Harold Pinter, influential playwright and Nobel winner, dies at 78

Playwright Harold Pinter outside his London home in Holland Park in 2005.
Playwright Harold Pinter outside his London home in Holland Park in 2005.
(Martyn Hayhow / AFP/Getty Images)

Harold Pinter, the Nobel Prize-winning British 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.

Pinter, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 2005, died Wednesday, 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 his home in London to Stockholm in December 2005 for the Nobel presentation. He sent a videotaped speech that was included in the ceremony. His publisher, Stephen Page of Faber & Faber, accepted the prize on Pinter’s behalf.


“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 said in announcing that Pinter had been awarded the prize.

“It never occurred to me that I was a contender,” 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 U.S. and British policies in Iraq. Pinter was an outspoken pacifist throughout his adult life.

Pinter referred to the invasion of Iraq by U.S. and British forces as “an act of blatant state terrorism, demonstrating absolute contempt for the concept of international law.”

He went on to propose a speech 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 Pinter’s plays like an electric current. Dialogue can be elliptical and unspecific, but it is often combative at the same time.

“Pinter was without question the most influential English playwright of the postwar,” New Yorker magazine critic John Lahr told The Times in 2005. “He streamlined the nature of the stage and changed the way we hear language.”

Although 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, 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.

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. “You never know what the hell’s coming next.”

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

The London premiere in 1960 of “The Caretaker,” Pinter’s sixth work, launched him as one of the most powerful voices in contemporary theater. In it Aston, a mild-mannered handyman, rescues Davies, a homeless tramp, and allows him to stay with him in the derelict house where he lives.

The play explores Pinter’s recurring themes -- an isolated character, an unexpected “intruder,” a power struggle that threatens to turn violent. Words are a negotiating tool, a weapon or a coverup. At times the audience is not certain what to think or whom to believe.

“What adds piquancy . . . is that each character can see through the other’s pretensions while still clinging desperately to his own,” British critic Michael Billington wrote in his 1996 book “The Life and Work of Harold Pinter.”

Theater audiences in London gave “The Caretaker” standing ovations. The play ran for a year, and a film version followed with Robert Shaw as Aston, Donald Pleasence as Davies and Alan Bates as Aston’s brother Mick.

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.

Pinter offered few of the expected elements of a traditional theater piece. He gave scant background about his characters, their motives were unclear, and he allowed no easy answers or consoling resolutions. It was left to the audience to form judgments and moral conclusions.

He later referred to “The Birthday Party” as “the most universally detested play that London had known for a very long time.”

One leading British critic, however, saw into it.

“Mr. Pinter possesses the most original, disturbing and arresting talent in theatrical London,” Harold Hobson of the London Sunday Times wrote in 1958.

As Pinter wrote about oppression and censorship in his plays, he lobbied for left-wing causes as a political activist.

In the 1970s he criticized the United States for its role in the overthrow of Chile’s Socialist President Salvador Allende and denounced governments around the world that stifled freedom of speech and artistic expression.

Pinter was a prominent opponent of the Vietnam War in the 1970s and the first Persian Gulf War in the early 1990s. He gave impassioned speeches opposing the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and chastised the Britain government for supporting the invasion. Pinter wrote vitriolic antiwar poetry. By 2005, with his health in decline, he gave up writing plays to concentrate on his political concerns.

Pinter was born in London on Oct. 10, 1930, the only child of a Jewish tailor. He was a boy at the start of World War II and like many children in London was evacuated to the countryside for close to a year.

He was back in the city during part of the Blitz, the German campaign of bombing London. The experience made him passionately intolerant of war.

Pinter became interested in acting while a student at Hackney Downs Grammar School in London. Schoolmates found Pinter to be sensitive, charming and hot-tempered. He was a good athlete, setting track and field records, and became a lifelong devotee of cricket.

Rough neighborhood

In the rough neighborhood where Pinter was raised, he learned to fend off East End thugs ready to beat up anyone who might be Jewish. He used language to manipulate the situation to avoid physical harm.

Pinter graduated from Hackney Downs and went on to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1948 to study acting on a grant. But he soon left the academy and spent the next decade writing poems and essays and trying to find work in the theater.

“My experience as an actor has influenced my plays, I think. I certainly developed some feeling for construction and for speakable dialogue,” he told the New Yorker some years ago.

Surviving World War II and experiencing the anti-Semitism that followed made a pacifist of him. At 18, Pinter refused to participate in Britain’s mandatory national service. “I was aware of the suffering and the horror of war, and by no means was I going to subscribe to keep it going,” he later said of his decision. He appeared before two tribunals and was eventually fined. His resistance shamed his parents.

In 1950, Poetry London, a leading literary magazine, published several of his poems under the pseudonym “Harold Pinta” and he found work as a radio actor with the BBC. In 1951, he joined a theater troupe in Ireland as an actor, later calling it his “first proper job on the stage.” Pinter returned to London and acted in a series of repertory companies using the stage name David Baron.

He married actress Vivien Merchant in 1956, and they had a son, Daniel. She would appear in a number of his plays before they divorced 24 years later. She died in 1982.

Pinter wrote the draft of his only novel, “The Dwarfs,” about strained friendships among four young Londoners, in the early 1950s. He later reworked it into a play and then revised and published it in the late 1980s.

He wrote his first play, “The Room” (1957), when a friend suggested he compose something for the drama department at Bristol University. In it, Rose is a reclusive white woman who lives in a boardinghouse. She is visited by Riley, a blind black man who says he has a message for her. At first she is hostile, but she gradually softens toward him.

When another man from the boardinghouse finds Riley with Rose, he beats him senseless. Rose covers her eyes and speaks the final words of the play, “I can’t see.”

“In this jejune and portentous one act, Pinter stumbled on a psychological truth that he continued to explore brilliantly for half a century: mankind’s passion for ignorance,” Lahr wrote in a New Yorker magazine review of a 2005 revival.

“The Birthday Party” came next.

The drama features Stanley, an out-of-work musician, who lives alone in a blue-collar boardinghouse where two ominous strangers, Goldberg and McCann, come to stay.

During a night of drinking to celebrate what either is or is not his birthday -- Stanley disputes the occasion -- Goldberg and McCann taunt him with unfounded accusations and threats of physical violence until he breaks down.

The stage direction calls for the sudden blackouts and unnerving silences that became a hallmark of Pinter’s style.

The morning after the party, Goldberg and McCann take Stanley away, promising to “save” him. They lead him out the door, speaking an ominous litany: “We’ll watch over you. Advise you. Give you proper care and treatment. . . . You’ll be reoriented. You’ll be rich. You’ll be adjusted. . . . You’ll be a success.”

Overtones of oppression and conformity in the play, with punishment for resisters, bring to mind the Soviet state during Josef Stalin’s regime. But the play’s ordinary setting implies that the same sort of abuse can happen anywhere, in any age.

The play’s “mix of the real and imaginatively heightened was not easily grasped in 1958 when plays tended to be judged either by their social accuracy or nonsensical inventiveness,” Billington wrote in his book about Pinter.

“The Birthday Party” closed in one week.

Two years later a televised version was seen by several million viewers. This time critics were positive. “It was the first of many occasions on which one of Pinter’s plays, by tapping deep-seated fears, bypassed critical analysis to speak directly to the collective subconscious,” Billington wrote of the turnaround.

In 1962, Pinter started a long working relationship with Peter Hall -- managing director of the Royal Shakespeare Company and one of London’s leading names in theater. Hall directed a stage adaptation of “The Collection,” a play Pinter originally wrote for television.

Three years later, the Royal Shakespeare Company premiered Pinter’s “The Homecoming,” widely considered to be his masterpiece. By the time he wrote it he had become friendly with Beckett, who read the play before it was produced. On his recommendation, Pinter cut one scene.

In the play, Teddy, a university professor, brings his alluring wife, Ruth, home to meet his hardscrabble father and brothers for the first time.

She disturbs the order in the brutish, all-male household. Both brothers, Lenny and Joey, make passes at her, and she doesn’t resist. In a matter of days, Teddy’s father, Max, decides that Ruth should stay at the house with him and his sons. Teddy seems resigned or indifferent and plans to go home to the U.S., where he and Ruth have children.

Through most of the play, Ruth seems to be a passive victim, but in the last scene she is the one who sets the terms for her new arrangement.

When Hall was named managing director of the Royal National Theatre in 1973, he invited Pinter to join him as the associate director. Pinter remained for 10 years.

Directed plays

Through the 1970s Pinter worked steadily on stage and film productions. He directed his own plays and many by authors he admired, particularly his contemporary Simon Gray. Pinter worked with movie director Joseph Losey on films starting with “The Servant.” Pinter wrote scripts for “Accident” (1967) and “The Go-Between” (1971), which Losey directed.

Several of Pinter’s plays from that period attracted attention, though none had the influence of his earlier works.

An affair he had in the 1960s with television personality Joan Bakewell led him to write “Betrayal,” a story about marital infidelity and its lingering effects that was staged at the Royal National Theatre in 1978 and made into a film five years later.

In 1975 Pinter started an affair with Fraser, a well-known biographer, the wife of a member of Parliament and mother of six. She divorced her husband. Pinter divorced his first wife in 1980, and soon afterward he and Fraser married.

He continued to work as an actor, appearing in a production of his play “Old Times” at the Wilshire Theatre in Beverly Hills in 1985. The play, based on his years as a young actor and writer, was first staged in London in 1971.

“Most playwrights are . . . lousy actors,” then-Times critic Dan Sullivan wrote in his review. “Harold Pinter would be impressive in ‘Old Times’ even if we didn’t know that he wrote it.”

Pinter’s influence on younger playwrights has been ongoing. He was a mentor to a number of them, including the late Joe Orton as well as David Mamet, whose dialogue recalls some of Pinter’s quick, disjointed patter.

“There wouldn’t be a Mamet without a Pinter,” critic Lahr said.

Pinter continued his political activism, traveling to Turkey with playwright Arthur Miller in 1985 to meet with dissidents. Pinter also met with Sandinista government leaders in Nicaragua.

Several of his later plays, including “Mountain Language” (1988), were overtly political. But the most highly regarded of his late works is “Moonlight,” which opened in London in 1993. The play tells of a dying man, caught up in memory, feeling the pain of his troubled family relations, facing his own mortality. Lahr referred to the play as a late masterpiece.

Pinter remained a force whose plays continued to be staged in England and, though less often, in the United States.

In 2007 he wrote the screenplay for “Sleuth,” a remake of an earlier movie that had been based on a 1970 play by Anthony Shaffer. Pinter also had a cameo role in the movie.

Onstage, he performed in the one-man play “Krapp’s Last Tape” by Beckett, in London in 2006.

Pinter is survived by Fraser and Daniel Brand, his son from his first marriage.

Rourke is a former Times staff writer. Former Times staff writer Don Shirley contributed to this report.