Mountain Language

by Harold Pinter

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Realism and the Absurd

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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...

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the absurd to reinforce the sense of meaninglessness and barbarity. The absurdity emerges in the dialogues between the prison offi- cials and the inmates and the women who come to see them. The language in these scenes operates principally 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 WorksOne. 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 refer ence.’’ He 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.

Mountain Language (1988) and ‘New World Order’ (1991)

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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 identi- fication, 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 foulmouthed 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 Johnson.’’ 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 diffi- culty 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.

Mountain Language: Torture Revisited

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After One for the Road there might seem little more to say about the brutalities of torture. But Mountain Language, which continues to explore the conflict between Eros and Thanatos, offers further insights into the causes for such brutality and strengthens insights into further links between love and violence. Love or its opposite, fractally referenced and infused in each moment, drives the play’s conflict. Love, devalued and deployed in brutal language and acts of the torturers as one weapon in the arsenal to destroy, is also a bond which can sustain the tortured and their families. Inspired by the plight of the Kurds who were forbidden to speak their language, Mountain Language is the bleakest, most pitiless, and remorseless of Pinter’s plays.

The action in the play alternates between women in line waiting outside to see their men being held prisoner inside and the brief visits they are permitted: between a mother and son, a husband and wife, a woman and her lover.

The initial focus on the waiting women throws a spotlight upon their men being held prisoner and tortured. The play levels distinctions between age, education, and class: the young intellectual wife who has come to see her husband and the old peasant mother, to see her son. Both are equally humiliated, both, equally courageous. The near hopelessness of the women’s plight, their stoical defi- ance of authority to support their men dramatizes a courage informed by love.

That love, which sustains the men and women through some of the worst outrages remains, however, impotent to save the men. Love without power is not enough.

As the play opens the Young Woman at the head of the line exhibits defiance as soon the Sergeant demands ‘‘Name?’’ She repeats her reply, ‘‘We’ve given our names,’’ each time he asks. Her refusal to comply with his senseless demands prompts the Officer who enters to engage in the familiar ‘‘good cop/bad cop’’ ploy by turning upon the Sergeant with, ‘‘Stop this s——.’’ He then asks the Young Woman, ‘‘Any complaints?’’ Momentarily releasing tension and raising hope, he notices the Elderly Woman’s wounded hand and asks, ‘‘Has someone bitten your hand?’’ The term ‘‘someone,’’ one of the few grimly humorous turns in the play, both relieves and heightens tension. When the old peasant woman fails to answer his repeated question, the Young Woman finally says, ‘‘A Doberman pinscher.’’

Full dread begins to dawn when the Officer observes, ‘‘I think the thumb is going to come off,’’ as he again asks the Elderly Woman (whom we will only later learn does not understand his language), ‘‘Who did this?’’ Her failure to answer his question again prompts the Young Woman to reply, ‘‘A big dog.’’ He instantly demands, ‘‘What was his name?’’ and with another desolate trace of humor lights into the Young Woman with a lengthy diatribe:

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. They state their name and then they bite.

In contrast to the dogs who have names, the men being tortured and women waiting in line to see them remain nameless. The point of the Sergeant’s repeatedly requesting the women’s names serves only to remind them that they have none.

The Sergeant, with permission to speak, pronounces the men they have been waiting to see ‘‘s— —houses’’ and ‘‘enemies of the State.’’ The Officer reminds the line of waiting women that by ‘‘military decree’’ and by ‘‘law’’ they are forbidden to speak their language: ‘‘Your language is dead.’’

The Young Woman tries to identify herself as apart from the others: ‘‘I do not speak the mountain language.’’ The Officer levels any distancing she attempts even in his ‘‘good cop’’ role; when he reminds his subordinate, ‘‘These women, Sergeant, have as yet committed no crime,’’ he allows himself to be corrected by his Sergeant who says, ‘‘Sir! But you’re not saying they’re without sin?’’

Their denying the equation of ‘‘crime’’ and ‘‘sin’’ only melds the values of church and state for the persecutors. The Officer agrees and the Sergeant further concurs, ‘‘This one’s full of it. She bounces with it.’’ When the Young Woman declares, ‘‘My name is Sara Johnson. I have come to see my husband. It is my right,’’ the word ‘‘right’’ is stripped of all meaning as she is asked for her papers, then informed, ‘‘He’s in the wrong batch.’’ The Sergeant remarks, ‘‘So is she. She looks like a f——ing intellectual to me,’’ adding, ‘‘Intellectual a——s wobble the best.’’ His remark, which cuts at her softer life, also reduces her to a slab of meat, reminding her that she is without distinction from the other women in line and that neither her mind, education, nor knowledge of the law can privilege her above the other women. This enforced leveling of hierarchy by those in command does not destroy hierarchy but distills it to the simple dichotomy of an us vs them duality.

The introduction of her Anglo name, which must garner greater sympathy from an Anglo- or Eurocentric audience, also functions to ambush the audience, reroute and subvert any distancing belief, ‘‘This could never happen to me.’’ Her name all by itself also gives weight to her individuality to enhance audience sympathy. (But would a name such as Gingra Razzu serve the same function as Sara Johnson?) This second central Sara in Pinter’s plays (though a variant spelling on Sarah of The Lover) serves to emphasize the biblical connotations not only of Sarah’s lost children, but here, Sara’s lost husband, and through his death, of their lost children.

The Elderly Woman with the wounded hand, now in the visitor’s room with her son, is twice jabbed by a guard and forbidden to speak her language when once she says, ‘‘I have bread—’’ and another time, ‘‘I have apples—’’ Only then does the Guard realize she does not understand him. Nevertheless his message has been effectively conveyed—she does not speak again.

Pinter departs from his customary realism, transmitting to the audience the thoughts of the prisoners and visitors which they have been forbidden to speak. We hear in the Elderly Woman’s thought/ voice attempts to encourage her son as she sits mutely across from him to ‘‘tell’’ him in her mind that the baby is waiting, that everyone looks forward to his homecoming. The Prisoner’s thought/ voice also conveys love and concern as he notices that his mother’s hand has been bitten. This invention conveys the depth of feeling the characters bear one another and the significance of their meeting— of her having made the visit and his having survived despite all odds. Their acts of love that sustain them endure to stand in stark contrast to the lack of any human kindness from those in authority.

But beneath their different exteriors and opposing circumstances, Pinter links the prisoners and the guards by a common thread of humanity: family. When the Guard remarks, ‘‘I’ve got a wife and three kids,’’ the Prisoner volunteers the information that he does, too. Even though the prisoner’s attempt to form a human connection only prompts the Guard to telephone in the complaint, ‘‘I think I’ve got a joker in here,’’ and though The Guard refuses to recognize any commonality between himself and the man he holds prisoner (as, to continue his work, he must), the link has been forged for the audience.

In the penultimate scene, ‘‘Voice in the Darkness,’’ when a Young Woman enters, the Sergeant barks ‘‘Who’s that f——ing woman?’’ conveying anti-erotic sexual overtones which nevertheless parallel the thought/voice erotic communion between the Young Woman and her lover, who stands before her supported by two guards and with a bag over his head. The Young Man’s and Young Woman’s intertwining ‘‘voices’’ recall making love. Even here at the edge of the abyss their love sustains them as his thoughts import their past lovemaking into the present, sustaining him to withstand this intolerable situation and transforming it: ‘‘I watch you sleep. And then your eyes open. You look up at me about you and smile.’’ The Young Woman’s voice in perfect consort responds: ‘‘You smile. When my eyes open I see you above me and smile.’’ Even though the hooded Young Man collapses without seeing his young lover, this scene of awakening to love transmits the larger point of the play.

The Sergeant terminates her visit: ‘‘Yes, you’ve come in the wrong door. It must be the computer. The computer’s got a double hernia.’’ The horror of that mistake, the irreversible human damage perpetuated upon a man wrongly imprisoned, resonates on the larger scale with the horror of the irrevocable human error in the whole situation: the imprisonment and torture of people who have committed no crime.

The Sergeant tells the Young Woman to come back in a week to see a man who comes in to answer questions. ‘‘His name is Dokes. Joseph Dokes.’’ The authority, masked by a protected John Doe identity, reminds us that the only names the guards and officers bear in this play are their anonymous titles: Guard, Officer. Torturers and tortured alike are equally stripped of identity.

The brief moment of love between the young woman and man is quickly supplanted by the Sergeant’s returning to his opening level of discourse: addressing love only as f——ing. Sex further reduces merely to an animal act to be bartered. When the Young Woman asks of Dokes, ‘‘Can I f—— him? If I f—— him, will everything be all right?’’ Though the Sergeant replies, ‘‘Sure,’’ the audience knows that no human currency these women tender can release their men from their suffering.

The final scene, image, action, and language all conspire to reinforce the split between the destructive animality of the term ‘‘f——’’ as the authorities deploy it and the love between those linked by mutual affection, family bonds, and marriage. The mother and son are brought back together and this time told that the law has been changed, that they are now free to speak their language: ‘‘New Rules. Until further notice.’’

But when the son, now with blood on his face, tries to translate this news to his elderly, wounded, silent mother, she no longer speaks. The earlier action of the guard to prohibit speech speaks more forcefully than any words.

The son finally collapses to the floor in his effort to make his mother understand as the play closes with the Sergeant’s, ‘‘Look at this. You go out of your way to give them a helping hand and they f—— it up.’’ The double cliché ‘‘helping hand’’ and ‘‘f—— it up’’ seal into a single image the love/violence connection—referring focus both to the mother’s wounded hand and to all the violence perpetuated in the name of love for a cause. The word ‘‘f——’’ here, stripped of all sexual and erotic connotation, any connection to love, reduces it to its function as an intensifying epithet in the weaponry of language and finally means almost nothing at all.

The violence in Pinter’s plays, as entertainment, raises ethical questions. Pinter’s admission that he opens himself to that charge and that at some level the audience takes some pleasure in the absolute power of the authorities does not divert the charge. Drama as a voyeuristic medium even encourages that, and some argue it provides an escape valve for real aggression. But Pinter’s aim is obviously other. The responsibility, since it cannot be claimed or borne by the innocent victims, again transfers to the audience. But how? By raising consciousness.

At the very least these plays serve to raise conscious awareness of the plight of a great many innocent people worldwide. But the insight they offer into the impulse to violence and torture raises even larger questions about human nature which is portrayed as so easily brutalized to become brute. Pinter does that here by fairly conventional means. Nowhere else in Pinter’s work are dominant characters drawn with so few or without any redeeming qualities, nor are the characters forced into submission, so wholly pure.

The question of responsibility thrown at the audience requires examination. It is not enough merely to know that such things happen. Pinter’s recent plays are a call to action. But what action? What direction do I offer students when I teach, audiences, when I direct Pinter’s plays? What ought I call upon myself to do in my writing and life? No doubt some classicists will ask of his work, but is this art? Is any call to action art? I would have to wait until Moonlight to fully answer these questions. One for the Road and Mountain Language cannot be lumped with and dismissed as mere diatribe.

In the subtext and the thematic connections between love and justice, the issues Pinter is raising are much larger: his plays provoke in audiences not merely specific emotional and intellectual responses to the injustice in the specific acts of torture but an attitude of sympathy, an empathy, a regard for the other as the self—even the torturer in the self. Without that perspective, humans who hold radically different views can be encouraged to continue to regard themselves as superior to all others who hold different religious or political views and can treat those others as vermin, lice to be smudged out and erased. Interestingly, such an attitude must also extend to the torturers. By extension, a happy ending to the torture plays would hardly be to see the torturers merely dead or themselves tortured but to see them awakened; the extermination of a torturer, even all those in such positions of power, resolves little beyond the moment.

Consistently Pinter’s work reveals that how one regards the other remains a measure of how one regards the self. But again in this play we see that love is not enough. Love must assert itself in taking power necessary to defend itself or else the deathloving forces ‘‘triumph.’’ Because power is not something asked for, given, or granted, it must be seized. But before it can be exercised to promote the life-enhancing forces of growth and development rather than death and destruction, it must develop at that private level where awakening begins in selfknowledge.

What enhances the power of Pinter’s work is that he acknowledges the dark, destructive but passionate Dionysian powers and weds them to the Apollonian, coolly rational quest for order and authority. He gives them equal play, blurring the traditional boundaries of each so that in the end, except for the torture plays, the two forces end in a stand-off. But brute physical power will always claim victory over mere love until love can develop its own sources of power and reclaim that power of attraction that death has appropriated as its own.

Pinter’s portrayal of his authority figures’ claims of doing good raises the ultimate issue, What does it mean to be good? What are the qualities necessary?

Pinter offers no easy answers. The virtues portrayed as admirable, when inner awareness and lesser strengths remain undeveloped and informed only by insecurity and fear, turn, in excess, to destructive forces loosed upon others that also turn inwardly against the self and outwardly on, the society it seeks to preserve and promote.

Death does not promote life, but the destructors in these plays remain blind to that and to what is mutilated, destroyed, and dead in themselves. Yet love remains powerless to contain, restrain or counter the forces of destruction. Like Good Deeds in Everyman, love’s power seems nearly extinguished. What is necessary to reawaken love as a lifeenhancing power which is justice? Perhaps the simple awareness that Pinter’s work evokes and with that awareness action may follow.

Source: Penelope Prentice, ‘‘Mountain Language: Torture Revisited,’’ in The Pinter Ethic, Garland Publishing, Inc., 1994, pp. 285–91.

Voices in the Dark: The Disembodied Voice in Harold Pinter’s Mountain Language

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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 innovations 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.
Teddy stands.

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. Pause.
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, how- ever, 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’’ is 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 ‘‘voiceover,’’ 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 political 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 selfdestruction, and Pinter clearly doubts the written word’s ability to stop such an end. As in the play, during this interview, Pinter invokes the ‘‘voiceover’’ 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.


Critical Overview