A masterpiece, “One for the Road” ended a painful period of writer’s block for Harold Pinter in a manner swift and strange and led to an explicitly political agenda of his subsequent plays, “Mountain Language” and “Ashes to Ashes”. This turn in his writing career took place immediately after a party in which Pinter met two “extremely attractive young and intelligent Turkish women” who were indifferent to the use of torture in their own country supposedly modern and civilized.
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Enraged at this blatant example of man’s inhumanity to man, he felt like strangling the two women, but instead took pen in hand and proceeded to write “One for the Road”, which strikes the critics as “a mesmerizing, terrifying, brilliantly controlled piece”, which distills the anger that inspired it. It is now regarded as “a flawless, richly resonant miniature masterpiece. Pinter’s subsequent plays, “Mountain Language” and “Ashes to Ashes” are described as “sketchy, paranoid and self-righteous”, although just as politically inspired as his masterpiece.
A plus for Director Robin Lefebre’s production for Dublin’s Gate Theatre is that Harold Pinter himself stars in the leading role as a state interrogator of an oppressive unnamed region. This added attraction convinces his viewers that if he had not embarked on a writing career, he would have achieved equally great fame as an actor. He convinces his audience with the power of his wonderfully rich, resonant voice and a tremendous stage presence.
Pinter portrays the character of Nicholas, a self-proclaimed civilized man who runs the sinister state institution where the action is set and tries to give his victims the impression that he is a nice chap who happens to be ruling the country. He has brought in a family of three for questioning, all the while remaining civilized and urbane as though talking to guests at a dinner party. The three family members are the husband Victor, his wife Gila, and their seven-year-old son, Nicky.
Nicholas seems to occupy an important position in government – perhaps Head of the Secret Service or chief of Police – a high-ranking authority in a country where the army overrules democracy and where those adjudged enemies of the states are fated to suffer rape, torture, and death. In successive scenes, the three- Victor, a presumed dissident intellectual, has been tortured, his wife Gila, repeatedly raped is brought again to the office of Nicholas. The fate of their vulnerable child hangs in the balance until the devastating end of the play.
Harold Pinter is well-known for his views on foreign politics especially and for his views on tyranny, oppression, and the involvement of the world’s leading countries in the politics of smaller ones (The Financial Times, 2001: n.p.). The play, “One for the Road” lasts some 32 minutes long clearly shows all the talking in every sense calm, urbane, suave, and self-righteous, belying the fact that this seemingly restrained and intelligent figure is in reality, mindless, corrupt, and cruel
“A quality of lethal surprise is necessary in “One for the Road”. In four brisk scenes, we see Nicholas, a high-ranking state official, confronting three imprisoned members of a family: the silent, ultimately mutilated Victor, his raped wife, Gila and their vulnerable son. The play has incremental horror. But it needs shade and color in the playing of Nicholas if it is not to seem a straightforward condemnation of state brutalism.” (Billington, 2001: n.p.)
The interview of the prisoners by Nicholas suggests that the torturer is tortured himself despite his smooth manner as shown by the urgency to imbibe whisky and his perturbation when alone.
“There is a sense of terrible loneliness, of a man who serves the state because he has nothing and no one else. His victims are his only friends…. As well as offering a hideously persuasive account of the psychological torture and the apparatus of state repression, ‘One for the Road’ takes you right into the heart of one man’s wasteland.” (Spencer, 2001; n.p.) And yet, Victor, Gila, and their son in the play highlight the strange paradox of all, that this tortured family has some secret quality that escapes Nicholas’ understanding.
In his later stage and screen scripts, Pinter criticized current widespread persecution in the institutions of the state from hospitals (Hothouse) to prisons (One for the Road). Pinter’s plays reached beyond the world of the theatre and became part of the starkly political 1980’s social and cultural scene.
“Pinter’s mature plays of the 1980’s and 1990’s received hostile criticism, especially “One for the Road”. The critics failed to see that his plays represented his political involvement (both internationally and as an opponent of Thatcherism) and his interest in wider social issues.”(Inan 2005: 34). By this time, he was participating actively in questions of human rights, censorship, and the US foreign policy in Central America.
After many years of silence, Pinter realized it was time to name the guilty with “One for the Road”, the directress of his political views was obvious from then on. Despite the clear political statements, he was still concerned with time, memory, sexuality, loss, separation, and solitude. In his political plays, individual freedom is suppressed by established authority.
The plays of the 1980s, particularly “One for the Road” explores a political “no man’s land characterized by political schizophrenia and social repression in the contemporary world. He wrote bout the 1980’s social and cultural scene as he discovered an explored the workings of police power, official secrecy and the insidious state censorship. It s interesting and gratifying to note how Pinter’s “One for the
Road” awakens public consciousness to the issues of the times.
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- Billington, M. “Pinter, the Author’s Muscular Authority”, The Guardian, 2001.
- Inan, D. “Public Consciousness Beyond Theatrical Space: Harold Pinter Interrogates Borders and Boundaries., Nebula, 2005
- “One for the Road”, The Financial Times, 2001.
- Spencer, C., “Pinter’s Miniature Masterpiece”, The Daily Telegraph, 2001.