115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Language as Performance in Harold Pinter’s One for the Road, New World Order and Mountain Language 

Judith Saunders, Independent Scholar

Truth can, at times, be apprehended more effectively through appeal to the imagination rather than visual representation. This is exquisitely demonstrated in the “politico-aesthetics” of Harold Pinter’s later plays One for the Road, New World Order and Mountain Language, wherein artistry of language effectively communicates the violence endemic to imperial aggression.


Pinter’s more politically charged plays One for the Road, New World Order and Mountain Language reflect his Amnesty International activity during the 1990’s, which centered on the undercover American atrocities in Latin America.  His later, self-edited anthology, Death etc, includes, in addition to these plays, his polemic 2005 Nobel Literature Prize acceptance speech “Art, Truth & Politics.” He thus explicitly positions the plays as political critique of the then current American war in Iraq and Britain’s complicity therein.

Pinter’s vitriol is rendered dramatically powerful by the withholding from the audience a visual representation of the violation of human rights that occurs when a less-powerful country is invaded by one more powerful. Basil Chassion’s term “politico-aesthetics” describes well how Pinter’s verbal menace effectively conjures up mental images of horror in order to provoke audience anxiety, which is subsequently translated into political terms.

            Each play is set in a prison or internment camp in a country whose population has been dispossessed of its autonomy, even its culture, by an imperial power. The fact that the violence in these plays takes place off stage mirrors the “out of public sight” aspect of Western aggression, which tends to take place away from prying eyes. The action revolves around the interrogation motif: the submission of those questioned by investigators who do not seek information, but use interrogation merely to demonstrate their power: domination through language. This motif allows Pinter to privilege sound over sight. Words substitute for the visual, fuelling the imagination to create images of the cruelty enacted.

The goal of Pinter’s imperialist thugs is to stifle resistance. Pinter conveys this by metaphorically (sometimes literally) reducing his victims to speechlessness, effectively robbing them of any way to retaliate. Some characters have their tongues mutilated, others are reduced to uttering animalistic sounds, while others, blindfolded and gagged, are forced to hear descriptions of the torture that will be inflicted on them.  Pinter renders the victims mute to emphasize the tyranny imposed when speech is solely the privilege of the oppressors.

Distress is aroused in the audience, at times, by the casual allusion on stage to violence enacted off stage, forcing the audience to create a mental configuration of dehumanizing acts: the systematic rape of one victim, or an attack by a vicious guard dog on another.  It is also induced when torture is conflated with humor, inviting us to laugh at jokes that, in context, are not funny, or having to listen to meaningless orders barked out with machine gun-like repetition by de-humanized voices.

Pinter employs these strategies to convey his political message: his excoriating attack on the ideology and operations of repressive regimes.  From the audience’s perspective, the relentlessness of the implied violence is not just disturbing to the senses, but produces a galvanizing response. As critic Michael Billington posits, Pinter’s theater jolts “the lazy, liberal conscience” of his audience, puncturing their isolationist smugness. 



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