Lecture Notes on Harold Pinters Modern Plays
Pinters later plays, One for the Road (1984), Mountain Language (1988) and The New World Order (1991) focus on the theme of power, and how the individual is psychologically destroyed by the powerful, controlling elements in society. The plays could be interpreted as focusing purely on military dictatorships throughout the world (Pinter was particularly interested in the oppression by the regimes in South America), or they could be viewed as critiques of modern western society itself.
In all three plays, Pinter creates two sets of characters: the oppressors and the oppressed. The oppressors tend to be aggressive, uneducated, rude bullies (remember Ben in The Dumb Waiter), while the oppressed are usually educated, family-oriented, pitiable individuals. Pinter shows us how people are kept under control using modern disciplinary methods. George Orwell, in his masterpiece 1984, gave us the picture of a society able to impose the utmost discipline on its subjects/citizens, without resorting to violent methods. All societies, whether it is based on capitalism and the promise of wealth, socialism and the promise of utopia, or religion and the promise of heaven, need to impose social discipline and conformity on its members in order to achieve piece, harmony, production and a status quo that protects the leaders. Modern western society, while claiming to be free, simply achieves this discipline using less overt methods; in other words, the disciplinary process becomes secret.
The disciplinary methods presented by Pinter in these three plays are based on psychological abuse, designed at securing conformity among potentially disruptive elements. Physical abuse is not necessary; instead, Pinters bullies verbally destroy their objects, carefully using language to achieve their aims. By the end of each play, the oppressed have been (or are about to be) destroyed in some way; Pinter is in no way, advocating solutions to the problem.
One for the Road involves an aggressive dictator, Nicholas, and a family, Victor, Gila and Nicky. During the play, Nicholas dominates the conversation, rarely giving the members of the family chance to defend themselves. He continually threatens all three of them, questioning Gina about how many times shes been raped, verbally abusing Victor, and ultimately killing the child, Nicky. It seems that Nicky had refused to cooperate with soldiers/representatives of the regime represented by Nicholas. The result of non-cooperation is, of course, death.
Mountain Language presents us with a situation thought to be relevant to the problems faced by the Kurds in the east of Turkey. A man has been placed in prison for disobedience, and his family are there to visit him. The family however speak a local dialect that has been banned in the country by the officials. The mans mother, unable to learn the new, official language, is ultimately unable to speak at all. Her whole identity has been destroyed by the oppressors and she has become dumb, a consequence rather pleasant for the oppressors.
The New World Order is probably the easiest of the plays to understand here. Two men, Lional and Desmond, standing behind a victim tied to a chair and blindfolded, spend time abusing and threatening the object of their aggression. The victim seems to be an educated religious man who obviously would not go along with state policy. It is Lionel and Bens job to frighten him into conformity, a fact that they are about to accomplish at the close of the play.
In all the plays, the focus remains on how language is used to oppress people. You can link this in with postmodernism and the importance of controlling the discourse in society. Only recently, minority groups have been able to start publishing their own stories in an attempt to fight against white, male domination. The same holds true for post-colonialism, with previously colonized nations attempting to produce their own literature in an attempt to break away from western stereotypes. Once again, French philosopher Michel Foucault, was extremely accurate in his analysis of the situation in the modern world. In some of his essays, he focused on the existence of truth in the modern world. (If you want an analysis of the concept of truth in todays world, take a look at my essay Truth in the Post-Modernist World in the essays and writings sections of this website. It should help and will save me some time here.)
Pinter therefore continually emphasizes the importance of language in the modern world. Once again, think back to Orwell and Newspeak in his society in 1984. If you can control what is being said, you control society. In all three plays here, you can find examples of the oppressors being reminded, or reminding themselves about the importance of using language correctly with the purpose of oppressing others. Look at these examples from the plays:
OFTR : 227 One has to be so scrupulous about language.
ML 255 Your language is dead. It is forbidden. It is not permitted to speak your mountain language in this place. You cannot speak your language to your men. It is not permitted. (Notice the way the instructions are repeated in an attempt to drill the new rules into the minds of the individuals)
TNWO 275 And you know what it means to you. You know what language means to you. Yes, I do know.
Finally, it is also worth noting the characters of the oppressors. Under no circumstances to they seem to realize that they are actually dictators/oppressors/bullies. They believe that they are doing a worthwhile job, necessary for the peaceful development of society. The prison guards in ML believe that by giving the people the chance to speak their own language for a short time at the end of the play, they are acting very generously. Unfortunately by that time, the prisoners mother has lost the ability to speak, and the prisoners wife seems to have accepted her fate that sleeping with the oppressors would help the situation. More clearly however, you can see the opinions of the oppressors in the final lines of TNWO. Lionel tells Des that he feels so pure when hes working (i.e. when hes psychologically destroying individuals in society), and Des replies that he is right to feel pure.Why? Because youre keeping the world clean for democracy.
Isnt that what they always say?