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Pinter’s Contexts . The Birthday Party Themes: Power (Thriller, Gangster-speak) Identity Individual struggling against society Prepared by: Shamala Maheswaran. Pinter’s Contexts: Thriller Theatre and The Birthday Party.

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pinter s contexts
Pinter’s Contexts
  • The Birthday Party
  • Themes:
  • Power (Thriller, Gangster-speak)
  • Identity
  • Individual struggling against society
  • Prepared by:
  • Shamala Maheswaran
pinter s contexts thriller theatre and the birthday party
Pinter’s Contexts: Thriller Theatre and The Birthday Party

It was Pinter’s first hand experience that formed the background for TBP

His material comes from weekly repertory thriller theatre and farces

Each act ends with a strong climax(Plot Point)

Act 1 Climax: Stanley ‘Shall I put this (drum) around my neck”

Stage directions: She watches him uncertainly…drumbeat now savage and possessed.

  • The above is the climax of Act One because of its thriller like ending with the sound of drumbeats echoing in stage, Meg looking in shock at Stanley and Stanley mimicking the heartbeats of fear and anxiety, through his toy drum.
pinter s contexts thriller theatre a world in which the only values are of those in power
Pinter’s contexts-Thriller Theatre-A world in which the only values are of those in power.
  • Pinter appears to portray a world where there is no morality.
  • The only value system seems to come from the room in which his protagonists move and the values represented and held by those, often threatening people, who come to it.
  • There may be no ‘outside’ to which the characters can refer for guidance and help.
  • This is reflected in happenings of the past where ‘knocks on the doors’ of Jews reflected outside ‘Aryan Nazis’ coming for the Jews during World War 2.
  • Similarly, Goldberg and Mccann sneakily come into Meg’s home through the backdoor; suggesting the insidious, threatening power and values of a dark and terrible state.
pinter s contexts gang culture
Pinter’s Contexts-Gang Culture

Mccann and Goldberg use the routines of interrogative detectives such as trapping victim in a chair and flanking him on either side of the chair, imitating Stanley’s eventual caging at Monty, calling Stanley “Eh Boy’ and disallowing adult speech for Stanley.

Violence and menace formed part of the social landscape of Pinter’s teens. Gangs were a part of the experience of the youth of many parts of Britain’s larger cities. Thus the thuggish behaviour is seen in the gangsters using everyday household objects to threaten Stanley. This iincludes lifting up a chair threateningly, shoving Stanley into a chair and dragging Stanley up the stairs for further ‘fun’

Pinter had ample experience of ‘room as territory’ and he would have been acutely aware of the wider territories claimed by gangsters of 1950s London.

He would have been influenced by 1950’s elements such as USSRs use of electro-shock therapy in mental asylum’s. Hence M and G bring Stanley to ‘Monty’ (a pseudonym for mental institution’ to ‘adjust’ ‘re-orientate’ and ‘integrated’-all suggesting use of drugs, electric shock therapy etc to ‘adjust’ Stanley. The word ‘adjust’ suggests re-making Stanley into an automaton like figure of the state. ‘Integrate’ suggests conformity to state, like little automaton figures all marching smartly for state power.

references to myths in the birthday party
References to Myths in The Birthday Party
  • Pinter’s The Birthday Party made use of the concept of inter-textuality; an ability to tap into the meta-stories, myths and archetypes of stories that make up our world.
  • The play deals with the important stories of our culture — The Tempting by Eve; Oedipus Rex and the ‘mother as defiler’ story as well as Birth myths.
  • An example of this intertextuality is the way in which we are able to place the relationship of Meg and Stanley in our knowledge of the Œdipus story, the ambiguity of the lover, mother/son in Meg’s and Stanley’s relationship.
mother as defiler archetype in the birthday party
Mother as Defiler Archetype in The Birthday Party
  • The play begins with Stanley terming his fried-bread breakfast as ‘succulent’.
  • Meg coyly picks up the word and translates it in her mind as Stanley referring to her sexually. ‘Succulent’ with its connotations of ‘juicy’ and prime meat becomes incongruous, used as it is for the older woman “Meg’; well past her prime.
  • The ‘mother as defiler’ archetype comes through with Meg’s pathetic seduction of Stanley; ‘tickling’ him and giggling uncontrollably in his bedroom.
pinter s contexts death retribution and terror
Pinter’s Contexts: Death, Retribution and Terror
  • There are strong undertones of death and retribution in the play.
  • The notion of undertakers first occurs when Stanley chooses to frighten Meg with his stories of men in a van arriving at the house with a wheelbarrow, implying that they are there to collect a body.
  • In true thriller style, Stanley’s description of the “van men” selecting Meg’s house for their visit is interrupted by a real knock at the door as Lulu comes to call.
  • Stanley’s wheelbarrow story clearly stays with Meg for at the start of Act III she questions Petey about the “big car” that has appeared outside the house overnight, asking him “is there a wheelbarrow in it?” (69)
death and terror in the birthday party
Death and Terror in The Birthday Party
  • Stanley’s story forewarns; although it is not death but spiritual and psychological destruction that he suffers as the “men” take him away at the end of the play.
  • The undertaker image is echoed in Goldberg’s big, hearse like car, his suit and briefcase, slimy, unctuous and authoritative mannerisms on the situation, and the neat, dark suit in which Stanley leaves the house, dressed well for his final exit.
  • As Stanley sits, spruce but motionless, McCann and Goldberg comment:
  • Mccann He looks better doesn’t he?
  • Goldberg Much better.
  • Mccann A new man
death and terror in the birthday party1
Death and Terror in The Birthday Party
  • Idea of messengers of death occur where Mccann and Goldberg look as though they are viewing Stanley relaxed and well dressed in his coffin (although Stanley later makes some ineffectual movements as his interrogators quiz him once more, and walks from the room).
  • When Petey protests at Stanley’s removal, Goldberg makes an offer to his challenger:
  • Petey Leave him alone
  • They stop. Goldberg studies him.
  • Goldberg (insidiously). Why don’t you come with us Mr Boles?
  • Mccann Yes, why don’t you come with us?
  • Goldberg Come with us to Monty. There’s plenty of room in the car.
  • Petey makes no move.    (85–86)
  • The mere mortal Petey cannot stop the messengers of death from carrying out their duty.
religion and identity
Religion and Identity
  • Pinter was also caught up in the movement to reject religious certainty and reject the idea of a certainty of a powerful being, paternalistically looking over man.
  • The paternalistic God is examined in The Birthday Party through ritualistic ‘kneeling’ to God’s representative on Earth; the priest.
  • Thus Mccann screams at Lulu to ‘Confess’, the ‘confessional’ requiring penitents to be humble and bow to God’s representative on Earth; in this case Mccann.
  • Mccann easily slips into the identity of the tough henchman of God.
  • Eg-Mccann forces Lulu to assume the role of the penitent whore of Babylon with his ‘confess’ scream.
race and identity in the birthday party
Race and Identity in The Birthday Party
  • The uncertainty of the Jewish and Irish identities in this play is fascinating. At one level it is about the Jews and the Irish re-casting the story with formerly oppressed people now getting their own back.
  • This feeling is heightened by the explicit references McCann makes to an Irish Nationalist organisation (which he accuses Stanley of betraying, ‘Black and Tan’) and by Goldberg’s accusation of Stanley’s racial impurity (you verminate the sheets…”
  •  These are men with a mission and they seek revenge on Stanley.
identity and the birthday party
Identity and The Birthday Party
  • There is also an ambiguity in the frequent references to the visitors’ previous contact with Stanley. In his first, potentially terrifying meeting with McCann at the start of Act II, for instance, Stanley states that he thinks they have met before in Maidenhead. McCann replies “I don’t know it” (39).
  • Later in that act, while Stanley sits silently, broken by the interrogation of the visitors and never to speak again in the play, Goldberg mentions the very places about which Stanley had questioned McCann — Fullers Tea Shop, the Boots Library and the “little Austin” car (56).
  • The “organisation” that Stanley is accused of having betrayed is not specifically identified although it may be seen to stem from a number of possible sources — 
  • criminal (building society with its associations of shady characters who launder their ill-begotten riches through the construction industry)
  • Religious betrayal (Albegenisist heresay, Judas etc)
  • metaphysical, or
  • political.
  • During interrogation in particular, references are made to possible interests — in Northern Ireland, for example. But the organisation remains intriguingly unspecified.
freedom of the individual against social conformity pinter s contexts
Freedom of the individual against social conformity-Pinter’s Contexts
  • In an interview with Jeremy Isaacs in 1997, Pinter gave another reading into Stanley
  • Stating that lives in Britain are constrained, he identifies Stanley as a man who will not follow Society’s rules.
  • Pinter said that Stanley is not necessarily a very pleasant character, but a free one and Society finds this intolerable, so it sends Goldberg and McCann down to “get him.
freedom of the individual against social conformity pinter s contexts1
Freedom of the individual against social conformity-Pinter’s Contexts
  • The threat to Stanley is stepped up by degree.
  • It starts with McCann’s blocking his way (37), progresses through the knock about of Stanley, then forcing him to sit (45–47) and continues until he is broken by the final interrogation (47–52).
  • He is reduced to a animalistic figure, to be released only after his thinking senses are destroyed ‘poke a needle through his eyes’,
freedom of the individual against social conformity pinter s contexts2
Freedom of the individual against social conformity-Pinter’s Contexts
  • Pinter creates characters who have visceral or indeterminate identities.
  • This view is given strength by the fact that Goldberg is called variously “Nat,” “Simey,” “Benny” — he is an everyman threat.
  • It must be acknowledged that Pinter is, in this play (The Birthday Party) as elsewhere, refusing to pin down a character so as to allow him to be viewed in a more symbolic, universal way.    
common individuals fighting against the organisation pinter s contexts
Common Individuals fighting against the organisation-Pinter’s Contexts
  • The domestic setting of the play magnifies the threat and sense of menace.
  • The artist Stanley, the immaculately dressed Goldberg and the small, cramped quarters of the room in Meg’s boarding house, amplifies the idea that individuals when cramped into a small territory, will then fight to the death.
common individuals fighting against the organisation pinter s contexts1
Common Individuals fighting against the organisation-Pinter’s Contexts
  • As ordinary people, Meg and Petey are impotent, powerless in the face of the organised combination of Goldberg’s polish and power and McCann’s raw violence.
  • They are unable to stop Stanley being destroyed and taken from them.
  • Their low social positioning is reflected in their lack of money — Meg cannot give Stanley a piano, only a tin drum, a popular, cheap toy.
common individuals fighting against the organisation pinter s contexts2
Common Individuals fighting against the organisation-Pinter’s Contexts
  • As an ineffective member of the working class, Petey strives to assert himself at the end of the play when he questions Goldberg as to where Stanley is being taken. He insists that he will get Stanley to a doctor, and when his protestations come to nothing, he gives a last defiant call to Stanley:
  • Petey: Stan, don’t let them tell you what to do!    
  • But Petey’s last defiant call is then pathetically contrasted with his last scene with his wife, Meg. He pretends he does not know where Stanley is, showing his impotence and desire to hide his impotence as a powerless being from his wife.
impotence of the common individual against the organisation
Impotence of the common individual against the organisation
  • Extending this interpretation, Meg can be seen as representing the powerlessness of the working class when she flowers as a “gladiola” at the party. She is seduced by the visitors and is manipulated by Goldberg’s compliments. She is finally unaware of Stanley’s death. At the end of the play, even Petey does not tell her the turth
  • Meg: Where’s Stan?
  • Pause
  • Is Stan down yet Petey?
  • Petey No… he’s…
  • Meg Is he still in bed?
  • Petey Yes, he’s… still asleep.
  • Meg Still? He’ll be late for his breakfast.
  • Petey Let him sleep.