Harold Pinter, Nobel-winning playwright, dead at 78

By Ed Siegel
Globe Staff / December 25, 2008
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Harold Pinter, one of the most influential playwrights of the 20th century, has died at the age of 78.

Pinter, according to his wife Lady Antonia Fraser, , died Wednesday after a long battle with cancer.

Not many writers live to see their names turned into an adjective, but the word ‘‘Pinteresque’’ was coined quite early to describe the menacing nature behind everyday situations and discourse. That element of Mr. Pinter’s style was consistent from his earliest plays to his last. In between were such modern classics as ‘‘The Birthday Party,’’ ‘‘The Caretaker,’’ ‘‘The Homecoming,’’ and ‘‘Betrayal.’’

He was also a successful writer of screenplays and poetry, but these were corollaries to a theatrical body of work that was heavily influenced by Samuel Beckett’s plays, in which people try to avoid the grim realities of their lives by burying themselves in theater-of-the-absurd banalities. In turn, Mr. Pinter’s influence can be seen in the strained dialogue of David Mamet’s characters and the jousting for power frequent to novels and plays of the second half of the 20th century.

Many considered him to be the greatest playwright since Beckett and last October he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Mr. Pinter was born in 1930 in Hackney, a working class section near the East End of London. His father was a ladies’ tailor. Grandparents on both sides of the family fled Eastern Europe at the turn of the 20th century to escape pogroms against Jews. He was an only child, given to reading, and as he matured he gravitated to Dostoevsky and Kafka.

Those two writers helped shape Mr. Pinter’s political consciousness. From his teen-age years as a conscientious objector to his scathing speeches about the war in Iraq, he was a committed leftist. Politics don’t seem to play a major part in his early plays, but the issues of power that permeate his plays have a political as well as a personal component.

In ‘‘The Birthday Party’’ (first staged in 1957), Goldberg and McCann are Kafkaesque thugs menacing Webber for sins that range from leaving ‘‘the party’’ to leaving his wife. Though Goldberg is a force of chaos, his creed is as much that of the company man careerist as that of the outlaw: ‘‘You know what? I’ve never lost a tooth. That’s why I’ve reached my position, McCann. Because I’ve always been fit as a fiddle. All my life I’ve said the same. Play up, play up, and play the game. Honour thy father and thy mother. All along the line. Follow the line, the line, McCann, and you can’t go wrong. What do you think, I’m a self-made man? No! I sat where I was told to sit. I kept my eye on the ball.’’

As the years went on he became increasingly interested in political issues and was a scathing critic of the war in Iraq, going so far as to call British prime minister Tony Blair ‘‘a deluded idiot’’ and ‘‘a mass murderer.’’

Mr. Pinter’s plays also have a wicked sense of humor, derived as much from the British music hall as anywhere else. He was an actor in his early years, touring repertory houses in everything from thrillers to Shakespeare. His primary biographer, Michael Billington, theater critic of the Guardian, asked him how he learned to use the pause so effectively and the writer replied it was from watching Jack Benny at the London Palladium in 1952. Timing is everything in Pinter. He wrote a legendary note to the actor Michael Hordern saying, ‘‘Michael, I wrote dot, dot, dot and you’re giving me dot, dot.’’ And it made perfect sense to Mr. Hordern.

He met his first wife, the actress Vivien Merchant, in Bournemouth, where they were doing a repertory season and they married in 1956. Mr. Pinter was writing as well as acting through the 1950s. ‘‘The Room’’ in 1957 was his first play, a year before ‘‘The Birthday Party,’’ which is now considered a classic, but the original production was not well received.

But Mr. Pinter was primed to take his place on the international stage in the 1960s with a series of plays that, like ‘‘The Birthday Party,’’ combined the absurdism of Beckett and Luigi Pirandello with the more naturalistic style of British playwrights such as Terrence Rattigan and Noel Coward. Between 1960 and 1965 Mr. Pinter debuted ‘‘The Caretaker,’’ ‘‘Night School,’’ ‘‘The Dwarfs,’’ ‘‘The Collection,’’ ‘‘The Lover,’’ ‘‘Tea Party’’ and ‘‘The Homecoming.’’

Ms. Merchant appeared in most of his plays in the ‘60s and while Pinter says he didn’t write any of the parts for her, he was masterful in tracing how shifting power within a relationship changed, and sometimes doomed, the relationship. Ruth, bored with her life as a desperate wife in ‘‘The Homecoming,’’ abandons her husband and children to move in with his seedy family, for whom she’ll be both mother and prostitute. But, as Mr. Billington notes, she’ll have more power than she did before.

Couples did not live happily ever after in the plays and the marriage itself was a stormy one. He fell in love with Lady Antonia Fraser, a biographer, wife of a conservative MP and mother of six children. Ms. Merchant would not grant him a divorce until 1980, at which time he married Ms. Fraser to whom he was still married at the time of his death. Ms. Merchant died in 1982 of chronic alcoholism. While the London tabloids blamed Mr. Pinter for her decline, few of his friends thought he was responsible, according to Mr. Billington.

In ‘‘The Life and Work of Harold Pinter,’’ Mr. Billington writes of this time, ‘‘It is ... no accident that as the marriage declined, so his depiction of male-female relationships became bleaker and harsher to the point where, in ‘No Man’s Land,’ they exist only in the form of competitive memory-games.’’

Although his 1960s plays are most likely what he will continue to be remembered for, his work over the past 35 years continues to be widely produced and admired. ‘‘Betrayal’’ (1978) is an ingenious play going backwards in time from the end to the beginning of a relationship. ‘‘A Kind of Alaska,’’ written in 1982, was inspired by Oliver Sacks’s ‘‘Awakenings,’’ but unlike the straightforward movie of Sacks’s book, Mr. Pinter explored his own issues, particularly in terms of identity and power.

A woman named Deborah wakes from a coma after 29 years, insisting she’s still a little girl while her doctor, somewhat menacingly, tells her otherwise.With his trademark sense of humor, Mr. Pinter has Deborah slowly accept her fate with an understated, ‘‘I’m not terribly pleased about all this.’’

‘‘Pinter has always been obsessed with the way we use language to mask primal urges,’’ writes Mr. Billington. ‘‘The difference in the later plays is not simply that they move into the political arena, but they counterpoint the smokescreen of language with shocking and disturbing images of torture, punishment and death.’’In 1996’s ‘‘Ashes to Ashes,’’ Mr. Pinter ties the nervous breakdown of a woman into socio-political breakdown, linking personal repression and political oppression.

Mr. Pinter also leaves behind a film festival’s worth of screenplays. Each of them respects the original work while also displaying something of the playwright’s stamp. This is no easy task when one considers the diversity represented by, among others, ‘‘The Servant,’’ ‘‘The Go-Between,’’ ‘‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman,’’ ‘‘Turtle Diaries’’ and ‘‘The Comfort of Strangers.’’

Wire service material was used in this report.

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