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British Playwright Harold Pinter, 78

This is a Jan. 17, 2007, file photoof Nobel-winning British playwright Harold Pinter, wearing the French Legion d'honneur that he was awarded by French Prime Minster Dominique de Villepin, at the French Embassy in London. Pinter's wife the writer Lady Antonia Fraser said Thursday Dec. 25, 2008 that Pinter has died (AP Photo/Carl de Souza, Pool)
This is a Jan. 17, 2007, file photoof Nobel-winning British playwright Harold Pinter, wearing the French Legion d'honneur that he was awarded by French Prime Minster Dominique de Villepin, at the French Embassy in London. Pinter's wife the writer Lady Antonia Fraser said Thursday Dec. 25, 2008 that Pinter has died (AP Photo/Carl de Souza, Pool) (Carl De Souza - AP)

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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 26, 2008

Harold Pinter, who was widely esteemed as the most important British playwright of the past half-century and was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 2005, died Dec. 24 of cancer in London. He was 78.

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Mr. Pinter, who wrote more than 30 plays, was known for creating dramatic worlds marked by despair, menace and a sense of psychic helplessness. His groundbreaking plays, including "The Birthday Party," "The Caretaker" and "The Homecoming," typically used just a few characters locked in anxious conversation to convey a sense of mysterious dread, doubt and ambiguity on many levels.

Plots were secondary to Mr. Pinter, and his dramas seldom reached a clear resolution. Instead, he built a profound sense of inner tension and psychological terror from hesitant, disjointed lines of dialogue broken by long silences.

His plays often had an implied political message, but in later years Mr. Pinter made his views more explicit. He used his Nobel acceptance speech to denounce the U.S. invasion of Iraq and to call then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair "a deluded idiot."

"How many people do you have to kill before you qualify to be described as a mass murderer and a war criminal?" Mr. Pinter said of the invasion.

Many commentators were incensed. Christopher Hitchens lambasted Mr. Pinter's selection as "the almost complete degradation of the Nobel racket," and conservative critic Roger Kimball called it "not only ridiculous but repellent."

In the theater, however, Mr. Pinter's stature was beyond dispute. He made his biggest impact in the 1950s and 1960s, when his plays represented a jolting departure from the quaint drawing-room comedies and darkly realistic dramas that had been the opposite poles of British theater.

Mr. Pinter's works, which bore the influence of the existential dramatist Samuel Beckett and the modernist poet T.S. Eliot, explored such themes as sexual frustration, jealousy, loneliness and an overriding if indistinct sense of fear. The social or mental balance of his characters -- and, by extension, society as a whole -- was often undercut by a biting, sardonic humor.

"Words are weapons that the characters use to discomfort or destroy each other," Peter Hall, who frequently directed Mr. Pinter's plays, once said.

In his first full-length play, "The Birthday Party," which debuted in 1958, Mr. Pinter placed a man named Stanley at a seaside rooming house. Two mysterious strangers who had been searching for Stanley show up to throw a birthday party for him, but by the end of the play, they have inflicted psychic wounds on Stanley before seizing him and taking him away to an unknown fate.

The initial reviews were scathing -- Mr. Pinter called it "a mammoth flop, a flop d'estime" -- and the play closed in a week. One reviewer said it "will be best enjoyed by those who believe that obscurity is its own reward."

Only Harold Hobson, the influential critic of the London Times, saw merit in the play, and his review might have saved Mr. Pinter's fledgling career.


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