Harold Pinter

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Dialog peculiarities in Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party and The Dumb Waiter


The dialogues in Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party and The Dumb Waiter are marked by ambiguity and pauses. Characters often engage in seemingly trivial or absurd conversations that mask deeper tensions and power dynamics. Pinter's use of "Pinteresque" pauses and silences adds to the sense of unease and uncertainty, making the dialogues central to the plays' atmospheres.

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Can you provide an example of dialogue peculiarity in Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party?

Harold Pinter uses silence, stream of consciousness, empty repetition and confusion in his dialogues. He does this to mirror the unreliability of language and truth. This goes for truth in general. He would say that what is true for someone may be false for another. This also illustrates how conversational language can be confusing. In everyday language, there are pauses, incomplete sentences and unfinished thoughts. Pinter tries to capture this not only to be realistic but also to show how language can psychologically represent ideas and feelings.

For example, in The Birthday Party, repetition is a work when Meg serves Petey corn flakes:

Meg. Are they nice?

Petey. Very nice.

Meg. I thought they’d be nice.

They carry on friendly conversation but it is empty. There is no need to repeatedly confirm that the corn flakes are nice. They’re just corn flakes. This reflects the emptiness of their lives and their relationship. “Nice” is repeated in each line. There is no substance to this. It is empty speech like answering “How are you” with an obligatory and automatic “Good, how are you?” The speech is just ritual repetition. Neither of them cares about the corn flakes. Meg particularly seems to always speak absent-mindedly.

McCann uses repetition to symbolize his own problem with what he and Goldberg must do with Stanley:

Let’s finish and go. Let’s get it over and go. Get the thing done. Let’s finish the bloody thing. Let’s get the thing done and go!

There is also the scene where Goldberg and McCann harangue Stanley with an endless series of advice, most of which are clichés. “You’ll be a success.” “You’ll be a mensch.” They are mocking Stanley, psychologically playing with his mind. Just as Meg and Petey did not care about the corn flakes, McCann and Goldberg do not intend to help Stanley “get better.” Meg and Petey were in denial. But McCann and Goldberg are engaged in psychological mind games.

Stanley appears to be stuck in the boarding house. It is comforting but somewhat of a prison. This paradox is paralleled by Goldberg and McCann’s intentions. We can’t ever really say for sure if they intend to hurt or help Stanley. Are they hit-men or avant-garde therapists? Pinter shows how language can prevent rather than facilitate meaning.

On the other hand, the rising intensity and increasing confusion might symbolize Stanley's rising anxiety. Conversely, when the dialogue is simple and slow, Stanley is calm. If this is the case, then Pinter is showing how language is unreliable in the words themselves but can occasionally communicate through intensity and emotion.

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What are the dialog peculiarities in Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party and The Dumb Waiter?

Pinter’s style of ambiguity so strong to the point of frustration. In a lot of his plays, he presents dialogues which seem incomprehensible but are largely similar to actual dialogues in real life. For example, in dialogues in your real life, you don’t have the need to elaborate on every detail if a friend of yours is familiar with what you’re talking about. You and your friend may have inside jokes which could be conveyed with uttering a single word and no context is needed. The two of you might make references or tangents without so much as a segue. In some plays, this is what Pinter was experimenting with. In other plays, such as Hamlet, we are given ample historical background and soliloquies during which the characters completely reveal their justifications and motives. Pinter eliminates all of this. His plays tend to be totally isolated; usually confined to one room as if the room is isolated from the past and future. The play just begins. We just get dialogue. It’s as if the audience is walking into the middle of a conversation and wondering what is going on – for the entire play.

Adding to this uncertainty, there are elements of Absurdism, both in the comedic and existential sense. In The Birthday Party, Goldberg and McCann’s dialogue with Stanley goes from intimidation to teasing and in the end it is unclear if they are there to hurt him or to somehow make him better. We, the audience, can only guess their motives and what the outcome might be. All we have is a very odd situation and mostly realistic, occasionally non sequitur dialogue. The whole play fluctuates between playfully strange events and tension rising to uncertainty (i.e., Stanley playing the drum.)

In The Dumb Waiter, we have kind of the same thing; moments of odd comedy spliced with uncomfortable tension. Gus questions things; this infuriates Ben. For Ben, the world is black and white. Or, maybe for Ben the world is only one color because he needs no justifications; he merely carries out his work. Gus questions things repeatedly, including the nature of killing. The play ends, and we speculate that Ben must eliminate Gus; but we can’t be sure. The audience/reader might react like Gus’ character, asking questions and only getting more Absurdity or worse; silence.

What does it all mean? Well, it’s an experiment of dialogue with no context. And it is an allegory of modern life; the uncertainty of truth, unreliability and the modernist theme that the individual must seek closure from the power structures which dictate what he or she does in life, which tends to be counterproductive. The pre-Modern individual would find closure with religion, relationships, art, etc. Not the case with Pinter's characters. (These are generalizations but predominant themes in these periods.)

Ben is an automaton, ready to kill Gus if he is told to by the “powers that be.” Gus is more human, asking questions. More allegory; some questions won’t be answered, because of hierarchies, bureaucracies, or just plain bad communication.

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