Mountain Language Essays and Criticism
by Harold Pinter

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Realism and the Absurd

(Drama for Students)

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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...

(The entire section is 7,793 words.)