Harold Pinter, the British playwright, poet, screenwriter, and Nobel laureate who died on Thursday at the age of 78 after a long battle with cancer, was one of the most remarkable and influential voices of his generation. In a great body of work that included more than 30 plays, numerous essays, poetry as well as stage and screen direction, he captured with an unerring and often terrifying instinct the uncertainties and ambiguities of life in the post-modern era. Dominatin g English theatre from the 1950s, he infused a distinct political sensibility into a theatre scene that had, until then, been largely steeped in gentility. Beginning with plays like The Room, The Birthday Party, and The Caretaker, in which Mr. Pinter strongly signalled his engagement with oppression, the prospect of violence, and the struggle for power in a range of situations and locations, he developed an urgent political voice that made him one of the most outspoken critics of fascism and repression in recent times. Whether it was his early registration as a conscientious objector, his support to the anti-apartheid movement, his criticism of Turkey’s suppression of the Kurds, or his strong opposition to the Iraq war (for which he famously lashed out at Messrs Bush and Blair), he believed in the “compulsive” search for truth through the art of his drama. In his Nobel address in 2005, he pointed out that “as citizens, to define the real truth of our lives and our societies is a crucial obligation which devolves upon us all. It is in fact mandatory.”
Mr. Pinter explored other forms of power, including domestic power, and the unspecified menace that remains hidden beneath the often glittering surface of the lives of ordinary people. Many of his later plays like Betrayal and Moonlight, and his last play, Celebration, reflected the constant ambivalence of life, of memory, and of human relationships. He believed that “below the word spoken is the thing known and unspoken.” The famous ‘pause’ he injected into his playwriting became part of a genre of drama that came to be known as ‘Pinteresque.’ Apart from writing plays, essays, and poetry, he collaborated with directors on screenplays for films, and even directed the plays of others. Although known as a somewhat ‘prickly’ personality, Mr. Pinter was famous for his friendships, his love for poetry, cricket, and bridge. His biographer Michael Billington has said that “like all truly first-rate writers, he mapped out his own country with its own distinctive topography.” It is a terrain that is instantly recognisable and profoundly human.