Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party: a Comedy of Menace

The term
“comedy of menace” was first used by David Campton as a subtitle to his four
short plays The Lunatic view”. Now it signifies a kind of play in which a
character or more characters feel the menacing presence—actual or imaginary, of
some obscure and frightening force, power or personality. The dramatist
exploits this kind of menace as a source of comedy. Harold Pinter exploited the
possibilities of this kind of situation in his early plays like “The Room”, “Birthday Party” and “A Slight Ache”, where the both
the character/s and the audience face an atmosphere, apparently funny but actually
having suggestiveness of some impending threat from outside. Pinter himself
explained the situation thus: “more
often than not the speech only seems to be funny – the man in question is
actually fighting a battle for his life”. He also said: Everything is funny until the horror of the
human situation rises to the surface! Life is funny because it is based on illusions
and self-deceptions, like Stanley’s dream of a world tour as a pianist, because
it is built out of pretence.” In fact the play Birthday Party is built
around the exchanges of words, which, though funny enough, contain hints that
suggest the impending doom lurking around to them. Meg’s situation as a
childless old woman who talks through repetitions may seem funny and odd, but
those cover up her unconscious desire to have son, a desire she tries to fulfil
through the mothering of Stanley and Petey. But Above all, Stanley’s staying in
a sea-side lodge, his shabby appearance combined with inconsistent words and
memorising may seem strange and invoke mild laughter but in reality he is
facing a crisis which he is himself not completely aware of.
Pinter creates
an atmosphere of menace through a variety of dramatic elements and techniques. First
of all, he lets situations fall from a light-hearted situation unexpectedly down
to one which is highly serious. For instance, while talking to Meg among other
things, he tells her about a wheel-barrow which will come to the house for some
body. Here we get a suggestion of impending death through the sudden reference
to coffin. Again, we see Meg offering Staley the gift of a drum as a compliment
to his supposed musical talent. But Stanley begins to beat it with such
savagery that the audience is left dumb-struck as to the real intention behind
this. This kind of abrupt explosion of violence is once again seen when Stanley
kicks at McCann. But more importantly, menace is presented through the fears
the characters feel but cannot spot. First of all, fear of weather is
introduced: the characters repeatedly enquire about weather, and this becomes
tangible once the audience understand that the lodge is situated on the coast of
a sea. Then Stanley tries to frighten Meg by prophesying the arrival of
wheel-barrow which, of course, does not come for her. On the other hand, on
hearing the visit of two strangers, Stanley feels a complex fear—first of all, the
fear of being driven away from the lodge which has become for him as
comfortable as his mother’s womb. A house represents security and comforts from
the hazards of the outside world but sadly it is impossible to sustain.
Goldberg and McCann is the embodiment of menace from a hostile outside world. We
also note that he stays in a lodge, which cannot be a substitute for home. Secondly,
Stanley faces the fear of being persecuted by the intruders. That is why he
expresses his desire to run away with Lulu, but is afraid of doing so in
With the
hosting of the birthday party, the play reaches its climax of menace. A
birthday party is expected to be a ritualistic celebration of one’s life, but
in the case of Stanley it turns out to be the greatest ordeal of life leading
to his complete mental derangement. The audience now understand the menace
turning real though in transformed forms. Stanley faces not only physical
assault but also a torrent of words, with the serious accusations like “He’s killed his wife” mingled
with trivial and ludicrous like “Why
do you pick your nose?”. The persons who could have saved him are
either absent or drunk.

The play
ends with Stanley’s forced removal from the house by Goldberg and McCann who
leave a further note of unknown menace awaiting Stanley in near future. This
uncertain menace is further strengthened by Petey’s inability to communicate to
Meg what has exactly happened with Stanley. To conclude, it can be said that the
final impression of the play on the audience echoes Pinter’s own words: ” In our present-day world, everything is
uncertain, there is no fixed point, we are surrounded by the unknown … There
is a kind of horror about and I think that this horror and absurdity (comedy)
go together.”

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