Mountain Language

by Harold Pinter

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Pinter illustrates the play’s major theme, meaninglessness, in his adroit construction of the play. In the absurd prison world, nothing makes sense. The prisoners, referred to as ‘‘s——houses’’ and ‘‘enemies of the state’’ are being held for unnamed crimes. The narrative suggests that they have been imprisoned because they are ‘‘mountain people’’ who speak an outlawed language. When the officials discover that Charley, Sara’s husband, is not a mountain person, they decide he has been put into the ‘‘wrong batch’’ but do not question his guilt.

The play presents an existentialist vision of the condition and existence of men and women as it deconstructs the traditional view that humans are rational beings existing in an intelligible universe. The characters repeatedly question the prison rules, trying to determine a logical structure to the system but are continually thwarted because there is no logic behind a world that contains neither truth nor value. As they face this meaninglessness, they experience isolation and anguish.

Pinter illustrates this sense of meaninglessness in his presentation of the breakdown between language and meaning. Sara continually tries to communicate with the prison officials in order to convince them to treat her and the others humanely and to allow her to reunite with her husband, but her dialogue with them continually degenerates into pointless babble. For example, when she tries to get someone to tend to the elderly woman whose hand has been torn by a dog bite, the officer and sergeant begin a nonsensical discussion about the dog’s name and never offer assistance.

Social Protest
Pinter constructs scenes like the one concerning the dog as a form of social protest. Through his characterizations and dramatic structure, he presents a compelling indictment of totalitarian regimes. Pinter has suggested the oppression the Kurds have experienced as a minority group in Turkey inspired his writing of the play (as mentioned by Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph, but his use of Anglo names like ‘‘Sara Johnson’’ and ‘‘Charley,’’ along with the indeterminate setting, suggests Pinter is condemning any government that oppresses its people.

One of the main ways the prison officials oppress the characters in the play is to censor them. In order to strip them of their cultural identity, they decree that ‘‘mountain language’’ is forbidden, that it should be considered ‘‘dead,’’ and those who speak it will be severely punished. This censure not only denies the characters a sense of self but also serves to isolate each from the other because communication within the community becomes impossible.

Sexual Abuse
When the officials realize that Sara is not a mountain woman and so cannot control her due to her social status, they find another way to exercise their power over her. After the sergeant identifies her as a ‘‘f—— intellectual,’’ he abuses her to assert his power over her. When she admits to the sergeant that she does not speak mountain language, he puts his hands on her and asks, ‘‘What language do you speak with your a——,’’ thus effectively undermining her position in the prison hierarchy. Later, he insists to the officer that Sara is full of sin, that she ‘‘bounces with it.’’

Sara makes attempts to resist the authority of the officials through her questions and her silences. She insists that something should be done to help the elderly woman after the guard dog bites her, and she insists it is her right to see her husband. She meets the officials’ repeated, foolish questions (for example, ‘‘What is the dog’s name?’’) with silence, refusing to participate in meaningless dialogue. Yet, by the end of the play, her spirit has effectively been broken by the totalitarian system. She finally sees her husband but is powerless to prevent his torture through rational means. As a result, she agrees to prostitute herself so that she can save him.

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