I first read about Ashes to Ashes in Harold Pinter’s Nobel lecture “Art, Truth and Politics“, in which Pinter revealed the origin of the play, an image.
“Ashes to Ashes, on the other hand, seems to me to be taking place under water. A drowning woman, her hand reaching up through the waves, dropping down out of sight, reaching for others, but finding nobody there, either above or under the water, finding only shadows, reflections, floating; the woman a lost figure in a drowning landscape, a woman unable to escape the doom that seemed to belong only to others. But as they died, she must die too”
The play is set in a gardened house in the country, and starts with the woman (Rebecca) recounting to her husband (Devlin) an incident in which she was being strangled by her “lover”. As the woman continues to recount her memories and dreams, her “lover” becomes the personal embodiment of atrocities (labor camps, the Holocaust, massacres).
Rebecca: “He did work for a travel agency. He was a guide. He used to go to the local railway station and walk down the platform and tear all the babies from the arms of their screaming mothers.”
Devlin: “I inferred from this that you were talking about some kind of atrocity. Now let me ask you this. What authority do you think you yourself possess which would give you the right to discuss such an authority?”
Rebecca: “I have no such authority. Nothing has ever happened to me. Nothing has ever happened to any of my friends. I have never suffered. Nor have my friends.”
Devlin then tries to change the subject to “more intimate things”, their family life, “bacon and eggs”, but the two of them fail to communicate with each other.
Rebecca: “I was all by myself. I was alone. I was looking out of the window and I saw a whole crowd of people walking through the woods, on their way to the sea, in the direction of the sea. They seemed to be very cold, they were wearing coats, although it was such a beautiful day. … There were guides ushering them, guiding them along. … The guides were ushering all these people across the beach. It was such a lovely day. It was so still and the sun was shining. And I saw all these people walking into the sea. The tide covered them slowly. Their bags bobbed about in the waves.”
Devlin: “You live here with me. This is our house. You have a very nice sister. She lives close to you. She has two lovely kids. You’re their aunt, You like that. You have a wonderful garden. You love your garden.”
At the end of the play, as Devlin begins to reenact the strangling incident, Rebecca identifies herself with the women at the train station who were robbed of their babies. The scene recedes into the drowning landscape.
One comes to the poignant realization that our superficial goodness and loveliness can not stand against institutionalized evil, terror and atrocities.