The Play

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1031

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This one-act drama opens with Deborah’s awakening from a long sleep. A woman in her mid-forties, she is sitting up in a white bed looking around. Her gaze falls on Dr. Hornby, who wears a dark suit and is seated at a table in one of two chairs. As Deborah tries to assess what is happening, Hornby questions her, wondering if she knows him or can hear him. Believing that he is not listening to her, Deborah refuses to identify him as anyone. She talks about her sleeplessness and notes that she can speak French. Hornby informs her that she has been asleep for a long time, is much older than when she fell asleep, and is now awake.

Deborah seems unable to digest this information. When she finally looks at Hornby, she tries to grasp what he has told her but seems disoriented. Unsure of what language she is speaking, she is still not convinced that she is being heard, and she speaks as if she were still the young person who fell asleep years ago. When Hornby informs her that he is the one who woke her, she is only more confused, since she does not know him; she continues to ask for others who were there when she fell asleep as a younger person. Unsure of her age when asked, she settles on fifteen but begins to accuse the doctor of “touching” her; when he tells her that her parents brought her here, she wonders whether it was as a sacrifice, insisting that Hornby has seduced and “ruined” her.

Continuing to try to locate herself in time and space, Deborah wants to verify her age through her sisters, Pauline and Estelle. Pauline, she says, is too witty for her own good, and Estelle is deep and sensual. Deborah also continues to speculate about where she is, conjecturing that she may be in a seaside hotel or in a white tent in the Sahara Desert. Becoming defensive with the doctor about her long sleep, Deborah finally asks how long it has been; when the doctor informs her that it has been twenty-nine years, she is further confused about whether she has been or is dead. She asks about her boyfriend Jack and wonders what crime she may have committed to put her in this prison. When told that her sister Pauline is waiting to see her, she insists that she does not want to see any sisters or brothers, suggesting that her sisters are gluttons and confiding to Hornby that she once prayed she would never see any of them again.

Deborah continues to oscillate between the past and present. Learning from the doctor that he woke her with an injection, she tries to claim him as her Prince Charming, but he refuses. She then reverts to the past, saying that she will settle for Jack, but she is upset by the memory of Pauline’s telling her that her father had a mistress. Switching back to the present, Deborah wants to know what is happening.

Hornby and Deborah exchange information about the experience. He tries to explain to Deborah that she fell into a kind of sleep in which she was very still, though she was taken on walks and she sometimes made some spasmodic movements. Attempting to get out of bed and stand, Deborah falls, refuses help, and begins to dance in slow motion. She then sits and asks about current events, wondering whether the war is over and telling Hornby about the nature of her dancing while she was asleep.

Deborah notices her younger sister, Pauline, who is standing in the room and who asks Deborah if she recognizes her. Pauline and Hornby have a brief argument about whether Pauline should be there, and Hornby advises her to tell Deborah a mixture of lies and truth. After alerting Hornby to his trembling hand, Pauline tells Deborah that her parents and other sister are on a world cruise, but she has informed them of Deborah’s awakening and they all send love. She again asks Deborah whether she recognizes her.

Puzzled by her sister’s changed condition, Deborah questions her about it, but Pauline insists that it was Deborah who at age sixteen changed. Apparently, Deborah was placing a vase on the table during dinner and suddenly froze, unfreezing briefly only to come to a total stop when trying to move the vase so she could see her father. Unable to take this in, Deborah speculates that Pauline must be an aunt she has not met, or a distant cousin. Then, noticing Pauline’s breasts, Deborah notices her own and concludes that they are both women. When Deborah reverts to questions that suggest she is still sixteen, Hornby admonishes her that she is not listening, and Pauline describes herself as a widow. Hornby explains to Deborah that he has cared for her since she fell into her sleep, marrying Pauline but then leaving her to live with Deborah and awakening her when he came to possess the means to do so. Her mother, he says, is dead and her father blind. He insists that Deborah has been absent, suspended in “a kind of Alaska,” while he and Pauline have been the ones to suffer, Pauline visiting regularly and he trying to chart Deborah’s journey.

Deborah voices her desire to go home and asks about her forthcoming birthday. When they encourage her about it and her presents, she becomes further concerned about whether she will be able to keep them. Beginning to flick her cheek with her hand faster and faster, Deborah seems to go back into “a kind of Alaska.” Complaining that walls are closing in on her, she becomes rigid and hysterical, but this passes and she becomes calm. She then explains the experience in terms of being in a large hall of mirrors, silent except for a dripping tap. Now, she says, she has no intention of looking into a mirror.

The play ends with Deborah making an assessment of some of the lies and truths she has been told. She thinks that she has things “in proportion” and thanks Hornby and Pauline.

Dramatic Devices

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Harold Pinter begins A Kind of Alaska in a realistic fashion; the audience learns with the awakening Deborah that she has been asleep for many years. By dwelling, however, on the difficulties Deborah has in digesting this information and by exploring her disoriented leaps back and forth in time, Pinter draws the audience into an experience of disorientation that leads to a questioning of the reality that this ostensibly realistic presentation depicts. By the end of the play, the audience may be wondering which is true, Deborah’s perceptions or Hornby’s.

These leaps in time—one minute Deborah questions Hornby about being her Prince Charming, only to call the next minute for her former boyfriend Jack—tend to give a conflated impression of time, in which past and present are equally present and alive. When Deborah asks Pauline whether she is really her sister and, if so, where she got “those breasts,” Pinter continues in the tradition of absurdist playwrights, making the audience feel the strangeness of the commonplace. This kind of mixture of the tragic and comic is also an absurdist technique, and what seems entirely natural, the development of a girl into a woman, becomes somewhat monstrous, or at least extremely strange.

Absurdist techniques appear as well in terms of Hornby’s insistence that his wife is a widow because he has dedicated himself to the care and observation of Deborah. If one were to read this play as complete realism, Hornby as well as Deborah would become a case history, because of his obsessive concern with Deborah. Part of Pinter’s technique, however, is to allow the bizarre—this obsession—to be treated as something perfectly natural, a technique of understatement in which the audience is invited to look at the acceptance of the very strange. Pauline, for example, makes no objection whatsoever to being designated as a widow.

Silence as well as understatement is a technique Pinter uses to draw the audience into the subtext of his drama. After Hornby explains to Deborah, for example, that he has lived with her rather than his wife, Pinter’s stage directions indicate a period of silence, after which Deborah responds, “I want to go home”; she pauses, then says, “I’m cold.” Such use of silence and non sequiturs leads the audience to seek the hidden connections and to sense the meanings beneath what is being said. Deborah seems to feel lost in the light of the information she is receiving, although she never directly makes such a statement.

Another dramatic device that Pinter uses is doubling. Deborah sees herself doubled with her two sisters, noting that the three of them were called “the three bluebells.” By designating Pauline as too witty for her own good and Estelle as deep and sensual, she is exploring aspects of herself that worry her. Pauline contributes to this sense of doubling when she tells Deborah that Estelle is on a world cruise with the family because she, too, is in need of a long break. One cannot help but relate this need to the long break that Deborah has taken. This doubling technique, then, is one of many that draw the audience into an experience of the play’s subtextual levels.


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Sources for Further Study

Billington, Michael. The Life and Work of Harold Pinter. London: Faber, 1996.

Dukore, Bernard F. “Alaskan Perspectives.” In Harold Pinter: You Never Heard Such Silence, edited by Alan Bold. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes and Noble, 1984.

Gordon, Lois. Harold Pinter: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1990.

Gussow, Mel. Conversations with Pinter. London: Nick Hem, 1994.

Regal, Martin S. Harold Pinter: A Question of Timing. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995.

Sakellaridou, Elizabeth. Pinter’s Female Portraits: A Study of Female Characters in the Plays of Harold Pinter. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes and Noble, 1988.

Silverstein, Marc. Harold Pinter and the Language of Cultural Power. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1993.


Critical Essays