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Pinter Wins Nobel for Dramas Of Ominous Power Struggles

By SARAH LYALL (NYT) 1329 words
Published: October 14, 2005

Harold Pinter, the British playwright, poet and political campaigner who uses spare and often menacing language to explore themes of powerlessness, domination and the faceless tyranny of the state, won the Nobel Prize in Literature on Thursday.

Mr. Pinter ''uncovers the precipice under everyday prattle and forces entry into oppression's closed rooms,'' the Swedish Academy in Stockholm said in announcing the award, which is worth $1.3 million.

In his versatile and productive career, Mr. Pinter, 75, has written plays and screenplays, directed theater productions, acted on screen and stage, and won awards across Europe. So precise and pared down is his prose, so artful his use of pauses and omissions to invoke discomfort, foreboding and miscommunication that he has his own adjective, Pinteresque, signifying a peculiar kind of atmospheric unease.

In ''The Birthday Party,'' ''No Man's Land,'' ''The Homecoming'' and other plays, Mr. Pinter dispenses with the easy comforts of fluent speech and has his characters speak in non sequiturs and sentence fragments, interrupt one another, fail to listen, fail to understand. He uses language to convey miscommunication and lack of understanding rather than shared comprehension.

He is an overtly political writer, vehemently opposed to the Iraq war, to the British government under Prime Minister Tony Blair and to what he sees as bullying American imperialism in the Middle East and around the world. A recent poem, ''The Special Relationship,'' refers to the alliance between the United States and Britain but is consumed with bombs exploding, limbs being blown off and the atrocities committed at places like Abu Ghraib.

The Swedish Academy occasionally presents awards with a political edge, and this is the second prize in a week that has gone to an honoree at odds with the Bush administration over the Iraq war. On Oct. 7, the peace prize was given to the International Atomic Energy Agency and its chief, Mohamed ElBaradei, who in the weeks before the invasion of Iraq was skeptical of American accusations that Saddam Hussein had rebuilt a nuclear program.

The literature award is kept a close secret, and rumors of who is likely to win usually turn out to be wrong. This year, the candidates mentioned included the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, the Syrian-Lebanese poet Adonis and the American writer Joyce Carol Oates. Mr. Pinter was not considered a front-runner, to the extent that anyone ever can be, and he said Thursday in a brief e-mail interview that he was ''very surprised'' and had not entertained the possibility of winning.

''I was called 20 minutes before the official announcement,'' he said in his e-mail message. ''The chair of the Nobel committee phoned and said, 'You have been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.' I remained silent and then said, 'I'm speechless.'''

Adding to the sense of mystery this year was the timing of the announcement, which was made a week later than usual, suggesting last-minute infighting in the Swedish Academy. Earlier this week, the writer Knut Ahnlund resigned from the academy, using an article in the newspaper Svenska Dagbladet to attack the work of last year's winner, the Austrian novelist and playwright Elfriede Jelinek, as ''whingeing, unenjoyable, violent pornography.''

It is unclear why he waited a year to criticize Ms. Jelinek, but the timing of the resignation suggests, perhaps, unhappiness with the choice of Mr. Pinter as well. In any case, the academy's permanent secretary, Horace Engdahl, said Mr. Ahnlund had not participated in its meetings for nearly 10 years.

Mr. Pinter is known for plays like ''The Caretaker,'' about the painful power struggles between two brothers and the tramp who comes to stay with them, and ''Betrayal,'' which dissects a seven-year adulterous liaison and is told backwards, from the sad postscript to the affair's hopeful beginning. The Swedish Academy said that he ''restored theater to its basic elements: an enclosed space and unpredictable dialogue, where people are at the mercy of each other and pretense crumbles.''

Always ready to stick up for his beliefs -- in 1949 he was attacked when he challenged a group of fascists in the East End, and in the same year he was fined for refusing to perform his National Service, the country's postwar system of mandatory conscription -- he has become increasingly outspoken about international politics in recent decades.

Mr. Pinter's poems often express fury at war and state-sponsored destruction, and he also gives impassioned speeches and writes polemical articles about what he once called ''the nightmare of American hysteria, ignorance, arrogance, stupidity and belligerence.''

''We have brought torture, cluster bombs, depleted uranium, innumerable acts of random murder, misery and degradation to the Iraqi people and call it 'bringing freedom and democracy to the Middle East,''' he said in March, accepting the Wilfred Owen prize for his antiwar poetry.

Mr. Pinter said he did not know if his politics had had any bearing on the Nobel decision. In its citation, the academy said only that he had ''won recognition as a fighter for human rights'' and that he ''has often taken stands seen as controversial.''

The son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who ran a tailor's shop, Harold Pinter was born in 1930 in Hackney, in East London. He said he had experienced anti-Semitism as a child, which influenced his work later. He went to drama school and spent several years touring as an actor with an Irish repertory company. His first play, ''The Room,'' opened in Bristol in 1957; three years later, ''The Caretaker'' opened in London. It was a hit with audiences, received mostly favorable reviews and established him as a powerful new voice in the theater.

His first marriage, to the actress Vivien Merchant, ended in 1980; he has been married to the writer Lady Antonia Fraser ever since.

Mr. Pinter, who has undergone treatment for cancer of the esophagus, said in February that he had probably written his last play and would focus his energies on what he called the ''very, very worrying'' political state of affairs. ''I've written 29 plays. Isn't that enough?'' he said on BBC Radio. ''I think it's enough for me. I've found other forms now.''

But recently he announced that he would play the title role in Beckett's ''Krapp's Last Tape'' in 2006, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Royal Court Theater in London.

There was a moment of exquisite discomfort on television on Thursday afternoon after the Nobel announcement was made, The Evening Standard reported.

''A Sky News presenter announced at 12:01 p.m. that Harold Pinter had died,'' the paper said, ''before correcting herself, after a Pinteresque pause, and saying that he had in fact won a Nobel Prize.''

Honoring a Tension-Filled Body of Work

Plays
The Room (1957)
The Birthday Party (1957)
The Dumb Waiter (1957)
A Slight Ache (1958)
The Hothouse (1958)
The Caretaker (1959)
A Night Out (1959)
Night School (1960)
The Dwarfs (1960)
The Collection (1961)
The Lover (1962)
Tea Party (1964)
The Homecoming (1964)
The Basement (1966)
Landscape (1967)
Silence (1968)
Old Times (1970)
Monologue (1972)
No Man's Land (1974)
Betrayal (1978)
Family Voices (1980)
Other Places (1982)
A Kind of Alaska (1982)
Victoria Station (1982)
One for the Road (1984)
Mountain Language (1988)
The New World Order (1991)
Party Time (1991)
Moonlight (1993)
Ashes to Ashes (1996)
Celebration (1999)
Remembrance of Things Past (2000)

Screenplays

The Caretaker (1963)
The Servant (1963)
The Pumpkin Eater (1963)
The Quiller Memorandum (1965)
Accident (1966)
The Birthday Party (1967)
The Go-Between (1969)
The Homecoming (1969)
Langrishe Go Down (1970)
The Proust Screenplay (1972) (not filmed)
The Last Tycoon (1974)
The French Lieutenant's Woman (1980)
Betrayal (1981)
Victory (1982) (not filmed)
Turtle Diary (1984)
The Handmaid's Tale (1987)
Reunion (1988)
Heat of the Day (1988)
The Comfort of Strangers (1989)
The Trial (1989)
The Dreaming Child (1997) (not filmed)
The Tragedy of King Lear (2000) (not filmed)

(Source by HaroldPinter.org)

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