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Harold Pinter, Playwright And Nobel Laureate, Dies


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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.