HAROLD PINTER 1988
When Mountain Language opened at the National Theatre in London on October 20, 1988, the audience was shocked by the play’s stark look at the machinations and effects of totalitarianism. Employing the characteristic structure and style of his previous plays, Harold Pinter focused on new subject matter. Drawing his inspiration from the long history of oppression the Kurds suffered under Turkish rule, Pinter centered his play in a prison controlled by unnamed guards in an unnamed country. As the Turkish did to the Kurds, the guards ban the prisoners’ native language as they incarcerate them for unnamed crimes against the State. This enigmatic play employs the innovative techniques found in Pinter’s earlier plays, blending absurdism and realism in illustration of the harsh reality of modern society and the individual’s isolated and powerless state within that society.
Commenting on Pinter’s distinctive style in his plays, Tish Dace writes in her article in Reference Guide to English Literature that his plays are “so rich” with “inscrutable motivations and ambiguous import that an international industry has arisen to explicate his art, and his name has entered the critical lexicon to deal with those derivative dramas now termed ‘Pinteresque.’” While Mountain Language can definitely be labeled “Pinteresque,” it also has been recognized for its author’s compelling political subject matter.
Harold Pinter was born on October 30, 1930, in Hackney, a working-class neighborhood in East London, the only child of Hyman (a tailor) and Frances (Mann) Pinter. Although Pinter seemed to have a relatively happy childhood, he also experienced terror during World War II, during Germany’s air attacks on London. Pinter’s Jewish heritage also caused problems for him while he was growing up. Gangs would continually menace anyone with Jewish features. Pinter, however, often was able to talk his way out of these confrontations. Feelings of terror caused by an inescapable menace, along with the manipulative power of language later became prominent themes in his works.
Pinter’s love for the theatre emerged in his grammar school days when he played the title roles in Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet. He also revealed his literary talents during this period. The Hackney Downs School Magazine published Pinter’s essay on James Joyce and two of his poems that showed the beginnings of his distinctive literary style. In 1948 Pinter began his acting studies at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) but soon left. For the next ten years, he wrote poems and short prose pieces and acted on the stage and on television under the pseudonym David Baron. He has noted that his acting experience gave him valuable insight into how successful plays are structured and provided him with a sharp ear for dialogue.
In 1957, over a four-day period, Pinter wrote The Room, a one-act play, for a friend’s student production. The successful production of the play sparked his interest in playwriting and soon after he wrote the full-length play entitled The Birthday Party. Although some reviewers took note of Pinter’s innovative style in The Birthday Party, the initial popular and critical response was overwhelmingly negative. Two years later, he gained accolades from the public and the press with The Caretaker, which signaled his emergence as one of the British theater’s new breed of playwrights. Pinter continues his successful writing career as a playwright, a scriptwriter for radio and television, and a screenwriter in the early twenty-first century. He has won several awards, including the Evening Standard’s drama award in 1961 and the Newspaper Guild of New York award in 1962, both for The Caretaker; the New York Film Critics Award in 1964 for The Servant; the British Film Academy Award in 1965 and 1971; and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for The Homecoming in 1967. He has also received honorary degrees from many universities in Great Britain and the United States.
Act I: Prison Wall
The play opens with a line of women standing up against a prison wall. An elderly woman cradles her hand while a young woman stands with her arm around her. A sergeant and an officer enter. The sergeant points to the young woman and asks her her name. The young woman replies that they have given their names. The two repeat this dialogue until the officer tells the sergeant to “stop this s——.”
The officer then turns to the young woman and asks her if she has any complaints. The young woman responds that the older woman has been bitten. When the officer asks the elderly woman who bit her, she slowly raises her hand but remains silent. The young woman tells him that a Doberman pinscher bit her. Again he asks the elderly woman who bit her hand, as if he had never heard the young woman’s reply. The elderly woman stares at him and remains silent. The younger woman, redefining her response, tells him “a big dog.” When the officer asks the dog’s name, he is met with silence, which agitates him to the point that he insists “every dog has a name” given by its parents. He informs them that before dogs bite, they state their name. He then tells the young woman that if the dog bit the elderly woman without stating his name, he will have the dog shot. When he is met again with silence, he barks, “silence and attention.”
The officer then calls the sergeant over and asks him to take any complaints. When the sergeant again asks for complaints, the young woman tells him that they have been standing all day in the snow, while the guards have taunted them with the dogs, one of which bit the woman. The officer again asks the name of the dog. The young woman looks at him and answers, “I don’t know his name.”
The sergeant then abruptly changes the subject, informing the women, “your husbands, your sons, your fathers, these men you have been waiting to see, are s——houses” and “enemies of the State.” The officer steps forward and identifies the women as “mountain people” and tells them that since their language is forbidden, it should be considered “dead.” They are only allowed to speak “the Page 273 | Top of Articlelanguage of the capital.” He warns that they will be “badly punished” if they try to speak the mountain language. He reiterates that this is the law and that their language is dead, and ends by asking whether there are any questions. When the young woman responds that she does not speak mountain language, the sergeant puts his hand on her “bottom” and asks, “What language do you speak with your a——?” When the officer warns the sergeant to remember that the women have committed no crime, the sergeant asks, “but you’re not saying they’re without sin?” The officer admits that was not his point, and the sergeant concludes the young woman is full of sin, that “she bounces with it.”
The young woman then identifies herself by name and tells them she has come to see her husband, which she claims is her right. When she presents her papers, the officer notes that she and her husband do not come from the mountains, and realizes that he has been put “in the wrong batch.” The sergeant concludes, “she looks like a f——intellectual to me.”
Act II: Visitor’s Room
The scene opens with the elderly woman sitting next to a prisoner. When she speaks to him in a rural accent, the guard jabs her with a stick, insisting that the language is forbidden. The prisoner tries to explain to the guard that the woman doesn’t know the language of the capital but is met with silence. When the elderly woman tells the prisoner that she has apples, the guard again jabs her and shouts that her language is forbidden. The prisoner admits that the woman does not know what the guard is saying. The guard refuses to accept responsibility and concludes, “you’re all a pile of s——.” When the prisoner does not respond to the guard’s questions, the guard calls the sergeant and reports, “I’ve got a joker in here.”
The action freezes and, in a voiceover, the audience hears a conversation between the elderly woman and the prisoner, who identifies himself as her son. He voices concern for her bitten hand. She tries to encourage him, telling him that everyone is looking forward to his homecoming. The sergeant then appears, asking “what joker” and the scene abruptly ends.
Act III: Voice in the Darkness
The scene opens in a corridor where a guard and the sergeant are holding up a hooded man. When the sergeant sees the young woman there, he
demands to know who let her in. The guard answers that she is the hooded man’s wife. The sergeant first asks whether this is a reception for “Lady Duck Muck” then apologizes to her, saying that there must have been “a bit of a breakdown in administration,” and so she was sent through the wrong door. He then asks if there is anything he can do for her.
The characters freeze again. In a voiceover conversation, the hooded man and his wife, the young woman, speak lovingly about their lives together and imagine they are on a lake holding each other. When the action starts again, the hooded man collapses, and his wife screams, calling him by name. He is then dragged off. The sergeant reiterates that she has come through the wrong door and informs her that if she has any questions, she can ask the “bloke” who comes in “every Tuesday week, except when it rains.” She asks whether “everything [will] be all right” if she has sex with this man, and the sergeant replies “sure. No problem.” The scene ends after she thanks the sergeant.
Act IV: Visitor’s Room
This act returns to the visitor’s room where the prisoner sits next to his mother, trembling with blood on his face. The guard informs them “they’ve Page 274 | Top of Articlechanged the rules.” Until “further notice,” they can speak in their own language. When the prisoner translates this to his mother, she does not respond, as if she no longer understands her own language. The prisoner’s trembling grows until he falls to his knees, shaking violently. The sergeant appears, sees him and says, “you go out of your way to give them a helping hand and they f——it up.”
Charley is one of the prisoners. His affection for Sara, his wife, becomes evident during a voiceover, when he and Sara talk lovingly about their union and imagine being together in the future. Toward the end of the play, he collapses in front of her, suggesting that he has been tortured.
The elderly woman is referred to as a mountain woman. She has come to the prison to see her son. While she is waiting in the snow for eight hours, a guard dog bites her hand so severely that her thumb is almost detached. She shows her capacity for compassion and nurturance when she brings food to her son. She also tries to comfort him and fill him with hope by telling him that everyone at home is looking forward to his return. Her inability to understand the official language, and therefore the warning against speaking her own language (mountain language), results in her being beaten by the guards.
She ends the play in silence, in an almost catatonic state. When her son tells her that the prison officials have changed the rules and they are now allowed to speak in their language, she does not respond. It is not clear whether she is too afraid to speak or has lost the ability to do so, perhaps due to her son’s condition.
The guard exhibits cruelty when he repeatedly jabs the elderly woman with a stick when she speaks mountain language. He tries to justify his treatment of her by saying that he has responsibilities and that he has a family. The guard refuses to recognize that his prisoner also has a family, and in an effort to punish him, the guard informs the sergeant that the prisoner is a “joker.”
Sara comes to the prison to see her husband, Charley. Although she is not a “mountain woman” and obviously is from a higher social class, she forms a bond with the elderly woman. She illustrates her compassionate nature when she comforts the older woman after she has been bitten by the dog and tries to get help for her. Sara reveals her courage when she stands up to the sergeant and officer on several occasions. She refuses an order to give her name a second time and often meets absurd questions with silence.
Sara is smart enough though to answer some of their questions patiently, as when the sergeant asks her again the name of the dog who bit the elderly woman, and she answers that she does not know, which of course should have been obvious to him. When the women are asked whether they have any complaints, she speaks up, noting that they have been standing all day in the snow, waiting to see the prisoners. She insists that it is her right to see her husband.
After accidentally coming across her hooded husband and realizing that he has been tortured, she breaks down. At the end of the play, she admits that she is willing to sleep with a prison official in order to save her husband.
The officer is the person in charge of the prison. At times, he appears to follow reasonable guidelines, but his behavior quickly dissolves into the absurd, along with that of the sergeant. Sometimes he chastises the sergeant for repeatedly asking the women the same question, and he seems to show concern for the elderly woman’s hand. However, that concern quickly vanishes in a silly discussion of dogs’ names. While he directs the sergeant to ask the women whether they have any complaints, he never acts on those complaints. He reminds the sergeant that the women are not criminals, but he cannot acknowledge that they have not sinned. When the officer discovers that Sara’s husband is not a mountain person, he admits that he has been placed in the “wrong batch” but does not question his guilt. He tries to assert his authority, and points out the absurdity of his rules when he insists that if the dog that bit the elderly woman did not give his Page 275 | Top of Articlename, he will be shot. He reveals his need for control when, as the women are standing silently, he tells them to be silent.
The prisoner illustrates his compassion when he shows great concern about his mother’s hand. He also tries to explain to the guard that she cannot understand the official language in the hopes the guard will stop hitting her. In an effort to encourage the guard to feel compassion and a sense of brotherhood, he explains that he too has a wife and three children. His boldness, however, is punished when the guard determines him to be a “joker.” The blood on his face in the next scene suggests that he has been beaten. When, at the end of the play, his mother appears in an almost catatonic state, he collapses on the floor, gasping and shaking violently, seemingly experiencing a mental and physical collapse.
The second guard appears in the corridor, holding up Sara’s husband.
His cruelty and desire for power is exhibited throughout the play. He repeatedly categorizes the prisoners as “s——houses,” and he tries to demean Sara, whom he considers a “f——intellectual.” In order to assert his power over her, he puts his hands on her and claims, “intellectual a——s wobble the best” and that she “bounces” with sin. At other times, he professes to be carrying out the law, as when he tells them that mountain language has been forbidden. Later, he appears in the guise of a public servant when he asks Sara what he can do for her after she accidentally appears in the corridor where she sees her husband with a hood over his face. She does not respond, knowing he will do nothing to help her or her husband. He pretends to be magnanimous at the end of the play, suggesting he engineered the change in the rule forbidding anyone to speak in mountain language but then reveals his true nature when he shows no compassion as he watches the prisoner collapse, exclaiming “you go out of your way to give them a helping hand and they f——it up.”
Pinter illustrates the play’s major theme, meaninglessness, in his adroit construction of the play. In the absurd prison world, nothing makes sense. The prisoners, referred to as “s——houses” and “enemies of the state” are being held for unnamed crimes. The narrative suggests that they have been imprisoned because they are “mountain people” who speak an outlawed language. When the officials discover that Charley, Sara’s husband, is not a mountain person, they decide he has been put into the “wrong batch” but do not question his guilt.
The play presents an existentialist vision of the condition and existence of men and women as it deconstructs the traditional view that humans are rational beings existing in an intelligible universe. The characters repeatedly question the prison rules, trying to determine a logical structure to the system but are continually thwarted because there is no logic behind a world that contains neither truth nor value. As they face this meaninglessness, they experience isolation and anguish.
Pinter illustrates this sense of meaninglessness in his presentation of the breakdown between language and meaning. Sara continually tries to communicate with the prison officials in order to convince them to treat her and the others humanely and to allow her to reunite with her husband, but her dialogue with them continually degenerates into pointless babble. For example, when she tries to get someone to tend to the elderly woman whose hand has been torn by a dog bite, the officer and sergeant begin a nonsensical discussion about the dog’s name and never offer assistance.
Pinter constructs scenes like the one concerning the dog as a form of social protest. Through his characterizations and dramatic structure, he presents a compelling indictment of totalitarian regimes. Pinter has suggested the oppression the Kurds have experienced as a minority group in Turkey inspired his writing of the play (as mentioned by Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph, but his use of Anglo names like “Sara Johnson” and “Charley,” along with the indeterminate setting, suggests Pinter is condemning any government that oppresses its people.
One of the main ways the prison officials oppress the characters in the play is to censor them. In order to strip them of their cultural identity, they decree that “mountain language” is forbidden, that it should be considered “dead,” and those who speak it will be severely punished. This censure not only denies the characters a sense of self but also serves to isolate each from the other because communication within the community becomes impossible.
When the officials realize that Sara is not a mountain woman and so cannot control her due to her social status, they find another way to exercise their power over her. After the sergeant identifies her as a “f——intellectual,” he abuses her to assert his power over her. When she admits to the sergeant that she does not speak mountain language, he puts his hands on her and asks, “What language do you speak with your a——,” thus effectively undermining her position in the prison hierarchy. Later, he insists to the officer that Sara is full of sin, that she “bounces with it.”
Sara makes attempts to resist the authority of the officials through her questions and her silences. She insists that something should be done to help the elderly woman after the guard dog bites her, and she insists it is her right to see her husband. She meets the officials’ repeated, foolish questions (for example,” What is the dog’s name?”) with silence, refusing to participate in meaningless dialogue. Yet, by the end of the play, her spirit has effectively been broken by the totalitarian system. She finally sees her husband but is powerless to prevent his torture through rational means. As a result, she agrees to prostitute herself so that she can save him.
Pinter fragments the structure of the play to illustrate the sense of isolation and alienation that the characters experience. The acts present separate vignettes of the women trying desperately to see their men. Act I centers on the women, who have stood in the snow for eight hours, and their interaction with the sergeant and the officer. The absurd dialogue in which Sara must engage with the two officials reinforces her sense of alienation as does the fact that the scene ends before she can see her husband. This opening scene sets the tone of the play and suggests that the women will not be able to be truly reunited with the men.
Acts II and IV center on the elderly woman and her son. In act II, the two try to talk to each other, but their communication is continually broken off by the guard, who jabs the elderly woman with a stick every time she tries to speak to her son. This sense of broken communication is reinforced in the last act, when the elderly woman does not respond to her son, either due to her fear of being beaten or to her son’s shocking physical condition.
The third act takes place in a corridor where Sara accidentally comes upon her husband. The claustrophobic atmosphere of the entire scene suggests that neither Sara nor her husband, who has obviously been tortured by the guards, can escape the absurd world in which they find themselves.
Pinter’s unique use of language, or lack of it, also reinforces the play’s themes. Most of the dialogue Page 277 | Top of Articlebetween the guards and the women and prisoners appears to make little sense, reflecting the play’s focus on communication breakdown and the absurdity of their position. Pinter also uses silences throughout the play to illustrate this theme as well as his focus on the power plays that occur in the prison.
Theatre of the Absurd
This term, coined by Martin Esslin who wrote The Theatre of the Absurd(1961), is applied to plays that focus on and reflect the absurd nature of the human condition. The roots of this type of literature can be found in the expressionist and surrealist movements as well as in the existential philosophy that emerged from the theories of nineteenth-century Danish theologian S0ren Kierkegaard, and German philosophers Martin Heidegger and Friedrich Nietzsche. Dramatists associated with this group include Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Günter Grass, Jean Genet, Edward Albee, N. G. Simpson, and Pinter.
Absurdist plays portray a specific vision of the condition and existence of men and women and an examination of their place and function in life. They reject the notion that humans are rational beings operating in an intelligible universe that maintains a logically ordered structure. Absurdist playwrights present characters who strive but ultimately fail to find purpose and meaning in a world that contains no truth or value. As a result, the characters experience isolation and anguish in the face of the inherent nothingness in their world.
These plays typically lack a conventional structure. Often they incorporate silences and scenes of miscommunication to reinforce the sense of isolation and alienation experienced by the characters. A loose plot is often strung together as a series of fragmented scenes, disconnected images that reflect the characters’ experiences.
Repression of the Kurds
Pinter has noted that Mountain Language is based on the oppression the Kurds have experienced as a minority group in Turkey. The Kurds, numbering about twenty-five million, are primarily located in a mountainous region in the Middle East, stretching from southeastern Turkey through northwestern Iran. They have had a long history of conflict with Turkey, heightened at the end of World War I with the Treaty of Versailles, which gave the Turkish government the right to rule over them. Tensions heightened in 1937, when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk decreed that religious and non-Turkish cultural expression would be outlawed in Turkey, including the word Kurd.
During the next decade, Kurdish schools, organizations, and publications were banned, and any references to Kurdish regions were removed from maps and documents. After the word Kurd was outlawed, the Kurds were officially referred to as “mountain Turks who have forgotten their language.” They were denied government positions, and the Turkish government confiscated land and property. Kurds launched a series of revolts against the Turkish government, trying to gain widespread support by appealing to traditional religious beliefs and cultural practices. However, Kurdish leaders could not get the cooperation of the various Kurdish tribes. After the revolts were suppressed in 1925 and 1930, the government handed out harsher and more repressive measures. The Kurds remain an impoverished and culturally oppressed minority in Turkey.
In 1996, eleven Kurds, while rehearsing Mountain Language with plastic guns, were arrested by London police. They were held until authorities could establish what was actually occurring in the community center where they were rehearsing. Pinter suggests that this incident is a case of life imitating art.
When Mountain Language opened at the National Theatre in London on October 20, 1988, it earned mixed reviews. Some commentators praised the play’s compelling subject and themes, while others found the play to be too political. In an overview of Pinter and his work in Contemporary Dramatists, Lois Gordon applauds the play’s “frightening images” of totalitarianism. Douglas Kennedy, in his review of the play in New Statesman & Society writes that Mountain Language is “a highly condensed guided tour through state tyranny” presented through “a series of stark, rather atypical images of political repression.” While he commends its “tight” construction, he considers it to be “uncomfortably hollow,” arguing that it is “terribly predictable in its vision of state terror.” Kennedy claims that the play “could be ultimately seen
as more of a pronouncement of Pinter’s new-found political activism than as a polemical statement about the brutal grammar of totalitarianism.” While he praises Pinter’s use of silence, a characteristic device in his plays, Kennedy concludes that Mountain Language is an unsettling mix of artistry and politics “and the result leaves one wondering whether Pinter wasn’t a far more effective political writer when he left you baffled, but unnerved.”
Spencer, in his review for the Daily Telegraph insists that the play is “sketchy, paranoid and self-righteous.” Spencer also concludes that “the characters are types, not people, meaning that audience reaction is one of generalized concern rather than specific sympathy.” He also criticizes the play’s political themes, concluding that Pinter tries to create parallels between the play’s totalitarianism and the current government in Britain. He writes that Pinter’s “suggestion that Britain is indistinguishable from more oppressive regimes seems shrill and impertinent, not least to those who have suffered under real state tyranny.”
Perkins is an associate professor of English at Prince George’s Community College in Maryland. Page 279 | Top of ArticleIn this essay, she examines Pinter’s effective mix of realism and the absurd in Mountain Language.
Harold Pinter has admitted that Mountain Language is based on the long history of oppression the Kurds have suffered as a minority group under Turkish rule. Critics have praised the play for its realistic depiction of the victims and oppressors in a totalitarian state. In an overview of Pinter and his work in Contemporary Dramatists, Lois Gordon applauds the play’s “frightening images” of oppression. Douglas Kennedy, in his review of the play in New Statesman & Society writes that Mountain Language is “a highly condensed guided tour through state tyranny” presented through “a series of stark... images of political repression.” Yet, Pinter’s dramatic structure is not purely realistic. He combines realism with elements of the absurd in an effort to highlight and reinforce the reality of totalitarianism and the meaninglessness at its core. The result is a compelling and shocking portrait of political terrorization.
The play presents a real and quite menacing situation. In an unnamed country at an unnamed prison, women wait all day in the freezing cold for the chance of seeing their men, who are incarcerated in the prison. Vicious guard dogs surround them, taunted by the guards, until one lunges forward and almost severs the thumb of an elderly woman. The inmates, held as “enemies of the state,” are beaten and tortured as their women are prevented from offering them solace. This narrative could represent an accurate depiction of the horror of any totalitarian state, a point Pinter illustrates by refusing to name the country, the prison, or any of the officials. As the narrative unfolds, Pinter adds elements of absurdity to heighten, for his audience, the nightmare of totalitarian barbarism.
Tish Dace, in her overview of Pinter for the Reference Guide to English Literature, explains the playwright’s motive for his unique structural devices that contain elements associated with plays of the Theatre of the Absurd. She notes that traditionally writers “feel obliged to explain their characters’ behavior.” The structure of one of Pinter’s plays, however, “suggest[s] further exposure to the situation will merely compound the conundrum, heighten the obscurity, elaborate the elusive hints at sources for his characters’ anxiety.” She continues, “Where most playwrights bring clarity, shape, and order to what they dramatize, Pinter delights in slyly selecting what will appear most cryptic, vague,
or even contradictory” as he substitutes “hints for exposition and intangible menace for explicit confrontation.”
One of the main ways Pinter subverts “clarity, shape, and order” in Mountain Language is to present fragmented vignettes, offering only snapshots of the prisoners and the women who come to see them. The effect of these brief scenes, with no chronological or expository clues to help the audience piece together a coherent narrative, is to illustrate the sense of isolation and alienation that the characters experience. Throughout the entire first act, the women are separated from the men and are tormented by the prison officials. The remaining three acts present brief, truncated portraits of the women’s visits with the men, characterized by broken communications, suggesting no possibility of permanent reunification.
Pinter explains his use of theatrical economy in a speech originally delivered in 1970 in Hamburg, and published in the fourth volume of his Complete Works:“The image must be pursued with the greatest vigilance, calmly, and once found, must be sharpened, graded, accurately focused and maintained.” He notes that in his plays “the key word is economy, economy of movement and gesture, of emotion and its expression... so there is no wastage and no mess.”
As Pinter constructs his economical scenes, he inserts elements of the absurd to reinforce the sense of meaninglessness and barbarity. The absurdity emerges in the dialogues between the prison officials and the inmates and the women who come to see them. The language in these scenes operates Page 280 | Top of Articleprincipally on a subtextual level; meaning lies not in the words themselves, which are often nonsensical, but in how and why the characters use language. Pinter’s incorporation of scenes of miscommunication also reinforces the sense of isolation and alienation experienced by the characters.
In the opening conversation, Pinter creates verbal plays that point to the absurd situation in which the women find themselves. The sergeant appears and demands the names of the women, which they have already provided. This fact, however, makes no difference to the sergeant, who continually repeats the order, suggesting that he does not regard them as individuals, only as a group that needs to be controlled.
The second inane conversation in the play relates to the elderly woman who has been severely bitten by one of the guard dogs. When Sara asks the officers to help the woman, they become incensed, not by the seriousness of the injury but by the fact that the dog did not give his name before he bit her. This irrational response provides the first example of the problems inherent in the totalitarian system. The officials’ treatment of the women and the prisoners has no logical cause, and, therefore, they can offer no logical defense for their actions.
The officer, however, tries to appear official in his explanation of the “formal procedure” dogs must follow when they bite someone. He also attempts to suggest an orderly system of rules and regulations when he insists that he will shoot the dog if the dog did not give his name before he bit the woman. The absurdity of his stance reinforces the sense that the officials in this system follow no logical plan as they carry out their duties.
One of the official decrees, the censure of the mountain people’s language, is a tactic that many oppressive regimes have used on their victims. By denying a community its language, and therefore a crucial part of its cultural expression, a totalitarian government can effectively remove that community’s identity and therefore any threat to the system. Yet, when Sara confirms that she is not a mountain person, nor is her husband, the officers prove the arbitrary nature of the decree, deciding her husband is still guilty of being “an enemy of the state” but offering no evidence of the specificity of his crimes.
The final absurd confrontation between Sara and the officials in this act comes at the end of the scene when they recognize that she is not a mountain woman. In order to reassert his power over her, the sergeant objectifies her sexually, placing his hands on her, asking “what language do you speak with your a——?” and claiming that she fairly “bounces” with sin. Noting that she comes from a higher social class than do the other women and prisoners, the sergeant determines that she is a “f——intellectual” and that “intellectual a——s wobble the best.” As a result of this sexual objectification, the sergeant successfully removes her identity and therefore does not need to treat her humanely.
The absurdity of the ban on mountain language becomes apparent in the second act when the guard jabs the elderly woman as she tries to communicate with her son. The ban causes a breakdown in communications not only between the woman and her son but also between the woman and the guard. When the guard tells her that her language has become officially “dead,” she cannot understand what he is saying to her and so continues to speak her language as the guard persists in beating her.
Pinter uses the technique of silence in this scene, as he does in others, as a form of language that reflects the characters’ interaction with each other. Pinter often uses silences in his plays as verbal acts of aggression, defense, and acquiescence that often speak more loudly than words. In the first act, Sara shows her defiance and points to the absurdity of the officials’ questions when she refuses to answer the sergeant’s questions about the dog. In act II, the guard meets the prisoner’s declaration of his mother’s inability to understand the official language with silence, as an act of defense. If he does not acknowledge what the prisoner is saying, he will not have to admit the absurdity of the decree, and he can keep on abusing the elderly woman. An example of silence as acquiescence occurs at the end of the play when the elderly woman does not respond to her son’s questions. At this point she has given in to the system, either due to her fear of being beaten or her despair over her son’s condition.
Pinter uses a different form of silence in an absurd way. He explains this technique in a speech delivered at the 1962 National Student Drama Festival in Bristol and published as the introduction to Complete Works One. Pinter explains that there are two types of silences, one when nothing is said and the other “when perhaps a torrent of language is being employed. This speech is speaking of a language locked beneath it. That is its continual reference.” Page 281 | Top of ArticleHe notes the subtext of this type of silence when he comments, “the speech we hear is an indication of that which we don’t hear. It is a necessary avoidance, a violent, sly, anguished or mocking smoke screen which keeps the other in its place.”
One example of this type of verbal subterfuge occurs during the third act when Sara accidentally stumbles upon her husband in a corridor. He shows clear signs of having been tortured. Flustered, the sergeant ejects a barrage of nonsense in an attempt to distract Sara from the reality of the situation. He tells her that she has come in the wrong door, due to the computer’s “double hernia.” He then assures her that if she wants any “information on any aspect of life in this place, we’ve got a bloke comes into the office every Tuesday week, except when it rains.”
Pinter allows no closure or resolution at the end of the play. The last image he leaves with the audience is an absurd one: the sergeant is complaining about the prisoners’ failure to respond positively to an arbitrary change in the rules. Pinter’s creative interweaving of realistic and absurd narrative elements throughout the structure of Mountain Language creates a gripping narrative of the workings and consequences of the tyranny of political systems.
Source: Wendy Perkins, Critical Essay on Mountain Language, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.
In the following overview, the author discusses Pinter’s Mountain Language and the devices he is known for using in his plays, particularly name- and language-play.
Mountain Language concerns a group of women who have been waiting all day outside a prison in the hope of seeing their menfolk inside. They have to endure abuse from an intimidating sergeant, and in one case an elderly woman has almost had a thumb severed by a guard dog. On admission to the prisoners “mountain language” is forbidden, and prisoners and visitors must use the language of the capital. It was assumed that Pinter had written a barely veiled critique of Turkey’s suppression of the Kurds and their language, but he resisted the identification, suggesting that the play has a certain significance for an English audience. Pinter’s very short work of less than a thousand words can be seen in both a literal and metaphorical way.
From a literal point of view an audience is likely to make the connection with the plight of the Kurds, though Brian Friel’s play of 1980, Translations, reminded a British audience of the English encroachment on the Irish language in the nineteenth century. Friel’s play was well attended in Wales, where it is not forgotten that England attempted to prohibit the speaking of Welsh in the last century. Throughout the performance of Mountain Language Pinter, as director, created a particular uneasiness in the audience by exploiting a specific condition of audience reception. The soldiers are dressed in regular battle fatigues, and the foul-mouthed sergeant spoke with a strong London accent. British television screens have made British audiences long familiar with such images—in the Northern Ireland of the “H” blocks, no-go areas, proscription on broadcasting interviews with representatives of the IRA. By having political and geographical reference undetermined, but suggested, Pinter creates a polemical space in which the question arises just how far the United Kingdom could be said to have taken such a direction.
Pinter signals this in a fashion that is peculiarly his own. No British dramatist has used names and naming so consistently throughout a whole career as Pinter has. Let one example stand for many. In Betrayal the only time that the married name and titles of Robert and Emma are mentioned is precisely when Robert comes across Jerry’s letter to Emma in the American Express office in Venice and intuitively realizes the nature of the contents: “I mean, just because my name is Downs and your name is Downs doesn’t mean that we’re the Mr. and Mrs. Downs that they, in their laughing Mediterranean way, assume we are.” Approximately halfway through Mountain Language one of the women reveals that her name is the very English “Sara Page 282 | Top of ArticleJohnson.” In contrast to the names in One for the Road, this comes as a shock if it is automatically assumed that such abuses could only happen in places like Turkey.
The first word of Mountain Language is “Name?” and this aspect of bureaucratic officialdom is cruelly parodied when one of the women complains of the older woman’s injury from the dog. The officer in charge insists that he can only initiate disciplinary procedures if he is given the name of the animal: “Every dog has a name! They answer to their name. They are given a name by their parents and that is their name, that is their name. Before they bite they state their name. It’s a formal procedure.” Beyond this overt bullying there is a certain kind of profundity.
The old woman is forbidden to speak her mountain language, and, unlike her prisoner son, she does not speak the language of the capital. Then the decision is reversed, and mountain language is allowed. But now the old woman is traumatized by the sight of blood on her son’s face and her own pain and is speechless. At this the son is reduced to a voiceless shuddering. The logic of totalitarianism always seeks to suppress speech—by book-burning, torture, murder, or exile—because speech is itself symbolic of freedom. To speak is to name things like truth and tyranny, to speak is to give one’s voice in a vote, in antiquity, or to mark a ballot paper in modern democracies. The final tableau of mother and son indicates the end of democracy—the body politic made speechless. Thankfully, after sound mountains echo; that is their “language.”
The sketch “New World Order” appeared as a curtain raiser for Ariel Dorfman’s acclaimed play Death and the Maiden. Set in post-Pinochet Chile, Dorfman’s work concerns a woman’s revenge against her past torturer. In Pinter’s sketch two interrogators gloat over their blindfolded victim, swapping obscenities, until the almost sexual sadistic climax with one sobbing and the other congratulating him for “keeping the world clean for democracy.” These words were those used by the youthful Pinter and friends in ironic response to the dropping of atom bombs on Japan. As in Mountain Language, the victim is rendered literally and symbolically speechless: “Before he came in here he was a big shot, he never stopped shooting his mouth off, he never stopped questioning received ideas. Now—because he’s apprehensive about what’s about to happen to him—he’s stopped all that, he’s got nothing more to say.” Similarly, upon Victor’s second entrance in One for the Road he has difficulty speaking because his torturers have mutilated his tongue.
Source: Ronald Knowles, “Mountain Language(1988) and ‘New World Order’ (1991),” in Understanding Harold Pinter, University of South Carolina Press, 1995, pp. 192-95.
In the following essay, the author discusses Pinter’s use of the power of love, the opposite of love, and language in portraying questions of human nature and brutality in Mountain Language.
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Source: Penelope Prentice, “Mountain Language: Torture Revisited,” in The Pinter Ethic, Garland Publishing, Inc., 1994, pp. 285-91.
Ann C. Hall
In the following essay, the author discusses Pinter’s use of the “voice-over” technique in his play Mountain Language to articulate the political elements of “communicating beyond language through language.”
Inspired and appalled by his visit to Turkey in 1985, Harold Pinter in Mountain Language(1988) attempts to re-create the linguistic oppression he witnessed. Like the Turkish government which considers the language of Kurdistan subversive and so prohibits its usage, Pinter’s torturers outlaw the “mountain language” of their victims. Clearly such a situation presents a difficult dilemma for a playwright. How can one represent the absence of language through language? Specifically, how can Pinter represent the effects of such oppression when the means for that representation, the convention of dramatic dialogue, is denied by the real-life situation which gave rise to the dramatic idea?
Pinter has made a career out of dramatizing such absences. His casts are filled with the verbally inept: characters pause, stop, stutter, and remain silent. As a matter of fact, Pinter often leads us down the garden path in terms of signification: just when we think his characters will say something—anything—to explain their unusual situations, their speeches become filled with elliptical interruptions. The people of Kurdistan, as well as many postmodern theorists, who argue that language is non-referential—that words do not “mean,” they “signify”—could not ask for a better dramatist to illustrate their positions.
Despite his linguistic gymnastics, however, Pinter has resolutely remained a worker of words, a playwright and screenwriter. Unlike his mentor, Samuel Beckett, Pinter has not resorted to pantomime as Beckett did in, for example, Act Without Words(1957). Pinter’s previous attitude toward language, then, can be best described as ambivalent: clearly aware of language’s limits, the fact that what is left unsaid is often more important than what is actually articulated, Pinter continues to write, thereby implying a faith in language despite its weaknesses.
Mountain Language, however, presents a new situation for and from Pinter, and perhaps even marks a crisis in his career, a crisis brought about by the tension between his recent political interests and his prior aesthetic. As many have noted and Pinter himself admits, his dramatic concerns and even his readings of his earlier plays have shifted from the apolitical to the political. Such a shift may also imply a change in Pinter’s attitude toward language. That is, given the fact that the victims in this play do not even have the opportunity to miscommunicate, that their lack of their own language is cause for concern, can Pinter avoid a sentimental or nostalgic view of language, a view he has spent his entire career subverting? In this play, Pinter attempts to reconcile these contradictory forces through a variation on the cinematic technique known as the “voice-over.”
The relationship between cinematic sound and image is characterized by oppression; the image is privileged over the soundtrack. One reason for this relationship is based on the history of film itself. In the beginning, film did not have sound. When compared to the theatre, which clearly synchronized image and voice through dramatic dialogue, and radio, which relied on sound alone, motion pictures were defective. When sound did appear, the image was subordinate to the sound. Films were called “talkies.” Even the logo of a major movie studio, RKO, boldly proclaimed that it now offered not “movies,” but “radio pictures.” Film, then, suffered and continues to suffer from an inferiority complex. Today, Rick Altman argues, film still attempts to repress the scandal of its defect by privileging the image over the voice.
While some historians psychoanalyze the history of the film medium, Mary Ann Doane and Stephen Heath psychoanalyze the effects that such privileging has upon the audience. According to Doane, the filmic image presents a “fantasmic body,” a completely unified and uncomplicated representation of human existence to its audiences. Using the work of Jacques Lacan, particularly his formulations on the “mirror stage” and the “gaze,” Stephen Heath argues that spectators gain a sense of mastery when they view the filmic image: the eye literally captures the object, whereas the ear cannot master sounds as effectively. For both the historians and the psychoanalytic critics, the image represents an uncomplicated view of reality; spectators need not question their ideologies, political beliefs, biases, etc. In effect, the filmic image is neatly framed. Sound, on the other hand, violates such framing devices and thereby violates the certainty the “fantasmic body” image provides. Consequently, all the recent technological developments in film soundtracks have been toward enhancing sound’s ability to uphold the image. In Doane’s words, such Page 287 | Top of Articleinnovations elide the “material heterogeneity of film”, the fact that film is not an uncomplicated “reality” but, instead, an illusory construct.
Traditional theater privileges the image similarly. The proscenium arch even mimics a picture frame. Like contemporary films, however, recent drama has experimented with the acoustic in order to challenge both the image’s status and the existential security it provides through acoustical experiments, most notably Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape(1958) and Rockaby(1981). Pinter’s interest in the auditory, perhaps influenced by Beckett or his own work in BBC radio during his early career as an actor, has, in fact, become his trademark: vituperative speeches, manic monologues, and commonplace queries are all punctuated by his notorious silences and pauses.
The following speech by Ruth in The Homecoming exemplifies Pinter’s skill at accentuating both sound and image, as well as language’s limitations. In the scene, Teddy and Lenny have been arguing about philosophy while Ruth remained silent. Suddenly she interrupts, saying:
You’ve forgotten something. Look at me. I... move my leg.
That’s all it is. But I wear... underwear... which moves with me... it... captures your attention. Perhaps you misinterpret. The action is simple. It’s a leg... moving. My lips move. Why don’t you restrict... your observation to that? Perhaps the fact that they move is more significant... than the words which come through them. You must bear that... possibility... in mind.
I was born quite near here.
Then... six year ago, I went to America.
It’s all rock and sand. It stretches... so far... everywhere you look. And there’s lots of insects there.
And there’s lots of insects there.
Silence. She is still.
Clearly, Ruth makes herself the object of both the audience’s gaze and that of her male counterparts. She is the object to be viewed, the image. As Joan Navarre notes, Ruth is a film, a “moving picture.” It would appear, then, that Ruth’s physical positioning, as well as her reminder to Lenny and Teddy regarding the limits of words, privilege the image, transferring their search for philosophical certitude from language to her, the image. If, however,
Ruth is a “moving picture,” the soundtrack is faulty, the dictum being that sound must prevail uninterrupted in order to uphold the image’s status throughout a film. Here, however, frequent pauses and silences subvert the image’s powerful position. Further, it is the sound of her voice which first captures and then retains the men’s attention. Sound—both its presence and its absence—punctures the privileged but illusory status of the image.
Pinter’s more recent work, moreover, highlights the importance of the voice even further. Family Voices(1981), for example, is a “radio play” which, to borrow Beckett’s phrase, gives the audience the experience of “a text written to come out of the dark”, a description which bears a close resemblance to the titles of two of Pinter’s scenes in Mountain Language. As Stephen Gale notes, the play is “a series of disembodied voices.” And, in One For the Road(1985), though we see the effects of physical torture on the victims, we never see the act of physical abuse; we only hear the insidious taunting of their oppressor and the victims’ often muffled responses. Pinter’s clear fascination with cinema, then, may not be restricted to the visual elements; instead, it may prompt him to reevaluate such emphasis.
The cinematic techniques of the “voice-off’ and the “voice-over” threaten to undercut the filmic image’s supremacy, as well. Simply, the “voice-off” Page 288 | Top of Articleis the moment when a character’s voice is separated from his or her image. In most films, however, the voice and body are united during prior or subsequent scenes. Similarly in theater, the offstage voice is frequently followed or preceded by the appearance of the character whose voice we heard. In both instances, sound and image are neatly reunited, so no disruption occurs. As Doane argues, there is no interruption of the “fantasmic body” in such films; on the contrary, the technique actually expands “the affirmation of the depicted unity and homogeneity of depicted space.”
Frequently used in documentary films, the “voice-over” is a disembodied voice which rarely unites the image with the speaker. Though sound and image remain separated, in traditional documentaries “this voice has been for the most part that of the male, and its power resides in the possession of knowledge and in the privileged, unquestioned activity of interpretation.” In this way, though the image is momentarily deprived of its status, the faith in a fantasmic body is unquestioned, since the voice-over leads the audience to presume that there is some “body” out there who represents the certitude the spectators seek.
In Mountain Language, Pinter offers a variation on these two cinematic techniques, a variation which privileges neither sound nor image but does highlight its disjunction in order to challenge his audience’s position of authority. In effect, Pinter “voices-over” the “voice-off” by transmitting the characters’ thoughts over the theater’s sound system while they are still present on stage. The title of the two scenes in which this method is employed underscores Pinter’s ability to balance the position of the image and sound, thereby producing a grim depiction of such oppression’s effects: “voices in the darkness.”
To some extent the technique resembles traditional dramatic conventions such as monologues, soliloquies, and asides: we are presented with the characters’ inner thoughts. Such conventions, however, imply that the subversion of political oppression may be possible; the victims, after all, would speak in their “mountain language,” even if it is only to the audience. Hence, the audience’s quest for comfort would not be threatened. By using this technique, Pinter apparently resolves the paradox created by his recent political interests and his prior attitudes towards language. By broadcasting his characters’ speeches over their physical presence, Pinter shows us that the torturers disembody their victims in more than physical ways. We see that the victims’ voices are not in their possession; they are above and beyond them. Through this disjunction, this rupture between word and image, actor and dramatic dialogue, we see that the victims’ bodies and voices have been as effectively severed as the Old Woman’s thumb was torn from her hand.
The speeches themselves, moreover, are not filled with revolutionary fervor, nor do the victims even express a coherent understanding of their imprisoned state. Instead, their speeches contain memories and commonplace desires which highlight the pain of political oppression in personal terms. By the end of the play, moreover, even these disembodied voices are absent. When, for example, the elderly woman is finally permitted to speak in her own language, she cannot or will not. Whether the guards have literally taken her tongue is unclear, but Pinter, in any case, does not provide us with the reassurance a reunion of the body and voice would create. In this way, it would appear that Pinter succeeds in representing language’s absence through language, without conjoining political power upon language through its absence.
And yet, during these moments of the “voice-over,” Pinter does indicate that while language may not provide the means for social change, it does create the possibility for such subversion. In the scene, for example, between the young woman and man, the characters may not talk about revolution, but they do seem to be able to construct an almost psychic connection which transcends their imprisonment and linguistic restrictions. Like Ruth in The Homecoming, they express a means of communicating beyond language through language. They, for instance, coincidentally remember the same comforting memory from their past:
Man’s voice: I watch you sleep. And then your eyes open. You look up at me and smile.
Woman’s voice: You smile. When my eyes open I see you above me and smile.
Man’s voice: We are out on a lake.
Woman’s voice: It is spring.
Man’s voice: I hold you. I warm you.
Despite their oppression, their silence does “speak,” just as the elderly woman’s silence at the end of the play speaks of the cruel and arbitrary nature of political oppression.
In this way, Pinter does not entirely avoid idealizing the possibility of change through language. Pinter cannot exorcise from the play a spectral faith in linguistic power. Pinter’s decision to write the play in the first place indicates that his Page 289 | Top of Articlepolitical interests cannot allow him to remain silent. He may not know exactly what to say, but he must convey the heinousness of such oppression.
An interview with Pinter upon his return from Turkey may further illustrate this point. He says:
I believe there’s no chance of the world coming to other than a very grisly end in the next twenty-five years at the outside. Unless, God, as it were, finally speaks. Because reason is not going to do anything. Me writing One For the Road, documentaries, articles, lucid analyses, Avrell Harriman writing in the New York Times, voices here and there, people walking down the road and demonstrating. Finally it’s hopeless. There’s nothing one can achieve. Because the modes of thinking of those in power are worn out, threadbare, atrophied. Their minds are a brick wall. But still one can’t stop attempting to try to think and see things as clearly as possible.
Here, too, Pinter cannot resolve his political concerns with his ambivalence towards language: the situation is hopeless, yet he continues to write. In Mountain Language, then, we not only witness an oppressed people in crisis but a playwright in crisis as well, who even identifies with his victims’ separation from linguistic power. Language cannot communicate or bring about political change, yet something must be said. We are headed for self-destruction, and Pinter clearly doubts the written word’s ability to stop such an end. As in the play, during this interview, Pinter invokes the “voice-over” through his parenthetical reference to the divine, the ultimate “voice-over,” the supreme “disembodied voice,” which he hopes will speak, like his characters, out of the darkness.
Source: Ann C. Hall, “Voices in the Dark: The Disembodied Voice in Harold Pinter’s Mountain Language,” in Pinter Review: Annual Essays 1991,1991, pp. 17-22.
Dace, Tish, “Pinter, Harold,” in Reference Guide to English Literature,2nd ed., edited by D. L. Kirkpatrick, Vol. 2, St. James Press, 1991, pp. 1080-84.
Gordon, Lois, “Harold Pinter: Overview,” in Contemporary Dramatists,5th ed., edited by K. A. Berney, St. James Press, 1993.
Kennedy, Douglas, “Breaking the Silence,” in New Statesman & Society, Vol. 1, No. 21, October 28, 1988, pp. 38-39.
Pinter, Harold, “Introduction,” in The Complete Works One, Grove Press, 1990.
Pinter, Harold, “Introduction,” in The Complete Works Four, Grove Press, 1990.
Spencer, Charles, “An Interminable Slog through Pinter’s Politics,” in Daily Telegraph, June 28, 2001.
Armstrong, Raymond, Kafka and Pinter Shadow-Boxing: The Struggle between Father and Son, Palgrave, 1999.
Armstrong provides a fascinating look at Kafka’s influence on Pinter’s plays.
Gale, Steven H., ed., The Films of Harold Pinter, SUNY Series, Cultural Studies in Cinema/Video, State University of New York Press, 2001.
This volume contains essays by ten film scholars on Pinter’s screenplays, including Lolita, The Remains of the Day, and The French Lieutenant’s Woman.
Gussow, Mel, Conversations With Pinter, Grove Press, 1996.
Gussow, a New York Times drama critic, collects a series of interviews he conducted with Pinter between 1971 and 1993 on the nature of Pinter’s work.
Taylor, John Russell, “Harold Pinter,” in British Writers: Supplement I, edited by Ian Scott-Kilvert, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1987, pp. 367-82.
Taylor presents a thematic study of Pinter’s earlier plays.