Harold Pinter, Playwright And Nobel Laureate, Dies

British playwright and Nobel laureate Harold Pinter has died. He was 78. Pinter was known for his brooding portrayals of domestic life and his barbed politics.

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ROBERT, SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Robert Siegel. Sir Harold Pinter, playwright and 2005 Nobel Laureate, has died. Pinter was best known for such plays as "The Birthday Party" and "The Homecoming." He also adapted other people's work for the screen including, "The French Lieutenant's Woman." Pinter had long-suffered from esophageal cancer. His second wife, Lady Antonia Fraser, said that he died yesterday at age 78. NPR's Neda Ulaby reports.

NEDA ULABY: When Harold Pinter won the Nobel prize for literature, he was barely strong enough to hold a press conference in London.

Sir HAROLD PINTER (Playwright, Nobel Laureate): I've written a lot of plays. I've been writing plays since - for about 50 years, sorry.

ULABY: Pinter had such trouble speaking, he was unable to enjoy the whirl of congratulatory interviews that normally follow a Nobel win. Pinter wrote dozens of plays and essays and poems, but his close friend, Henry Woolf, says Harold Pinter's major contribution to English letters was what became known as the Theater of Menace.

Mr. HENRY WOOLF (Actor, Director): People, for the first time in English drama, spoke in non-sequitors as if they hadn't heard what had just been said to them. They had heard perfectly well, but they didn't want to respond. So there were these strange pauses and silences.

ULABY: Brutal pauses punctuate "The Birthday Party," a Pinter play from 1957. Two strangers invade a dreary English rooming house and cryptically interrogate its lonesome boarder.

(Soundbite of play "The Birthday Party")

Unidentified Actor #1 (as McCann): When did you come to this place?

Unidentified Actor #2 (as Stanley): Last year.

Unidentified Actor #3 (as Goldberg): Where did you come from?

Unidentified Actor #2 (as Stanley): Somewhere else.

Unidentified Actor #1 (as McCann): Why did you come here?

Unidentified Actor #2 (as Stanley): My feet hurt.

Unidentified Actor #3 (as Goldberg): Why did you stay?

Unidentified Actor #2 (as Stanley): Had a headache.

Unidentified Actor #1 (as McCann): Did you take anything for it?

Unidentified Actor #2 (as Stanley): Yes.

Unidentified Actor #3 (as Goldberg): What?

Unidentified Actor #2 (as Stanley): Fruit(ph) salts.

Unidentified Actor #1 (as McCann): Enos(ph) or anti? Did you stir properly? Did they fizz?

Unidentified Actor #2 (as Stanley): No.

Unidentified Actor #3 (as Goldberg): Did they fizz?

Unidentified Actor #2 (as Stanley): When?

Unidentified Actor #1 (as McCann): Did they fizz, or didn't they fizz?

Unidentified Actor #3 (as Goldberg): He doesn't know.

Unidentified Actor #2 (as Stanley): I don't know.

Unidentified Actor #1 (as McCann): When did you last have a bath?

Mr. WOOLF: It was very, very sort of frightening in a way, but also hilariously funny.

ULABY: Harold Pinter was born in 1930 in London's East End. His father was a tailor, the son of Jewish immigrants who fled persecution in Eastern Europe. Pinter was evacuated from London as a child during World War II. He was traumatized by the experience and returned just in time for the blitz. He watched as his house was destroyed by a bomb. Penelope Prentice is a playwright who has written a book on Pinter.

Ms. PENELOPE PRENTICE (Playwright, Author, "The Pinter Ethic"): No other dramatist better understands and dramatizes the causes of human violence than Harold Pinter. And that's a big statement if you consider Shakespeare and the Greeks.

ULABY: Before he became a playwright, Pinter acted Shakespeare in a repertory company alongside his first wife, Vivian Merchant. His specialty was villains, and later, he distilled human vice into poetry in his plays and films - for instance, "Betrayal."

(Soundbite of "Betrayal")

Ms. PATRICIA HODGE: (As Emma) Jerry.

Mr. JEREMY IRONS: (As Jerry) I was best man at your wedding.

ULABY: Jeremy Irons and Patricia Hodge in the 1983 film which traces a seven-year affair.

(Soundbite of "Betrayal")

Mr. IRONS: (As Jerry) I saw you in white. I watched you glide by in white.

Ms. HODGE: (As Emma) I wasn't in white.

Mr. IRONS: (As Jerry) You (unintelligible) I should have.

Ms. HODGE: (As Emma) What?

Mr. IRONS: (As Jerry) I should have had you in your white before the wedding. I should have blackened you in your white wedding dress, blackened you in your bridal dress before ushering you into your wedding, as your best man.

Ms. HODGE: (As Emma) My husband's best man, your best friend's best man.

Mr. IRONS: (As Jerry) No, your best man.

ULABY: The threat of power was one of Pinter's most consistent themes, and he tried to change not just how we view the world, but how we act in it. He committed himself to human rights, he said, after the 1973 assassination of Chilean President Salvador Allende. More recently, Pinter was a truculent critic of the war in Iraq.

Sir PINTER: I'm both deeply engaged in art and deeply engaged in politics, and sometimes those two meet, and sometimes they don't.

ULABY: Harold Pinter, after learning of his Nobel win. Before cancer got the better of his voice, and before it claimed his life, Pinter wrote a poem about his diagnosis.

Sir PINTER: I need to see my tumor dead A tumor which forgets to die But plans to murder me instead. But I remember how to die Though all my witnesses are dead. But I remember what they said Of tumors which would render them As blind and dumb as they had been Before the birth of that disease Which brought the tumor into play. The black cells will dry up and die Or sing with joy and have their way. They breed so quietly night and day, You never know, they never say.

ULABY: But in the end, Harold Pinter had the last word. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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Nobel Prize-Winning Playwright Harold Pinter Dies

Harold Pinter pictured in 2004 at age 74. i i

Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter, a world-renowned playwright and political activist, died of cancer on Wednesday. He was 78. Bruno Vincent/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Bruno Vincent/Getty Images
Harold Pinter pictured in 2004 at age 74.

Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter, a world-renowned playwright and political activist, died of cancer on Wednesday. He was 78.

Bruno Vincent/Getty Images
Harold Pinter, pictured in 1979 i i

Pinter, pictured above in 1979, says he committed himself to speaking out for human rights after the 1973 assassination of Chilean president Salvador Allende. Jones/Evening Standard/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Jones/Evening Standard/Getty Images
Harold Pinter, pictured in 1979

Pinter, pictured above in 1979, says he committed himself to speaking out for human rights after the 1973 assassination of Chilean president Salvador Allende.

Jones/Evening Standard/Getty Images

British playwright Harold Pinter, who won the 2005 Nobel Prize for Literature, died Christmas day at the age of 78 after a long battle with esophageal cancer.

Pinter was best known for writing such plays as The Birthday Party, The Homecoming and Old Times. He also adapted other writers' novels for the screen, including The French Lieutenant's Woman, A Handmaid's Tale and The Comfort of Strangers.

Pinter wrote dozens of plays, essays and poems. His lifelong friend, actor and director Henry Woolf, says Pinter's major contribution was what became known as the "theater of menace."

"People for the first time in English drama spoke in non sequitors — as if they hadn't heard what had just been said to them," Woolf says. "They had to have heard, but they didn't want to respond so there were these strange pauses and silences."

Brutal pauses punctuate The Birthday Party, a Pinter play from 1957. "It was very, very sort of frightening in a way, but also hilariously funny," Woolf recalls.

Woolf directed Pinter's first play, The Room, and says that, at the time, no one had seen anything like Pinter's work; his audiences roared with laughter. Woolf says Pinter found laughs harder to come by once he became more famous and "the grim hand of reverence took over ... but the humor's there."

Playwright Penelope Prentice, author of The Pinter Ethic, points out the strengths of the darker side of Pinter's writing.

"No other dramatist better understands and dramatizes the causes of human violence than Harold Pinter," Prentice says. "And that's a big statement if you consider Shakespeare and the Greeks."

She says Pinter's focus on psychological violence changed the nature of drama, especially in depicting the savageries inherent in human relationships.

Pinter's 1983 film Betrayal, which he adapted from his own play, traces a seven year affair:

"I should have blackened you in your white wedding dress, blackened you in your bridal dress, before ushering you into your wedding, as your best man," Jerry (Jeremy Irons) menacingly tells Emma (Patricia Hodge).

The threat of power was one of Pinter's most consistent themes; he tried to change not just how we view the world, but how we act in it. Pinter committed himself to human rights, he said, after the assassination of Chilean President Salvador Allende in 1973. More recently, Pinter was a truculent critic of the war in Iraq.

"I'm both deeply engaged in art and deeply engaged in politics, and sometimes those two meet, and sometimes they don't," Pinter said, after learning of his Nobel win.

Before cancer got the better of his voice — and before it claimed his life — Pinter wrote a poem about his diagnosis.

I need to see my tumor dead
A tumor which forgets to die
But plans to murder me instead.

But I remember how to die
Though all my witnesses are dead.
But I remember what they said
Of tumors which would render them
As blind and dumb as they had been
Before the birth of that disease
Which brought the tumor into play.
The black cells will dry up and die
Or sing with joy and have their way.

They breed so quietly night and day,
You never know, they never say.

But in the end, Harold Pinter had the last word.

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