Harold Pinter, British Playwright, Nobel Laureate, and CSC patron dies

Campaign News | Friday, 26 December 2008

CSC statement on the death of Harold Pinter who ws a CSC patron and friend of Cuba

Harold Pinter (1930-2008)

On behalf of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign in the UK we would like to offer our deepest sympathy to Harold’s family, colleagues and friends. We are all deeply saddened by this terrible loss.

Harold had been a long time friend of Cuba and was a Patron of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign for many years.

Harold regularly signed letters and petitions in support of CSC campaigns including the Miami Five and most recently his signature inaugurated the 50th anniversary of the Revolution e-message to the Cuban people.

In 2006, he spoke on behalf of CSC at the Latin America conference in London's TUC Congress House where he read parts of US General Smedley Butler’s famous 1933 speech against war.

All of us at CSC have been proud and honoured to work with Harold over the years. His words have inspired us all in our efforts to develop our work to strengthen the bonds of friendship and international solidarity between the people of the UK and Cuba.

Harold has left a lasting legacy that will continue to inspire all our efforts on behalf of the just cause that is Cuba, and the finest tribute we can pay is to live up to his deep sense of commitment.


Obituary by Alex Morales of Bloomberg

Harold Pinter, the British playwright and political activist who won the 2005 Nobel Prize for Literature, has died. He was 78.

Pinter passed away Dec. 24, the BBC said on its Web site, citing the playwright’s second wife, Antonia Fraser. Pinter had been suffering from liver cancer, the BBC said on its Web site.

The Swedish Academy awarded him the prize for works that include “The Caretaker” and “The Birthday Party.”

“Pinter restored theater to its basic elements: an enclosed space and unpredictable dialogue, where people are at the mercy of each other and pretense crumbles,” the academy said on its Web site after making the award.

Silences are one of the main characteristics of Pinter’s plays, and the author used them to increase tension and indicate menace. Politically, the Briton was far from silent, speaking out against Western foreign policy and saving his most vehement criticism for the U.S., which in his Nobel lecture he called “brutal, indifferent, scornful and ruthless.”

“The crimes of the United States have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless,” said Pinter, who dedicated more than half the talk to a condemnation of U.S. foreign policy and U.K. support for it. “The United States supported and in many cases engendered every right-wing military dictatorship in the world after the end of the Second World War.”

In his speech, the playwright criticized U.S. support since 1945 for regimes in Nicaragua, Indonesia, Greece, Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay, Haiti, Turkey, the Philippines, Guatemala, El Salvador and Chile. In recent years, he saved his most vociferous criticisms for the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

‘Monster out of Control’

“The United States is a monster out of control,” Pinter said at an anti-war demonstration in London’s Hyde Park a month before the invasion. “Unless we challenge it with absolute determination, American barbarism will destroy the world. The country is run by a bunch of criminal lunatics, with Blair as their hired Christian thug.”

Calling the planned attack an “act of premeditated mass murder,” and urging U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair to resign, Pinter elicited applause from demonstrators on the city’s biggest-ever march, estimated by police at 1 million people and by organizers at as many as double that. His political activism drew criticism from other quarters.

Enduring Works

Slamming the Nobel committee’s decision as a “selection of absurdity,” U.K. writer Christopher Hitchens described anti-war poems written by Pinter as “a preference for dictatorship larded with obscenity and fatuity,” in a Wall Street Journal piece titled “The Sinister Mediocrity of Harold Pinter.”

Hitchens said the decision to award Pinter the prize was driven by “pseudo-intellectual European hostility” to the war in Iraq. James Traub, writing in the New York Times magazine, said that while Pinter’s politics “are so extreme, they’re almost impossible to parody,” he deserved the prize.

“Pinter has written works that will remain long after his polemics are forgotten,” Traub wrote.

Pinter wrote his first play, “The Room,” in 1957, a year in which he also wrote “The Dumb Waiter,” and what would become one of his most performed plays, “The Birthday Party.” The latter play flopped on its London release before the Sunday Times newspaper published a review praising the work.

‘Original, Disturbing’

“I am well aware that Mr. Pinter’s play received extremely bad notices,” Sunday Times critic Harold Hobson wrote in May 1958. He then said that he was prepared to “risk my reputation” to say “Pinter, on the evidence of his work, possesses the most original, disturbing and arresting talent in theatrical London.”

The author’s breakthrough play was “The Caretaker,” (1959), which dealt with the struggle for personal power between two brothers, Aston and Mick, and a tramp called Davies, whom Aston invites to stay at their house. The play, first performed in 1960 in London, was well-received by audiences and was described by the Observer critic Alan Pryce-Jones as “the most dazzling evening to reach the London theatre this year.”

Pinter’s plays, written in a style that gave the English language the word “Pinteresque,” are characterized by a minimum of plot and the use of silence to increase tension. They are often set in a single room where characters are threatened by forces or people whose precise intentions can be difficult to define. One of Pinter’s recurring themes is of menace, both spoken and unspoken.

‘French Lieutenant’s Woman’

Some critics have divided Pinter’s work into three phases, starting with a period of psychological realism illustrated by plays such as “The Birthday Party” and “The Hothouse” (1958). The next stage showed a more lyrical phase with plays including “Landscape” in 1967 and “Silence” in 1968. In his third phase, Pinter’s works are more political with plays such as “One for the Road” in 1984 and “Mountain Language” (1988).

In all, Pinter wrote 32 plays according to his Web site, the last of them a 2000 adaptation of Marcel Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past.” He also wrote 22 screenplays, including an adaptation of John Fowles’s novel for the 1981 film “The French Lieutenant’s Woman,” which starred Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons, and the 1976 film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book “The Last Tycoon,” starring Robert De Niro and Jack Nicholson.

In 2003, Pinter published a collection of anti-war poetry and a speech on the conflict in Iraq called “War.” He supported numerous human rights groups including Amnesty International and political endeavors such as the Campaign Against Sanctions in Iraq and the Cuba Solidarity Campaign.

Embassy Ejection

Earlier causes embraced by Pinter included the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the Kurds in Turkey. In 1985, on a visit to Turkey with U.S. playwright Arthur Miller, the two were invited to the U.S. Embassy for dinner. Both criticized human rights abuses and the lack of free speech in Turkey, and U.S. support for the country. They were ejected from the mission after the meal.

“Being thrown out of the U.S. Embassy in Ankara with Arthur Miller -- a voluntary exile -- was one of the proudest moments of my life,” Pinter said on his Web site.

He also spoke out against allied bombing of Serbia during the conflict in Kosovo, calling for Blair and then U.S. President Bill Clinton to be tried for war crimes. In an April 8, 1999, letter to the Guardian, the playwright described U.S. foreign policy as: “Kiss my arse or I’ll kick your head in.”

“Since 1973, Pinter has won recognition as a fighter for human rights, alongside his writing,” the Swedish Academy said. “He has often taken stands seen as controversial.”

Rejected Knighthood

Pinter in 2002 was made a Companion of Honour in the U.K., one of Britain’s highest awards, and bestowed on only 65 people at a time. He shares that distinction with former Prime Minister John Major -- whose offer of a knighthood Pinter rejected in the 1990s. The award of the Nobel Prize left him -- for once -- without words: “I was speechless and remained so for another couple of minutes,” he wrote in the Guardian, describing his initial reaction.

Other awards included the 1996 Laurence Olivier Award for lifetime’s achievement in theater, and the 1973 Austrian state prize for European literature.

The son of a Jewish dressmaker, Pinter was born in Hackney, a working-class neighborhood in East London on Oct. 10, 1930. He was evacuated from London for three years at the start of World War II, at age 9, and has said the experience of wartime bombing left a lasting mark on him. He trained as an actor in the late 1940s and toured the country with performances under the stage- name David Baron in the 1950s, before turning to writing.

His later years were characterized by ill health, and he was operated on to remove a tumor of the esophagus in 2002. His health problems meant he had to walk with a stick, and four days before the Nobel announcement, a fall left him with a bloodied forehead. Although unable to attend the Nobel ceremony, he recorded a 45-minute speech.

Pinter was married between 1956 and 1980 to the actress Vivien Merchant, who died in 1982. The couple had a son, Daniel, who became estranged from the playwright in 1993. Pinter remarried in 1980 to writer and historian Lady Antonia Fraser, who survives him.

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