LONDON – British Nobel laureate Harold Pinter – who produced some of his generation’s most influential dramas and later became a staunch critic of the U.S.-led war in Iraq – has died, his widow said Thursday. He was 78.
Pinter died Wednesday after a long battle with cancer, according to his wife, Antonia Fraser.
In recent years he had seized the platform offered by his 2005 Nobel Literature prize to denounce President George W. Bush, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and the war in Iraq.
But he was best known for exposing the complexities of the emotional battlefield.
His writing featured cool, menacing pauses in dialogue that reflected his characters’ deep emotional struggles and spawned a new adjective found in several dictionaries: “Pinter-esque.”
“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. “With a minimum of plot, drama emerges from the power struggle and hide-and-seek of interlocution.”
His characters’ internal fears and longings, their guilt and difficult sexual drives were set against the neat lives they constructed in order to try to survive. Usually enclosed in one room, the acts usually illustrated the characters’ lives as a sort of grim game with actions that often contradicted words. Gradually, the layers were peeled back.
“How can you write a happy play?” he once said. “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.”
Pinter wrote 32 plays; one novel, “The Dwarfs,” in 1990; and put his hand to 22 screenplays.
The working-class milieu of his first dramas reflected his early life as the son of a Jewish tailor from London’s East End.
Born Oct. 30, 1930, in the London neighborhood of Hackney, he was forced along with other children during World War II to evacuate to rural Cornwall in 1939. He was 14 before he returned. By then, he was entranced with Franz Kafka and Ernest Hemingway.
By 1950, Pinter had begun to publish poetry and appeared on stage as an actor. Pinter began to write for the stage, and published “The Room” in 1957.
A year later, his first major play, “The Birthday Party,” was produced in the West End.
The play closed after just one week to disastrous reviews, but Pinter continued to write and was most prolific between 1957 and 1965.
“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.
“I find critics on the whole a pretty unnecessary bunch of people,” Pinter once said.
In “The Caretaker” (1959), a manipulative old man threatens the relationship of two brothers, while “The Homecoming” (1964) explores the hidden rage and confused sexuality of an all-male household by inserting a woman.
In “Landscape” and “Silence” (1967 and 1968), Pinter moved from exploring the underbelly of human life to showing the simultaneous levels of fantasy and reality that occupy the individual.
“The speech we hear is an indication of that which we don’t hear,” Pinter once said. “It is a necessary avoidance, a violent, sly and anguished or mocking smoke screen which keeps the other in its true place. When true silence falls we are left with echo but are nearer nakedness.”
“Betrayal” (1978) was reportedly based on the disintegration of his marriage to actress Vivien Merchant, who appeared in many of his first plays.
Their marriage ended in 1980 after Pinter’s long affair with BBC presenter Joan Bakewell. He then married Fraser. Merchant died shortly afterward of alcoholism-related disease.
During the late 1980s, his work became more overtly political; he said he had a responsibility to pursue his role as “a citizen of the world in which I live, (and) insist upon taking responsibility.”
In the 1980s, Pinter’s only stage plays were one-acts: “A Kind of Alaska” (1982), “One for the Road” (1984) and the 20-minute “Mountain Language” (1988).
Off-stage he was also highly political: Pinter turned down former Prime Minister John Major’s offer of a knighthood and strongly attacked Blair when NATO bombed Serbia. He later referred to Blair as a “deluded idiot” for supporting Bush’s war in Iraq.
He said he deeply regretted having voted for Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and Tony Blair in 1997.
The Nobel prize gave Pinter a global platform, from which he frequently and bitterly decried the Iraq war.
“The invasion of Iraq was a bandit act, an act of blatant state terrorism, demonstrating absolute contempt for the concept of international law,” Pinter said in his Nobel lecture, which he recorded rather than traveling to the Swedish capital of Stockholm.
“How many people do you have to kill before you qualify to be described as a mass murderer and a war criminal? One hundred thousand?” he asked, in a hoarse voice.
Though he had been looking forward to giving the Nobel lecture – calling it “the longest speech I will ever have made” – he canceled his attendance at the award ceremony, and then announced he would skip the lecture as well on his doctor’s advice.
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.
Pinter is survived by his son, Daniel, from his marriage to Merchant.