Playwright Harold Pinter, Dramatic Master of Pause, Enigma and Menace, Is Dead at 78

Obituaries   Playwright Harold Pinter, Dramatic Master of Pause, Enigma and Menace, Is Dead at 78
Harold Pinter, the one-time British actor who tried his hand at writing in the 1950s only to become one of the most prominent and influential playwrights of the second half of the 20th century, died Dec. 24 after a long illness, according to the Associated Press. He was 78.
Harold Pinter
Harold Pinter

Mr. Pinter had been battling cancer for some time. He won the 2005 Nobel Prize for Literature, but was forbidden by his doctors to attend the Nobel ceremony in Sweden. He instead recorded his speech, which was then broadcast at the event.

The playwright seemed to understand that his career was drawing to a close. He had told the BBC that he had decided to cease playwriting. "I think I've stopped writing plays now, but I haven't stopped writing poems," he said. "I think I've written 29 plays. I think it's enough for me. I think I've found other forms now."

Among those plays are some modern classics of the English-speaking theatre: The Birthday Party, The Caretaker, The Homecoming and Betrayal. Other works included Old Times, No Man's Land, A Kind of Alaska, The Room and Celebration. The latter two — his first play and his most recent — were seen in a praised double-bill at Off-Broadway's Atlantic Theatre Company in 2005.

Reviewing the play in Variety, Marilyn Stasio wrote: "Timing couldn't be better, either, in these days of high anxiety, for a dose of Pinter's disquieting themes — the universal human fear of the dark and the elaborate social rituals we devise to deny it...Prefiguring greater plays to come, [The Room] uses minimum bits of action and ambiguous scraps of dialogue to establish a mood of ominous foreboding that keeps building until it sucks the breath out of everyone in the room."

Harold Pinter's way with an enigmatic gesture or a menacing pause was such that, early in his career, he inspired a word: Pinteresque. It was applied to any situation that hinted at more than it showed, any conversation that said less than it meant. Early critics of his work observed that the uneasiness of his plays matched the nervousness of the post-war era, in which people lived in thrall of secretive governments, sudden violence and dehumanized behavior. Reviewers also noted his superior ear for language, both the words spoken and those not. Kenneth Tynan wrote: "Mr. Pinter is a superb manipulator of language, which he sees not as a bridge that brings people together but as a barrier that keeps them apart. Ideas and emotions, in the larger sense, are not his province; he plays with words, and he plays on our nerves, and it is thus that he grips us."

In contrast to his early work, which was often cryptic and ambiguous, Mr. Pinter's art became more overtly political in the last two decades of his career. Plays like the dark Mountain Language address the dark political and social realties of our time. The playwright was a vocal critic of the Bush and Blair administrations, and their decision to go to war with Iraq. His televised Nobel acceptance speech attacked U.S. and British foreign policy, particularly the invasion of Iraq, which the dramatist described as "an act of blatant state terrorism." He went on to blame President Bush and Prime Minister Blair for thousands of innocent deaths and called for the two leaders to be called to account. "It is just that Bush and Blair be arraigned before the International Criminal Court of Justice," he said from a wheelchair with his legs covered by a blanket.

But perhaps the most surprising aspect of the address concerned his writing, about which Pinter was forever famously reticent. "I have often been asked how my plays come about. I cannot say. Nor can I sum up my plays, except to say this is what happened, that is what they said, that is what they did."

Harold Pinter was born on Oct. 10, 1930, in London, the son of a Jewish tailor born in Portugal. Wishing to become an actor, he attended London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. In his initial performances, he acted under the name of David Baron. Even then, he dabbled in poetry, a form that was to interest him until the end of his life. He didn't write his first play until 1957.

Mr. Pinter's success as a writer was quick. His The Birthday Party arrived in a London that was just then becoming exposed to the work of the so-called Absurdist playwrights, as well as the Angry Young Men set led by John Osborne. The cryptic The Birthday Party took place in a rooming house run by a dithering middle-aged woman. There, two menacing men named Goldberg and McCann visit skittish lodger Stanley. Are they hitmen, official authorities, death personified? Pinter did not clarify, something critics faulted the play for, leading to a short run. Still, even at this early stage, observers identified Mr. Pinter as an original voice who bore watching. The play has since been recognized as a classic expression of suspense and unnamed dread.

Pinter's next full-length play, The Caretaker, solidified his reputation as an original and trenchant artist. The play's three characters are Mick, a violent young man who tends to his mentally slow brother Aston, who lives in the attic of a run-down house. The balance of their relationship is thrown off when Aston invited Davies, a decrepit and deceitful derelict, to share his living quarters. The play inspired endless guessing games among intellectuals, who tried to guess at the play's meaning and symbolism — a popular theory having the three men representing Christ, the Devil and Everyman.

"It is a tribute to the talent and value of The Caretaker, that is can provoke such thoughts, conjectures and perhaps controversies," observed critic Harold Clurman.

The author's indebtedness to Samuel Beckett was mentioned by many, and acknowledged by the writer himself. However, the younger man's work at this time tended more toward naturalism, albeit a mysterious one, and was more rooted in specific locality and characters.

Another tale of familial violence, The Homecoming — which was revived on Broadway last season — followed in 1965. In it, a university professor brings his wife Ruth to his childhood North London home to meet his brutish, working class father and brothers. The meeting ends in terrifying fashion when Ruth is all but raped and eventually accepts a new life as a willing prostitute.

Given his range of influence, the writer was, of course, not without his critics. (Kenneth Tynan was an early and vocal detractor, calling Pinter's many blindly loyal acolytes "The Pinteretti.") Richard Gilman wrote in 1961: "What is so effective about [the plays] is also the source of much that is unsatisfying. At his best, Pinter is a dramatist of high urgency, clear color and unimpeachable intentions. He has the right kind of dissatisfactions and impenitences, the accurate chimeras, the anxieties, hungers and vertigos proper to our time...Yet in Pinter the action is not in fact much more than an introduction, the beginning of recognition and affect and change. The shapes he creates are skeletal and unfinished, as though they have known what not to be but do not yet know what to become."

Other plays to follow included Old Times in 1971, No Man's Land in 1975, and Betrayal in 1978. The latter, in many ways his least characteristic play, is also among his most popular. It traces the origins of a romantic triangle in reverse chronological order, from the end of a marriage and the affair that broke it up, to the coupling's hopeful beginnings.

Pinter also wrote poetry and many screenplays, including those for "The Servant," "The Pumpkin Eater," "The Go-Between," "Turtle Diary," "The Comfort of Strangers" and "The Handmaid's Tale."

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