A Kind of Alaska

Pinter, Harold

Primary Category: Literature / Plays

Genre: Play

Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack
  • Date of entry: Mar-14-2008
  • Last revised: Mar-13-2008


In this one act play, as a result of a new medication, a middle-aged woman named Deborah wakes up after spending nearly 30 years in a "coma." More precisely, she was in a dream-like state of unawareness or altered awareness that Hornby, her doctor, refers to as "a kind of Alaska."(p. 34) Deborah thinks that she has only been "asleep" for a short while, so she asks about her parents and sister, as if she were still the adolescent she remembers. Hornby assures her that her mind has been suspended all that time, although he has been at her side, fighting to keep her alive: "Some wanted to bury you. I forbade it." (p. 34)


Uncertain what to say, Pauline, Deborah's younger sister, now enters the hospital room. Hearing Pauline's news of the family, Deborah tries to comprehend what has happened, but it seems just too bizarre. Then Hornby reveals that Pauline has been his wife for more than 20 years. Deborah experiences the walls of her consciousness closing in, "Let me out. Stop it. Let me out. Stop it. Stop it." (p. 38) Suddenly, she returns to the conversation and summarizes everything she has heard. "I think I have the matter in proportion," she concludes.


"A Kind of Alaska" was inspired by Oliver Sacks' book Awakenings, which describes the profound, but temporary, effects of the new drug L-DOPA when first given to institutionalized survivors of the 1910s to 1920s epidemic of encephalitis lethargica (von Economo's encephalitis) in the 1960s. In Awakenings the effects of L-DOPA were often temporary, with patients then slipping back into their "frozen" worlds of profound Parkinsonism. Toward the end of "A Kind of Alaska," Deborah's feeling of the walls closing in on her may presage this return to immobility. For example, she cries, "Shutting them down on me, So tight, so tight... Can't see. The light is going... They're closing my face." (p. 38) Nonetheless, Deborah projects an almost comic incredulity when she speaks to Pauline and Hornby at the end as she summarizes all the bizarre circumstances of her life, concluding, "It'll be my birthday soon. I think I have the matter in proportion.... Thank you." (p. 40)

Primary Source

Other Places


Grove Press

Place Published

New York





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