Multilevel Representations of Power in Harold Pinter's Plays

by Alina-Elena Rosca (Author)
©2015 Thesis 238 Pages


The study offers an interdisciplinary analysis of Harold Pinter’s dramatic discourse and focuses on the way power makes the characters play on the borders of linguistic, spatial, narrative and gender configurations. It examines the experimental nature of Harold Pinter’s dramatic technique and how he compromises both the realistic and the absurd dramatic formulae. The study also investigates the narrative of the past – a new dramatic technique in Pinter’s Plays, which brings into focus the inner life of the characters without causing any severe disturbance to the realistic conventional formula. It asserts that the narratives of the past become a form of doing, of being anchored in life and of acting in response to it. It also argues that sexuality is constantly submitted to manipulation and that women are more prepared than men to transgress gender constructions.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • 1. A Preliminary Analysis of Harold Pinter’s Dramatic Technique
  • 1.1 Breaking the Realistic Convention
  • 1.2 Surveying Power through Multi-Layered Games. The Complicity of Language, Narration, Space and Gender Constructions
  • 2. Spatial Configurations
  • 2.1 Territorial Confrontations
  • 2.2 Body and Object Negotiations
  • 3. Uses and Abuses of Language
  • 3.1 Language – a Means of Elusion. Avoiding the Painful Encounter with the Other
  • 3.2 The Theory of Politeness – Preserving the Illusion of the Self
  • 4. Representations of the Past
  • 4.1 The Narrative of the Past. The Past – a Means of Dissimulation
  • 4.2 Indebtedness to the Past: Memory and Amnesia
  • 5. Representations of Sexuality
  • 5.1 Women Transgressing the Norm
  • 5.2 Women as the Embodiment of Otherness
  • Conclusions
  • Bibliography
  • Primary Sources
  • Secondary Sources

| 7 →


This thesis starts from the assumption that power is not a pre-given fact, but an attribute that has to be acquired and reacquired through a variety of strategies. Power is thus reflected in Harold Pinter’s plays through a multitude of ritualistic games and confrontations of wills. The characters embark on such battles animated by the urgent desire to impose and maintain the authority of their fabricated universe, while negating the access of all others to their most intimate and obscure facets. Power is equivalent to depriving others of their own freedom of manifestation and, thus, to delegitimizing other structures and values of living which make Harold Pinter’s characters play, with no intention of reciprocity, on the borders of the linguistic, spatial, narrative and gender configurations.

The first chapter, entitled “A Preliminary Analysis of Harold Pinter’s Dramatic Technique” (1.1 Breaking the Realistic Convention; 1.2 Surveying Power through Multi-layered Games. The Complicity of Language, Narration, Space and Gender Constructions), investigates the distinctive features of the dramatic technique Harold Pinter employs in his plays, starting from the playwright’s ingenious strategy of crossing over the commonly accepted conventions of Post-World War II English drama, while simultaneously choosing to operate within their comfortable and secure framework.

The kitchen-sink domestic realism which developed the mid-1950s British drama is well reflected in Harold Pinter’s dramatic work, whose stage settings, characters and speech patterns powerfully reproduce a recognizable social context. On the other hand, against the obscure side of a psychologically motivated action which Harold Pinter explores beneath this conventional pattern, the playwright intentionally excludes from his carefully constructed drama the conventional, realistic exposition.

By setting forth no preliminary or background information about his characters’ past or origin, Pinter designs totally unreliable characters, whose real motives and intentions can rather be deciphered from what they do not perform, than from their overt manifestations. The reader cannot trust the characters, as they hide their desires and needs behind masks.

Harold Pinter’s work has also been associated with the drama of the absurd, but this affiliation has its limits and needs to be used with caution. The meaninglessness of life and the futility of existence which this type of theatre has advocated are embraced by Pinter to a certain extent. He outlines a world of individuals whose alienation from reality and incompetence in outfacing daily life are still carried out in very specific and, thus, realistic local settings. Such inadequate ← 7 | 8 → attitudes are mainly determined by the dramatis personae’s desperate efforts to keep their most intimate delusions and dreams under the guise of an adequately shaped identity, rather than by a fatalistic and hopeless loss of meaning and significance as it happens in the plays of the Absurd.

It is widely recognised that Harold Pinter developed a type of play whose psychological and absurd influences caused a lot of incongruities at the level of language, setting and character creation which definitely led to the dissolution and subversion of the surface realistic convention. This fact is furthermore attested by the playwright’s full and exclusive commitment to none of the familiar conventions of the two master dramatic genres, comedy or tragedy. Consequently, playing games is another recurrent feature of Harold Pinter’s dramatic technique which he constantly inserts in his tragicomedies with a view to outline that the characters’ primordial means of carrying their existence is staging double-edged (humoristic/ominous) performances that are the essence of their ritualistic lives.

Harold Pinter’s dedication to the major modernist interest in the exploration of sheer individualistic experiences and perceptions is supplemented by his partial turn towards postmodernism, too, which aims at showing that life is heterogeneous and that it can never be reduced to single, definitive norms or judgements.

The next chapter, entitled “Spatial Configurations” (2.1 Territorial Confrontations; 2.2 Body and Object Negotiations), aims at presenting the implications of Harold Pinter’s complex ways of organizing and structuring the scenic space according to extremely simple architectural details, based on a minimalist approach which converts the setting into an appropriate field of confrontation for adverse beings and sequences of action.

In relation to the spatial distribution of the characters across the stage setting, the present chapter makes reference to Deleuze and Guattari’s theory of flow (Anti-Oedipus. Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1983) and A Thousand Plateaus. Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1987)). Thus, although the individuals, as members of a community, are affiliated to a common system of norms and codes wherefrom any deviation should be declined, each human being is constantly passing through changes which make him/her break the standards and be very mobile in his/her progress through life. This mobility is primarily caused by the urgent necessity to satisfy one’s personal needs and pleasures and by ever shifting desires, which constantly change their direction.

Harold Pinter’s characters occupy a space where there occur frequent collisions between opposing pleasures and, thus, opposing ‘territorialities’. This perspective is strengthened by Henri Lefebvre’s practical analysis of space (The Production of Space (1991)) from within circumstances and relationships which lead to its ← 8 | 9 → creation, from within concretely lived experiences. Harold Pinter’s plays shape spaces that are produced by the incompatible and conflicting interests and intentions the characters struggle to hide beneath the socially accepted conventions. The settings and their spatial features become a powerful means of decoding the desires that really pertain to the individuals who are afraid of standing the risk of a mobile existence.

According to their contradictory desires, each character acts in a distinct space which, in its turn, competes to produce, within and around it, safe, specific ways of behaving which will never threaten to unmask one’s private longings and deprivations. The productive function of space is supported by Michel Foucault’s complex assembly ‘power-knowledge-space’ (Power/Knowledge. Selected Interviews and Other Writings. 1972–1977) which he devised in relation to the complex practices of the modern institutions of 18th century society. The various modes of production and coercion this society set up were meant to implement and authorise correct ways of thinking, speaking and acting in space, as opposed to what was being categorized and excluded as abnormal and deviational.

Harold Pinter’s plays explore the confrontation between two distinct types of inhabiting and creating space. The subject is often antithetically positioned in space, on the one hand as a central point around which space and its relationships are distributed, i.e. as a source of space production, and on the other hand as an indistinct point of spatial reference, i.e. as a spatial product, easily captured and assimilated by others. Contrary to the characters who prefer the unhazardous and simple path of already existing conventions, the characters who create and dictate a particular setting around them are those that do no fear to take a stand for their most intimate and urgent needs.

Pinter’s individuals avoid all forms of territorial associations moreover since Julia Kristeva’s theory of the abjection (Powers of Horror. An Essay on Abjection (1982)) promotes loss and absence as an inevitable part of existence driven by the instinctual and less conscious need to mark the borders of the self. The desire to remain fixed in one’s constructed space of isolation and to resist any change that might cast the subject into the full and complex processes of life is strongly embodied by the characters of No Man’s Land and of The Caretaker. The intruders or foreigners, coming from outside the comfortable space of the inert individuals, try to appropriate objects and territories which do not belong to them and, thus, to offer them a new configuration which will necessarily be related to their primordial needs. Kristeva identifies ‘the abject’ as that which is thrown out and rejected from oneself, because it impends the fabricated borders of the self to the point of reducing them to emptiness. In Harold Pinter’s plays the intruder, as the abject character, acts as a constant reminder that the self is so ← 9 | 10 → poorly equipped and that its boundaries are so precarious that they may easily be infected or reduced to nothingness.

Adequate control over the structures and boundaries of a place presupposes adopting the appropriate corporeal techniques and attitudes which are aimed at preserving order and eliminating any expression of anomaly. Bodily manifestations may either stand for order and stability, or for chaos and disorganization. The latter postures are out of place because they defy and go beyond the normative corporeal boundaries and the prevalent cultural imperatives. They are considered elements of pollution because their rootlessness makes people very mobile in shifting positions as they fluctuate between borders or territories with such an ease that their exclusion or repression becomes a difficult task for those that rarely abandon their comfortable places. For Pinter these characters perturb and contaminate the space with their strange demands as they manage to surprise the others with their confident movements across the space, with their unalarmed manipulation of objects and with their easy accommodation to the territory they seek to dominate.

According to Michel Foucault (The History of Sexuality. An Introduction, Vol. 1 (1978)) by submitting bodies to inspection and control, ‘power’ strategies do not only work in the direction of placing interdictions and restrictions on deviant/abnormal instances, but they simultaneously produce and distribute a variety of discourses, identities, corporeal manifestations and desires. Since bodies represent an immense source of unrestrained pleasures and instinctual forces, the individuals who abandon their constrained conventional positions (women, tramps, figures from a long-forgotten past) give voice to their perverted desires through eccentric bodily postures. The main goal of Pinter’s characters, irrespective of whether they situate themselves on the side of conventionality or on that of abnormality, is to attain power by imposing their singular space position as the supreme law. Therefore, it is this strong clash of bodily expressions which gives the concept of power an ambiguous status to be constantly submitted to a harsh process of negotiation.

Those who are not comfortable on the terrain of sexuality and who mainly live at the level of abstract norms and codifications, prefer to balance out their incapacity to respond to the materiality of their existence and thus to the concrete needs of their bodies with fabricated, artificial representations. Men’s discussions on sex take the form of narratives about brutal attacks on women whose unaccepted and polluted sexual behaviour (whores, cheating wives) may transform them into victims in the hands of men. Female characters, on the contrary, display bodily postures which show them as openly and unrestrictedly giving voice to their sexual energy and to the physical pleasures of their bodies. Women are ← 10 | 11 → not ashamed of putting forth their sexuality and in their preference for actual, rather than for abstract experiences, for life in the proper sense of the word, they manage to reverse roles with men. Power belongs to those who prove to be ready for action on the scene of life.

Luce Irigaray (This Sex Which Is Not One (1985)) challenged the patriarchal system of thinking where men, as possessors of the ‘phallus’ and as producers of the normative patterns, were considered entitled to subordinating women and to confining their movements, their bodies and their desires. The manner in which Irigaray disagreed with the premises of patriarchy is well reflected in Harold Pinter’s plays, at the level of his female characters. Women possess the capacity to venture into diverse territories, to adopt multiple bodily stances and to appropriate and internalize, as well as modify their environment according to their bodily specificity and their distinct sexuality.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (February)
Diskursanalyse Geschlechterstudien Erzählforschung Körperlichkeit
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 238 pp.

Biographical notes

Alina-Elena Rosca (Author)

Alina-Elena Roşca is Assistant Lecturer of English Literature at the University of Ploieşti (Romania). Her research fields are Literary and Cultural Studies, Modernism/Postmodernism, and, more specifically, Harold Pinter. She is also a member of the European Society for the Study of English.


Title: Multilevel Representations of Power in Harold Pinter's Plays
book preview page numper 1
book preview page numper 2
book preview page numper 3
book preview page numper 4
book preview page numper 5
book preview page numper 6
book preview page numper 7
book preview page numper 8
book preview page numper 9
book preview page numper 10
book preview page numper 11
book preview page numper 12
book preview page numper 13
book preview page numper 14
book preview page numper 15
book preview page numper 16
book preview page numper 17
book preview page numper 18
book preview page numper 19
book preview page numper 20
book preview page numper 21
book preview page numper 22
book preview page numper 23
book preview page numper 24
book preview page numper 25
book preview page numper 26
book preview page numper 27
book preview page numper 28
book preview page numper 29
book preview page numper 30
book preview page numper 31
book preview page numper 32
book preview page numper 33
book preview page numper 34
book preview page numper 35
book preview page numper 36
book preview page numper 37
book preview page numper 38
book preview page numper 39
book preview page numper 40
240 pages