend and biographer, said the writer was a great man as well as a great playwright whom he would remember "above all as a man of generosity."
He said: "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."
Alan Yentob, the BBC's creative director, said: "He was a unique figure in British theater. He has dominated the theater scene since the 1950s."
Former Labor MP Tony Benn said: "Harold Pinter was a great playwright and a great figure on the political scene. His death will leave a huge gap that will be felt across the political spectrum."
Pinter was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus in 2002. He had been due to pick up an honorary degree earlier this month from the Central School of Speech and Drama in London but was forced to withdraw from the event due to illness.
His agent said a private funeral and a public memorial service would be held.
HAROLD PINTER, 78, EXITS WORLD STAGE
By Carlin Romano
December 25, 2008
Harold Pinter, the fiercely political Nobel Prize-winning British playwright who used suspenseful plots, odd halting dialogue, and working-class settings full of menace to create puzzling yet riveting drama, died Wednesday of cancer in London at the age of 78.
His second wife, the biographer and historian Lady Antonia Fraser, made the announcement today.
For most devotees of serious theater, Mr. Pinter stood as the great British playwright of his generation. That stature more or less endured though he came up in English theater with such sterling talents as John Osborne and John Arden, and ended up eclipsed by the slightly younger Tom Stoppard, who kept pounding out first-class plays while Mr. Pinter's reputation suffered from a move to A-list screenwriting and somewhat hysteric anti-Americanism.
For all that, "Pinteresque" -- an adjective that came to describe clipped, down-to-earth dialogue, packed with disturbing pauses, whose meaning remains just beyond the audience's grasp -- seems certain to remain a theatrical term-of-art.
Mr. Pinter was born in the East End of London on Oct. 10, 1930, the son of Jewish parents: Jack Pinter, a tailor, and his wife, Frances, a homemaker. After two terms at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, he dropped out and began his career as an actor, doing a BBC radio play, touring in Shakespeare, and working in provincial repertory theater.
His first play, The Room, received its initial production in 1957 from the Bristol University drama department, drawing praise from Harold Hobson, the influential Sunday Times drama critic whose support proved crucial in Pinter's career.
When Mr. Pinter followed that offering in 1958 with The Birthday Party, about a solitary guest at a seaside boarding house who is threatened by mysterious antagonists, the production lasted only six days and triggered reviews in national papers that described it as "half-gibberish" and a "baffling mixture" (One began, "Sorry, Mr. Pinter, you're just not funny enough").
Hobson, though, countered by crediting Mr. Pinter with "the most original, disturbing, and arresting talent in theatrical London."
From the beginning, Mr. Pinter's work attracted such mixed responses, but subsequent plays such as The Dumb Waiter, The Caretaker, and The Homecoming solidified Pinter's standing. As his signature style of artful pauses and provocative silences grew on playgoers -- he once defended the device by declaring, "[B]elow the word spoken is the thing known and unspoken" -- his reputation, aided by such American champions as New York Times drama critic Mel Gussow, settled into that of a modernist master.
He eventually wrote 32 plays, a novel, The Dwarfs, and 22 screenplays. As a screenwriter, Mr. Pinter specialized in adapations from novels, among them L.P. Hartley's The Go-Between and John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman.
Nonetheless, some noted theater critics, such as John Simon, continued to protest that Mr. Pinter amounted to a "third-rate imitator of Beckett." Simon took that approach in reviewing Betrayal, about a wife's seven-year affair with her husband's best friend. In it, Mr. Pinter utilized a hoary literary device as old as Anatole France's Le Jardin d'Épicure in the 19th century and up-to-the-minute as the new film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button -- the plot that somehow moves back in time.
"With Betrayal," hissed Simon, "Harold Pinter has committed the strategic error of writing a comprehensible play." Never before, argued Simon, had Mr. Pinter "deviated into sense, and thus into that manifest triviality, if not vacuity, that the percipient few had unfailingly noted, drowned out though their dissenting was by the din of hosannas."
Dissents they remained, however, as Mr. Pinter continued to pick up prizes throughout his career, including the Nobel in 2005. On that occasion, the Swedish Academy cited him for drama that emerges from the "hide-and-seek of interlocution."
Among Mr. Pinter's many other awards was, in 2004, the Wilfred Owen Prize for his poetry condemning U.S. intervention in Iraq. Way back in 1966, he was made a Commander of the British Empire. He also won the David Cohen British Literature Prize (1995), and Laurence Olivier Award for lifetime achievement in the theater (1996).
Although some observers regretted the strident anti-Americanism of Pinter's later years -- in his Nobel Lecture, he called the crimes of the United States "systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless" -- Mr. Pinter was aggressively political and activist from the beginning, if not overtly so in his earlier plays.
As far back as 1949, he refused to do his national service in Britain and was fined. In the 1980s, he formed the June 20th Society, a discussion group of left-wing writers and intellectuals such as Ian McEwan, Germaine Greer, and Lady Fraser.
In his personal life, Mr. Pinter married the actress Vivien Merchant in 1956 and they had a son, Daniel, in 1958. The marriage ended in 1980. That same year, he married Fraser.
The elusive meaning of Mr. Pinter's plays -- which became both a cliché among knowledgeable theatergoers and a kind of cachet attached to his work -- struck not just playgoers but performers, such as the great English actor Sir John Gielgud. Gielgud's thoughts on the subject may well capture the way posterity will judge Mr. Pinter.
In his memoir, An Actor and His Time, Gielgud wrote about his great success in Mr. Pinter's No Man's Land: "[L]ots of people came round after every performance, both in London and America, complaining that they did not understand the play. 'What does it mean?' they would ask."
Gielgud's reply? "Why should the play 'mean' anything if the audience was held the whole time and was never bored? That is surely the important thing. . . it was enough for me that the audience was fascinated and mystified."
THE PINTER OF OUR DISCONTENT
By Richard Corliss
December 25, 2008
Harold Pinter was speaking to the press just after receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005. "I was told today that one of the Sky channels [the satellite news network owned by Rupert Murdoch] said this morning that 'Harold Pinter is dead.' Then they changed their mind and said, 'No, he's won the Nobel prize.' So I've risen from the dead."
This true-life joke is repeated in Charlie Kaufman's film about a madly ambitious theater man, "Synecdoche, New York." So people have been anticipating the death of one of the 20th century's most revered and mysterious playwrights -- the near equal to his fellow Nobelist Samuel Beckett, with plays that achieved far more commercial success than Beckett's -- for quite some time. Now they can stop. Pinter, who had long been ailing from cancer, died on Christmas Eve, at 78.
The most appropriate tribute would be an hour and a half of silence. For Pinter was the master, virtually the copyright holder, of the pregnant pause that never gives birth. Words hurt in his plays, but the withholding of them can inflict deeper wounds, on the characters in his plays and on some of perplexed members of the audience. "Pinteresque" came to suggest an edgy break in an uncomfortable conversation, and the playwright tended to these ellipses like a doting mother. "I did change a silence to a pause," he said about a scene in one of his plays. "It was a rewrite."
In such acclaimed plays as The Birthday Party (1958), The Caretaker (1960), The Homecoming (1966 [sic -- the play was written in 1964 and first published and performed in 1965 --F.L.]), Old Times (1971), No Man's Land (1975) and Betrayal (1971), Pinter radically altered and energized the traditional dynamic of the stage. It was no longer simply the place where people spoke; it was where not speaking could be far more suggestive, dangerous, theatrical, eloquent. Like Beckett, he renounced the flossy rhetoric of such postwar playwrights as Christopher Fry and Jean Anouilh for a back-to-basics starkness -- a two-men-on-a-stage simplicity that Aeschylus would have admired. In its citation, the Swedish Academy said 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."
This unease was a handsome fit for serious drama in the early Atomic Age. When the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. both had The Bomb, what was the point in pretense or courtesy. Pinter's quietly murderous insolence was the theatrical equivalent to Nikita Khrushchev's shoe-banging at the United Nations. Good manners were the creamy lie the great powers poured on the toxic gruel of their *realpolitik*. The only counteroffensive was to write plays in which people misbehaved, tortured each other; for the postwar generation, writing what the Cambridge Review called his "skull-beneath-the-skin" plays, he was the Pinter of Our Discontent. Back then, his works were taken as murky dramas; now they look like snarky, superior comedies of bad manners. (Pinter half-acknowledged this reading of his works, saying that The Caretaker was "funny, up to a point.")
When Mel Gussow, the New York Times theater critic who was Pinter's most assiduous American promoter, asked the author, "Do your plays have more to do with your life than we know?", he replied, "They have more to do with my life than I know." In other words, an artist, no matter his aim, is always writing his autobiography. He could also have said that each production of a play creates its own unique meaning. When Old Times had its première in London, with Colin Blakeley, Vivien Merchant, and Dorothy Tutin as the threesome, it seemed the story of a man victimized by two men; in the Broadway version later that year, when the stars were Robert Shaw, Dorothy Tutin, and Mary Ure, the man seemed the predator, the women his prey.
Both times, though, they were splendid eviscerations of married life. So we may say that "meaning" doesn't matter if the work creates its own world, if it lives on stage, as Pinter's plays so vibrantly and mischievously did. Under all the mysterioso legerdemain, he was the Shakespeare of rhetorical bullying. The bickering men in The Caretaker and Old Times, the quarreling couples in Old Times and Betrayal, the desperate or rancorous family in The Birthday Party and The Homecoming -- the rivalries and recriminations of all these mean creatures sparked instant and lasting theatrical pyrotechnics. Who could ask for more of a modern playwright?
HOW PINTER BECAME PINTERESQUE
He was born Oct. 10, 1930 in Hackney, London, into what he called "a very respectable, Jewish, lower-middle-class family"; his father Jack was a ladies' tailor. At Hackney Downs School, perceptive teachers nurtured Harold talent for writing. He was also mad for sports, especially cricket, which would prove a lifelong passion. In his 50s he said that his "three main interests" were family, work, and cricket.
Instead of university, Pinter turned to the theater for his advanced schooling. Hating his time at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (and registering as a conscientious objector when he was called up for national service), Pinter escaped into regional theater, where he played in repertory for a dozen years. The man who much later reputedly turned down a knighthood rather than align himself with the British government once acted like a baron: David Baron was his stage name. (He would keep acting, off and on, for the rest of his life.) It allowed him to prep for the stage characters he would create, since, as he told Gussow, "I always played the sinister parts." In 1956 he married Merchant, an actress whose acute rendition of spiky hauteur made her the perfect interpreter of such Pinter women as the "wife" in The Homecoming. In 1980 he would leave her for the novelist-historian Lady Antonia Fraser. Within three years Merchant had drunk herself to death.
Like John Osborne, Arnold Wesker, Alan Sillitoe, and other novelists and dramatists in what was dubbed the "Angry Young Men" group (after Osborne's 1956 play Look Back in Anger), Pinter was not a product of the Oxford-Cambridge factory for leaders in politics, industry, and the arts. Being neither born nor bred into the upper class, these writers made class their theme: the resentment and suspicion the unders had for the uppers, which Pinter stripped of overt political references and flipped into the power that one person exercises with cool brutality over another. The TIME description of his script for the 1963 film "The Servant" -- that it was "acid splashed into the wound of class distinction" -- could apply to much of Pinter's work: an outsider's unblinking view of the sadism with which the haves humiliate the have-nots.
He reached an early maturity with his second full-length play, The Caretaker, which the Lord Chamberlain, the British censor, called "a piece of incoherence in the manner of Samuel Beckett" -- unintentional high praise indeed. It's the tale of an old homeless man, Jenkins (played on stage and in the excellent 1963 film version by Donald Pleasance), who is brought to the home of the simple-minded Aston (Robert Shaw) and his conniving brother Mick (Alan Bates). Jenkins begins as the ratty interloper, but becomes sympathetic by default as the brothers play their mind games. The plot fits the contours of a standard nightmare: being invited into a place where you are misled and mistreated.
You could call The Caretaker an old dark house horror movie, where a ghost comes in to haunt the humans and is scared away by their calculated nastiness. It's also Pinter's first political play: Jenkins is a refugee, poor and tired, the very definition of wretched refuse. Aston, who as a teenager was submitted to shock therapy, leaving him effectively lobotomized, can be seen as a victim of state-sponsored torture. And Mick is the bluff overlord, cracking jokes and he metaphorically cracks skulls.
Pinter's plays perplexed, not because they withheld information, but because what was on stage didn't always scan logically. In The Homecoming, for instance: the philosophy professor -- at least that's what he says he is -- returns to his boyhood home, bringing a woman he describes as his wife of nine years. Yet his two brothers, their father, and an uncle seem surprised at the news. Has the professor been out of touch for so long he hasn't told them he's married? Is she his wife, or perhaps a woman he's engaged to as a test of men's sexual predation? Pinter would tell you to figure it out for yourselves, or don't bother figuring. Looked at today, the play makes perfect sense as Pinter's ribald, misanthropic version of Snow White, with the father and brothers as the dwarfs and the "husband" as her Prince Charming. And the wicked witch with the poisoned apple? Pinter, presenting his play.
One way the powerful intimidated their victims was to accuse them of being unclean -- tidiness being a mid-1950s British preoccupation. In Mick's first chat with Jenkins he accuses the old man of "stinking the place out," and ends his final diatribe by saying, "And to put the old tin lid on it, you stink from arsehole to breakfast time." Wendy Craig, as the young employer's upper-class fiancee in The Servant turns her sneering attention to the new butler (Dirk Bogarde) and asks him, "Do you use a deodorant? Do you think you go well with the color scheme?" The father in The Homecoming calls his new lady guest "a stinking pox-ridden slut," as well as a slop bucket and a bedpan. "Take that disease away from me," he commands.
Though his plays became sparer and less frequent, he remained an industrious producer of scripts, especially for the movies. Assigned all manner of British novels to adapt, and turned virtually all of them -- "The Servant," "The Pumpkin Eater," "The Quiller Memorandum," "Accident," "The Go-Between," "The French Lieutenant's Woman," "The Handmade's Tale" [sic -- "The Handmaid's Tale" (1990), based on Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel] -- into parables of class inequity and betrayed alliances. (He also did a starchy version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Last Tycoon" and, his last script, an ugly botch of the Anthony Shaffer thriller "Sleuth.") He directed other men's plays, notably Simon Gray's (Butley), and appeared frequently on stage and screen. The man kept busy
"I can sum up none of my plays," he protested. "I can describe none of them, except to say: That is what happened. That is what they said. That is what they did." The meaning of his plays was the Deep Throat that Pinter died without divulging. But maybe he was reluctant to say what what his plays "meant," or what the figures in them symbolized, because he didn't know -- that he was so much their author as their midwife, and that to explain the process, to himself or others, would rob him of the freedom of encountering them and putting them on paper. In his Nobel speech, which tried to explain his method of evasion, Pinter said: "It's a strange moment, the moment of creating characters who up to that moment have had no existence. What follows is fitful, uncertain, even hallucinatory, although sometimes it can be an unstoppable avalanche. The author's position is an odd one. In a sense he is not welcomed by the characters. The characters resist him, they are not easy to live with, they are impossible to define. You certainly can't dictate to them. To a certain extent you play a never-ending game with them, cat and mouse, blind man's buff, hide and seek. But finally you find that you have people of flesh and blood on your hands, people with will and an individual sensibility of their own, made out of component parts you are unable to change, manipulate, or distort."
In later years Pinter and his plays became more overtly political -- the mean men now had jobs in government embassies and prisons. He sought further refinement, a paring down to the essence in poetry that explicitly condemned U.S. government militarism. In The Bombs: "Here they go again/The Yanks in their armoured parade/Chanting their ballads of joy/As they gallop across the big world/Praising America's God./The gutters are clogged with the dead."
But in his Nobel year, 2005, when he was wracked with infirmities, he could still distinguish politics from life. "When my wife, Antonia, is pouring my cranberry juice in the morning," he said, "I don't regard that as a political act. Nor I am thinking politically at the time, though I do have the Guardian to my left hand and the cranberry juice to my right. But Antonia's act of passing the cranberry juice to me is an act of married love. I should say that, without her, I couldn't have coped over the last few years. I'm a very lucky man in every respect."
Pinter did not consider his fellow inhabitant[s] of the world lucky, especially those squirming under tyranny's boot. That sense of moral outrage made his political statements more surgically excoriating. His Nobel speech included a bitter reprise of U.S. foreign policy, which he saw as criminal; and he puckishly offered his services as George W. Bush's speechwriter, with this as an audition text for the president: "My God is good. Bin Laden's God is bad. His is a bad God. Saddam's God was bad except he didn't have one. He was a barbarian. We are not barbarians." Though the cancer had made his voice weak and raspy, Pinter had not forgotten the lessons of his years in repertory; the consummate actor delivered his screed with understated power.
Though it was not his final performance (he did Beckett's monologue Krapp's Last Tape from a motorized wheelchair at the Royal Court in 2006), the Nobel speech was the last last great play of a man who knew the value of silence, the importance of speaking out.
EXIT STAGE LEFT: HAROLD PINTER DIES
by Arifa Akbar
December 26, 2008
Harold Pinter, the son of tailor from London's East End who rose to become one of the nation's greatest playwrights, has died aged 78 after a prolonged battle with cancer.
Directors and actors joined Pinter's friends and wife, Lady Antonia Fraser, yesterday to pay tribute to the Nobel Laureate whose style and literary significance has been compared to James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and Albert Camus. He died on Christmas Eve.
Not only a remarkable playwright with one of the most illustrious careers in contemporary theater, Pinter's career also encompassed acting, poetry, and political activism as a vociferous critic of American and British foreign policy.
Just as remarkable as the body of writing he has left behind was the memory of a man who simply refused to give in. Even after publicly announcing his cancer diagnosis, he continued to write, direct, and campaign in spite of his growing physical frailty.
Lady Antonia, herself a distinguished writer, said: "He was a great, and it was a privilege to live with him for over 33 years. He will never be forgotten."
Michael Gambon, the distinguished actor whose breakthrough in the 1970s was hastened by Peter Hall's première staging of Pinter's play, Betrayal, at the National Theater, said he felt privileged to have been his friend for 30 years.
"He was a great, great playwright, and a great lover of actors. He was very supportive when we performed Betrayal. I remember one scene wasn't working well and he'd come to rehearsals every second day. He watched the run-through and said, 'The scene doesn't work because the table's in the wrong position.' He has a real instinct for theater. It was refreshing to be in his plays. There was two miles of subtext under your feet and his dialogue was brilliant," he said.
Gambon, who is currently starring in Pinter's No Man's Land on the West End stage, said he admired Pinter's spirit in the face of illness. "He came over to Dublin for the opening. It nearly killed him, he was in a terrible state, but he didn't give up. That was three months ago. Then, he came to the Duke of York Theatre for the London opening and he went to the party afterwards and sat there," he added.
Jonathan Heawood, director of PEN, the campaigning international writer's association, said Pinter had been vice-president of the group, and showed his support until the end.
"One of the many memorable things he did for PEN in the early Eighties was when he and Arthur Miller went on a joint mission to Turkey. At that time, he was concerned about the state of writers and journalists' freedoms. They were being tortured. So two of the world's greatest writers got on a plane together and they were met by a young Orhan Pamuk, who would become a fellow Nobel Prize winner. He escorted them in their trip. That spirit continued right till the end.
"He turned out to a demonstration outside the Turkish embassy last year," added Mr. Heawood. "Everyone was so surprised to see this figure with a walking stick coming out of a taxi on his own. Right until February this year when he turned up to see a performance by a theater group from Belarus."
Pinter was born into a Jewish family in the London borough of Hackney. His grandparents had fled persecution in Poland and Odessa. He was attracted to acting from an early age and his political activism was evident when in 1948 he refused, as a conscientious objector, to do National Service.
After two spells in drama school, he began his theater career as a rep actor, using the stage name David Baron. He joined a touring company in 1951, and it was some years later in 1957 that he wrote his first play, The Room, for Bristol University's drama department.
It was a defining moment for Pinter. His career took off in the late 1950s and 1960s with subsequent plays such as The Caretaker, The Birthday Party, and The Homecoming, which were perceived as ground-breaking because they explored the psychological drama and often, the menace, that underlay family and marital relationships.
They were credited for creating a new brand of theatrical silence and pause with which his work became synonymous. Later, this device would become known as "Pinteresque" and be adopted by devotees of his work. As his theatre career flourished, Pinter also branched out into film screenplays, "The Servant," "The Go-Between," and, most famously, "The French Lieutenant's Woman."
Two years ago, he was awarded the Nobel Prize -- worth 10m Swedish krona (£735,000) -- the highest honor afforded to any writer in the world.
"Pinter," said Horace Engdahl, the Nobel Academy's chairman, "restored theater to its basic elements: an enclosed space and unpredictable dialogue, where people are at the mercy of each other and pretence crumbles."
He had been garlanded with many previous honors. He was appointed CBE in 1966, the German Shakespeare Prize in 1970, the Austrian State Prize for European Literature in 1973, and the David Cohen British Literature Prize in 1995. He was also awarded a number of honorary degrees.
Aside from being showered by establishment accolades, he was also a radical figure. He refused a knighthood from John Major in 1996, saying he was "unable to accept such an honor from a Conservative government."
His later plays, such as One for the Road, Ashes to Ashes, and Party Time, evolved from the personal into the political, their subjects state-sponsored violence, torture, and the abuse of power. In recent years, he became a vociferous campaigner, speaking out against human rights abuses, including the occupation of Iraq by Western armies. He joined other artists in sending a letter to Downing Street opposing the 2003 invasion.
Just under six years ago, he was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus. In February 2005, he said: "I think I've stopped writing plays now . . . I've written 29 plays. Isn't that enough?"
Aden Gillett, who starred in Betrayal in the West End in 2003, said: "The thing about Pinter's lines is that everything people say rings very true, yet at the same time it's quite surreal. It's that mixture of banality and menace. I remember the read-through and meeting Pinter for the first time. It was an extraordinary moment. He had always been a hero of mine."
IN HIS OWN WORDS
"I find critics on the whole a pretty unnecessary bunch of people."
"I tend to think that cricket is the greatest thing that God ever created on earth -- certainly greater than sex, although sex isn't too bad either."
"The past is what you remember, imagine you remember, convince yourself you remember, or pretend you remember."
"I made a terrible mistake when I was young, I think, from which I've never really recovered. I wrote the word 'pause' into my first play."
"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."
On the United States
"The crimes of the U.S. throughout the world have been systematic, constant, clinical, remorseless, and fully documented, but nobody talks about them."
On his plays
"I have written 29 plays and I think that's really enough."
THE WORKS: A 50-YEAR CAREER
The Room, 1957
Pinter's first play, in a genre later called the "comedy of menace," was inspired by the playwright's visit to the Chelsea flat of Quentin Crisp.
The Birthday Party, 1957
Pinter's first full-length play was slaughtered by critics and closed in the West End after its first week.
The Caretaker, 1959
The first to give Pinter substantial commercial success. It draws on Pinter's own experience of living in a house owned by an absentee builder.
The Homecoming, 1964
An American professor of philosophy returns to north London with his wife, only to be cuckolded by his brothers.
The Pumpkin Eater, 1964
Pinter won a Bafta for his screenplay adaptation of the novel of the same name by Penelope Mortimer.
Old Times, 1971
Two characters compete to gain intellectual dominance over a third.
"The Go-Between," 1972
Another Bafta followed for Pinter's screenplay in this classy adaptation of the novel by L.P. Hartley.
Arguably Pinter's most celebrated work, it is based on his own affair with Joan Bakewell from 1962-69.
"The French Lieutenant's Woman," 1981
Adapted from the novel by John Fowles, Pinter wrote the screenplay.
Ashes to Ashes, 1996
This was the best of the later political plays, encompassing the landscape of 20th-century totalitarianism.
Pinteresque: The official definition
"Adjective: in the style of the characters, situations, etc, of the plays of Harold Pinter, 20th-century English dramatist, marked especially by halting dialogue, uncertainty of identity, and air of menace." --From Chambers English Dictionary.
BRITISH THEATER WILL NEVER BE THE SAME WITHOUT HAROLD PINTER
By Dominic Maxwell
December 16, 2008
You can measure the mark that Harold Pinter has left on British theatre by one word: Pinteresque. Few playwrights get their own adjective. Barely any get one that communicates anything to the world at large. Yet the name Pinter summons up to almost anyone a pause-heavy world of veiled threats in ordinary rooms, of language as menace and menace as black comedy. You don’t even need to have seen The Homecoming or The Caretaker, No Man’s Land or Betrayal, The Birthday Party or The Dumb Waiter to have been affected by a playwright who changed British theater for ever. Who plundered from naturalism and expressionism, from kitchen-sink realism and detective drama, and made from them something unmistakeably his own. Pinteresque, you might call it.
Was he really that great? Was he ever. People will always perform his plays for the same reason that they will always argue about his plays. They’re alive. They’re living, breathing, things. Yes, you can trace their roots -- the literary-scene love triangle of Betrayal (1978), which might have been his most conventional play if he hadn’t told the story in reverse, came from his seven-year affair with Joan Bakewell in the 1960s. The Homecoming (1964) borrows from events in his Hackney upbringing; The Caretaker (1960) from his time in a house in Chiswick, West London. But he mixed realism with soaring acts of the imagination, however dowdy the setting. And that satisfying sense of closure, when you saw what a playwright was getting at and how he was getting there? Nope, you didn’t get that with Pinter. Even the shorter, blunter, more purposefully political work of his later years -- the interrogation scenes of One for the Road (1984), the ruling élite back-slapping of Party Time (1991) -- never stopped at finger-pointing. In implicating us all in the corruption of the political process, he stopped short of writing about them and us. And in blurring the lines between realism and fantasy -- mixing conspirators with seaside boarding houses (The Birthday Party), basement-bound assassins with Eccles cakes (The Dumb Waiter), lovers’ vivid yet competing versions of events (Old Times) -- he made his finely drawn dramas both strikingly modern and ineffably odd.
His early success came, haltingly, after John Osborne and Co. had already changed the map. But Pinter’s linguistic exactitude made him a stronger flavor than Osborne or Wesker or other “angry young men.” He took the dull, how-was-your-day?, another-cup-of-tea? elements of drama and put them center-stage, made them muscular, aggressive. Made them sing for their supper. And if he couldn’t do that, if he couldn’t make the practical pugilistic, or strategic, he’d cut straight to the chase. To the stuff that perplexes or bewitches. Does Ruth, the academic’s wife back from America in The Homecoming, really agree to go on the game for the family? Is that bad taste? Satire? A cop-out? One thing is for sure: it wasn’t realism, kitchen-sink or otherwise.
If you come at Pinter from the classroom, you may be ready for his weirdness, but not always his humor. His dark, claustrophobic battles of wills can also be incredibly funny. Because, in plays like No Man’s Land, he’s showing us the way men jostle and fight for space in every exchange, in every detail, and he’s showing us life. We’re pecking-order animals. And every glass of whisky, every lover, every favor, every joke, every question, and every pause relates to that. The way that Pinter depicted language changed drama for good. No Beckett, no Pinter -- but no Pinter, no Mamet; no Pinter, no Churchill, no Hare, no . . . it’d be easier to list the playwrights who aren’t influenced by him than the ones who are.
So will Pinteresque come to be a token of unabashed praise, in the way that, say, Shakespearean is? Well, there were many more commercially successful 20th-century playwrights than him -- he never had bust-out success like Shaffer or Ayckbourn or even the intellectual yet accessible Stoppard. But he was, as I’m sure all those three would admit, a new breath for British drama in a way that nobody else could match since the war. He was a giant, a genius, and a dab hand with a good one-liner. He was the greatest British playwright of the 20th century.
He wasn’t always easy. I once sat behind him at the theater when a latecomer tried to climb past him to get to his seat. The rest of the row shifted for the latecomer. Pinter kept his legs thrust out, so the man had to climb laboriously over them. Tough, but funny. And as in life, so in art. The polite and not-so-polite pugilism he depicted is both quite unlike real life and also too much like it to bear. But his reputation, already great, will grow and grow -- because the more you take away his plays from the times they appeared to be commenting on, the more you realize that they are timeless.
They’re not realistic. They’re so much better than that. They’re the truth.
[Translated from *Le Monde* (Paris)]
THE WRITER HAROLD PINTER IS DEAD
Le Monde (Paris)
December 25, 2008
Harold Pinter, British writer and playwright, Nobel Prize in literature in 2006, died at the age of 78 on Wed., Dec. 24. The author had been suffering from a cancer of the oesophagus since 2002. The news was communicated to the Guardian, the British daily, by Antonia Fraser, his second wife. "He was a great man and it was a privilege to live with him for more than thirty-three years. He will remain forever in our memories" [reverse translation], she told the newspaper, without giving further details.
Author of about thirty plays, Pinter was also a poet, director, and author of screenplays. Born on Oct. 10, 1930, in Hackney, a working-class district of London, son of a Jewish tailor, he threw himself into the production of drama in 1957, with The Room. The year in which he wrote it, Pinter also produced The Birthday Party and The Dumb Waiter, in a different register. These three plays in one year made a playwright of him, by surprise, he often said later.
Pinter's first resounding success was The Caretaker, in 1960. The Collection, The Lover, The Homecoming, Old Times, No Man's Land, and Betrayal followed, bringing him worldwide renown. In France, Roger Blin brought him to the attention of the public in 1960, with Le Gardien (The Caretaker). He collaborated several times on films, notably in writing the screenplays for "The French Lieutenant's Woman" and "Reunion." On Oct. 13, 2005, he received the Nobel Prize for literature.
ANTI-ESTABLISHMENT AND ANTI-WAR
As an artist and an engaged intellectual, he was, in the 1980s, a tireless critic of the actions of American president Ronald Reagan and his British contemporary, Margaret Thatcher. More recently, Pinter turned his anger against the U.N.'s engagement in Kosovo, the American invasion of Afghanistan, and the war in Iraq (2003), comparing Tony Blair to "an idiot full of illusions" and calling George Bush a "war criminal."
"I use much of my energy more particularly to change the political situation, which is, in my opinion, very worrying," he explained then. In 2003 he published War, a collection of poems against the Iraq war. On Feb. 15 of the same year, he spoke on a stage in Hyde Park, London, before a million and a half opponents of the war. Keeping himself carefully apart from the "establishment," Pinter refused to be ennobled by Queen Elizabeth. He nevertheless accepted the Légion d'honneur in 2007.
Suffering from a cancer of the oesophagus diagnosed in 2002, Harold Pinter endured sessions of chemotherapy, a "personal nightmare." "I have walked through the valley of the shadow of death," he would said of that ordeal. Despite the illness, he continued to work. His interpretation in 2006 in London of Beckett's monologue Krapp's Last Tape earned him his last public success. In 2007, he signed his last screenplay: "Sleuth," with Jude Law and Michael Caine.
Translated by Mark K. Jensen
Associate Professor of French
Chair, Department of Languages and Literatures
Pacific Lutheran University
Tacoma, WA 98407
Web page: http://www.plu.edu/~jensenmk/