Harold Pinter, the British playwright whose gifts for finding the ominous in the everyday and the noise within silence made him the most influential and imitated dramatist of his generation, died on Wednesday. He was 78 and lived in London.
The cause was cancer, his wife, Lady Antonia Fraser, said Thursday.
Mr. Pinter learned he had cancer of the esophagus in late 2001. In 2005, when he received theNobel Prize in Literature, he was unable to attend the awards ceremony at the Swedish Academy in Stockholm but delivered an acceptance speech from a wheelchair in a recorded video.
In more than 30 plays — written between 1957 and 2000 and including masterworks like “The Birthday Party,” “The Caretaker,” “The Homecoming” and “Betrayal” — Mr. Pinter captured the anxiety and ambiguity of life in the second half of the 20th century with terse, hypnotic dialogue filled with gaping pauses and the prospect of imminent violence.
Along with another Nobel winner, Samuel Beckett, his friend and mentor, Mr. Pinter became one of the few modern playwrights whose names instantly evoke a sensibility. The adjective Pinteresque has become part of the cultural vocabulary as a byword for strong and unspecified menace.
An actor, essayist, screenwriter, poet and director as well as a dramatist, Mr. Pinter was also publicly outspoken in his views on repression and censorship, at home and abroad. He used his Nobel acceptance speech to denounce American foreign policy, saying that the United States had not only lied to justify waging war against Iraq, but that it had also “supported and in many cases engendered every right-wing military dictatorship” in the last 50 years.
His political views were implicit in much of his work. Though his plays deal with the slipperiness of memory and human character, they are also almost always about the struggle for power.
The dynamic in his work is rooted in battles for control, turf wars waged in locations that range from working-class boarding houses (in his first produced play, “The Room,” from 1957) to upscale restaurants (the setting for “Celebration,” staged in 2000). His plays often take place in a single, increasingly claustrophobic room, where conversation is a minefield and even innocuous-seeming words can wound.
In Mr. Pinter’s work “words are weapons that the characters use to discomfort or destroy each other,” said Peter Hall, who has staged more of Mr. Pinter’s plays than any other director.
But while Mr. Pinter’s linguistic agility turned simple, sometimes obscene, words into dark, glittering and often mordantly funny poetry, it is what comes between the words that he is most famous for. And the stage direction “pause” would haunt him throughout his career.
Intended as an instructive note to actors, the Pinter pause was a space for emphasis and breathing room. But it could also be as threatening as a raised fist. Mr. Pinter said that writing the word “pause” into his first play was “a fatal error.” It is certainly the aspect of his writing that has been most parodied. But no other playwright has consistently used pauses with such rhythmic assurance and to such fine-tuned manipulative effect.
Early in his career Mr. Pinter said his work was about “the weasel under the cocktail cabinet.” Though he later regretted the image, it holds up as a metaphor for the undertow of danger that pervades his work. As Martin Esslin wrote in his book “Pinter: The Playwright,” “Man’s existential fear, not as an abstraction, but as something real, ordinary and acceptable as an everyday occurrence — here we have the core of Pinter’s work as a dramatist.”
Though often grouped with Beckett and others as a practitioner of Theater of the Absurd, Mr. Pinter considered himself a realist. In 1962 he said the context of his plays was always “concrete and particular.” He never found a need to alter that assessment.
Beginning in the late 1950s, John Osborne and Mr. Pinter helped to turn British theater away from the gentility of the drawing room. With “Look Back in Anger,” Osborne opened the door for several succeeding generations of angry young men, who railed against the class system and an ineffectual government. Mr. Pinter was to have the more lasting effect as an innovator and a stylist. And his influence on other playwrights, including David Mamet in the United States and Patrick Marber and Jez Butterworth in England, is undeniable.
The playwright Tom Stoppard said that before Mr. Pinter: “One thing plays had in common: you were supposed to believe what people said up there. If somebody comes in and says, ‘Tea or coffee?’ and the answer is ‘Tea,’ you are entitled to assume that somebody is offered a choice of two drinks, and the second person has stated a preference.” With Mr. Pinter there are alternatives, “such as the man preferred coffee but the other person wished him to have tea,” Mr. Stoppard said, “or that he preferred the stuff you make from coffee beans under the impression that it was called tea.”
As another British playwright, David Hare, said of Mr. Pinter, “The essence of his singular appeal is that you sit down to every play or film he writes in certain expectation of the unexpected.”
Though initially regarded as an intuitive rather than an intellectual playwright, Mr. Pinter was in fact both. His plays are dense with references to writers like James Joyce and T. S. Eliot. The annual Pinter Review, in which scholars probe and parse his works for meaning and metaphor, is one of many indications of his secure berth in academia.
Politics Inside the Plays
While it was not immediately apparent, Mr. Pinter was always a writer with a political sensibility, which became overt in later plays like “One for the Road” (1984) and “Mountain Language” (1988). These works, having to do “not with ambiguities of power, but actual power,” he said, were written out of “very cold anger.”
He and his wife hosted gatherings in their Holland Park town house for liberal political seminars. Known as the June 20th Society, the participants included Mr. Hare, Ian McEwan, Michael Holroyd, John Mortimer, Salman Rushdie and Germaine Greer. In their discussions Mr. Pinter expressed the great struggle of the mid-20th century as one between “primitive rage” and “liberal generosity,” Mr. Hare said.
Through the years Mr. Pinter became known, especially to the British news media, for having a prickly personality. “There is a violence in me,” Mr. Pinter once said, “but I don’t walk around looking for trouble.” The director Richard Eyre said in a testimonial book published for Mr. Pinter’s 70th birthday that he was “sometimes pugnacious and occasionally splenetic” but “just as often droll and generous — particularly to actors, directors and (a rare quality this) other writers.”
Harold Pinter was born in Hackney in the East End of London on Oct. 10, 1930. His father, Jack, was a tailor; his mother, Frances, a homemaker. Mr. Pinter’s grandparents had emigrated to England from Eastern Europe. His parents, he said, were “very solid, very respectable, Jewish, lower-middle-class people.”
With the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Harold, an only child, was evacuated from London to a provincial town in Cornwall. His feelings of loneliness and isolation from that time were to surface later in his plays. When he was 13, he returned to London and was there during the Blitz when his house was struck by a bomb. He rushed inside to rescue a few valuable possessions: his cricket bat and a poem — “a paean of love” — he was writing to a girlfriend.
Sports, poetry and his relationships with women were to remain important to him. Vigorously athletic, he was a fierce competitor in cricket and tennis. Ian Smith, an Oxford don and cricket teammate, equated Mr. Pinter’s art with his bold style of playing cricket. “Everything is focused,” he said. “It’s about performance and economy of gesture.”
Poetry and Pacifism
Mr. Pinter grew up on a diet of American gangster movies and British war films. From the first he was a great reader and a hopeful poet, with strong political judgments. When he was called up for military service at 18, as a pacifist he refused to serve.
In diverse ways he remained a conscientious objector in the years to come, echoing a line in “The Birthday Party,” in which Stanley, a lodger in a seaside boarding house, is suddenly taken away by two strangers to some ominous future as a friend cries out, “Stan, don’t let them tell you what to do!” Years later, Mr. Pinter said he had lived that line all his life.
Mr. Pinter’s first poem was published in a magazine called Poetry London when he was 20. Soon afterward he completed a novel, “The Dwarfs.” After studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and the Central School of Speech and Drama, he signed on with a repertory company and, performing under the name David Baron, toured Ireland in plays by Shakespeare and others, often in villainous roles like Iago.
In 1955, at a party in London, Mr. Pinter was struck by what he referred to as “an odd image.” A little man, who later turned out to be the writer and professional eccentric Quentin Crisp, was making bacon and eggs for a large man who was sitting at a table reading the comics. Mr. Pinter told his friend Henry Woolf about the incident and said he thought he might write a play about it. The next year Mr. Woolf, then a graduate student at the University of Bristol, asked him if he could write that play for a group of drama students.
The resulting work, “The Room,” was Mr. Pinter’s first play. And with its story of mysterious intruders and its elliptical speech, it showed that Mr. Pinter had already found his voice as a dramatist. It opened in Bristol on May 15, 1957, and was restaged three years later at the Hampstead Theater Club in London.
In 1956 Mr. Pinter married Vivien Merchant, an actress in the company. After their son, Daniel, was born in 1958, they moved to the Chiswick section of London. He wrote “The Birthday Party,” his first full-length play, drawing on his memories of touring as an actor in Eastbourne, on Britain’s south coast.
The Pinters, who were temporarily unemployed and desperately poor, had an offer to act in Birmingham, and Ms. Merchant wanted to accept it. But Mr. Pinter said: “I have this play opening in London. I think I must stay. Something’s going to happen.” She replied, “What makes you think so?”
They turned down the acting offer. “The Birthday Party” opened in the West End in 1958 and received disastrous reviews. Then, prodded by the theatrical agent Peggy Ramsay, Harold Hobson, the eminent critic of The Sunday Times of London, came to see it at a matinee. What he wrote turned out to be a life-changing review.
“It breathes in the air,” Hobson wrote. “It cannot be seen, but it enters the room every time the door is opened.” He continued: “Though you go to the uttermost parts of the earth, and hide yourself in the most obscure lodgings in the least popular of towns, one day there is a possibility that two men will appear. They will be looking for you, and you cannot get away. And someone will be looking for them too. There is terror everywhere.” He concluded, “Mr. Pinter, on the evidence of this work, possesses the most original, disturbing and arresting talent in theatrical London.”
Despite that review the play closed that weekend. By contrast Mr. Pinter’s next full-length play to be produced, “The Caretaker,” which opened in London in 1960, was a dazzling critical success. “Suddenly everything went topsy-turvy,” Mr. Pinter said.
In that play two brothers live in a seedy house in London and, for inexplicable reasons, invite a homeless man named Davies to share their quarters and to act as a kind of custodian. Michael Billington, a critic for The Guardian and Mr. Pinter’s biographer, has called the play “an austere masterpiece: a universally recognizable play about political maneuvering, fraternal love, spiritual isolation, language as a negotiating weapon or a form of cover-up.”
Mr. Pinter’s next play, “The Homecoming,” opened in London in June 1965, in a Royal Shakespeare Company production directed by Mr. Hall. The story of an all-male family headed by a Lear-like father and the woman (Ms. Merchant, who starred in many of his plays) who enters and disrupts their domain scored a major success in London. Though it received a mixed reception in New York, “The Homecoming” won a Tony Award as best play and had a long run on Broadway.
A Shift of Focus
After these first three full-length plays — all stories of raffish characters in shabby environments — Mr. Pinter shifted his focus. His next three dramas were set in the worlds of art and publishing: “Old Times” (1971), “No Man’s Land” (1975) and “Betrayal” (1978), all studies of the unreliability of memory and the uncertainty of love. In “Old Times” a husband and wife encounter a woman they may or may not have known in the past.
In “No Man’s Land” a faded poet visits a wealthy patron for an evening of recollection and gamesmanship, roles played in the original production by John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson, who repeated their performances in New York the next year. The elegant “Betrayal” is a play about marriage and duplicity and, despite its use of reverse chronology, is among Mr. Pinter’s most accessible works. It was made into a 1982 film starring Jeremy Irons, Ben Kingsley and Patricia Hodge.
During the run of “No Man’s Land” Mr. Pinter began an affair with Lady Antonia Fraser, the biographer and historian, who was then married to Hugh Fraser, a conservative politician. In 1980 Mr. Pinter and Lady Antonia were married, with Mr. Pinter becoming the substitute paterfamilias of an extended family.
In addition to his wife, his survivors include his son, Daniel, and his stepchildren, Benjamin, Damian, Orlando, Rebecca, Flora and Natasha. Years ago his son changed his last name to Brand, his maternal grandmother’s maiden name. He had been estranged from his father, living as a recluse in Cambridgeshire.
After “Betrayal” Mr. Pinter’s plays became shorter (like “A Kind of Alaska”) and then, for about three years, they stopped. “Something gnaws away,” he explained, “the desire to write something and the inability to do so.” He added, “I think I was getting more and more imbedded in international issues.”
At the same time he continued his involvement in films, highlighted by his close collaboration as screenwriter with the director Joseph Losey, which began in 1963 with “The Servant,” a depiction of class relations in Britain. That was followed in 1967 by “Accident,” about a professor infatuated with a student (Mr. Pinter and Ms. Merchant each had minor parts), and “The Go-Between” (1971), about a boy’s complicity in an adult affair in turn of the century Britain, with Julie Christie and Alan Bates.
His many screenplays for other directors include “The Pumpkin Eater” (1964), about a woman (Anne Bancroft) drifting through multiple marriages, directed by Jack Clayton; “The Last Tycoon,” Elia Kazan’s 1976 adaptation of the Fitzgerald novel; and “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” (1981), a Karel Reisz film with Meryl Streep and Mr. Irons.
With his plays “Moonlight” (a portrait of family relationships undermined by years of divisiveness) and “Ashes to Ashes” (a story of “torturers and victims” reflected in a typically uncommunicative marriage), Mr. Pinter returned to the longer, somberly meditative form.
His final work, “Celebration” (2000), is a wry look at power-conscious couples dining in a chic restaurant that bears a striking resemblance to the Ivy, a famous theater gathering place in London. “Celebration” was inspired by the playwright’s early days as an unemployed actor, when he took a job as a busboy at the National Liberal Club. Because he dared to intrude on a conversation among several diners, he was fired.
The Writer as Director
He often directed plays by others, especially those by Simon Gray (“Butley,” “Otherwise Engaged”), and occasionally his own work. Increasingly and with greater zeal he appeared as an actor — onstage with Paul Eddington in “No Man’s Land” and in films like “Mojo,” “Mansfield Park” and “The Tailor of Panama.” Throughout his life he specialized in playing menacing characters, including several in his own plays (“The Hothouse,” “One for the Road”).
In July 2001 the highlight of the Lincoln Center Festival in New York was the presentation of nine Pinter plays, including a revival of “The Homecoming,” and a pairing of his first and last plays, “The Room” and “Celebration.” Mr. Pinter participated as a director and also acted in “One for the Road” in the role of a dapper and sadistic government interrogator.
The Pinter festival was the capstone of a season that, in London, featured the premiere at the National Theater of a stage version of his film script for “Remembrance of Things Past.” Late in 2001 he directed an acclaimed revival of “No Man’s Land,” starring John Wood and Corin Redgrave at the National Theater.
In December 2001, during a routine medical examination, he was found to have cancer of the esophagus. In January 2002, while undergoing treatment, he acted in his brief comic sketch “Press Conference” at the National Theater in a malicious role as a minister of culture who was formerly the head of the secret police. In 2006 he appeared in a weeklong, sold-out production of Beckett’s one-man play, “Krapp’s Last Tape,” at the Royal Court Theater.
“Pinter looks anxiously over his left shoulder into the darkness as if he felt death’s presence in the room,” Mr. Billington of The Guardian wrote. “It is impossible to dissociate Pinter’s own recent encounters with mortality from that of the character.”
Revivals of Mr. Pinter’s work have become increasingly frequent in recent years. Last December an acclaimed production of his “Homecoming” opened on Broadway.
Mr. Pinter said he thought of theater as essentially exploratory. “Even old Sophocles didn’t know what was going to happen next,” he said. “He had to find his way through unknown territory. At the same time, theater has always been a critical act, looking in a broad sense at the society in which we live and attempting to reflect and dramatize these findings. We’re not talking about the moon.”
Speaking about his intuitive sense of writing, he said, “I find at the end of the journey, which of course is never ending, that I have found things out.”
“I don’t go away and say: ‘I have illuminated myself. You see before you a changed person,’ ” he added. “It’s a more surreptitious sense of discovery that happens to the writer himself.”
Few writers have been so consistent over so many years in the tone and execution of their work. Just before rehearsals began for the West End production of “The Birthday Party” half a century ago, Mr. Pinter sent a letter to his director, Peter Wood. In it he said, “The play dictated itself, but I confess that I wrote it — with intent, maliciously, purposefully, in command of its growth.”
He added: “The play is a comedy because the whole state of affairs is absurd and inglorious. It is, however, as you know, a very serious piece of work.”