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A playwright who made silence an art form


Playwright Harold Pinter, winner of the Nobel Literature Prize on Thursday, is regarded as one of Britain's greatest living playwrights, and while his dramatic output has slowed recently his political voice has grown louder.
Aged 75, Pinter, who was treated for cancer in 2002, has looked frail and gaunt at recent public appearances, supporting himself with a stick and declaring himself "exhausted" and "at the end of my tether".
That has not stopped him joining fierce political debate, most recently with his objections over the war in Iraq which he has called a "bandit act, an act of blatant state terrorism."
"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 a fiery speech in March.
Pinter, best known for his works "The Birthday Party" and "The Caretaker", is renowned for turning silence into an art form with brooding dramas packed with enigmatic characters who never said what they meant or meant what they said.
His plays influenced a generation of British dramatists and introduced a new word to the English language -- "Pinteresque", a byword that came to mean a work of drama full of atmospheric silences peppered with half-stated insights.
The dramas exuded menace and were spiced with erotic fantasies and obsession, jealousy and hatred. Critics dubbed Pinter's chilling masterpieces "the theater of insecurity".
Fellow dramatist David Hare once wrote of Pinter: "This tribute from one writer to another: you never know what the hell's coming next."
The peppery son of a working-class Jewish tailor never helped audiences to unravel the meaning of his plays, telling them: "There are no hard distinctions between what is real and unreal."
From 1958 to 1978 a flurry of Pinter plays changed the face of British theater.
He became the subject of marital scandal in 1980 when his actress wife Vivien Merchant, his long-time muse, divorced him because of an affair with Lady Antonia Fraser, a renowned author and daughter of anti-pornography campaigner Lord Longford.
Pinter married Fraser later that year and inherited the six children she had borne to former Conservative lawmaker Hugh Fraser.
Merchant, star of many Pinter plays and mother to his son, died broken hearted in 1982, a victim of chronic alcoholism.
Pinter, an impassioned crusader for the human rights group Amnesty International and the CND anti-nuclear campaign, also carved out another distinguished career as a screenwriter for such hits as "The French Lieutenant's Woman" and "The Servant."
"The Birthday Party," Pinter's first full-length play written in 1957, was almost his last.
Critics derided him, the play folded after a week. The budding playwright, struggling to support a wife and young baby, contemplated quitting before his blazing individuality had time to burst into life.
But influential critic Harold Hobson rescued him, saying: "Mr. Pinter, on the evidence of this work, possesses the most original, disturbing and arresting theatrical talent in London."
Less than two years after his first play flopped, Pinter's second and best-known work opened in London's West End and established his reputation as a major dramatist.
"The Caretaker" which went on to Broadway, is set in the squalid attic of an abandoned London house. Three characters, an eccentric tramp and two strange brothers, build up a tormenting and increasingly frightening relationship.
Immediately after the Nobel award was announced on Thursday, there was an appropriate response from Pinter: silence. Reuters