The Birthday Party Memory – it’s human!
History and Lit Night • Don’t forget! • Poster design competition – one entry per class • Theme: propagandist portrayals of women
The setting - menace • World of menace • A world of unmotivated cruelty and hate. • Stanley is a victim of strangers who invade his private world (territory) • they ‘accuse’ him of an unspecified crime and seek to undo him. • Pinter: “people are scared about what is outside this room. Outside the room is a world bearing upon them which is frightening….we are all in this, all in a room and outside is a world …which is most inexplicable and frightening, curious and alarming. • Note: Stanley creates a foreshadowing in the ‘wheelbarrow’ episode. Mysterious men out to take Meg away. At the end McCann and Goldberg take Stanley away from the ‘security of the room’ for an unknown outside.
Identity (and anonymity) • Fundamental question: Who Am I? (Problematic!) • Identity is Multi-faceted: Name, family background, culture / ethnic group, social network & Memory (unreliable) • Linked to existential qn of: what is the meaning of my existence? (significance of title – The Birthday Party) • Pinter’s shows how personality and character are unstable - never completely definable. Identity is fluid and may be marked by lack of self-knowledge or self-delusion e.g. Meg: ‘I was the belle of the ball!...They all said I was...oh, It’s true. ’ (pg 86)
Identity (and anonymity) • Stanley’s identity is mysterious. He asks Meg “Mrs Boles, when you address yourself to me, do you ever ask yourself who exactly are you talking to?” => he has kept himself secret. (pg21) • He also gives several versions of his past life to Meg and McCann. • During the course of the play, Stanley can be said to be ‘re-born’ [hence birthday]. • He is ‘given’ a new identity => his old one stripped away during the interrogation. In act 3, he no longer seems the same man as in act 2.
Identity (and anonymity) • Goldberg also makes no secret of the fact he has lived under several names – at least 3 in fact. (Simey, Nat and Benny) • Pinter said to Joan Bakewell, “I’m quite interested in the fact that a good deal of the past is really a mist – my past anyway.” • If the past is in a mist and one cannot verify what happened, than the idea of a stable identity become impossible.
Therefore…MEMORY • A pervading theme is memory: the way our existence is haunted by a recollection, however fallible or imaginary, of some vanished world in which everything was secure, certain and fixed. • In Stanley's recollections of his days as a concert pianist, (pg 22-23 ) you hear the characteristic Pinter note: a yearning for some lost Eden as a refuge from the uncertain present. ‘Every single one of them. It was a great success’. (22)
MEMORY (& the past) • the past though is deliberately kept vague and is constructed to suit the demands of the moment. => memory is unreliable or the past is just part of self-deception. • The past is presented as un-verifiable => the unreliability of what is said is brought to our attention by the contradictions. • Past exists not as fact but as individual perception - Characters construct a past that is appealing at the moment. Hence we can never ‘know’ their ‘true’ identities.
Audience relies on knowing the past history of characters to understand their personality => lack makes us insecure and frustrated. • Pinter’s world is more uncertain for audience than characters. WE know less than the characters on stage. Deliberate mystification =>> dramatic technique for heightening sense of fear. • Eg ‘My father came down to hear me. Well, I dropped him a card anyway. But I don’t think he could make it. No, I – I lost the address, that was it. (pause.)’ pg 23 • => note the contradictions: did the father come? Could Stanley have dropped him a card if he lost the address?
Examples from the text - Stanley • “I had a unique touch. Absolutely unique…” p22-23 • “My father nearly came down”, “I dropped him a card anyway”, “I don’t think he could make it”, “I lost the address” – each statement negates the last as if memory is entirely unreliable • Note the nature of Stanley’s ‘reverie’ – it is to be successful in the public eye (the establishment?) • “They were all there that night. Every single one of them.”
Examples from the text • Goldberg’s memories are just as unreliable. Who is the child he refers to? • “When I was an apprentice yet…” p27 – apprentice to whom? For what? • “the sun coming down – golden days, believe me, McCann.” – why does he have to demand “belief”? • “He had a house just outside Basingstoke at the time. Respected by the whole community.” – note the similarity with Stanley’s ‘piano recital reverie’ – the concept of social acceptance and conformity to an expected standard • “Uncle Barney taught me that the word of a gentleman is enough.”
Examples from the text • Goldberg’s memories in Act 2 seem to partially contradict those of Act 1 – they seem to be more explicitly focused upon Stanley’s shortcomings • “”I used to go for a walk down the canal with a girl who lived down my road…She wasn’t a Sunday school teacher for nothing… – I never took liberties – we weren’t like the young men these days those days. We knew the meaning of respect.” p43
Examples from the text • “I know what it is to wake up with the sun shining, to the sound of the lawnmower, all the little birds, the smell of grass, church bells, tomato juice –” p45 Lulu: You got a wife? Goldberg: I had a wife. What a wife. Listen to this. Friday, of an afternoon, I’d take myself for a little constitutional…back I’d go to my bungalow with the flat roof. “Simey,” my wife used to shout, “quick before it gets cold!” And there on the table… p59 • (note direct link to the language of the earlier episode (p43) “Simey!” my old mum used to shout, “quick before it gets cold.” And there on the table…”
Goldberg’s memories • A ‘pastiche’ of genuine memories. They feature images of family, home, simple pleasures, sunlight, food and nurture. • They represent a concept of satisfaction with one’s ‘lot’ – the romance of the sunset over the dog stadium
Examples from the text - Meg • Meg’s recollection of Stanley’s earlier speech shows the vulnerability of memory over an absurdly short space of time. In dramatic terms, Stanley’s reverie is just moments earlier • “His father gave him champagne…The caretaker had gone home…And then they all wanted to give him a big tip. And so he took the tip. And then he got the fast train and he came down here.” p32 - note the infantile construction of the speech.
Examples from the text • The birthday becomes a significantly troubling issue. • For the audience, it is disturbing to imagine that a ‘birthday’ can be assigned arbitrarily • “It’s your birthday Stan. I was going to keep it secret until tonight.” p35 • “This isn’t my birthday, Meg.” p36 • “No, I’m sorry, Stan. I didn’t know about it till just now.” p44
Examples from the text • Stanley’s anxious appeal to McCann early in Act 2 relies on memory • “I used to live very quietly – played records, that’s about all. Everything delivered to the door…I lived so quietly.” p40 • “I suppose I have changed, but I’m still the same man that I always was.”
Examples from the text • Stanley’s efforts at recalling memory for McCann suggest yet another clash with earlier memories. • The concept of “living quietly” contradicts his reverie of performing in public. The musical connection is reduced to “playing records” instead of the creative practice of playing the piano
Examples from the text – the sinister • Compare these two references Stanley: There’s a Fuller’s teashop. I used to have my tea there. McCann: I don’t know it. Stanley: And a Boots library… p39 • “That’s the sort of man I am…tea in Fullers, a Library book from Boots, and I’m satisfied.” p56
Examples from the text – the sinister • If we recall Stanley’s ‘reverie’ we remember the words “they were all there” • Note Goldberg’s speech p57 “Well, my first chance to stand up and give a lecture was at the Ethical Hall, Bayswater. A wonderful opportunity. I’ll never forget it. They were all there that night.”
The sinister • What is the dramatic impact of these ‘echoes’ throughout the text? • What is the connection between Goldberg and Stanley? • How do Goldberg’s speeches reflect the establishment and its expectations? • How does this help shape our expectations?
Memory in Act 3 • Few ‘romanticised’ memories are delivered in Act 3 • “A friend of mine was telling me about it only the other day. We’d both been concerned with another case – not entirely similar, of course, but …quite alike, quite alike. …sometimes it happens gradual – day by day it grows and grows and grows” p 72
Memory in Act 3 • “My father said to me, Benny, Benny, he said, come here. He was dying. I knelt down. By him day and night…Keep an eye for low-lives, for shnorrers and for layabouts. He didn’t mention names. I lost my life in the service of others, he said, I’m not ashamed. Do your duty and keep your observations.”
Memory in Act 3 • Meg’s final memories Meg: It was a lovely party. I haven’t laughed so much for years. We had dancing and singing. And games. You should have been there. Petey: It was good, eh? [pause] Meg: I was the belle of the ball. Petey: Were you? Meg: Oh yes. They all said I was. Petey: I bet you were, too. Meg: Oh, it’s true. I was. [pause] I know I was. p87
Significance • Memory in the play is clearly ‘fickle’ • Pinter appears to establish a contradiction between ‘approved’ memories and memories that challenge the establishment. • Stanley’s silence at the end of the play? • “Still the same old Stan. Come with us. Come on, boy.” p85
Problem of Human Communication • Pinter on communication: ‘…what takes place is continual evasion, desperate rearguard attempts to keep ourselves to ourselves. Communication is too alarming. To enter into someone else’s life is too frightening, to disclose to others the poverty within us is too fearsome a possibility.’ • Sincerity, honesty, openness must be shunned because they create chaos. Survival is based on a policy of reciprocal misunderstanding and misinformation.
Problem of Human Communication • Critic Irving Wardle suggests that Pinter’s characters lie. “The Pinteresque hero seems almost inarticulate as a pig, stumbling pathetically in his words, covering a narrow area of meaning with his utterances, and blathering through his life. When he grunts, it is to lie.’ • Pinter’s characters are always intelligent enough in their capacity as conscientious and persistent liars, whether lying to themselves or to others to hide the truth if they know truth’s abode (even if they are often abject, stupid, aggressive & vile) • It’s self-preservation, survival and for security. • Fundamentally isolates and alienates the individual.
Silence and pauses • Pinter suggests: Language of silence becomes more powerful than words • “the more acute the experience the less articulate its expression.” =>Inadequacy of words when it comes to complex emotions.
The ‘Interrogation’ Its significance to Act 2
The ‘interrogation’ • What is the purpose? • Dramatic • Thematic • Dramatically, the episode occurs when Stanley is most insecure. He is left for the first time with both Goldberg and McCann • The audience is well aware of dramatic tension created by the ‘build-up’
The build-up • Immediately preceding is Stanley’s attempt to assert authority over Goldberg • “Don’t mess me about!” (p44) • “Perhaps you’re deaf.” (p44) • “Get out.” (p45) • “I told you to get those bottles out.” (p45) • “Let me – just make this clear. You don’t bother me…” (p45)
The build-up – Goldberg’s role • During the build-up, Goldberg avoids confrontation • “You’re in a terrible humour today, Mr Webber. And on your birthday too…” (p45) • The audience responds by perceiving that Goldberg and McCann have no intention of moving or leaving. • The tension is increased by the apparently innocuous instruction – “Mr Webber, sit down a minute”
Sitting down • As we witness the progression of the ‘interrogation’, the concepts of sitting and standing take on symbolic significance in terms of the ‘Power-play’. • To sit is sometimes a position of authority (Goldberg) – “You’ve made Mr Goldberg stand up.” (p47) but can equally be a position of subordination and submission (Stanley) – “Get down in that seat!” (p47)
Sitting down • By using the simple stage device of sitting and standing, Pinter is able to utilise height contrast upon the stage • As the interrogation continues, the dual standing figures of Goldberg and McCann emphasise the nature of Stanley’s confined predicament • The interrogation reaches a dramatic ‘end point’ with Stanley subdued and helpless in a crouched position in the chair (p52). It is from here that Stanley resorts to animal violence and kicks Goldberg in the stomach with Goldberg falling to the ground.
The structure of the ‘Interrogation’ • The episode begins with simple questions in a ‘police style’ – “What were you doing yesterday” • These rapidly descend into increasingly absurdist statements… • Why are you getting in everybody’s way? • Why are you getting on everybody’s wick? • Why are you driving the old lady off her conk? • Why do you force the old man out to play chess? • Why do you treat the young lady like a leper? • What did you wear last week, Webber? Where do you keep your suits? (p 47-48)
The structure of the ‘Interrogation’ • This reaches an anticlimax with McCann’s ‘cross examination’ questions • Why did you leave the organisation? • Why did you betray us? • Such questions lead into the next barrage of questions related to Stanley’s ‘purpose’ in coming to the Boles’s house • Again the absurdist nature of the questions rapidly increases • Did you stir properly? • Did they fizz? Did they fizz or didn’t they fizz? (p48)
The structure of the ‘Interrogation’ • This brief sequence is again interrupted by McCann’s assertion • You betrayed the organisation. I know him! (p48) • This is followed immediately by the removal of Stanley’s glasses – an incident which is echoed in ‘Blind Man’s Bluff’ during the party itself • Here, Stanley is placed in a state of absolute vulnerability – without sight and prone to attack both physically and verbally
The structure of the ‘Interrogation’ • The removal of Stanley’s glasses is followed immediately by questions about Stanley’s past which are full of symbols of conventionality and Stanley’s rejection of it • Where was your wife? • What have you done with your wife? • How did you kill her? • Where’s your old mum? • Why did you never get married? • Webber! Why did you change your name? (p49)
The structure of the ‘Interrogation’ • Increasingly towards the end of the interrogation the accusations increase and questions become more absurd and impossible to answer • The ‘846 sequence’ of questions is the most obviously ridiculous in the play (p50) • The conclusion, for the members of the audience, is that the is no satisfactory answer from Stanley’s perspective.
The structure of the ‘Interrogation’ • All along the line • Right? Of course right! We’re right and you’re wrong, Webber, all along the line. (p51) • The dramatic motif of the line is significant as it reminds the audience of the establishment’s requirement to ‘toe the line’
McCann’s role • Throughout the ‘interrogation’ McCann becomes the ‘accuser’ • As the episode progresses, McCann’s language becomes increasingly moralistic • You contaminate womankind • Mother defiler! • You’re a traitor to the cloth. • What about the Albigensenist heresy? • What about the blessed Oliver Plunkett? (p51)
Goldberg – triumph of absurdity • Who watered the wicket at Melbourne? • Why did the chicken cross the road? • He doesn’t know. Do you know your own face? (p51-52)
Why so much absurdity? • The end result of the interrogation is one that brings us to an enduring image in the play – death and decay • You’re dead. You can’t live…You’re a plague gone bad. There’s no juice in you. You’re nothing but an odour! (p52) • The absurdity underlines the absolute futility of Stanley’s protests (Just like Oliver Plunkett and the Catharists)
Conclusions • The episode is a triumph of establishment forces over the transgressor’s efforts to resist. • From this moment onward, Stanley barely regains his voice – why is this?
Act 2 Core concepts and dramatic approaches
Act 2 • Reinforces the ‘ambivalent’ in the plot, presentation of character, and ending. • Audience sees the psychological stability of individuals break down as their fears, jealousies, hatreds, sexual preoccupations, and loneliness emerge from beneath a screen of bizarre yet commonplace conversation.
Dramatic Strategies • Pinter uses; understatement, small talk, reticence and silence to convey the substance of the character's thought, which often lies several layers beneath, and contradicts, his speech. • The characters' speeches, hesitations and pauses reveal: • alienation • difficulties in communicating • many layers of meaning that can be contained in even the most innocuous statements.
Act 2 • Develops the play's secondary themes • the divided self • the deluded self • how the past haunts the present • the individual’s struggle for dominance.