Critical Context

A Kind of Alaska may appear to be more realistic than some of Harold Pinter’s other work; indeed, it is based on an actual case history from Oliver Sacks’s book Awakenings (1973). However, it has the same kind of mixture of the realistic and the bizarre that characterizes Pinter’s work, from The Room (pr. 1957, pb. 1960) to the plays with which it is published, Family Voices (pr., pb. 1981) and Victoria Station (pr., pb. 1982). Unlike Samuel Beckett’s dramas, which have been a major influence on the younger playwright and which begin with such strange images as that of a buried woman or a suspended pair of lips, Pinter characteristically begins with a realistic situation and room and only slowly evokes the strangeness or surreal aspect of the action.

Deborah’s sense of displacement in time and place is another version of Pinter’s concern with such displacement in plays such as Old Times (pr., pb. 1971), in which the main character confronts herself in a visit from a former roommate who evokes her past, or The Homecoming (pr., pb. 1965), in which Ruth’s arrival in a household of men suggests the return of the lost mother/wife. A Kind of Alaska then, is related to Pinter’s other work in terms of its surrealistic style and its psychological concern with the impact of the past in the present; it also takes up the political power struggles that inform all of his plays. Deborah does not easily submit to Hornby’s attempts at orienting her to a patriarchal society.

Finally, however, the play resonates with that existential anguish that always informs Pinter’s tragicomic dramas. The question of how individuals can be awake to their existence permeates Pinter’s plays; hence, it is not surprising to find him using the Sleeping Beauty motif for its further exploration. That he focuses with such sympathy on a woman’s dilemma is not new, but is part of what makes this minor masterpiece of one of the most important contemporary playwrights of particular interest.