Until Harold Pinter won the Nobel Prize in Literature last week, only three playwrights working in English had won this honor: George Bernard Shaw, Eugene O'Neill and, in 1969, the man whom Pinter often referred to as his major influence: Samuel Beckett. Heavyweight company indeed.
The 75-year-old English playwright hadn't been predicted to win, but it was hard to argue with the choice. Like Beckett, whose plays could be mistaken for no one else's, Pinter has created a singular (though much imitated), instantly identifiable style. In such unnerving classics as "The Caretaker," "The Homecoming," "The Collection," "Betrayal" and "No Man's Land"--paranoid chamber dramas as noted for their pregnant pauses for what is left unsaid as for their terse, insinuating dialogue--Pinter gave us chillingly thrilling glimpses of human relationships as a nasty game of psychological one-upmanship.
He wrote as an outsider, having grown up Jewish and working class, and early on feeling the bite of British anti-Semitism. Power was always his great, unstated theme, and in such later works as the one-act "One for the Road," which takes the form of an interrogation, he shifted his arena from the domestic to the political. A Pinter play is as precise in its form as it is ambiguous in its meaning.
Pinter may have been a master of the elliptical onstage, but in public life he's been increasingly vocal--and explicit--in his denunciation of the war on Iraq, and of both President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair. In advance of Bush's visit to Britain in 2003, he wrote an open letter to London's Guardian newspaper: "Dear President Bush, I'm sure you'll be having a nice little tea party with your fellow war criminal, Tony Blair. Please wash the cucumber sandwiches down with a glass of blood, with my compliments." Those attuned to the politics of the Nobel say that his anti-Americanism may have worked in his favor this year.
Pinter, who has also been battling cancer of the esophagus for the past three years, is the first Nobel winner to have worked extensively in film. Some of his best-known screenplays include "The Servant," "Accident," "The French Lieutenant's Woman" and "The Last Tycoon," but these weren't cited by the Nobel committee, which called him "the foremost representative of British drama in the second half of the 20th century." The citation points out that his classic status is illustrated by his name's having become an adjective: Pinteresque. Anyone familiar with his plays knows not just what that means but what it feels like--an atmosphere of brittle menace in which the most innocuous word or phrase can pierce like a dagger in the ribs.