Ashes to Ashes | Study Guide

Harold Pinter

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Ashes to Ashes | Plot Summary & Analysis

See Plot Diagram


Ashes to Ashes is largely plot free which is common for Pinter's plays. It is easier to track in blocks relating to Rebecca's consecutive memories than in clear, cause-effect events. Rebecca's rising waves or blocks of memories are the primary dramatic markers in Ashes to Ashes. Each new round provokes dialog with her husband Devlin who struggles with his own reaction to her words. Rebecca appears to be drowning in images and memories that may or may not be factual. Pinter's writing leaves it unclear whether these memories are real, or if Rebecca is imagining them, or if she is deluded.

First Memory, the Lover

Ashes to Ashes begins with a 1996-era couple described as being in their 40s. They are on the ground floor of a house in the country. The room is set with two arm chairs and two lamps. A garden is visible beyond. The couple is silent. Devlin stands with a drink in his hand. Rebecca says seemingly out of the blue that her former lover used to engage in erotic violence. She claims her former lover would put his fist to her mouth and ask that she kiss it.

Devlin does not believe her. He questions her. Rebecca confirms her statement then goes on to describe how she asked her lover to put his hand around her throat. Rebecca describes a seductive relationship with a man who "adores" her and who played a bit rough when she encouraged it. The memory is dark but is of a mutual and voluntary seduction.

Devlin struggles with the idea of strangling, questions the details, then asks if Rebecca responded sexually, "So your legs were opening?" She confirms they were and Devlin asks if she felt she was being hypnotized. Devlin consistently responds to Rebecca's memories with attraction, jealousy, and possessiveness.

Devlin originally resists Rebecca's narrative. He does not share her recollection of the event. He provides an excuse for either her narrative or her response within the narrative. He casts doubt on her story or her reactions by suggesting she was hypnotized. Rebecca is confused and asks when that happened and then denies it. Devlin suggests that he may be hypnotizing her.

Devlin and Rebecca shift to a sparring match over their mutual relationship. Rebecca denies feeling hypnotized. The two have a fast, two-person duel of one-word exchanges. Devlin asks what Rebecca thinks of him. She responds that she thinks he's a f—pig. Devlin takes offense but Rebecca seems satisfied with her remark and pleased at Devlin's annoyance.

Devlin turns defensive and aggressive and claims a right to surprise Rebecca and to question her. Rebecca shows no sign of understanding his position or even recognizing his questions. He pursues and asks about his previously unknown rival. His response appears to be at least partial jealousy. "I mean, what did he actually look like? ... Length? Breadth? That sort of thing." Devlin feels threatened as a lover.

Second Memory, the Factory

Devlin pursues Rebecca and continues to seek detailed information, but she evades his questions. She is distracted and is lost in her own thoughts and memories. Rebecca is rooted in some other reality. Sometimes she tells Devlin she's not his "darling" and sometimes forgets that comment entirely. She says she can't tell Devlin what her lover looked like because he's been gone for a long time. His job took him away. She's unsure whether her lover was a travel agent or a guide or a courier or someone high up with authority.

Devlin and Rebecca continue to talk. She asks him if she has told him about a time when her former lover took her to "that place." Devlin claims he has never heard of the lover or about the place. Rebecca describes a factory with workers who took off their soft caps as her lover led her past them. Rebecca says her lover told her the workers removed their caps because they respected him so much. Rebecca goes on to say that the factory workers were not dressed for the damp, cold weather though they were polite to her. In her memory she can't find a bathroom anywhere.

Third Memory, Babies

Rebecca veers to a new memory of her former lover taking her to the local train station. Once there he tore "all the babies from the arms of their screaming mothers." This detour into a dark memory surprises Devlin. He asks her if this really happened. Instead of answering Rebecca asks if he knows she's upset about a siren she heard a short time back. Devlin says he has not heard it.

Fourth Memory, the Pen

Devlin attempts to soothe Rebecca and suggests the police are busy. He claims they are always moving back and forth between people taking care of everyone and sometimes carrying codes. Rebecca seems startled and puzzled by the busy police with codes. She does not pursue that response but sidetracks into a coming trip outdoors and wonders who will attend.

Devlin and Rebecca return to the topic of her lover with each person now weaving in new elements. Devlin remains jealous. Rebecca is evasive and retreats from his questions.

Rebecca then adds an element of magical narrative. Devlin questions Rebecca about her secret lover persistently. She retreats every time he pushes and says she's upset again. She begins a new narrative in which she is indoors writing a laundry list. She puts her pen down and it rolls off the table and away. Devlin mocks her for humanizing the pen. He comments sarcastically that she "doesn't know where it has been" or "who its parents are."

He concludes with a bitter rant about how he is letting Rebecca off easily. He claims to feel like he's sinking in quicksand. Rebecca asks if that's like God.

Fifth Memory, a Return to the Train Station and the Strangling

Devlin is horrified by the idea of God sinking in quicksand. He begins ranting, "Be careful how you talk about God. He's the only God we have. If you let him go, he won't come back." Devlin postulates that the universe without God is like a brilliant game between two great soccer teams without an audience to watch the game. Devlin's argument is that God serves as the audience and the witness to existence. Without him the world stops mattering.

Devlin then cycles back around to Rebecca's mysterious lover who walked along train stations ripping babies out of their mothers' arms. He categorizes this as an atrocity then challenges Rebecca regarding her right to discuss something so horrible. She declares she has no right and says that she and her friends have never themselves suffered such an atrocity. For this moment she seems to separate herself from her memories.

Devlin says only "good" and after a pause veers into a new line of discussion. He dismisses Rebecca's memories of the factory and the general experience of Rebecca and her friends. His own comparison is of the total trust between a hairdresser and his female customer. Devlin asks if her former lover reminded her of a hairdresser when he had his hand over her throat. Devlin is increasingly jealous and curious.

Rebecca fails to answer so Devlin pushes harder and specifies her lover who "tried to murder" her. Rebecca, puzzled, says, "Murder me?" Devlin says, "Do you to death," in phrasing that seems sardonic and mocking. "No, no, he didn't try to murder me," Rebecca assures him. She denies any such motive or action.

Devlin struggles with his rivalry toward Rebecca's reported memory of a lover. He suggests again that her lover tried to kill her and only backs down when she again insists her lover adored her. He rages at her for failing to tell him previously. He questions a wide range of details regarding her lover.

Devlin suggests that Rebecca should have confessed to him because it would have tested his mettle. Then he says, "I've always wanted to be put on my mettle. ... Now I've lost my big chance." He asks whether she knew her lover before she knew him "in which case you have no obligation to tell me anything."

Memory Six, Walking into the Sea, Mental Elephantiasis

Rebecca does not respond to Devlin's fears and questions but recites a new set of memories from a time when she recalls living in a house in Dorset. Out the window she sees a "crowd of people, headed to the sea." She follows their progress from her place at the window. She goes to the top of the house when they are out of view where she can see guides bringing the crowd to the sea. At the shore the crowd walks into the surf and is lost to the tide and waves. Their luggage bobs on the waves after they are gone.

Devlin fails to follow the majority of the memory. He insists they have never lived in Dorset. His only response to the mysterious crowd walking into the sea is to fixate on whether he or Rebecca ever lived in Dorset.

Rebecca begins another story about mental elephantiasis which she has heard. Devlin fixates on Rebecca's grammar and the precision of her statement that she's heard something. Rebecca continues with a story. "When you spill an ounce of gravy, for example, it immediately expands and becomes a sea of gravy. It becomes a sea of gravy that surrounds you on all sides and you suffocate in a voluminous sea of gravy. It's terrible, but it's your own fault. ... Because it was you who spilt the gravy in the first place, it was you who handed over the bundle." Devlin does not understand Rebecca's metaphor and fails to realize she's claiming some level of responsibility for both the memories overwhelming her and for the "bundle."

Memory Seven, Return to the Train Station

Rebecca sinks deeper into her memories. She describes a walk through a cold city as she goes back to the train station with a voice calling her "sweetheart." At last she's reunited with her lover only to find he's walking through the station ripping babies out of their mothers' arms.

Devlin's response is to change the subject. He asks whether Rebecca has seen her sister Kim and her children that day. Meetings with Kim is part of their everyday life rather than part of Rebecca's haunting memories. Rebecca's a bit foggy and apathetic but Devlin pushes her through a dialogue in which she makes it clear she did talk to her sister and observe her children.

Kim's husband has left the family for a lover but wants to return. The stress between Rebecca and Devlin suggests that they have issues. Devlin is not pleased that Rebecca's sister Kim does not want to take her husband back.

Memory Eight, the Cinema

Rebecca says she went to the cinema after meeting Kim. Her memories of the cinema echo the style and tone of all her other memories. They are foreign to her ordinary life. Rebecca talks about the cinema and describes a man ahead of her who appears to be dead. The mood and tone of her cinema memory are disturbing to Devlin who attempts to scold her back into his and her life as he knows it. He tries to ground her in her home, her sister, her garden, and her life with him. He suggests they "start again."

Rebecca's response is that it's too late to start again. They can end again.

Devlin argues they have never ended so it's impossible to "end again." Rebecca differs, and the two argue again before Rebecca says the words from which the title is drawn. She says, "Ashes to ashes," and Devlin immediately responds with the familiar response from many funeral services, "And dust to dust." Rebecca then veers away from the formal quote drawn from the Book of Common Prayer to a comic folk variant, saying, "If the women don't get you." Devlin says, "Then the liquor must," completing the variation. Devlin then declares he always knew Rebecca must love him because they love the same tunes.

Devlin then begins a new argument focused on his right to be angry that Rebecca has withheld her memories of a previous lover. Devlin has only started when Rebecca cuts him off with more discussion of her memories.

Memory Nine, Strangling and Drowning

Rebecca remembers being in a high place in a small town at night. She watches an old man and a young boy carrying suitcases as they attempt to flee the town. In time she notices they are being followed by a woman with a baby. Rebecca sinks deeper into her memory. The street is icy. The man and boy move ahead but the woman is afraid and moves cautiously. The man and boy disappear ahead. The woman stands where she is while she embraces and kisses the child. She listens to the baby's heartbeat.

Rebecca moves from third-person "she" and "the woman" to first-person "I." She continues to notice the baby's heart beating and the breath of the baby.

As she speaks Devlin silently reenacts the erotic memory from the beginning of the play. He presses his fist to her mouth and grips her neck. He touches her mouth with his fist. He asks her to kiss his fist like she kissed her remembered lover's fist. He demands she ask him to put his hand around her throat.

Rebecca is silent. He tries again. Without her permission Devlin takes her throat. Without Rebecca's interest he presses until her head drops back.

She speaks while lost in memory. Her words begin to echo audibly. She says she goes to the trains as the words echo. Devlin takes his hand from her throat.

Rebecca says they are taking the babies. Her voice echoes again.

The stage slowly starts to dim. Rebecca continues her memory of standing at a train station, wrapping her child, and giving it to a man at the station and of getting onto the train. She meets a woman on the train who asks her where her baby is and she says she has no baby. Each statement continues to echo. The stage blacks out.


A Haunting and a Drowning

Harold Pinter comments in his Nobel Prize lecture in 2005 that "Ashes to Ashes, on the other hand, seems to me to be taking place under water." Pinter in his lecture describes Rebecca as a woman going down, reaching out, and searching for help. Her memories are swamped with thoughts of others who died before her. Rebecca struggles. "But as they died, she must, too," Pinter said in his Nobel lecture, conclusion his summation of Ashes to Ashes.

Rebecca is drowning and going deeper each time helpless to rescue herself. Devlin is unable to recognize she is adrift or to relate to her memories except through his own egotistical reactions. As she drowns he flails because he is caught up in his own jealousy and resentment. He is confused because her memories conflict with who he had thought she was.

In Ashes to Ashes, the conflict between Rebecca and Devlin is tied to Devlin's inability to step back and see Rebecca's slow metaphoric drowning as real. The script implies that he does believe she is actually talking about herself. He focuses instead on how her memories of her lover reflect on him.. He shows dismay at finding she holds memories of a lover she's never told him about and places and events that are foreign to their own married life. He never claims anger but it is there. His own insistence that he's entitled to anger, his attempt to make her feel guilt at what she remembers, and his claim that she has no right to such memories makes his anger clear. Rebecca is drowning in memories that may not even be her own. Devlin sees only how that reflects on his married life with "his wife."

Two Arcs in Parallel

There are two character development arcs that define the structure of Ashes to Ashes. Rebecca's is a cycling descent drawing Rebecca and Devlin into her memories. Pinter suggested as much in his Nobel lecture that this is her path of development. She sinks deeper and deeper in the surf of memories until the final surge when she appears to be fully lost to her memories. Devlin's arc is a single line of resistance. Devlin stands in opposition from Rebecca's first memory. He is not opposing her drowning. He resists his own drowning and refuses to accept her memories or to be drowned with her.

This can be interpreted in many ways. Devlin can be seen as self-centered, selfish, determined that any part of Rebecca's narrative outside her role as his wife is an insult to him. Devlin can also be seen as jealous and resentful of Rebecca's memories of a secret life before him because it does not include him. He is attracted to the dark and abusive side of her memories.

Rebecca is drawn further and further into her memories. Devlin is more compelled by his contradiction of her memories and by the element of violence they suggest. Rebecca drowns in her memories and Devlin's concluding action is an attempt to replicate the violent seduction scene she described at the beginning of the play.

Pinteresque Writing

Ashes to Ashes is unmistakably Pinteresque. The term indicates a form of modern-to-postmodern writing that is named after Pinter. The hallmark traits include what has been called "Slice of Life." The style's attributes often include a lack of a concrete, directional plot. The play also shows strong ambiguity. In traditional theater people do things for clear obvious reasons to accomplish clear goals. In modern and especially in pomo theater, the writer may not attempt to present any meaning or goal. Pinter's hallmark silences and pauses punctuate the script.

Rebecca's Dreams

Rebecca's dreams are dark with echoes of the Holocaust. The Holocaust was a genocidal Nazi program imprisoning and killing a variety of "undesired" groups and most particularly those of Jewish birth. Rebecca's dreams also echo elements of World War II (1939–45). World War II was the second major global war of the 20th century involving virtually all developed countries and many associated nations. A sense of danger and violence broods over Rebecca's dreams. Pinter does not provide clear information establishing that any of Rebecca's memories match existing events. They simply echo that time and the disturbing feelings many have for that time. This ambiguous, unconfirmable, antique feeling is one of the unstated arguments Pinter uses to blur the lines between memories and delusions.

Pinter states the play occurs in "the present" on the title page and that Devlin and Rebecca are middle-aged. The play was first produced in 1996. Rebecca and Devlin would not be old enough to have had the experiences Rebecca reports. For Rebecca to have lived an entirely different life in World War II seems to add more life experience than a baby boomer (1946–64) or Generation X (1965–80) woman should have.

The dreams are real to Rebecca and they come to take over her mind. To her it is all real. She "drowns" believing in a baby who was torn from her arms. Rebecca feels guilt for throwing the baby away. The images may or may not be real but Rebecca can't leave the memories of her baby in the end.

Pinter plays with Rebecca's seductive, eerie memories throughout the play. At the end he refuses to clarify or provide proof or additional data regarding Rebecca's memories. There is confirmation that the memories are real but they prove mightier than Rebecca and overpower her at the closing of the play. The nature of reality is subjective and rooted in human experience in this play as is common in modernist and postmodernist drama. Rebecca's memories do not need to be provably real to be powerful enough to overwhelm Rebecca's character. Their subjective reality is powerful enough in Pinter's world to make all other versions of reality irrelevant to Rebecca.

Ashes to Ashes Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction


1 Rebecca remembers her lover and Devlin questions her.

Rising Action

2 Rebecca and Devlin debate Rebecca's intimacy with her lover.

3 Rebecca remembers the factory and Devlin challenges her.

4 Rebecca and Devlin argue about the innocence of pens.

5 Devlin defends God and accuses the lover of murder.

6 Rebecca recites the memory of the refugees who drown.


7 Devlin summons Rebecca back by mentioning her sister.

Falling Action

8 Rebecca spirals deeper into memory.


9 Rebecca is lost in memory entirely and hears her own echo.

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