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Bare Lives
Part 1 – Spectrality and Hospitality

I was simply obeying the law of the body’: Dispossession and Exposure of the Vulnerable Body in Harold Pinter’s A Kind of Alaska

« I was simply obeying the law of the body » : dépossession et exposition du corps vulnérable dans A Kind of Alaska de Harold Pinter
Adeline Arniac


La pièce en un acte de Harold Pinter, A Kind of Alaska (1982), met en scène Deborah, une femme qui se réveille après vingt-neuf ans de coma, aux côtés de son médecin et de sa sœur. Sa présence sur scène pose inévitablement la question de la perception du corps malade : son corps est exposé, rendu audible et visible. Cette exposition frappe car elle révèle le corps dans toute sa matérialité, soulignant la dépossession causée par le manque de contrôle que nous avons sur nos propres corps, ainsi que notre assujettissement inévitable à la vieillesse et à la maladie éventuelle. Exposer la matérialité du corps devient donc une manière de révéler sa vulnérabilité, et nous rappelle que nous sommes tous potentiellement dépendants. Cet abandon forcé d’un contrôle total initie une réévaluation des notions d’exposition et de dépossession : l’exposition devient une manière nécessaire d’envisager la présence de l’autre, au-delà des tentatives de le/la comprendre à travers la langue ou la connaissance.

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  • 1 Pinter acknowledges his source and provides a brief history of the disease in an introductory note (...)

1A Kind of Alaska (1982) is unique in Harold Pinter’s oeuvre in that it is the only play for which he acknowledges a source, Oliver Sacks’s Awakenings.1 Inspired by this medical account of an intriguing epidemic in the 1920s, Pinter launches into an ‘imaginative recreation’, and fashions fictional characters of his own (Esslin 204). In this one-act play, he stages Deborah, a woman who wakes up after twenty-nine years of coma, along with her doctor, Hornby, and sister, Pauline. From the start, Deborah’s presence on stage in her hospital bed raises the question of the perception of the diseased body—her body is inevitably exposed, bared, ‘disclos[ed] to view’ (OED). In addition, in spite of Deborah’s desire to be seen as in control, her body still breaks down. This gap between what the subject desires and what the body imposes upon her is a form of physical dispossession, which is further emphasized by the theatrical exposure of the body. When the philosopher Corine Pelluchon examines clinical situations in order to understand what the experience of the elderly or the diseased tells us about ourselves, she observes that, when confronted with illness, patients become aware of their own passivity in relation to their bodies and realise they are deprived of any absolute control of their own selves (289). This is what is implied when Deborah tells her doctor: ‘I was simply obeying the law of the body’ (163). She is inherently vulnerable, exposed to risk that is beyond her control. Focusing on physical forms of dispossession and exposure will allow us to analyse how, in laying bare Deborah’s body, the play proposes a general recognition and reconsideration of this vulnerability.

2Because it exposes the diseased body to make it perceptible—audible and visible—the play will first be understood as achieving a retrieval from invisibility, as progressively acknowledging Deborah as fully present on stage. However, this exposure also unveils her body in its materiality, underlining the dispossession caused by embodiment, the lack of control over our own bodies, and our inevitable subjection to ageing and possible diseases. Exposing the materiality of the body reveals its vulnerability and acts as a reminder that we are all potentially dependent. Finally, this forced surrender of total control initiates a re-evaluation of the notions of exposure and dispossession: exposure becomes a necessary way to acknowledge the other, beyond any attempts at understanding him/her through language and knowledge.

3In putting forward Deborah as its main protagonist, A Kind of Alaska stages the usually invisible and silent body of the diseased, evolving from the erasure and absence of coma to a theatrical presence that allows Deborah to be heard and seen. Corine Pelluchon denounces the tendency in our societies to support the elderly and the handicapped only if they are kept at a distance, out of sight in deserted spaces (288), but the play takes the opposite stance, and places Deborah to the forefront. The play starts with the very first instants of Deborah’s ‘awakening’, to use Sacks’s phrase, and conflates the world of the coma and the interrupted lives of the characters before the beginning. Hornby, the doctor, explains: ‘you’ve been nowhere, absent, indifferent’ (184). Before the play began, Deborah’s life was negated, erased by her coma. It is through the use of spatial images that Hornby conveys this situation: she was ‘nowhere’, and her ‘mind […] took up a temporary habitation… in a kind of Alaska’ (184). The comparison to the foreign and barren land removes Deborah from the everyday world in which the other characters have evolved—she is isolated, utterly alien and distant. She endorses this when she asserts: ‘Nothing has happened to me. I’ve been nowhere’ (166). Deborah is unable to recall what happened during her comatose state and she attempts to obliterate this period of her life in an impossible negation, as the totalisation implied by ‘nothing’ and ‘nowhere’ makes it untenable. Yet, her assertion reflects her feeling of being dispossessed of even the most basic elements of her life.

  • 2 This play did not attract as much criticism as the more famous ones, but most commentaries focus on (...)

4This erasure of a part of Deborah’s life may be explained by her coma, but critics have also seen it as fuelled by gendered representations. According to Ann C. Hall, Deborah’s condition is a way for Pinter to explore ‘the place of women within a patriarchal context’ (84).2 She suggests that Deborah ‘ends as she began—silent and bedridden, a grim depiction of the effects such cultural expectations have had upon [her]’ (90). Indeed, at the beginning of the play Hornby’s questions impose a focus on his own status rather than on Deborah’s experience: ‘Do you know me?’; ‘Do you recognize me?’ (153). He places Deborah in a position where she does not have an existence of her own but is totally dependent on himself as a defining feature of her identity. However, she does not accept this and reverses the roles when she tells him: ‘You are no-one’ (155). With this harsh and straightforward statement, Deborah shows her awareness of Hornby’s attempt to reduce her to ‘no-one’, and strongly rejects it. The very first moments of the play thus show Deborah progressively awakening from her coma and regaining control over her own identity, asserting her undisputable presence on stage.

  • 3 A Kind of Alaska. Directed by Peter Hall, with Anna Massey, Paul Rogers, and Judi Dench. Cottesloe (...)

5Deborah’s progressive repossession is also achieved through a transition from silence to expression. In his study of precariousness, Guillaume Le Blanc suggests that the shift from invisibility to visibility contains an important aural dimension, and that hearing the voice of the voiceless is the first step towards acknowledging their presence (137–204). This may apply to Deborah, as she complains, at the beginning of the play: ‘No one hears what I say. No one is listening to me’ (154). She faces the lack of attention the precarious are exposed to: the trope of the coma allows Pinter to show the extent to which some voices are silenced and neglected. The coma, reinforced by the spatial image of Alaska, thus works as a silencing device. In a similar way as in Party Time, where violence always happens outside, ‘in the street’, and is hushed up at the party, distance allows for a refusal to listen to the other and take his/her experience into account (307). However, Deborah’s statement gains much more depth, as it is pronounced on stage and the context negates its content—the spectators do hear what Deborah says and they are listening. It is through this dramatic exposition and embodiment that Deborah is allowed to come out of silence. The progression from silence to expression is actually acknowledged in the text itself as Deborah explains: ‘I spoke, but I don’t think they heard what I said’ (156). This statement is much less definite than the first one: the use of the past tense allows for some distance and implies that the situation has now changed. In spite of their apparent failure, words still frame the passage, as it starts with ‘I spoke’ and ends with ‘I said’. In addition, it is worth remembering that Deborah was first played by Judi Dench, whose stature as a well-known and charismatic actress gave some weight to Deborah’s presence onstage,3 allowing her to establish her voice slowly but surely and to progress towards audibility.

6As a result, following Guillaume Le Blanc’s logic that audibility allows for visibility, Deborah’s visual presence is reinforced. I would suggest that the theatre even allows for the visual and the aural to work simultaneously in re-introducing the precarious body in the public space. If contemporary drama has drawn attention to the verbal dimension on stage (Angel-Perez 1), it seems that in A Kind of Alaska, this dimension is complemented and reinforced by the visual one. The first stage direction actually suggests an exchange of gazes:

The woman’s eyes move. She slowly looks about her.
Her gaze passes over the man and on. He watches her.
She stares ahead, still. (153, italics in the original)

  • 4 As Jean-Michel Ganteau pointed out to me, this setting could also be found in the recovery units of (...)

7This expectation of recognition makes the visual acknowledgement of the other central. Deborah’s precarious status that stopped her from being listened to might have prevented her being seen, but she is actually the object of many gazes. She remembers: ‘People have been looking at me. They have been touching me’ (156). I would then suggest that, in addition to the invisibility of the precarious that Guillaume Le Blanc evokes, there might be another form of invisibility that is actually an excess of visibility objectifying the subject. When Deborah is watched or touched, she is dispossessed of her ability to act. As Judith Butler reminds us: ‘the skin and the flesh expose us to the gaze of others, but also to touch, and to violence, and bodies put us at risk of becoming the agency and instrument of all these as well’ (26). The production of the play documented by Katherine Burkman underlined this aspect by presenting Deborah on a slightly tilted hospital bed, so that her body stood at an angle, more visible than the body of a normal patient.4 This might contribute to the objectification signalled above but, as the play develops, Deborah takes control of her own gaze, as the following passage attests:

Pauline. Deborah.
Deborah stares at her.
Deborah. It’s Pauline.
Pauline turns to Hornby.
She’s looking at me.
She turns back to Deborah.
You’re looking at me. Oh Deborah… you haven’t looked at me… for such a long time. (175)

8Pauline’s feeling of shock at seeing her sister looking at her reflects Deborah’s ability to be herself in control of her gaze. The passage itself traces the evolution of Deborah, from being the object of other people’s speech (‘She’s looking at me’, emphasis added), to being addressed directly as an agent (‘You’re looking at me’, emphasis added). This climaxes in Deborah’s request to her sister, only minutes later (‘Let me look into your eyes’) that testifies that she is aware of her recently-reacquired ability to control her own gaze (178). After she was erased because of her coma, the stage allows Deborah into full visibility and audibility. If this excessive visibility might at first be considered a sign of her exposure as an object to be controlled, she manages to evolve to a much more dynamic role in which she is able to look at people around her. In exposing Deborah on stage, the play grants agency to the dispossessed subject, and reminds us of her presence. If the diseased body and its medical care are often confined to unseen hospital rooms, they are here brought centre stage, thanks to the character of Deborah, whose initial unavoidable presence is ceaselessly reasserted and constructed as essential.

9However, if her presence on stage is established, Deborah’s agency is qualified because of the simultaneous exposure of the materiality of her body. Her inability to control her own body is reflected in the climactic scene of her crisis at the end of the play. Throughout, she was seen as progressively regaining control, increasingly understanding her situation, so much so that, when she finds herself interrupted by a crisis, unable to follow her course of thought, it is upsetting to see her body regain control over herself:

Deborah. Now what was I going to say?
She begins to flick her cheek, as if brushing something from it.
Now what—? Oh dear, oh no. Oh dear.
Oh dear.
The flicking of her cheek grows faster.
Yes, I think they’re closing in. They’re closing in. They’re closing the walls in. Yes.
She bows her head, flicking faster, her fingers now moving about over her face.
Oh … well … oooohhhhh … oh no … oh no …
During the course of this speech her body becomes hunchbacked.
Let me out. Stop it. Let me out. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Shutting the walls on me. Shutting them down on me. So tight, so tight. Something panting, something panting. Can’t see. Oh, the light is going. The light is going. They’re shutting up shop. They’re closing my face. Chains and padlocks. Bolting me up. Stinking. The smell. […] Ah. Eyes stuck. Only see the shadow of the tip of my nose. Shadow of the tip of my nose. Eyes stuck.
She stops flicking abruptly, sits still. Her body straightens. She looks up. She looks at her fingers, examines them.
Silence. (187–188)

10This powerful passage introduces a breakdown of language: the fragmented structure and paratactic constructions underscore Deborah’s panic when she feels imprisoned in her own body—‘They’re closing my face’. In addition, her body actually changes on stage and ‘becomes hunchbacked’, thus offering the spectator the striking image of a suffering, contorted figure. Her body seems to have returned to its most natural state: animal, almost wild in its compulsive flicking and contortions. Deborah’s frailty was hinted at earlier when she fell as she tried to get out of bed (173), but her dispossession of any control over her own body is exacerbated here.

11Such a scene acts as a reminder that we are all ‘obeying the law of the body’, vulnerable to what it may force on us (163). What Deborah’s crisis performs was evoked earlier in the play:

Hornby. You’ve been asleep.
Deborah. Oh, you keep saying that! What’s wrong with that? Why shouldn’t I have a long sleep for a change? I need it. My body demands it. It’s quite natural. I may have overslept but I didn’t do it deliberately. If I had any choice in the matter I’d much prefer to be up and about. I love the morning. Why do you blame me? I was simply obeying the law of the body. (163)

  • 5 In the French original: ‘La douleur et le vieillissement ne sont pas seulement des expériences qui (...)

12This passage abounds in references to needs and submission to them (‘need’, ‘demands’), and lack of agency obtains (‘I didn’t do it deliberately’; ‘If I had any choice in the matter […]’, ‘I was simply obeying the law of the body’). There seems to be a split in the subject, between her identity as a person and her body: from ‘I need it’, Deborah rephrases, ‘My body demands it’. Deborah is an extreme example of the extent to which we are all exposed to what our bodies may impose on us. Corine Pelluchon identifies this split in hospital patients and expands: ‘Suffering and ageing are not just experiences that forbid any integration of or return to the self. They are this impossibility: identity is an identity where I do not conform to the same’ (291, my translation).5 The physical demands of the body defeat any type of reliance on an autonomous and coherent self.

  • 6 The details of the production are mentioned above (note 3). The design and lighting were by John Bu (...)
  • 7 I would like to thank Steven Ross for pointing out the importance of exposing the bodies of Pauline (...)

13Deborah’s exposure to illness is a reminder of an ontological vulnerability that forces us to depend on others for living and survival. As Mackenzie, Rogers and Dodds remind us: ‘To be vulnerable is to be fragile, to be susceptible to wounding and to suffering; this susceptibility is an ontological condition of our humanity’ (4). However, this shared vulnerability is visible ‘to varying degrees at various points in our lives’, and I would like to suggest that Deborah is presented as an extreme example of this human vulnerability (5). Setting the play in a hospital room establishes this dimension from the start, and it might be emphasised in performance, as was the case with the stage design of the National Theatre production.6 The bed was placed in front of an unrealistically high window, which disturbed the proportions of the whole stage and made it feel as if the actress were crushed. In the context of the hospital, Deborah appeared as powerless and helpless—to paraphrase Katherine Burkman (195). It is also worth noting that such a passivity towards one’s own body is not limited to Deborah, but is shared by all characters.7 When Deborah asks her sister ‘where [she got] those breasts’, she answers, ‘They came about’ (182). In sickness and in health, we are all submitted to the evolution of our bodies. As far as Hornby is concerned, it is his trembling hand that reveals an emotion he is not ready to acknowledge openly:

Pauline. You’re trembling.
Hornby. Am I?
Pauline. Your hand.
Hornby. Is it?
He looks at his hand.
Trembling? Is it? Yes. (177)

14As Richard Allen Cave aptly comments, the ‘body speaks truths, which the voice would often seek to deny’ (142, emphasis in the original). If Deborah’s body is at first the most obviously vulnerable one, Pauline and Hornby are progressively shown as also having to ‘obey the law of the body’, being dispossessed of any absolute control on their bodies, thus revealing a form of ontological vulnerability shared by all characters. In the same way as Corine Pelluchon sees the image of the patient as paradigmatic of human relations in general, Deborah reveals a form of vulnerability that is both her own and a deeply human characteristic (14). Because ontological vulnerability is a form of exposure to harm and susceptibility to pain, it only becomes visible when harm and pain actually occur, even though it always exists. Deborah is the most visible manifestation of a trait that is actually also shared by Pauline and Hornby: the fact that ‘human vulnerability arises from our embodiment’, and that our bodies can always fail us (Dodds 182).

  • 8 I am deeply grateful to Dr Peter Raby for pointing out all these examples to me. In a more general (...)

15It is also through the temporal gap between Deborah’s perception of herself as a teenager, before she went into a coma, and her current aged body that dispossession is represented on stage. Deborah realises there is something odd in her tone: ‘I sound childish. Out of… tune’ (161). This discordance can be observed in the text itself, which plays between registers and variously evocative phrases.8 For instance, the phrase ‘Pauline’s so sharp she’ll cut herself’ sounds slightly anachronistic, and would have been more common in the forties and fifties (183). In addition, it is repeated and developed:

Where’s Pauline? She’s such a mischief. I have to keep telling her not to be so witty. That’s what I say. You’re too witty for your own good. You’re so sharp you’ll cut yourself. You’re too witty for your own tongue. You’ll bite your own tongue one of these days and I’ll keep your tongue in a closed jar and you’ll never ever ever ever be witty again. (163)

16If this language is openly attributed to Deborah—‘That’s what I say’— it does sound odd, especially as the metaphor is extended in a heavy-handed way. It is also used in addition to a typically childish repetition: ‘you’ll never ever ever ever be witty again’. Furthermore, the passage focuses on the motif of the tongue itself as an organ, as if it could be isolated from the body of its owner. In a less literal way than the one suggested in Pauline’s imagined punishment, Deborah’s tongue does not seem to be her own, and she is dispossessed of it. The language she uses belongs to others, as she uses old clichés, such as ‘as deep as a pond’ (163). Her phrase ‘as bold as brass’ (160) is especially intriguing in that it feels like a quotation: it would be expected not in the mouth of a sixteen-year old like Deborah but rather in the words of an adult describing a teenager. It is as if Deborah were looking at herself from a distance, dispossessed of her own voice but evolving in an intermediary state, in between her younger identity and the expected maturity of someone her age. This temporal gap is the trace of the non-identity inherent in the suffering body, according to Corine Pelluchon: the conflation of Deborah’s younger and older selves is an extreme example of the subject being dispossessed of his/her own body (291). Even though Deborah had seemed to be gaining control over the situation, the exposure of her body in its materiality on stage and its subjection to time draws attention to her vulnerability. Her bodily life appears as oblivious to her wishes and desires, and displays a form of physical dispossession.

  • 9 In the French original: ‘inspection du pouvoir de connaître’ (36).

17Even though such bodily dispossession is first perceived as unsettling, it is also revealing in that it confronts the audience with the impossibility of final control through language and knowledge. Indeed, there is something in Deborah’s experience that is unsayable and even unknowable. Hornby, in spite of his status as the doctor who brought Deborah back to life, admits that he did not ‘know … what [she was] doing’ (164). His evocation of ‘a kind of Alaska’ both locates Deborah in a foreign land and reflects the indeterminacy of his judgement, as it can only delimit ‘a kind of’ space to define an experience he is unable to circumscribe (187). In a way reminiscent of Paul Ricœur’s analysis in Fallible Man, an ‘investigation of the power of knowing’ is staged here, unveiling the tension between the inevitably finite perspective of the subject, and the paradoxical desire for an unattainable overriding truth (17).9 Similarly, Deborah herself is caught in a maze of words that conceal more than they reveal: Pauline. Shall I tell her lies or the truth? Hornby. Both’ (176–177). As Pauline mentions their parents being away on a world cruise (177), and Hornby says that her father is blind and her mother dead (184), Deborah makes up her own version of the truth: ‘Mummy and Daddy and Estelle are on a world cruise. They’ve stopped off in Bangkok. It’ll be my birthday soon. I think I have the matter in proportion’ (190). Those last lines are strikingly powerful in that they establish a gap between what we understood was the truth and what Deborah can cope with. The use of dramatic irony further highlights the impossibility for language to comprehend Deborah’s experience. To use a much-quoted Pinter comment, speech appears as ‘a constant stratagem to cover nakedness’ (‘Writing for the Theatre’ 25). As opposed to the language she used during her breakdown, these statements are controlled, composed and factual. However, they are not to be trusted. Just as the series of reflections that Deborah remembers seeing in a vast hall of mirrors (189), various versions of the truth are evoked throughoutDeborah thinks she may be in a ‘hotel near the sea’ (162), in ‘a white tent’ in the ‘Sahara Desert’ (163). The multiplication of such fictional situations acts as a diversion, an attempt at story-telling that forbids any access to a single version of experience. Language produces myriad representations that ‘cover nakedness’, withholding the core of Deborah’s experience.

18If words conceal experiences, body language might be a way to capture them, as Richard Allen Cave implies when he comments on the final tableaux in earlier plays by Pinter:

the action reaches a point where words are no longer capable of holding together the intricacies of meaning that are being evolved and the body alone through the language of movement can give due weight to the fullness of experience being represented. (138)

19Here, it is in the exposure of the body itself that ‘fullness of experience’ can be conveyed. In A Kind of Alaska, this may be seen when Deborah privileges sensory vignettes over narrative accounts of what happened to her. She keeps evoking experiences that solicit various senses, such as hearing—a tap dripping (189)—, seeing— ‘Ah. Eyes stuck. Only see the shadow of the tip of my nose. Shadow of the tip of my nose. Eyes stuck’ (187–188)—, or touch— ‘I’m going to run into the sea and fall into the waves. I’m going to rummage about in all the water’ (183). If traditional language does not allow her to relate her experience, by relying on the materiality of her body she manages to convey a sense of what she has been through.

20The play thereby presents us with an experience that is to be understood through the laying bare of the body rather than through language. This understanding would be not so much epistemological as experiential, and lays the foundations of a possible ethical encounter with the other, as imagined by Corine Pelluchon:

  • 10 In the French original: ‘Nous n’avons que des devoirs devant un homme couché sur son lit d’hôpital. (...)

We only have duties when we face a man lying on his hospital bed. His suffering concerns us, it touches us. The contact with the other is not only an opening, but an exposure to the other, an experience that, instead of reminding the carer of his own death and freedom, sends him back to the infinity of this responsibility which is a responsibility for the other (428, my translation)10

21This sense of an infinite responsibility is exemplified in the play through the character of Hornby, who has been so involved in looking after Deborah that he seems to have lost his own life in the process:

Hornby. I have never let you go.
I have lived with you.
Your sister Pauline was twelve when you were left for dead. When she was twenty I married her. She is a widow. I have lived with you. (185)

22As Elizabeth Sakellaridou points out, here ‘[e]gocentricity is for the first time put aside’ (208). The focus is not on Hornby’s own metaphorical death, as it is only elliptically presented in the passage through Pauline’s status as a widow. Hornby’s ‘I’ tends to disappear in his devotion to Deborah’s ‘you’, which permeates the passage. Beyond the failures of medical understanding, and of knowledge in general, what is suggested here is an ethical encounter with the vulnerable other that would imply a laying bare of the self, in that it may be the only chance to acknowledge the other in its alterity. Vulnerability is thus to be thought of in a dynamic of reciprocity, and dependence becomes interdependence.

23In A Kind of Alaska, exposure appears at first as a way to counter dispossession, as Deborah’s presence is asserted, and her visibility and audibility reinforced. However, her centrality on stage does not make her immune from the disease that affected her, and as her character becomes the focus of attention, so does her body, which is exposed in all its materiality. Another form of dispossession is thus staged, i.e. the loss of one’s control over one’s own body, reflected in Deborah’s acknowledgement that she had no other choice than to passively ‘obey the law of the body’. Finally, this exposure might be seen as a way to confront the other beyond the language of science and knowledge, which is revealed as insufficient and possibly concealing the truth. It is only in allowing ourselves to be exposed that an ethical encounter with the other might take place, and such is the responsibility we hold over vulnerable and exposed others in an endless loop of interdependence.

  • 11 For a ‘taxonomy of vulnerability’ expanding on this, see Mackenzie, Stainton Rogers and Dodds (1-6)

24This acknowledgment is mainly concerned here with a form of shared ontological vulnerability, but it is worth noting that similar structures of exposure and dispossession can be found in more political contexts, as in One for the Road, written shortly after A Kind of Alaska. Throughout the play, Victor and his wife Gina appear bruised, with their clothes torn (223, 237); at the end, Victor is unable to drink or hold his head straight (246). If Deborah’s body is vulnerable to illness, Victor and Gina’s bodies are exposed to violence, torture, and rape. Her ‘ontological’ vulnerability is replaced by a ‘context-specific’ one, based on socio-political conditions11. Nicolas, the torturer, is aware of the fragility of his victims: ‘Am I obsessed with eyes? Possibly. Not my eyes. Other people’s eyes. The eyes of people who are brought to me here. They’re so vulnerable. The soul shines through them’ (224). Exposing the vulnerable body can also be a way to denounce and condemn, challenging us to question the world in which we live, wondering what is thrust under our own eyes. Were it through the openly political, as in One for the Road, or through a more clinical and almost documentary vision, as in A Kind of Alaska, Pinter’s theatre actually raises the question of our responsibility towards the exposed other.

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Zarhy-Levo, Yael, ‘Critical Modes and the “Rebellious” Playwright: Pinter’s Alaska, Stoppard’s Arcadia », Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 16.1 (2001): 81–98.

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1 Pinter acknowledges his source and provides a brief history of the disease in an introductory note to the play (151). For a comparison with Sacks’s account, see Moonyoung C. Ham, or Michael Billington (280-285). As Yael Zarhy-Levo points out, this reference has been used by reviewers to highlight the unusual quality of the play as compared to the rest of the Pinter corpus: this concrete dimension makes the play seem much less enigmatic than previous ones (Zarhy-Levo 85–89). For instance, in his review of the first production for The Times, Irving Wardle mentions the unusual explanatory note coming with the play and suggests that A Kind of Alaska ‘shows [Pinter] breaking into new ground’ (17). A Kind of Alaska indeed tends to stand out in Pinter’s oeuvre, in-between the memory plays of the seventies and the political ones of the eighties.

2 This play did not attract as much criticism as the more famous ones, but most commentaries focus on the awakening of Deborah as a woman, thus exploring the patriarchal dimension and gender politics of the play. See for instance, in addition to Ann C. Hall, Ronald Knowles and Moonyoung C. Ham.

3 A Kind of Alaska. Directed by Peter Hall, with Anna Massey, Paul Rogers, and Judi Dench. Cottesloe Theatre, London, 1982. I am very grateful to Dr Peter Raby, who saw this production, for sharing this comment with me.

4 As Jean-Michel Ganteau pointed out to me, this setting could also be found in the recovery units of hospitals, exposing the bodies of patients to allow the medical staff to keep a constant eye on them. By choosing this setting, the director also introduces a realistic element that underlines how dependent Deborah still is on external care. A Kind of Alaska. Directed by Stuart Pimsler, with Suzanne Costello, Janet Slifka, Tim Talty, Janet Parrott, Loraine Jeffery, and Romy Noltimier. Ohio State University, Columbus (USA), 1991. Only three actors were cast for A Kind of Alaska, but the piece was coupled with a dance/drama part, Pausing in the Avalanche, involving the entire company listed here (Burkman xv).

5 In the French original: ‘La douleur et le vieillissement ne sont pas seulement des expériences qui rendent la synthèse et le retour à soi impossibles. Elles sont cette impossibilité : l’identité est une identité où le moi ne rejoint pas le même’ (291).

6 The details of the production are mentioned above (note 3). The design and lighting were by John Bury. Photographs of the play are available in the National Theatre Archive but cannot be published for copyright reasons. Interestingly, Pinter went on to stage other bed-ridden characters in Moonlight, with Andy, a father on his deathbed, and Fred, his son, confined to bed with an unknown disease.

7 I would like to thank Steven Ross for pointing out the importance of exposing the bodies of Pauline and Hornby as well.

8 I am deeply grateful to Dr Peter Raby for pointing out all these examples to me. In a more general way, Martin Esslin (206) and Michael Billington (282–283) commented on the importance of varying language registers and tones in the play.

9 In the French original: ‘inspection du pouvoir de connaître’ (36).

10 In the French original: ‘Nous n’avons que des devoirs devant un homme couché sur son lit d’hôpital. Sa souffrance nous concerne, elle nous atteint. Le contact avec l’autre n’est pas seulement une ouverture, mais une exposition à l’autre, une expérience qui, au lieu de ramener le soignant à sa propre mort et à sa liberté, le renvoie à l’infini de sa responsabilité qui est une responsabilité pour l’autre’ (428).

11 For a ‘taxonomy of vulnerability’ expanding on this, see Mackenzie, Stainton Rogers and Dodds (1-6).

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Adeline Arniac, « I was simply obeying the law of the body’: Dispossession and Exposure of the Vulnerable Body in Harold Pinter’s A Kind of Alaska »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 53 | 2017, mis en ligne le 01 octobre 2017, consulté le 20 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Adeline Arniac

Adeline Arniac is a fourth-year PhD student in English Literature at Paul-Valéry University, Montpellier 3. She is a member of EMMA (Etudes Montpelliéraines du Monde Anglophone, EA 741) and her research work explores the relation between spectrality and dependence in Harold Pinter’s memory plays. She is currently the French lectrice for Sidney Sussex college, at the University of Cambridge.

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