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Without pretense, he restored theater

Harold Pinter, the Nobel Prize-winning playwright who addressed the isolation, fear and brutality of life in an original style that changed the face of 20th century theater, has died. He was 78.

Mr. Pinter, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 2005, died Wednesday (Dec. 24, 2008), his wife, Lady Antonia Fraser, told the Associated Press in London. He had been in failing health in recent years, battling cancer of the esophagus as well as pemphigus, a rare autoimmune disease.

His illness left him unable to travel from London to Stockholm, Sweden, in December 2005 for the Nobel presentation. He sent a videotaped speech that was included in the ceremony.

"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 Swedish Academy noted in announcing that Mr. Pinter had been awarded the prize.

"It never occurred to me that I was a contender," Mr. Pinter told the Guardian of London in 2005. "I am very grateful."

His Nobel lecture, which he videotaped in England to be screened at the ceremonies, was a scalding critique of current U.S. and British policies in Iraq. Mr. Pinter was an outspoken pacifist throughout his adult life.

He went on to propose a speech that he wrote that the U.S. president could deliver. It sounded like a rant from one of his gangster thug characters. It ends abruptly: "You see this fist? This is my moral authority. And don't you forget it."

Menace and brutality in daily life — between spouses, parents and children, and neighbors — run through Mr. Pinter's plays like an electric current. Dialogue can be elliptical and unspecific but often combative.

"Pinter was without question the most influential English playwright of the postwar," New Yorker critic John Lahr said in 2005. "He streamlined the nature of the stage and changed the way we hear language."

Although Mr. Pinter is best known as a playwright, he was trained as an actor and performed in plays, movies and teleplays throughout his career. Along with about 30 plays, he wrote more than 20 screenplays, including adaptations of a number of his own works, such as The Caretaker (1963) and Betrayal (1983). He wrote other screenplays based on popular novels, among them The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981), from the novel by John Fowles, and The Last Tycoon (1976), based on F. Scott Fitzgerald's unfinished novel.

Mr. Pinter's most famous plays — The Birthday Party, The Caretaker and The Homecoming — move on spare dialogue that characters use like weapons against one another. Piercing language, significant pauses and an undercurrent of violence create an effect that was uniquely his when he introduced it. Critics termed it "Pinteresque."

"The essence of Pinter's singular appeal is that you sit down to every play he writes in certain expectation of the unexpected," playwright David Hare said in 2005.

Early in his career, Mr. Pinter was compared to Samuel Beckett, the Irish playwright, for the psychic distress of his characters, their vaudevillelike brutishness and the disjointed dialogue that conveys their despair.

Theater audiences in London gave The Caretaker standing ovations. The play ran for a year and later moved to cities around the world.

Although The Caretaker was a major success, The Birthday Party, which critics now consider one of his finest, was a flop when it opened in London in 1958.

Mr. Pinter's influence on younger playwrights has been ongoing. He was a mentor to the late Joe Orton as well as David Mamet, whose dialogue recalls some of Mr. Pinter's.

"There wouldn't be a Mamet without a Pinter," Lahr said.

Onstage, he performed in the one-man play Krapp's Last Tape by Samuel Beckett, in London in 2006.

He is survived by Fraser and Daniel Brand, his son from his marriage with Vivian Merchant.

Pinter's Major works

Plays: The Room (1957); The Birthday Party (1957); The Dumb Waiter (1957); A Slight Ache (1958); The Hothouse (1958); The Caretaker (1959); A Night Out (1959); Night School (1960); The Dwarfs (1960); The Collection (1961); The Lover (1962); Tea Party (1964); The Homecoming (1964); The Basement (1966); Landscape (1967); Silence (1968); Old Times (1970); Monologue (1972); No Man's Land (1974); Betrayal (1978); Family Voices (1980); Other Places (1982); A Kind of Alaska (1982); Victoria Station (1982); One for the Road (1984); Mountain Language (1988); The New World Order (1991); Party Time (1991); Moonlight (1993); Ashes to Ashes (1996); Celebration (1999); Remembrance of Things Past (2000)

Screenplays: The Caretaker (1963); The Servant (1963); The Pumpkin Eater (1963); The Quiller Memorandum (1965); Accident (1966); The Birthday Party (1967); The Go-Between (1969); The Homecoming (1969); Langrishe Go Down (1970); The Proust Screenplay (1972); The Last Tycoon (1974); The French Lieutenant's Woman (1980); Betrayal (1981); Victory (1982); Turtle Diary (1984); The Handmaid's Tale (1987); Reunion (1988); Heat of the Day (1988); Comfort of Strangers (1989); The Trial (1989); The Dreaming Child (1997); The Tragedy of King Lear (2000)

Without pretense, he restored theater 12/25/08 [Last modified: Thursday, November 4, 2010 2:28pm]
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