He was nothing less than “our God — the man who wrote the plays you wanted to be in,” as actor Michael Gambon described playwright Harold Pinter, who died Wednesday of cancer at age 78.
Pinter’s plays mixed menace, loneliness, humor and pregnant pauses with such distinction that he inspired the adjective “Pinteresque.”
The British writer earned two Oscar nominations in a career that included more than 20 screenplays, poetry and one novel. After 30 plays that made him one of the most significant and influential figures in contemporary drama, he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2005.
That kudo gave him his widest forum yet for his growing political activism. Looking frail, after having been diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus in 2002, he appeared in a videotape that was screened at the ceremonies and that he used as a platform to decry American foreign policy and U.S. involvement in Iraq.
A production of Pinter’s “No Man’s Land” opened at London’s Duke of York theater on Friday. Stars David Walliams, David Bradley and Gambon, who appeared in numerous Pinter plays, paid tribute to the playwright after the perf. Gambon read a passage from the play that he said Pinter had asked him to read at his funeral several months ago.
“And so I say to you, tender the dead as you would yourself be tendered, now, in what you would describe as your life,” Gambon read.
While Pinter’s early work, starting with his first full-length play “The Birthday Party” in 1958, often centered on emotional power struggles, his writing became more about political power in the 1980s as he became an activist speaking out against censorship and repression.
Pinter often gave clues to his characters but refused to explain them, which was a radical move at the time, though it has been widely imitated since. In “Birthday Party,” for example, boarding-house resident Stanley is unsettled by the arrival of Goldberg and McCann. Did he know them previously? Was he in hiding? Or, as a WASP Brit, was he simply unnerved by the fact that one is black and the other Jewish?
Pinter never explained the characters, who contradict the “truth” of others. The writer compared the audience’s experience to overhearing a conversation. The strangers don’t give you any idea of their backgrounds, and it’s up to the eavesdropper to decide what their relationships are, who’s telling the truth, and what they’re talking about.
On the page, his dialogue often looks benign, full of non sequiturs and silences. But Pinter had begun as an actor and knew how to write for actors, and the material is much richer than it may seem at first glance. In his 1971 play “Old Times,” for example, three characters reminisce about old songs like “These Foolish Things” and “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” and lines from the songs seem innocuous but underline the sexual tension and power struggles among the three protagonists.
Pinter discouraged theatergoers from looking for symbolism or arcane meaning. “I certainly don’t write from any kind of abstract idea,” he said in 1961. “And I wouldn’t know a symbol if I saw one.”
Pinter appeared in a 1969 London production of his “The Homecoming,” which had won him a Tony for play in 1967. He also starred with Liv Ullmann in a 1985 revival of “Old Times” in Los Angeles.
As an actor, he appeared in more than 20 films, mostly in small roles, including “Mansfield Park,” Mike Nichols’ “Wit” and 2001’s “The Tailor of Panama.” He did a brief bit on a TV screen in 2007’s “Sleuth,” which he scripted.
He did film adaptations of his own plays including “Birthday Party” in 1968 for director William Friedkin and “The Homecoming” for Peter Hall in 1973. But as a screenwriter, he mostly adapted the work of others. He wrote the screenplays for three of Joseph Losey’s best-regarded films: “The Servant” (1963), “Accident” (1966) and “The Go-Between” (1971).
Pinter received Oscar nominations for his adaptations of “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” (1980) and “Betrayal” (1981), the latter adapted from his play. He also published an unproduced Proust adaptation, “A La Recherche du Temps Perdu.”
Other screenplays include “The Pumpkin Eater” (1964), “The Quiller Memorandum” (1966), “The Last Tycoon” (1976), “The Comfort of Strangers” (1990) and “The Handmaid’s Tale” (1990).
TV adaptations of his plays include “Old Times,” “The Room” and “The Dumb Waiter.”
The son of a Jewish tailor, Pinter was born in Hackney in East London. He began his career as an actor in provincial repertory.
His first full-length play, “The Birthday Party,” garnered poor reviews in its London preem in 1958, but “The Caretaker,” about two brothers’ volatile relationship with an old tramp, earned him a passionate critical following and cemented his reputation two years later.
As a helmer he staged productions of his own work, such as “The Birthday Party” in 1964 and “Ashes to Ashes” in 1996, along with plays by other writers, among them David Mamet’s “Oleanna” (1991) and Simon Gray’s “Butley” onstage and the 1974 film version.
As Pinter’s career continued, many noted an increasing political slant to his work in plays such as “One for the Road” (1984) and “Mountain Language” (1988), a one-act about a military prison camp in an unnamed oppressive state.
His political views often stirred controversy. In 1999 he denounced NATO’s intervention in Kosovo, and in 2001 he joined the Intl. Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic, later clarifying that he wished to call attention to the injustice he perceived in the war trial process.
In early 2005 he announced he would give up writing to devote himself to politics. “I’ve written 29 plays,” he said. “Isn’t that enough?”
His final play was the one-act “Celebration,” a dissection of nouveau riche vulgarity and hollow self-deception set in an upscale London restaurant. It was presented on a double bill with Pinter’s first play, “The Room” (1957), in an Almeida Theater production directed by the playwright in 2000, and, more recently, at Off Broadway’s Atlantic Theater.
In his last years he grew increasingly frail, delivering his Nobel lecture on videotape from London because he was unable to travel. Still, Pinter had not given up the stage entirely. In 2006 he appeared in a Royal Court Theater production of “Krapp’s Last Tape” by Samuel Beckett, the minimalist writer whose work was widely regarded as a key influence on Pinter’s plays.
In 1956, he married actress Vivien Merchant, who performed frequently in his plays. After their divorce in 1980, he married writer Antonia Fraser.
He is survived by Fraser and his son Daniel Brand from his first marriage.