No one made the sound of silence more ominously theatrical than Harold Pinter.
The influential British playwright, who died Christmas Eve after a long battle with cancer, created unforgettable moments of quiet, often filled with terror, outrage or the blackest of humor.
The “Pinter pause,” as those silences were known, could send a shiver through an audience, jolting it into an unease that permeated many of his best plays, particularly such classics as “The Caretaker” and “The Homecoming.”
“Pinter-esque” became an adjective bandied about in all the best drama schools and playwriting classes.
Yet Pinter knew how to make words count. As he grew older, his plays became leaner, more succinct in their language and frequently ferociously political.
There was an economy to his writing, a paring away that suggested an affinity with another Nobel Prize-winning playwright, Samuel Beckett, who often examined the human condition in the most terse and terrifying way possible.
It took a while for theatergoers, especially American audiences, to get used to Pinter. He made his Broadway debut in 1961 with “The Caretaker,” which starred Alan Bates, Robert Shaw and Donald Pleasence.
The play, a bleak treatise on identity and possessiveness set in a squalid London attic, puzzled theatergoers who were unnerved by its menace and bewildered by its seemingly inconclusive tale of cat-and-mouse games.
No such problem greeted “The Homecoming,” usually considered Pinter’s masterwork. A best-play Tony winner in 1967, it has had several New York revivals since then, including a critically acclaimed Broadway production last year.
This distinctly atypical family drama of a tyrannical father, his dysfunctional sons and an obliging, sexually provocative daughter-in-law has become a contemporary masterwork.
In Pinter, linguistic clarity is all. From such early works as “The Room” and “The Birthday Party” right up through more recent efforts such as “Moonlight” and “Ashes to Ashes,” his preciseness of language is imperative even if an exact meaning can’t always be discerned.
It’s that ambiguity which has posed a special challenge to actors, a challenge readily accepted by many on both sides of the Atlantic. Pinter’s plays have provided memorable stage performances by a diverse parade of mesmerizing actors such as John Gielgud, Jason Robards, Ian McShane, Christopher Plummer, Eve Best, Ralph Richardson, Raul Esparza and Vivien Merchant, among others.
Pinter’s best writing wasn’t limited to theater. He wrote several elegant screenplays, particularly “The Go-Between” (1970), the tale of an illicit romance which starred Julie Christie and Alan Bates, and “The French Lieutenant’s Woman,” starring Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons (1981).
In recent years, he found a renewed vigor and moral passion as politics bubbled to the surface of many of his later plays. A vociferous critic of the American and British involvement in Iraq, he often wrote of political violence, particularly in such works as “One for the Road.”
In 2005, when Pinter won the Nobel Prize, he was too frail to travel to Sweden to accept the award. But in a recorded lecture presented at the Swedish Academy, he said: “The invasion of Iraq was a bandit act, an act of blatant state terrorism, demonstrating absolute contempt for the concept of international law.” He castigated both British Prime Minister Tony Blair and President Bush.
Right to the end, Pinter’s outrage remained undiminished.