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The 2005 Noble laureate for literature has died. Harold Pinter was best known for writing such plays as The Birthday Party, The Homecoming, and Old Times. He adapted other people's novels for the screen, as well including The French Lieutenant's Woman and Handmaid's Tale.

Harold Pinter had for years suffered from cancer, and when he died yesterday he was 78. NPR's Neda Ulaby has this appreciation.

NEDA ULABY: 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 (Friend of the late Harold Pinter): 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.

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: Henry Woolf, who directed Pinter's first play, The Room, says that, at the time, no one had seen anything like Pinter's work, and his audiences roared with laughter.

Mr. WOOLF: And then the grim hand of reverence took over once Harold became sort of famous, and laughs were harder to come by, because he'd become a famous fellow.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WOOLF: But the humor's there.

ULABY: So is the menace says Penelope Prentice, she's a playwright who's written a book on Pinter.

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

ULABY: Still Prentice stands by it. She says Pinter's focus on psychological violence changed the nature of drama, especially in depicting the savageries inherent in human relationships.

(Soundbite of Pinter's 1983 film Betrayal)

Ms. PATRICIA HODGE: (As Emma) Jerry.

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

ULABY: The 1983 film Betrayal, adapted by Pinter from his own play, traces a seven-year affair:

Mr. IRONS: I saw you in white, I watched you glide by in white.

Ms. HODGE: I wasn't in white.

Mr. IRONS: Do you know what should have happened?

Ms. HODGE: What?

Mr. IRONS: I should have had you in your white before the wedding. 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: My husband's best man. Your best friend's best man.

Mr. IRONS: 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.

Mr. HAROLD PINTER (Nobel Prize-Winning Playwright): 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.

Mr. 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. .COST: $00.00

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