The Birthday Party, a comedy of menace (Pinter)

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The Birthday Party: A “Comedy of Menace”

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        “Comedy of menace” was a term first used to describe Harold Pinter’s plays by the drama critic Irving Wardle.  He borrowed the term from the subtitle of one of David Campton’s plays, The Lunatic View: A Comedy of Menace.  A comedy is a humorous play which contains variations on the elements of surprise, incongruity, conflict, repetitiveness, and the effect of  and so on in order to amuse and make the audience laugh.  A menace is something which threatens to cause harm, evil or injury which seems quite incompatible with the idea of a comedy.  However, as The Birthday Party shows, it is quite possible for a playwright to create both humour and menace in the same play, and even at the same time, in order to produce certain effects and to transmit ideas to the audience.

        Comedy is present in The Birthday Party from the very first scene; it is a way of gently introducing the audience to the world which Pinter is trying to create.  The humour is quite subtle at first, for example the exchange between Petey and Meg about whether Stanley is up or not plays on the words up and down: “Meg: “Is Stanley up yet?  Petey: I don’t know.  Is he?  Meg: I don’t know.  I haven’t seen him down.  Petey: Well then, he can’t be up.  Meg: Haven’t you seen him down?”.  Although the repetitions in this short exchange will not make the audience burst out with laughter they can make them smile and the humour also lulls them into a sense of comfort.  A joke with a similar effect is made through another short dialogue between Meg and Petey in which Meg continually asks who is having a baby with Petey insisting that she won’t know her until finally saying it’s “Lady Mary Splatt”, to which Meg replies anticlimactically “I don’t know her”.  This anticlimax as well as the incongruous name of the woman (we do not imagine a “Lady” having the surname “Splatt”) creates humour and again lulls the audience into a sense of peace and normality.  As well as this we get a sense of Meg’s stupidity, Petey’s resignation to it and their relationship being unfruitful and routine from their humorous yet uninteresting dialogue.  Indeed, half the reason what they say seems funny is because of how pointless it is.  Thus, Pinter highlights the uselessness of Meg and Petey’s conversation and in extension the uselessness of everyday small talk.  The worrying thing for the audience about this comedy is that it evidences a kind of futility:  Meg does notseem to have much of a life beyond these pointless conversations.  Thus, while the humour of the dialogue lightens the tone of the scene it also poses a question on the passivity and futility of the lives of the characters and the lives of many people in general.

        Humour also serves to draw attention to the strangeness of Meg and Stanley’s relationship.  Indeed, Meg treats him like a child despite his being a man of thirty.  We are made aware of the fact that Stanley is not a child when he comes on stage for the first time.  Before this Meg’s calling him “that boy” and trying to get him out of bed by calling “Stan!  Stanny! Stan! I’m coming up to fetch you if you don’t come down!  I’m coming up!  I’m going to count to three! One!  Two!  Three!” makes the audience think he must be a child.  Thus when we see him for the first time the incompatibility between the reality and what we have been lead to believe creates humour.  The inappropriateness of Meg’s treatment of Stanley and his being a fully grown man also creates humour at other moments of the play, for example when she asks him if he “pa[id] a visit this morning” (went to the toilet).  While Meg and Stanley’s conversation has some comedic value it could also make the audience feel slightly uneasy, perhaps they will ask themselves why this woman of sixty treats a man of thirty like a boy and why he plays along with her at times.  Their exchanges, for example, the dialogue revolving around Stanley calling Meg a “succulent old washing bag” and Meg’s reaction to it, seeming to believe that it’s a rude word is quite funny for the audience as again it highlights her silliness but makes their relationship even stranger as she speaks “coyly”:  she does not only play a maternal role but is also somewhat flirtatious. Thus humour, while seeming quite light can have a deeper meaning and cover up something a lot more serious about a character and problems they may have.

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        Likewise, Stanley’s attempts at humour when talking to Lulu are a kind of proof of his social inadequacy.  When she says that it’s stuffy he replies “Stuffy?  I disinfected the place this morning.” And when she talks about his getting under Meg’s feet he says he “always stand[s] on the table when she sweeps the floor”.  These two lines are both untrue and when saying them Stanley’s aim seems to be to make a joke.  However, they both fall flat with Lulu and we could also imagine with the audience.  Consequently, comedy, or rather attempts at it, evidence Stanley’s ...

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