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Influential Nobel-laureate Playwright Pinter Dies at 78

December 25, 2008 at 6:45 PM EST
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Harold Pinter, the Nobel Prize-winning playwright who has been lauded as the most influential dramatist of his generation, died Wednesday after battling cancer. Jeffrey Brown discusses Pinter's life and work with theater critic Ben Brantley.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, remembering playwright Harold Pinter, who died Wednesday in London at age 78. We begin with a report from Benjamin Cohen of Independent Television News.

BENJAMIN COHEN: Over the years, he evoked as much controversy as adulation. His style became famous as much for the pauses as for the words.

In 2005, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. In its citation, the committee said Harold Pinter restored theater to its basic elements.

HAROLD PINTER, playwright: I’ve often been asked how my plays come about. I cannot say. Nor can I ever sum up my plays, except to say that this is what happened. That is what they said. That is what they did.

BENJAMIN COHEN: Pinter was prolific: 29 stage plays, 26 screenplays. In 1957, his first full-length play, “The Birthday Party,” was panned, closing after just four days. But by the time this TV version was aired, Pinter’s mastery of the drama in everyday language and the politics in personal life won him huge audiences, and he was far more than just a great writer.

SAM MARLOWE, theater critic: He was also a terrific actor, a wonderful commentator, political activist, and a wonderful writer of screenplays, too. But I think it’s the theater that will really miss him.

I think we have whole generations of playwrights who simply would not exist in the same way as they do had it not been for Harold Pinter.

BENJAMIN COHEN: While within the world of theater he became an establishment figure, politically he was a radical, most recently campaigning against the Iraq war.

Harold Pinter never seemed to tire of work. Despite throat cancer, in 2006 he returned to his first love, acting, starring in Samuel Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape.”

Harold Pinter had an uncompromising image. He said that, although he could never write a happy play, he had been able to enjoy a happy life.

'Comedy of Menace'

JEFFREY BROWN: When Harold Pinter's Nobel Prize was announced in 2005, I talked with New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley about the man, his work, and what makes something "Pinteresque."

BEN BRANTLEY, New York Times: I think Pinter's own phrase is "comedy of menace." There's a sense that something unspecified often but very dangerous is lurking.

Pinter once used the phrase "the weasel under the cocktail cabinet," but that sense of danger I think is also located in the people. There's always a sense of a struggle for power within Pinter and also a struggle to define themselves against the anxieties of this strange world through which they float.

It's given voice not only in the repetition of simple words, which acquire different weights as the plays go on, but also in the silences in Pinter's trademark pauses.

Pinter's silences convey meaning

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, speaking of the silences, I was reading his play, "The Homecoming," today, and it is striking how often the word "pause" is written into the directions in the play.

BEN BRANTLEY: He once said he regretted having ever introduced pause into the stage directions, that he thought it made people self-conscious, but it's certainly essential, and it's hard for actors to get it right. I think it's rare, especially in this country, that you see an ideally produced Pinter play.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, let's hear some of that Pinter dialogue. We have a short clip from the film version of his play, "Betrayal." Here's Jeremy Irons and Ben Kingsley as two parts of a love triangle.

JEREMY IRONS, actor: It's good of you to come.

BEN KINGSLEY, actor: Not at all.

JEREMY IRONS: Please sit down.

BEN KINGSLEY: Well, I might, yes, in a minute.

JEREMY IRONS: Julie's at her hospital on night duty.

BEN KINGSLEY: Uh-huh.

JEREMY IRONS: I must speak to you. It's important.

BEN KINGSLEY: Speak.

JEREMY IRONS: Yes.

BEN KINGSLEY: You look quite rough. What's the trouble? It's not about you and Anne Marie, is it? I know all about that.

JEREMY IRONS: Yes, so I've been told.

BEN KINGSLEY: Ah. Well, it's not very important, is it? It inevitably is, isn't it?

JEREMY IRONS: It is important.

BEN KINGSLEY: Really? Why?

JEFFREY BROWN: So in those silences and pauses, a lot of meaning is conveyed.

BEN BRANTLEY: Oh, yes. You can actually hear the wheels of power shifting, the balance of power moving sort of tectonically from one man to another within as each wonders, what does the other know?

Pinter influenced many after him

JEFFREY BROWN: What were Pinter's influences? Where did he come out of?

BEN BRANTLEY: Well, I think he's very much the fullest grown child of Samuel Beckett, who created -- didn't create, but probably was the great English- and French-speaking practitioner of the theater of the absurd.

As in Pinter, in Beckett you have a sense of man at odds with the universe. The difference is that Pinter takes it from these sort of abstract cosmic settings or metaphoric or poetic settings and puts it in everyday life, so that kind of cosmic fear becomes a part of daily existence and for me is doubly scary.

JEFFREY BROWN: And in turn, how did he influence writers of his generation and those of the next generation?

BEN BRANTLEY: I think so many playwrights today -- I was on -- I was in London for a few weeks to see plays a year ago, and I was amazed. They were reviving "Betrayal" at that time.

And I was amazed by how many playwrights, including playwrights you don't think of at all as being at all "Pinteresque," like Michael Frayn, who wrote "Democracy," and "Noises Off," and "Copenhagen," a verbose playwright, were nonetheless shaped by that landscape of ambiguity that Pinter created, this sense that we can't really know another person and, in fact, we can't really know ourselves.

David Mamet in the states I think certainly has picked up on the more wrathish elements of Pinter dialogue and the way people use words as weapons to get at one another.

Pinter, the man and his legacy

JEFFREY BROWN: What about Pinter the man? As we saw in the setup, he's become a very outspoken figure in politics.

BEN BRANTLEY: He has, indeed. I think -- and he said this, too -- that his plays in a sense were always political and that they were about one person trying to assert or battle a struggle for dominance. I think he wound up translating that more and more specifically into plays like "One for the Road," in which I saw him portray an interrogator from a totalitarian regime. Harold Pinter doing Harold Pinter menace is something to witness.

JEFFREY BROWN: So when you think about his legacy, is it in terms of the writing, is it in terms of the themes? How do you define it?

BEN BRANTLEY: I think many people have addressed the same themes that Harold Pinter has, but what's so extraordinary about him is the way he translated those themes into the form.

I can't see a Pinter play if it's even passably well-acted without leaving and finding that I've been infected by it, that the rhythms of my thought are the rhythms of Pinter, often for three hours or even a day later.

He expresses anxiety, and not just individual anxiety or personal anxiety, but a social anxiety I think we all share in the 21st century, through his very rhythms of language and what people say and particularly what people don't say.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you have a favorite Pinter play, one that you'd direct people to?

BEN BRANTLEY: Oh, I love "The Homecoming," in which a wife is introduced into a clan of men, and little by little, let's say, insinuates her way into their lives.

The shifts in power in that and sort of the ceding of power by the old men, as strange and I think objectionable a lot of people found it when it first came out in its sexuality, as strange as all that is, I think anyone who goes home after a long period away will identify with it.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK, Ben Brantley of the New York Times, thanks very much.

BEN BRANTLEY: Thank you.