LONDON - Few playwrights but Harold Pinter are known for their deliberate use of silence - a dramatic style now known as "Pinter-esque" to describe the Nobel laureate's use of halting dialogue and pregnant pauses.

Pinter, who died of cancer Wednesday at age 78, was considered the most influential British playwright of his generation. His works included 32 plays, one novel and 22 screenplays - dramas that delve into themes of injustice and guilt, and that inspired American playwrights Sam Shepard and David Mamet.

Pinter was a master of language, using deliberately timed dialogue against the contradictory actions of his characters. Words were often framed by a one-room set that amplified and contained unsettling drama.

"The speech we hear is an indication of that which we don't hear," Pinter once said.

The working-class milieu of his plays like "The Birthday Party" and "The Homecoming" reflected Pinter's early life as the son of a Jewish tailor from London's East End.

He once said: "How can you write a happy play? Drama is about conflict and degrees of perturbation, disarray. I've never been able to write a happy play, but I've been able to enjoy a happy life."

"Betrayal," a story of a woman who cheats on her husband, was reportedly based on the disintegration of his marriage to actress Vivien Merchant, who appeared in many of his first plays.

Their marriage ended in 1980, after Pinter's long affair with BBC presenter Joan Bakewell. He then married writer and historian Antonia Fraser. Merchant died shortly afterward of alcoholism-related disease.

Pinter, who was most prolific between 1957 and 1965, relished the juxtaposition of brutality and the banal and turned the conversational pause into an emotional minefield.

Pinter was born Oct. 30, 1930, in the London neighborhood of Hackney, and in 1939 was forced along with other children to evacuate to rural Cornwall during World War II. By the time he returned at age 14, he was entranced with Franz Kafka and Ernest Hemingway.

By 1950, Pinter had begun to publish poetry and appear on stage as an actor. He started to write for the stage, and published "The Room" in 1957.

A year later, "The Birthday Party" was produced in the West End, and despite closing after just one week to disastrous reviews, Pinter continued to write.

"I find critics on the whole a pretty unnecessary bunch of people," he once said. *