The Birthday Party as a Comedy of Menace
Table of Contents
What is a comedy of menace?
The label, a comedy of menace, was first used in 1957 by David Campton in the sub-title of his play The Lunatic View, and was a year later applied to the plays of Pinter in a magazine article. This is certainly an appropriate title for The Birthday Party. A comedy of menace is a play in which the laughter of the audience in some or all situations is accompanied, or immediately followed, by a feeling of some impending disaster. Throughout such a play, the audience feels uneasy even while laughing, because of its perception of some threat, explicit or implicit, to the principal character and to the audience itself. In other words, the audience is made aware, in the very midst of its laughter, of some menace. The menace proceeds from potential or actual violence in the play or from an underlying sense of violence throughout the play. Or, the menace may proceed from a feeling of uncertainty and insecurity. The audience may be made to feel that the security of the principal character, and even the audience’s own security are threatened by some danger.
The label “a comedy of menace” thus implies the uneasy laughter which comes from nervousness, the laughter by which the audience tries to demonstrate that there is a safe distance between itself and what it sees or hears in the play. Menace feeds on people’s acceptance, no matter how reluctant, of the possibility of the danger which lurks round the comer, hidden as yet and therefore all the more unnerving. The connection between the characters’ predicament and the audience’s private anxieties must be established strongly, or there will be no menace felt, and no reason for the defensive laughter.
Amusing Dialogues Followed by One Suggestive of Menace
In The Birthday Party this mingling of comedy with a perception of danger pervades the whole play and, at times, becomes very conspicuous. Act I of the play opens with an amusing dialogue between Meg and Petey, and this is followed by an amusing dialogue between Meg and Stanley. These amusing dialogues occupy several pages and, on the stage, would take at least fifteen minutes of acting time. But then comes the menace. Meg informs Stanley that she is expecting two gentlemen who are coming to stay in the boarding-house for a couple of nights. Stanley at first refuses to believe what Meg has said. But she informs him that Petey had told her that very morning that the two gentlemen had met Petey on the previous night and had expressed a wish to come and stay in this boarding house. Meg says further that this boarding house is on the approved list. There is something about this piece of information pertaining to the two expected visitors that disturbs Stanley. He seems to experience some feeling of apprehension and, in order to ward off the danger which he smells, he says that somebody is simply trying to throw dust into Meg’s eyes and that nobody will come to stay here. Moments later Stanley tries to impress Meg with his own importance by asking her if she realizes, while talking to him, who he is and what he is.
Next he speaks of a job which has been offered to him; and then he goes on to speak of a very successful concert which he had given as a pianist years ago and another concert which he had wanted to give but which had not materialized on account of the bitter hostility of some of the people who wanted to see him “crawling on his bended knees”. This reference to the second concert, which did not actually take place, shows that Stanley had made enemies who wanted to do some damage to him. Of course, we never learn how or why those people had become antagonistic to him. Perhaps the danger from those people had not ended. Stanley’s account of the second concert (which did not take place) gives rise to a strong sense of menace pertaining both to the past and to the present and the future.
The Reference to a Van and a Wheel-Barrow
The feeling of menace is reinforced when Stanley tries to scare Meg by saying that some people would be coming that very day in a van and would be bringing a wheel-barrow with them. Stanley says that those people would come and knock at the door of this boarding-house because they would be looking for somebody whom they would want to take away in the wheelbarrow. Meg feels nervous on hearing this. Of course, here we laugh at Meg’s childish fear, but at the same time we experience a feeling of apprehension. There is some ambiguity about what Stanley has said. He may be anticipating that Meg would die and be carried away in a wheel-barrow, or he may be anticipating his own departure from here under duress, as actually happens at the end; or he may simply be trying to frighten Meg as a joke. In any case, here we have a typical example of Pinter’s art of mingling comedy with menace.
A Knock at the Door: Apprehension Followed by Mirth
Then there is actually a knock at the door. For a moment it seems that Stanley was right that some people would come and knock at the front door. But when the door is opened, it is found that a girl called Lulu who lives next door has come to deliver to Meg a parcel. Thus the sudden knock, which must have startled both Stanley and Meg and which certainly startles the audience also, is immediately followed not only by a feeling of relief but also by a feeling of amusement on the part of the audience at that the knock was, after all, a false alarm. Then after Meg has gone shopping, there is a dialogue between Stanley and Lulu which is quite amusing. Lulu disappointed with Stanley leaves after telling him that she thinks him to be a bit a “washout”.
The Menace Resulting from the Reference to the “Job”
The amusing dialogue between Stanley and Lulu is followed by a dialogue between Goldberg and McCann who now arrive at the boardinghouse. This dialogue again produces a feeling of menace in the hearts of the audience. McCann is already feeling nervous, but Goldberg asks him to relax, and to enjoy his “holiday” here. Says Goldberg: “McCann, what are you so nervous about? Pull yourself together.” McCann is feeling worried about the job which Goldberg and he have to execute here. He would like to know what exactly the nature of this job is because he is ignorant of it while Goldberg has all the details. McCann’s anxiety about the job makes the audience anxious too. McCann says that, if Goldberg tells him what kind of a job they have come here to do, he would ask no further questions. Goldberg does not disclose to him the nature of the job but assures him that no harm will come to either of them in the course of their execution of the job. The audience naturally suspects that some criminal act has to be performed by these two men.
Our Anxiety, Followed Immediately by Amusement
Meg now returns from her shopping. Goldberg questions her not only about her husband but more particularly about the lodger she has already got in the boarding house. Goldberg’s inquisitiveness about this lodger, namely Stanley, again gives rise to a feeling of anxiety in our minds because we begin to feel that the job which these two men have come to accomplish may have something to do with Stanley. But just when we are feeling a bit anxious about Stanley, Meg amuses us greatly by giving to Goldberg a garbled version of what Stanley had told her about the two concerts. Meg’s muddle-headedness makes her version a funny one. The pun on the word “tip here is particularly amusing.
A Threat to His Security, Suspected by Stanley
After Goldberg and McCann have retired to the room which Meg has assigned to them upstairs, Stanley, who had slipped away from the house, now returns. Stanley is very anxious to know who the two men are, why they have come here, how long they will stay, what their names are, and so on. Stanley’s curiosity about the two men not only reveals his own feeling of anxiety but creates anxiety in our minds also. Evidently Stanley feels that the two men who have come to stay here might threaten his security. While talking to Goldberg, Meg had told him that it was Stanley’s birthday whereupon Goldberg had suggested that a birthday party should be held at night in Stanley’s honour. Meg had accepted the proposal. Now Meg reminds Stanley that it is his birthday, and she gives him the birthday present which she had bought for him through Lulu. The birthday present turns out to be a boys drum. At first Stanley beats the drum gently and rhythmically, and we feel quite amused by his behaviour, but then he begins to beat it in a wild and irregular manner. He almost becomes savage in his beating of it, and it seems that he is under the influence of some demon. This wild drum-beating has its own share in producing a feeling of anxiety in our minds, though we do not understand what has upset Stanley so much. Act I closes at this point. This brief survey of Act I shows that there is ample comedy in it but that the comedy is accompanied by an under-current of menace.
Comedy and Menace in the Dialogue between Stanley and McCann
Act II again opens with a conversation which is amusing. But in this conversation there is already an underlying threat of violence and a possibility of danger. Stanley’s questioning of McCann clearly shows Stanley’s feeling of anxiety. Sensing danger, Stanley tries to convince McCann that he is a peace-loving, quiet kind of man who had always stayed at home till he had been called to this place on business and had been compelled by circumstances to stay here longer than he had wanted to. He then tells McCann that McCann and McCann’s friend seem to be under some wrong impression about him (Stanley). Stanley asks if McCann knows what he and his friend have come here for. He again tries to convince McCann that all his life he had stayed at one place and had never stepped outside the door of his house. Having failed to elicit any information from McCann, he tries to placate McCann by speaking of McCann’s country, Ireland, in very favourable terms. The manner in which Stanley talks to McCann is certainly amusing but at the same time it expresses Stanley’s inward anxiety about his safety and security. We too naturally begin to feel concerned about Stanley’s security, though we are feeling amused at the same time by Stanley’s futile efforts to draw McCann out and to become friendly with him.
Comedy and Menace in the Cross-examination of Stanley
Then Goldberg appears on the scene. In a reminiscent mood he talks about the girl with whom he used to go out on Fridays when he was a young man. But Stanley, feeling worried about his own safety, adopts an aggressive posture towards the two men and tells them that there is no accommodation in this boarding-house for them and that they must leave. When McCann brings the bottles of whisky, Stanley says that this boarding house does not have the license to serve drinks or to permit drinking. Stanley’s aggressiveness, however, proves absolutely ineffective because Goldberg completely ignores Stanley’s plea. Now begins a real conflict, a conflict which portends danger. Goldberg wants Stanley to sit down but Stanley refuses to comply. After a good deal of argument Stanley does sit down but only after McCann has sat down first. In the course of this argument there is a hint of violence when McCann says that he would “kick the shit” out of Stanley. Stanley is then subjected by the two men to a grueling cross-examination. This situation is the most dramatic in the whole play, and it is also perhaps the most striking example of the mingling of comedy and menace. The question asked by the two men are such as to amuse us greatly but at the same time these questions are tantamount to threats and bullying. The questions are amusing because they are a kind of hotch-potch, having no connection at all with one another, and in some cases mutually contradictory. And they are menacing because singly as well as collectively they constitute an arraignment of Stanley. Here are a few selected questions creating this two-fold effect of mirth and fear on us:
“Why did you kill your wife?
Why did you never get married ?
Webber! Why did you change your name?
Is the number 846 possible or necessary?
Why don’t you pay the rent?
What about Ireland ?
Why did the chicken cross the road ?
Chicken? Egg? Which came first?
What makes you think you exist?”
The Menace, Heightened
Then the birthday party begins. There is plenty of fun and frolic. But Stanley sits silent and still, after the terrible ordeal through which he has been as a result of the interrogation and the bullying. Perhaps Stanley is also thinking at this time of what might come next. Blind man’s buff follows. Everybody seems to be enjoying the game but, when there is a blackout, Stanley tries to strangle Meg and, after being pushed away by Goldberg and McCann, he tries to rape Lulu. The two persecutors then advance threateningly towards him, and here menace becomes most pronounced. Act II ends at this point. Act II is thus rich in comedy but it also bristles with threats of violence. The cross-examination of Stanley is the high point of the menace in this Act, but the menace becomes even more serious by implication when Goldberg and McCann advance threateningly towards Stanley after it has been discovered that he had tried to rape Lulu. Thus this Act, which opened with tension between Stanley and McCann, ends with a much greater tension between Stanley and the two intruders.
A Comic Interlude with a Hint of Menace
Then comes a situation which is very amusing but which also has a touch of pathos to it. Lulu comes and complains that Goldberg had taken undue advantage of her last night and had seduced her by his cunning when her defences were down. Goldberg’s answers to Lulu’s accusations are very amusing indeed. Goldberg holds Lulu herself responsible for his seduction of her. Goldberg has now fully recovered from his uneasiness and is able to make an interesting display of his wit and his capacity for sarcasm. Goldberg is joined by McCann in this witty assault upon Lulu. And, in fact, there is a hint of menace and even violence in the way in which McCann calls upon Lulu to confess her sins to him. Lulu beats a hasty retreat, thus escaping the persecution to which she might have been subjected by the two gangsters.
The Climax of Menace, Followed by a Bit of Comedy
Then we see Stanley once again. He has undergone a complete transformation both as regards his appearance and his state of mind. He is dressed in a dark, well-cut suit, and a white collar, and he is clean-shaven. He thus presents a striking contrast to his appearance in the first two Acts. He holds his broken glasses in his hand and he is almost speechless. There is more menace when this unfortunate man is subjected to another deluge of words by the two persecutors. This time the two men ask no questions. This time they first describe his miserable condition and then give him all sorts of promises and assurances with regard to his future. This brainwashing scene reminds us of the earlier scene when the two men had subjected their victim to a cruel interrogation. Goldberg now says that he would take Stanley to Monty for treatment. Petey makes a feeble and futile effort to prevent the two men from taking Stanley away. There is a hint of menace in the two men’s offering to take Petey also along with them. Ultimately Goldberg and McCann take Stanley away, thus giving a concrete shape to the menace and the terror which the arrival of the two men had posed to the security of Stanley who had hidden himself from the outside world in Meg’s boarding house. Here, indeed, we have a tragic situation, with the menace reaching its highest point, because we do not know what would happen to Stanley. However, this tragic situation gives way to a bit of comedy when Meg, returning from the market, tells Petey that she was the belle of the ball at last night’s party.