British Playwright Pinter Receives Nobel

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English playwright Harold Pinter is awarded the 2005 Nobel Prize in Literature. He is the author of plays such as The Birthday Party and The Caretaker. Pinter has earned his own adjective, "Pinteresque," which refers to his use of spare dialogue and banal settings to create a sense of dread and implied violence in everyday relationships.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

The 2005 Nobel Laureate for Literature was announced today. It's British playwright Harold Pinter. Pinter was the son of a Jewish tailor and he grew up in a working-class London neighborhood. He's often cited the bombing and evacuation of London during World War II as important formative experiences. Pinter has written dozens of plays, screenplays and poems that reflect the dread and violence of human relationships. And lately he's been in the news for his activism against the war in Iraq. NPR's Neda Ulaby reports.

NEDA ULABY reporting:

Harold Pinter already has an impressive collection of awards. Here he is in 1995 accepting a British literature prize.

(Soundbite of 1995 awards ceremony)

Mr. HAROLD PINTER (Playwright): Quite simply, my writing life has been one of relish, challenge, excitement. Those words are almost, perhaps, truisms but, in fact, they are true. Whether it be a poem, a play or a screenplay, if the relish, challenge and excitement in the language and through that language to character isn't there, then nothing's there and nothing can exist.

ULABY: Pinter took relish in the language of ordinary working-class Britons, and he lovingly translated it to stage and screen.

(Soundbite of "The Servant")

Unidentified Man #1: You creep.

Unidentified Man #2: Nobody talks to me like this.

Unidentified Man #1: Do you know what you are? I'll tell you.

Unidentified Man #2: I know all about your sentence.

Unidentified Man #1: You're a peasant.

Unidentified Man #2: Peasant, you say. Get out of the way, I'll show you what I am.

(Soundbite of scuffling)

Unidentified Man #2: I'll tell you what I am. I'm a gentleman's gentleman, and you're no bloody gentleman.

ULABY: That's from Pinter's 1963 screenplay for "The Servant." Pinter recognized, too, that dialogue does not always facilitate communication. Sometimes it avoids it.

Mr. HENRY WOLF (Director; Actor): And so language is sort of used as a weapon and as a defense and a shield.

ULABY: Henry Wolf is old friends with Pinter. The two met as teen-agers. Wolf directed and starred in Pinter's very first play, "The Room," back in 1957. Although some tried to classify Pinter's early work as `theater of the absurd,' others devised a label more apt, the `theater of menace.' In the play "The Birthday Party," two ominous characters inexplicably interrogate a third. Henry Wolf.

Mr. WOLF: You are never told where they come from and you are never told who they are. There they are and I don't think that had been seen a lot in English plays. But it happens in life--Doesn't it?--that suddenly people are there. And these two people are particularly menacing and very, very funny too.

(Soundbite of "The Birthday Party")

Unidentified Man #3: Who does he think he is?

Unidentified Man #4: Who do you think you are?

Unidentified Man #5: You're on the wrong horse.

Unidentified Man #4: When did you come to this place?

Unidentified Man #5: Last year.

Unidentified Man #4: Where did you come from?

Unidentified Man #5: Somewhere else.

Unidentified Man #4: Why did you come here?

Unidentified Man #5: My feet hurt.

Unidentified Man #4: Why did you stay?

Unidentified Man #5: I have a headache.

Unidentified Man #4: Did you take anything for it?

Unidentified Man #5: Yes.

Unidentified Man #4: What?

Unidentified Man #5: Fruit salts.

Unidentified Man #4: (Unintelligible)?

Unidentified Man #5: Yeah.

Unidentified Man #4: Did you stir properly? Did they fizz?

Unidentified Man #5: Ah...

Unidentified Man #4: Did they fizz? Did they fizz or didn't they fizz?

Unidentified Man #3: He doesn't know.

ULABY: Pinter's plays explore the balance of power in human relationships, but his friend Henry Wolf says there are political messages as well.

Mr. WOLF: I remember a student from Persia, as it was then under the shah. He had some jolly, pleasant secret police and that sort of thing. He said, `Oh, yes, Pinter's plays make total sense to us where there is a secret, menacing world out there and you never know who's going to come through the door.' And gradually I think in Harold's writing what had been implicit in the plays in a political stance became overt.

ULABY: Harold Pinter was deeply affected by the assassination of Chilean President Salvador Allende in 1973, and he's become a leader in left-wing British politics.

(Soundbite of protest speech)

Mr. PINTER: No nation, I suggest, has ever been so detested as the United States is today.

ULABY: That's Pinter speaking at an anti-war protest when President Bush visited Britain two years ago.

(Soundbite of protest speech)

Mr. PINTER: I say to Mr. Bush: Get out of this country and take Tony Blair with you.

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

ULABY: Pinter's Nobel nod may be read as more evidence of an anti-US tilt by the Swedish Academy. But upon learning of his win today, Pinter told the BBC he was not certain how much his politics had to do with the award or even with his art.

Mr. PINTER: I was deeply engaged in art and deeply engaged in politics, and sometimes those two meet and sometimes they don't.

ULABY: Harold Pinter was diagnosed with esophageal cancer three years ago. He says he's retired from writing plays and now devotes himself to politics. Still, last week BBC Radio 3 broadcast a new collaboration with composer James Clarke. The piece alludes to torture and persecution, and Pinter says it's about the hell we share. But, like much of Pinter's work, it also expresses a yearning for compassion. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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