Harold Pinter, whose works of brutal spareness, betrayal and conscience spawned legions of imitators and redefined the rhythms of modern drama, was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature yesterday, distinguishing him as one of the few writers for the English-speaking stage ever to be so honored.
In its announcement, the Swedish Academy said it was recognizing a dramatist "who in his plays uncovers the precipice under the everyday prattle and forces entry into oppression's closed rooms." Pinter, 75, joins such pivotal figures of the 20th-century theater as Samuel Beckett and Eugene O'Neill as laureates of the literary world's most prestigious prize. Giving the award to such a prominent figure marks a bit of a departure for the academy, which in recent years has often chosen a more obscure writer, such as last year's recipient, Elfriede Jelinek of Austria, or the 2002 honoree, Imre Kertesz of Hungary.
"I can't really articulate what I feel," Pinter, author of 29 plays and almost as many screenplays, said yesterday from London in a brief interview on www.nobelprize.org, the Nobels' official Web site. "I'm just bowled over. I have no words at the moment. I shall have words by the time I get to Stockholm," he added. The award ceremony takes place Dec. 10 in the Swedish capital.
In the footsteps of Beckett, whom he acknowledges as an influence, Pinter burst on the London theater scene in the late 1950s with a modernist's eye for cold, bleak realities and an absurdist's ear for a new kind of language for the stage. With a penchant in early works such as "The Birthday Party" and "The Dumb Waiter" for what his friend and collaborator, director Peter Hall, called his "brisk, hostile repartee," Pinter evolved a love of short, startling silences, percolating with danger. Along with the hard-edged characters and the seemingly inconsequential chatter, the Pinter pause became a signature of his work. An adjective that described a mode of spartan verbal exchange -- Pinteresque -- was minted.
Unlike lesser contemporaries, Pinter had a style that proved much more than a passing fashion. He would continue to turn out masterworks long after he'd been celebrated as a vibrant new voice. Throughout his career, the cream of British acting has risen to his challenging output. John Gielgud, Ian Holm, Alan Bates, Ralph Richardson, Donald Pleasance, Michael Gambon, Penelope Wilton, Eileen Atkins, Miranda Richardson and Daniel Massey, among others, originated parts in his works, from "The Caretaker" (1960) to "The Homecoming" (1965), from "Old Times" (1970) to "Betrayal" (1978). He wrote literate screenplays as well, adapting several of his plays and writing scripts for, among others, "The Go-Between" (1970) and "The French Lieutenant's Woman" (1981).
In "The Homecoming," the playwright wittily balanced the tensions in an unbalanced family. "The drama in 'The Homecoming' is not the plot," screenwriter and critic Penelope Gilliatt noted in her review of the play's premiere for the Observer. "In Pinter it never is. It consists in the swaying of violent people as they gain minute advantages." Later, in dramas such as "Betrayal" -- the story of a love triangle, told in reverse chronological order -- he would develop a more potent interest in the playful manipulation of plot, as well as in unraveling the mysteries of the heart.
The latter years of his career have been devoted ever more significantly to polemics. His 1988 playlet "Mountain Language," for instance, was inspired by the suppression of minority ethnic groups in the Balkans. In Britain, the tradition of dramatists having a voice in public discourse is more pronounced than in the United States. In the years since Sept. 11, 2001, he has been increasingly vocal about his loathing for the foreign policy of the Bush and Blair administrations.
Some of his causes have been more quixotic than others, such as his criticism of the war crimes trial of former Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic. Pinter has attempted to clarify, saying his intent was never to champion Milosevic but to point out the injustices in the process by which he's being tried.
Pinter was born 75 years ago this week into what he has described as "a very stable and conventional Jewish family." Writing, it seems, was always an ambition -- "I was more or less born with a pen in my hand," he has said. As an only child growing up in East London, he'd stay up late, composing poetry.
His worldview was deeply affected by World War II and the German blitz of London. "I didn't actually see anybody killed, but I saw where bombs had fallen and I was part of that world of bombs dropping," Pinter told an interviewer in 2002 at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. "So therefore I say that one is still part of, out of one's consciousness and out of one's recognition, of other people's reality and . . . what death means to other people." In 1948, when he was called up for national service, he was a confirmed conscientious objector. He later recalled that he was brought into court twice that year and fined for refusing to perform his military service.
Trained as an actor, he worked in his youth with troupes in the provinces, but it was a struggle landing parts. Writing propelled him much further much faster, and though critics were a bit flummoxed by some of his earliest plays, his talent was well established before his 30th birthday.
He was married twice and has lived in London for the past 25 years with his second wife, biographer Antonia Fraser. In 2001, he was treated for cancer of the esophagus.
Like Beckett, his disciplined writing rarely leaves room for a wasted syllable. Unlike the reclusive Beckett, however, Pinter was only too happy to bask in the limelight. He even maintains a Web site -- www.haroldpinter.org. He has spoken with some pleasure about the widespread acceptance he's gained. During that discussion in Edinburgh in 2002, he recalled an experience of decades ago, during the debut run of "The Birthday Party," which he said had been savaged by critics. He decided to attend a Wednesday matinee of the production:
"I was a little bit late and I walked towards the dress circle and an usherette said to me, 'Where are you going?' And I said, 'Oh, I'm the author.' . . . And she said, 'Oh, are you? Oh, you poor darling.'
"People don't call me 'poor darling' anymore."