"The Birthday Party" - Harold Pinter


Discuss the concept of "comedy of menace" in relation to the dramatic content of Pinter’s play "The Birthday Party". Make an attempt towards a definition of "comedy of menace" in your answer.

Some Hints and Suggestions

Introductory paragraph.

Phrase "comedy of menace" often applied to his early plays, eg "The Room", "Birthday Party" and "A Slight Ache". Suggests that although they are funny, they are also frightening or menacing in a vague and undefined way. Even as they laugh, the audience are unsettled, ill at ease and uncomfortable.

Pinter’s own comment: "more often than not the speech only seems to be funny - the man in question is actually fighting a battle for his life". Example?

What situations appear funny to us? But in fact for the character concerned is a terrifying experience? Examples?


The atmosphere of menace is also created by Pinter’s ability to drop suddenly from a high comic level to one of deep seriousness. Examples? By this technique the audience are made aware that the comedy is only a surface layer. The sudden outbreaks of violence (verbal / physical?) in the play confirm this and leave the audience unsure of what will come next. Examples?

There is fear in the play. Fear of what? Several things! By whom? Just as Stanley (or Meg) is the main vehicle for comedy in the play, so is he the main vehicle for the presentation of fear. Examples? Are any other characters frightened? Examples? Does humour also come into this?

The room or house represents security from the outside world but sadly it is impossible to sustain. The menace in the form of Goldberg and McCann represents a hostile outside world. They are the exception to the rule where life is normal and pleasant outside (and inside until they arrive!).

The general setting of the play is naturalistic and mundane, involving no menace. However one of Pinter’s greatest skills is his ability to make an apparently normal and trivial object, like a toy drum, appear strange and threatening. Pinter can summon forth an atmosphere of menace from ordinary everyday objects and events, and one way in which this is done is by combining two apparently opposed moods, such as terror and amusement. Much of Birthday Party is both frightening and funny. Stanley is destroyed by a torrent of words, but mingled in with the serious accusations eg "He’s killed his wife" (and others!) are ones which are trivial and ludicrous eg "Why do you pick your nose?" (and others!).

eg The "sitting down" sequence - funny but threatening.

eg Stan’s cheating in the game - funny but terrifying, because the audience are aware that much more is at stake than appears on the surface - the subtext! This is one source of menace, namely the audience’s awareness that trivial actions are often concealing thoughts and events of much larger significance. Examples?

eg It may be that the audience feel a sense of guilt at their own laughter - forced into it against their will.

Another technique that Pinter uses to create an atmosphere of menace is to cast doubt on almost everything in the play. One method of doing this is to have a character give a clear and definite statement and then have him flatly deny it later on. Examples?

The nature of reality here is confused - the audience no longer know what is or is not true and out of this comes an atmosphere of mystery and uncertainty. Pinter does not give background information about the characters in Birthday Party. Examples? This means the characters are not fixed as belonging to any particular place or time! Stanley has no history, he does not belong to anyone or anywhere, he has no family and is therefore "fair game". Other examples?

Are Goldberg and McCann emissaries of some secret organisation that Stan has betrayed? Or male nurses sent out to fetch him back to an asylum from which he has escaped? Or agents/messengers from another world? The question is never answered.


What about other characters? Meg is grotesque, horrific but still funny. She dances and looks stupid in her party frock, but inadvertently is the na´ve accomplice, terrorising Stan at the party. Other examples?

Petey is tongue-tied and silent, his emotions and thoughts remain unexpressed and bottled up.

Pinter 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 our present-day world, everything is uncertain, there is no fixed point, we are surrounded by the unknown. This unknown occurs in my plays. There is a kind of horror about and I think that this horror and absurdity (comedy) go together."

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