Mountain Language

by Harold Pinter

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Historical Context

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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 Søren 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.

Literary Style

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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...

(This entire section contains 322 words.)

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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 dia logue between 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.

Compare and Contrast

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1930s: In the new republic of Turkey, president Mustafa Kemal Ataturk works hard to ‘‘Europeanize’’ his people, including the adoption of surnames and giving women the right to vote. This change also includes the abolishment of religion within Turkey, which greatly affects Kurds.

1980s: Torn by internal strife, Turkey’s Council of National Security seeks to restore public order through the capture of terrorists, the confiscation of large caches of weapons, and a ban on political activity. A state of emergency is declared in 1987 to deal with the uprising the of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

Today: The number of deaths from terrorism drops significantly as Turkey seeks involvement with the European Union. A state of emergency still exists in the six southeastern states that are native to Kurds.

1930s: Theater sees enormous growth in Turkey after the formation of the republic. The first Children’s Theater is opened. The Halkevleri (people centers), established by the State, play a large role in the spread and development of theater through publications, tours, and courses.

1980s: Drama continues to be popular in Turkey as more theaters open all over the country.

Today: The Turkish government is trying to provide financial support to private theaters in the interest of preserving artistic expression, but this backing is not regulated and is therefore subject to political whim.

1930s: A latinized Turkish alphabet is now the basis of the official written language of Turkey, a nation recently assembled from the remains of the Ottoman empire and including a variety of ethnic groups.

1980s: The constitution adopted in 1982 preserves democratic government and protects basic human rights, including freedom of expression, thought, and assembly.

Today: Twenty percent of Turkey’s population is ethnically Kurdish; the remaining eighty percent is Turkish. Ninety-nine percent of the population is Muslim. Turkish is the official language, but Kurdish, Arabic, Armenian, and Greek are also spoken.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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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.

Further Reading
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.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide