Ashes to Ashes

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Play by Harold Pinter, 1996

Ashes to Ashes, Harold Pinter's extended one-act play of 1996, opens with a man and a woman, Rebecca and Devlin, in the comfortable living room of a country house. She is seated, and he stands. At first she appears to be talking about a past lover and her sadomasochistic relationship with him. Her first words indicate that she is answering an unheard question from Devlin, giving an example of how she was sexually tormented or toyed with by her lover. Devlin's gently interrogative responses condition us to think that he may be a psychiatrist, although later we think that he may be her husband.

Devlin attempts to get Rebecca to define, to explain, to put a stable meaning to her words and descriptions. They have an exchange over the term "darling." Devlin uses the term with her. Did her lover? Devlin insists not. Rebecca's recollections begin with her lover's threat of physical abuse and its attendant eroticism and then continue with her accompanying him to his factory, a damp and inhumane place where the workers doff their hats to him out of either respect or fear. Rebecca also describes seeing her lover at a railway station and watching him tear babies from their screaming mothers' arms. Later she tells Devlin about watching a group of people being led, fully clothed, to their deaths by drowning in the sea.

In his interrogation of her Devlin describes himself as a dichotomy; he is a man who both does not care and who possesses a rigid sense of duty. He attempts to restore order, to claim control, and to force Rebecca to kiss his fist, the action she originally described her lover as forcing on her. By the end of the play Rebecca has related a story, which is repeated in an echo during the telling, of being forced to give up her own baby in a place where babies were being taken away. Pinter describes the physical setting of the drama as becoming progressively dimmer, in spite of the fact that the light from the table lamp intensifies throughout the play, although it must do so without further illumination.

Ashes to Ashes can be seen as a post-Holocaust play, even though Pinter usually disavows any such specific meaning. Nevertheless, many of Pinter's earlier plays present a profound sense of the anxiety of the outsider and focus on persecution and torture—psychological, emotional, physical—as nightmarish conditions that require no logical source. After two decades of explicitly and implicitly denying the existence of any political themes in his work, Pinter began incorporating specific political speech and addressing the conditions of torture and persecution against groups of people in a series of short one-act plays in the 1980s, for example, One for the Road (1984), Mountain Language (1988), The New World Order (1993), and Party Time (1993). Born in London in 1930, Pinter grew up in the East End, the son of a Jewish tailor. His coming-of-age coincided with World War II and the Holocaust, as well as with the rise of British fascism in the years immediately following the war. In Ashes to Ashes the descriptions of railway stations, of the forcible removal of babies from their mothers, and of large groups of people being led to their deaths are shared images from the Holocaust that have become commonplace in our cultural vernacular.

Pinter's explorations, although they have become more openly politically engaged, still resonate with mysteriousness. There is no logical explanation for hate, for the targeting of any specific group, or for the bestial and eroticized power games of the persecutors. Words cut as deeply as conventional weapons, and the control of language and memory is presented as the strongest of the torturer's implements. Rebecca, although initially prodded by Devlin, remembers witnessing others' brutalization and murder. Her final memory, of the loss of her own child, occurs as an act of defiance, however. Devlin demands that she kiss his fist and then ask him to put his hands around her throat. She does neither and remains silent, and he loosens his grip. She then speaks of her own loss, repeated by an echo in the room. He takes his hand away, and Rebecca and the echo continue the story of how she had her baby taken from her and how she was forced to deny the baby's existence. This becomes the play's final image, not that of Rebecca's personal story, painful as it is, but of her silent defiance and then reiterated memory. Although Pinter continues to work in his patented ambiguities—just where all of this is taking place and who these people are he refuses to indulge—nevertheless, the final image of defiance and remembering may be seen as the central thesis of the play and of Holocaust literature in general, suggesting perhaps that strength, for an individual or a group, comes from a willingness to retain the past, to insist on experience.

—Steven Dedalus Burch

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Ashes to Ashes

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