Harold Pinter’s works, “The Birthday Party” and “The Room,” were fashioned after a Comedy of Menace, a unique dramatic style that recreates a realistic situation using a comedic problem that eventually becomes a horrible situation. The use of opposing elements, – comedy vs. tragedy, – is intended to confuse the audience and create a contingent irony. Essentially, Comedy of Menace represents a style or theme in plays where characters walk into menacing or obscure but hilarious situations that capture the attention of the audience. Therefore, the style creates ironic situations where characters experience threats, dangers or other kinds of troubles in a humorous way. The irony in these situations arouses the interest of the audience and creates inimitable experiences for them. Comedy of Menace represents desperate and distressing real life situations in a way that the audience could still feel entertained through comic elements.
Pinter has adopted the Comedy of Menace to almost all of his plays. “The Birthday Party” and “The Room” show how the playwright had effectively infused this style to his works. Pinter is also known for his use of Pinteresque in his plays. Pinteresque is a technique that allows the characters to establish a certain mood or atmosphere on the stage. The Pinter Silence or Pinter Pause, for instance, are terms used to describe scenes where characters take a brief pause after intense moments (i.e. being insulted or embarrassed, after facing a dangerous situation, etc.), which creates a dramatic and suspenseful atmosphere. The styles, techniques, and themes incorporated in “The Birthday Party” and “The Room” will be explored further throughout the report. Aside from these elements in Pinter’s plays, his life will also be explored – from birth to death – to identify his works and influences in writing.
II. The Life and Works of Harold Pinter
A. Biographical Information
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Harold Pinter was born on October 10, 1930 in Hackney, England. His father, Jack Pinter, was a tailor, and mother, Frances Moskowitz, – a homemaker. When Pinter was ten, his family was evacuated to Cornwall and Reading because of the Blitz. The Blitz was one of the earliest events that had a significant impact on Pinter’s life. Pain and despair left by the war find their reflection in his works.
At the age of fourteen, Pinter attended the exclusive grammar school for boys, Hackney Downs School. Pinter’s attendance in Hackney Downs contributed to the young Pinter’s social skills. Teachers and boy’s parents saw Pinter’s development from socially inept to socially active through his interaction with other boys of his age. Boys he met during his time at school were said to have influenced his works since male friendship is one of the themes in his plays. The drama teacher, Joseph Brearley, was said to have been an inspiration in Pinter’s growing interest in the arts. Brearley directed the school plays, and from him, Pinter learned about the theater and the literature. Pinter also wrote poetry at the age of 12. In 1947, his poetry was published in the Hackney Downs School Magazine. In 1950, his poetry was published also in Poetry London under the pseudonym Harold Pinta. Aside from arts and literature, Pinter also developed an interest in sports. One of his obsessions is the English Cricket.
In 1948, Pinter attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts but dropped out after two semesters. During that time, he was also recruited for National Service where he signed up as a conscientious objector and was sued twice for refusing to join the service. From 1949 to 1950, he joined the Dick Whittington and His Cat pantomime at Chesterfield Hippodrome. In 1951, Pinter attended the Central School of Speech and Drama. Pinter toured Ireland along with the Anew McMaster repertory company playing various roles. Pinter also signed up for different repertory companies including the regional English repertory productions in 1952 and the Donald Wolfit Company in 1953 under the name David Baron. Aside from acting in various roles, Pinter worked odd jobs – mail carrier, bouncer, and waiter.
In 1956, Pinter married Vivien Merchant, an actor whose most famous credit was her role in the film Alfie in 1966. Pinter and Merchant had a son, Daniel, in after two years of marriage. Merchant appears in many of Pinter’s works. However, Pinter and Merchant could not agree about many things. From 1962 to 1969, Pinter had an affair with Joan Bakewell and another American woman he was fond of; he called Cleopatra. Pinter’s 1978 play, Betrayal, was inspired by Bakewell. Pinter had various overlapping affairs including one with Antonia Fraser in 1975. Pinter’s previous affairs were kept secret, but during that year, he told Merchant about them. Pinter left his family for Fraser. In 1980, Pinter and Fraser got married.
Politics also influenced Pinter’s works. Pinter was a supporter of nuclear disarmament, the Cuba Solidarity Campaign, International Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic (ICDSM), and the Anti-Apartheid Movement. As a means to show his support, Pinter was one of the British authors who refused to get their works published in South Africa. In interviews, Pinter talks about social and political themes in his works, such as oppression and inequality. Pinter also supports freedom of speech. Along with a co-playwright, Arthur Miller, Pinter went on a mission to Turkey for the International PEN in order to lead and oversee protests against those who imprisoned writers in the country. Pinter used all his talents in writing plays, essays, and poetry in order to illustrate political problems that are plaguing society. Pinter is also known for his opposition of the Gulf War (1991), the NATO bombing campaign (1999), and the War in Afghanistan instigated by the U.S. government (2001). In 2003, Pinter criticized the previous British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, for backing the Bush administration’s plan to invade Iraq. Although Pinter could not be categorized as a pacifist, he supported antiwar movements throughout the years.
After battling Cancer for many years, Pinter died on December 24, 2008 in London, England. At the time of his death, Pinter has played over forty roles in theater, wrote twenty –nine plays, fifteen dramatic sketches, and co-authored two works for stage and radio. Pinter also started in several models for small roles, directed more than fifty stage, television, and film productions.
B. Influences to Harold Pinter’s Works
As discussed in the previous section, Pinter was influenced by the things he learned and experienced since childhood. Initially, Pinter was a shy and withdrawn child being the only child in the family. However, when he started attending school, he learned how to become social (Baker 5). Pinter has formed friendships with his schoolmates at the exclusive school for boys.. Since then, he has incorporated male friendships and issues in his works. Pinter was realistic in portraying men in his works. “Pinter presents men as appallingly competitive, especially with men within their own families” (Digaetani 102). In his play, Betrayal, the theme of male friendship is represented by the relationship between Robert and Jerry. Although the story is betrayal, the friendship between Robert and Jerry takes the form in such a way that the audience will be able to see a real portrayal of relationships between two men.
Pinter’s “Betrayal” was also influenced by his personal relationships since the play was said to be inspired by his marriage with Merchant and, later on, his affair and marriage with Fraser. The play “centers on a conventional love triangle involving three young, middle-class friends: Robert, a Prufrockian book publisher; Emma, Robert’s lovely but restless wife; and Jerry, Robert’s best friend and publishing colleague. In the story, Emma and Jerry have an affair for two years and then revolve around the effects of the affair to the institution of family and to those who are betrayed because of secrets and lies. Through a series of flashbacks, the friendship between Robert and Jerry is explored and develops while the affair between Jerry and Emma is happening behind Robert’s back. Most of the events that happen in the play are “richly clothed in autobiographical garments from Pinter’s own seven-year affair” (Cody 154).
Pinter’s childhood experiences of chaos, being a witness of the Blitz, have also influenced the playwright’s social and political views about the war. When he was young, Pinter saw how the blitz and death consume people. One of his uncles committed suicide by hanging, and Pinter saw it with his own eyes. Pinter’s experience was reflected in one of his plays, “The Caretaker,” which he wrote in 1959 (Baker 5). Later on, Pinter wrote several other works influenced by social and political themes. “The Trojan War” enabled Pinter to create a play that reflected his inner Pacifism. The play was based on the story of Helen and Paris and was meant to illustrate his belief that there is no matter reason or cause, which not justify why governments or countries choose to go to war. The gruesome loss and outcomes of war prove it. Pinter also utilized his plays in order to criticize the decision of governments to engage in war, through which he also received criticism from those who do not agree with him. “Whatever the efficacy or inefficacy of political theater, Pinter’s work as a dissident intellectual reflects concerns similar to those he presents on stage, and even though Pinter’s theatrical work strongly suggests the odds against dissent by illustrating the links among power, repression and retribution, Pinter himself does not dissent” (Grimes 188).
Throughout his life, Pinter has received various awards and has been acknowledged for his talents as a writer and efforts in active participation in social and political events he strongly supported. Pinter is known as the most influential British Playwrights of modern times. The honorable acknowledgment of his playwrights was primarily due to his contribution to the field – Pinteresque. According to scholars, Pinteresque “increases the possibilities of the word and better represents the word’s use by critics in London and beyond” (Brewer 220). Pinter contributed a great deal to the field because of his unique style of being able to set the stage into something realistic. Moreover, Pinter was an influential playwright as he was able to evoke responses from mostly British and American readers and viewers. According to British and American critics, Pinter was highly talented in making sure in adopting realistic situations that the audience can relate to, such as the married life, the impact of extra-marital affairs to the family, cheating and betrayal, the impact of grief and loneliness, friendships, and the hardships of those who are caught in political conflicts (Zarilli, McConachie & Williams 405).
In 2005, Pinter was awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature. During his speech, he talked about many things regarding his works including his experiences, various elements and challenges when putting together political plays. In his play, “Mountain Language,” Pinter aimed to portray the lives of those who were involved in the religious conflict in Turkey. Pinter also talked about his intentions while creating the play. According to Pinter, “the play is about suppression of language and the loss of freedom of expression” (Gauthier 7). From what Pinter experienced when he visited Turkey and learned the situation in the country, he understood that the war had lost its track and did not related to the primary source of conflict, which was related to religion. Since the begining of the war, the situation had worsened and conflicting parties in the region attacked each other just for the sake of retaliating. Therefore, like any other war that Pinter was against, there were no justifications for the conflict anymore, buy plain tyranny and violations of basic human rights (Gauthier, 7).
Pinter was awarded a Nobel Prize not only because of his politically motivated, insightful, and realistic themes in his plays, but also because of his contributions to English literature. Aside from coining the term Pinteresque, which is now a valuable technique in mood setting, Pinter was also praised by Sir David Hare because of his unique and fresh approaches in writing presented in his plays or materials for novels, television, or radio. Hare praised Pinter during a showing of the playwright’s portrait at the National Portrait Gallery. Hare compared Pinter to Arundhati Roy, who “worked to begin to redefine the idea of what, in uniquely dangerous times, we may expect an artist to be” (Zarhy-Levo, 207). According to Hare, Pinter has managed to put together real situations and infuse them in his literature, and, in the process, manipulate the delivery of his own plays so he could create a stage or setting where people can instantly relate to those situations. Moreover, Pinter’s unique strategy or approach is that he uses humor in order to portray difficult realities that people would otherwise avoid watching. Through humor, Pinter creates a means for the audience to escape, but, at the same time, to show them the realities that they need to understand and become aware of. Aside from the Nobel Prize and acknowledgments from his colleagues, a theatre in London was named after Pinter. In the theatre, they show the plays written by Pinter.
III. The Birthday Party
Although Pinter wrote many plays, “The Birthday Party” is one of two subjects that will be the subject of analysis in this report. “The Birthday Party”,one of Pinter’s most notable plays, is about Stanley Webber. Webber lives in a modest flat run by Petey and Meg Boles. Webber is a piano player in his later thirties. Act 1 opens in the kitchen where Meg and Petey are talking about Webber and two men who will come later and possibly rent a room. Webber hears the news and becomes suspicious about the other two men Meg and Petey were talking about. When the two men arrived, Webber hides in a corner to listen to their conversation, but he does not hear anything suspicious or worth worry about. When the two men, McCann and Goldberg leave, Meg gives Webber a package, a birthday gift, which contains a toy drum.
In Act 2, Webber, McCann and Goldberg confront each other. The two men ask Webber if it is indeed his birthday, but he denies it. McCann and Goldberg continued to ask Webb questions until Webber’s birthday party starts. In the scene, Meg and Lulu come in to join the party. Characters play a game called the blind man’s bluff but later on, the party turns sour when Webber attacks Meg and, later, Lulu. McCann, Goldberg and Webber get into a scuffle.
In Act 3, Petey talks to McCann and Goldberg about Webber. Petey is concerned for Webber’s safety and well being, so three men decide to take him to Monty. Later, when Webber arrives, Goldberg starts to ask Webber questions again, which he refuses to answer. As a result, Goldberg and McCann force Webber to go with them to see Monty. Petey keeps Webber’s situation a secret.
IV. The Room
In “The Room,” Rose and Bert, a married couple, are the main characters. Like in “The Birthday Party,” the play opens in a kitchen where Rose is talking about different things while her husband sits quietly. After a while, the proprietor, Mr. Kidd, enters the scene to ask Bert about how long their stay will be, but Bert remains quiet while Rose answers her questions. The conversation between Mr. Kidd and Rose continues restlessly as both characters launch into new topics to keep their conversations. Sometimes, topics that Mr. Kidd and Rose talk about are not the same. Bert leaves later to work. In thethe other scene, Rose meets Mr. and Mrs. Sands who are planning to rent a room in Mr. Kidd’s apartment. In the next scene, Riley, a blind African American, gives Rose a letter from her father. When Bert comes in a few moments later, he finds Rose being intimate with Riley. In anger, Bert beats Riley up until he dies.
V. Literary Elements
In this section of the report, the literary elements that were applied in “The Birthday Party” and “The Room” will be analyzed.
Using the Comedy of Menace as a technique, Pinter creates unpredictable twists in both plays. Early on, the audience is led to believe that something predictable is going to happen, but towards the end, the opposite occurs. The Comedy of Menace was used in both plays in order to create an illusion, like allowing the audience to feel that they have the story figured out, and that they know where things are happening, but when they watch the unexpected twist, viewers are surprised and dumbstruck. According to Wardle, Pinter utilizes the Comedy of Menace in such a way that the destiny of the characters in a humorous fashion until the story ends to reveal a shocking and destructive ending. In Pinter’s use of Comedy of Menace, destiny is handled “not as an austere exercise… but as an incurable disease… whose lethal reminders may take the form of a joke… in which orthodox man is a willing collaboration in his own destruction” (Brewer 32). In “The Birthday Party,” Webber receiving a toy drum for his birthday is humorous, and the birthday party in Act 2, which is a happy event, does not clue the audience in about the turn of events in the Act 3. Moreover, the two men, Goldberg and McCann seemed to be the suspicious characters in the play. However, in Act 3, it is revealed who they are. The same principle applies to “The Room.” Rose talks to her husband restlessly while Bert remains quiet, and while the couple is palpably having a problem, Rose’s affair with Riley and Bert’s violent nature were both unexpected.
When it comes to symbolism, Pinter incorporated objects in both plays that symbolized meaning – the toy drum in “The Birthday Party” and the wheelbarrow in “The Room.” Many critics are split on the meaning of the toy drum in “The Birthday Party,” but the most significant meaning is that the toy drum symbolizes a slow and impending doom. When the toy drum is beaten lightly, it creates an atmosphere of anticipation until the unimaginable thing happens in the end. On the other hand, the meaning of the wheelbarrow in “The Room” was apparent. Bert beats up Riley to death in the end of the play. The wheelbarrow is said to symbolize death and the coffin, and the action of taking a body and wheeling it to its death.
Another interesting element in Pinter’s plays is that the dramatic styles are unexpected. In “The Birthday Party,” Pinter incorporated drama and mystery when the two men arrived in Act 1 and Webber felt suspicious. The audience would ask why Webber is suspicious and who those two men really are. Another dramatic element is the nature of the gift given to Webber. Webber was described as man in his late thirties but receiving a toy drum for a birthday present that created the mystery in the play. In later parts of the play, both McCann and Goldberg ask Webber several questions, to which he does not give answers. The urgency of the situation and the nature of the questions again make the audience wonder who McCann and Goldberg are, why they are interrogating Webber, and what things Webber is hiding. In Act 3, McCann and Goldberg mention Monty taking Webber to him, but they never discuss who Monty is. In the end, McCann and Goldberg restrain Webber and bring him to Monty, which creates a dramatic end because the audience will continue to wonder who Monty is and what would happen to Webber when he meets him. Elements of drama and mystery are also present in “The Room.” Right from the beginning of the play, the audience would notice that there is something amiss in Rose and Bert’s relationship because of how they communicate. However, the problem between the two was never identified, which allows the audience to guess and wonder about the kind of relationship between the two.
Aside from Comedy of Menace, Pinter also applied his unique technique – Pinteresque. In Pinteresque, characters take brief pauses when they are insulted or embarrassed, or when they feel like they are in danger. This technique creates a dramatic tone because, during the brief pause, the audience anticipates what would happen in next. In “The Birthday Party,” there is a brief pause when Webber opens his gift and sees that it is a toy drum. Webber also takes brief pauses when McCann and Goldberg ask him various questions. In “The Room,” there is a brief pause when Bert enters the room and finds his wife being physically intimate with Riley. The brief pauses during these scenes create the intensity in the play and help to highlight the significant scenes that would affect the ending of the story later on. The length of pauses that characters take is marked by silence. As previously discussed, the pauses help create intense scenes and, therefore, the lengthy pauses create the mood shift. The silence in “The Room”,on the other hand, also creates the character. In the opening scene where Rose and Bert are talking in the kitchen, Bert is entirely silent while his wife keeps on talking about different topics. Bert’s silence helped create his character. In the end, Bert commits a murder because of his anger. His violent nature and silence both created the character, of who Bert is – he is mostly silent or quiet, but when he is angry, he becomes a character to reckon with.
The story of Harold Pinter shows that there are various elements that influence the skills and talent of the writer. Based on Pinter’s biographic profile, his views and approaches in writing were influenced by his childhood experiences and images that he saw during the war. Beeing a child, Pinter learned about male friendship, later on, he saw the destruction power of war, and when he was older, he visited countries rife with political conflict. During these experiences, Pinter was able to form solid opinions against the war and politics, and consequently used his ideas and incorporated them in his plays, essays, and other works for television, film, and radio. Pinter received worldwide recognition for his work.
Aside from his highly relevant and meaningful plays, Pinter was also honored for his unique techniques. The Comedy of Menace and Pinteresque are two prominent techniques that Pinter applies in his plays. Both techniques are observable in Pinter’s most famous works, “The Birthday Party” and “The Room.” In both plays, Pinter applied the Comedy of Menace in order to create unexpected twists and thus, unforgettable conclusions that stay with the audience. Pinter strategically utilized humor in order to make the audience believe that the story is going in one direction, but as the story progresses, the audience eventually finds out that it will take the opposite direction. Using Pinteresque, Pinter creates intense scenes that leave an impression on the audience. Through brief or lengthy pauses, Pinter creates the mood and the character in each scene. The actions or behavior that the characters in the scenes portray, become the opposite of their silence, which then helps the audience understand who they are as characters. Furthermore, the pauses help create intensity and drama in the scenes. When something insulting, embarrassing or dangerous happens, the characters in the play take brief or lengthy pauses. Through the pauses, the audience feels thrilled or excited in anticipation of what comes next. In addition, the brief or lengthy pauses highlight the importance of the scene and its role in the upcoming scenes and the conclusion.