How is language used as a means of intimidation in Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party?

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The play The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter features a pianist named Stanley Webber who lives in a seaside boarding house owned by an older couple named Meg and Petey Boles. Their day begins with a normal routine of breakfast and tea, but events turn dark when two strangers arrive...

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The play The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter features a pianist named Stanley Webber who lives in a seaside boarding house owned by an older couple named Meg and Petey Boles. Their day begins with a normal routine of breakfast and tea, but events turn dark when two strangers arrive at the house and Meg insists it’s Stanley’s birthday.

Pinter uses rapid-fire dialogue, repetition of words and phrases, and pauses to impart an increasingly menacing and intimidating tone to the unfolding events. These techniques track and reveal the power struggles and shifts in dynamics between the characters.

Pinter's commanding tone and use of repetition begin in act 1. Meg hears someone walk into the living room and repeatedly demands to know who it is. Dialogue continues in the same way as Meg makes breakfast for Petey. Meg regards Stanley in a manner that is both affectionate and condescending, referring to him as “Stanny.” She wakes him up by shouting at him in a way that is partly playful and partly intimidating.

After Petey leaves for work, Meg and Stanley bicker; this is a lengthy argument that demonstrates the power struggle between them. Control shifts back and forth, and Stanley becomes increasingly insulting to Meg, calling her a “succulent old washing bag.”

Meg regains the upper hand when she announces that two visitors are coming to the house. Stanley was unaware of this, and after he learns this information, they fight over whether or not Meg took away Stanley's tea. Through their use of repeated words and phrases, their conversation turns from argument to interrogation as Stanley works on regaining control of the situation. This exchange of dialogue also foreshadows Stanley’s later interactions with Goldberg and McCann, who arrive by the end of act 1.

Goldberg and McCann also communicate in this style of quick dialogue, but they are interrupted by long, pompous soliloquies by Goldberg, which suggests he has the dominant position in the relationship. When Meg tells Goldberg and McCann that she thinks it is Stanley’s birthday, Goldberg responds with a statement more threatening than festive, musing that since Stanley seems to have forgotten his birthday, they are going to remind him:

“So we’re going to remind him. We’re going to give him a party.”

In act 2, Goldberg and McCann treat Stanley in an increasingly threatening way. The guests play a strange game of blind man's bluff and the visitors break Stanley’s glasses. Goldberg and McCann then use verbal tricks and word games to confuse and intimidate Stanley: an example of this is Goldberg's series of questions to him about the number 846.

By act 3, the party has devolved into violence, and the meaning of words and communication break down. Stanley has tried to attack the neighbor Lulu, and Goldberg and McCann further intimidate Stanley, wearing him down with rapid-fire, nonsensical statements and accusations.

At the end of the play, Goldberg and McCann take the worn and inarticulate Stanley away from the boarding house to an unknown destination. Goldberg calls him “Stanny boy,” echoing Meg's nickname and giving it a darker tone. The audience is left with a lingering sense of menace and horror, as it seems that Goldberg and McCann have damaged Stanley’s ability to speak.

Further Reading:

Bennett, Michael Y. Reassessing the Theatre of the Absurd: Camus, Beckett, Ionesco, Genet, and Pinter. Milton Keynes UK, 2011.

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