Exit stage left: Harold Pinter dies

Harold Pinter, playwright, actor and political activist, dies aged 78

Harold Pinter, the son of tailor from London's East End who rose to become one of the nation's greatest playwrights, has died aged 78 after a prolonged battle with cancer.

Directors and actors joined Pinter's friends and wife, Lady Antonia Fraser, yesterday to pay tribute to the Nobel Laureate whose style and literary significance has been compared to James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and Albert Camus. He died on Christmas Eve.

Not only a remarkable playwright with one of the most illustrious careers in contemporary theatre, Pinter's career also encompassed acting, poetry and political activism as a vociferous critic of American and British foreign policy.

Just as remarkable as the body of writing he has left behind was the memory of a man who simply refused to give in. Even after publicly announcing his cancer diagnosis, he continued to write, direct and campaign in spite of his growing physical frailty.

Lady Antonia, herself a distinguished writer, said: "He was a great, and it was a privilege to live with him for over 33 years. He will never be forgotten."

Michael Gambon, the distinguished actor whose breakthrough in the 1970s was hastened by Peter Hall's premiere staging of Pinter's play, Betrayal, at the National Theatre, said he felt privileged to have been his friend for 30 years.

"He was a great, great playwright, and a great lover of actors. He was very supportive when we performed Betrayal. I remember one scene wasn't working well and he'd come to rehearsals every second day. He watched the run-through and said, 'The scene doesn't work because the table's in the wrong position.' He has a real instinct for theatre. It was refreshing to be in his plays. There was two miles of subtext under your feet and his dialogue was brilliant," he said.

Gambon, who is currently starring in Pinter's No Man's Land on the West End stage, said he admired Pinter's spirit in the face of illness. "He came over to Dublin for the opening. It nearly killed him, he was in a terrible state, but he didn't give up. That was three months ago. Then, he came to the Duke of York Theatre for the London opening and he went to the party afterwards and sat there," he added.

Jonathan Heawood, director of Pen, the campaigning international writer's association, said Pinter had been vice-president of the group, and showed his support until the end.

"One of the many memorable things he did for Pen in the early Eighties was when he and Arthur Miller went on a joint mission to Turkey. At that time, he was concerned about the state of writers and journalists' freedoms. They were being tortured. So two of the world's greatest writers got on a plane together and they were met by a young Orhan Pamuk, who would become a fellow Nobel Prize winner. He escorted them in their trip. That spirit continued right till the end.

"He turned out to a demonstration outside the Turkish embassy last year," added Mr Heawood. "Everyone was so surprised to see this figure with a walking stick coming out of a taxi on his own. Right until February this year when he turned up to see a performance by a theatre group from Belarus."

Pinter was born into a Jewish family in the London borough of Hackney. His grandparents had fled persecution in Poland and Odessa. He was attracted to acting from an early age and his political activism was evident when in 1948 he refused, as a conscientious objector, to do National Service.

After two spells in drama school, he began his theatre career as a rep actor, using the stage name David Baron. He joined a touring company in 1951, and it was some years later in 1957 that he wrote his first play, The Room, for Bristol University's drama department.

It was a defining moment for Pinter. His career took off in the late 1950s and Sixties with subsequent plays such as The Caretaker, The Birthday Party and The Homecoming, which were perceived as ground-breaking because they explored the psychological drama and often, the menace, that underlay family and marital relationships.

They were credited for creating a new brand of theatrical silence and pause with which his work became synonymous. Later, this device would become known as "Pinteresque" and be adopted by devotees of his work. As his theatre career flourished, Pinter also branched out into film screenplays, The Servant, The Go-Between and, most famously, The French Lieutenant's Woman.

Two years ago, he was awarded the Nobel Prize – worth 10m Swedish krona (£735,000) – the highest honour afforded to any writer in the world.

"Pinter," said Horace Engdahl, the Nobel Academy's chairman, "restored theatre to its basic elements: an enclosed space and unpredictable dialogue, where people are at the mercy of each other and pretence crumbles."

He had been garlanded with many previous honours, He was appointed CBE in 1966, the German Shakespeare Prize in 1970, the Austrian State Prize for European Literature in 1973 and the David Cohen British Literature Prize in 1995. He was also awarded a number of honorary degrees.

Aside from being showered by establishment accolades, he was also a radical figure. He refused a knighthood from John Major in 1996, saying he was "unable to accept such an honour from a Conservative government".

His later plays, such as One for the Road, Ashes to Ashes and Party Time, evolved from the personal into the political, their subjects state-sponsored violence, torture and the abuse of power. In recent years, he became a vociferous campaigner, speaking out against human rights abuses, including the occupation of Iraq by Western armies. He joined other artists in sending a letter to Downing Street opposing the 2003 invasion.

Just under six years ago, he was diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus. In February 2005, he said: "I think I've stopped writing plays now ... I've written 29 plays. Isn't that enough?"

Aden Gillett, who starred in Betrayal in the West End in 2003, said: "The thing about Pinter's lines is that everything people say rings very true, yet at the same time it's quite surreal. It's that mixture of banality and menace. I remember the read-through and meeting Pinter for the first time. It was an extraordinary moment. He had always been a hero of mine."

In his own words

On critics

"I find critics on the whole a pretty unnecessary bunch of people"

On cricket

"I tend to think that cricket is the greatest thing that God ever created on earth – certainly greater than sex, although sex isn't too bad either"

On history

"The past is what you remember, imagine you remember, convince yourself you remember, or pretend you remember"

On pauses

"I made a terrible mistake when I was young, I think, from which I've never really recovered. I wrote the word 'pause' into my first play"

On happiness

"How can you write a happy play? Drama is about conflict and degrees of perturbation, disarray. I've never been able to write a happy play, but I've been able to enjoy a happy life"

On the United States

"The crimes of the US throughout the world have been systematic, constant, clinical, remorseless, and fully documented but nobody talks about them"

On his plays "I have written 29 plays and I think that's really enough"

The works: A 50-year career

The Room, 1957

Pinter's first play, in a genre later called the "comedy of menace", was inspired by the playwright's visit to the Chelsea flat of Quentin Crisp.

The Birthday Party, 1957

Pinter's first full-length play was slaughtered by critics and closed in the West End after its first week.

The Caretaker, 1959

The first to give Pinter substantial commercial success. It draws on Pinter's own experience of living in a house owned by an absentee builder.

The Homecoming, 1964

An American professor of philosophy returns to north London with his wife, only to be cuckolded by his brothers.

The Pumpkin Eater, 1964

Pinter won a Bafta for his screenplay adaptation of the novel of the same name by Penelope Mortimer.

Old Times, 1971

Two characters compete to gain intellectual dominance over a third.

The Go-Between, 1972

Another Bafta followed for Pinter's screenplay in this classy adaptation of the novel by L P Hartley.

Betrayal, 1978

Arguably Pinter's most celebrated work, it is based on his own affair with Joan Bakewell from 1962-69.

The French Lieutenant's Woman, 1981

Adapted from the novel by John Fowles, Pinter wrote the screenplay.

Ashes to Ashes, 1996

This was the best of the later political plays, encompassing the landscape of 20th-century totalitarianism.

Pinteresque: The official definition

Adjective: in the style of the characters, situations, etc, of the plays of Harold Pinter, 20th-century English dramatist, marked especially by halting dialogue, uncertainty of identity and air of menace.

From Chambers English Dictionary

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