Introduction to Harold Pinter and his works

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The main objective of this project is to acquaint you with the famous British dramatist and playwright Harold Pinter.


FOR ADVANCED STUDENTS

If you are currently studying works by Harold Pinter this project may help you in reading his plays and getting a better understanding of them. If you already posses some background knowledge about the author, you can skip the first part, which is rather theoretical. Nevertheless, it is highly advisable to read through that part, even quickly, since not everything may be known to you. The next parts are devoted to the more practical side of reading Pinter's works. Read on and get some practice in reading Pinter's plays!

FOR BEGINNERS

If you are not familiar with Pinter's works this project may be interesting for you as well. The first part will introduce you to the famous British playwright Harold Pinter and his works. Next, you will read about the Theatre of the Absurd, a designation of drama writers that you may already know from your country of origin. The next parts are analyses of Pinter's various plays. At the end of each part you will have a chance to try yourself and find out if you mastered the ability to fully comprehend Pinter's plays, though they sometimes may seem to be a little incomprehensive.

Harold Pinter

Harold Pinter

Theoretical part of the project - you can skip this part and go to the next section if you already had a lecture about Harold Pinter. If not, keep on reading.

Biography

The first step is to get acquainted with Harold Pinter. Harold Pinter was born on the 10th of October 1930 in Hackney, east London, and died on the 24th of December 2008. He was one of the best British contemporary playwrights, who won a Noble Prize in 2005 for his work. Watch here the Nobel Lecture by Harold Pinter. Apart from being an excellent writer, he was an aspiring actor, a threatre director and a cricket enthusiast. He wrote 29 plays, two of which we will be working on here. If you are interested more in his biography, click here .

Pinteresque Style

Harold Pinter is known for his magnificent use of language, thus his style of writing was named after him "Pinteresque". His use of colloquial language, numerous clichés, unpolished grammar and illogical syntax create dialogues that reflect day-to-day speech.

Harold Pinter's style is characterised by the use of:

  • pauses
  • two silences
  • repetitions
  • irony
  • oxymorons, paradox
  • vagueness
  • reference failure
  • semantic ambuguity
  • decontextualization

Pinteresque atmosphere of horror ignites the feeling of anxiety, but also arouses interest – a spectator can sense that something is wrong, even though the dialogues do not directly state it. It is through the combination of long pauses, repetitive structures and the use of illogical vocabulary that Pinter exhibits his great mastery in writing realistic plays, with ambiguous meaning. Language is a means of communication that lost its meaning and purpose. Characters talk, but the words are often devoid of any content. The action does not proceed smoothly or in chronological order, sometimes even though some events take place, the audience is confused on the proceedings. Pinter innovativeness evinces in the special use of language. Language which is used as a tool for presenting the absurdity of human existence. A small talk or a lengthy monologue gain new meaning and have frequently different purpose. They work as an examples of human relationships, telegraph characters intentions and even negate the action.


Pinter’s plays usually take place on one-room stage, onto which a handful of characters enter and interact with each other. A constant feeling of threat can be sensed from the first words they utter, which emphasises the deliberate effect of conveying uneasiness, confusion and indifference. Power relations and problem of identity remain one of the most important themes, as well as people’s inability to communicate.

The Theatre of the Absurd

Harold Pinter is frequently classified as a representative of the Theatre of the Absurd, which appeared and developed mainly in 1950’s in France, England, Scandinavia, Germany and other English-speaking countries, under the influence of surrealism and expressionism, and as a reaction to Second World War. The term was coined by Martin Esslin, who in 1961 published a book under this title, in which he described a mode of drama writing shared by such European dramatists as Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, Arthur Adamov, and Jean Genet. Harold Pinter was added to this quartet of playwrights in the subsequent editions. According to Esslin, the beginnings of this type of drama can be seen in the late nineteenth century, when in 1896 Alfred Jarry staged for the first time in Paris Ubu Roi (Ubu the King), a nonsensical play about the adventures of a brutal usurper of Polish throne. This play

anticipates one of the main characteristics of the Theatre of the Absurd, its tendency to externalize and project outwards what is happening in the deeper recesses of mind [and] is grotesquely magnified and exaggerated. [1].

Pinter used this exaggeration and explicitness of human psychological processes in his plays to present a realistic vision of the world deprived of faith in purposefulness of human existence. Following the M.H. Abrams’ A Glossary of Literary Terms a play written in the Theatre of the Absurd mode is

grotesquely comic and also irrational and nonconsequential; it is a parody not only of the traditional assumptions of Western culture, but of the conventions and generic forms of traditional drama, and even of its own unescapable participation in the dramatic medium. The lucid but eddying and pointless dialogue is often funny, and pratfalls and other modes of slapstick are used to project the alienation and tragic anguish of human existence. [2]

The Birthday Party

This is the introduction to Harold Pinter's play the Birthday Party.

After reading the whole play watch the film adaptation directed by William Friedkin in 1968. Watching the adaptation helps to visualise the play. Please note that each adaptation may be different, as it is only a directors attempt to interpret the play. If you imagined some scenes differently while reding, it does not mean they are false. It is also helpful to read the text aloud. You can try to make you own adaptation of the play, and thus become the characters from the play.

Context

The Birthday Party is Pinter's first full-length play that was written in 1957 and staged for the first time a year later at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge where it did not succeed and was not given a standing ovation at once. Pinter had to wait for an avalanche of favourable reviews, when his play was revived by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Aldwych Theatre, London, in 1964. This one-room stage play with only a handful of characters did not meet the tastes of a confused audience, who still suffered from the terrible aftermath of the Second World War. Pinter’s original style, obscure plot and psychological tension throughout the whole play, though familiar to the post-war society, was too much of a real hornet’s nest. It took almost a decade for the viewers to fully understand and appreciate the mastery of Pinter’s play, as well as to overcome fears and insecurities after the war.

List of characters

  • Petey - Meg's husband, the owner of the boarding house, 60 years old
  • Meg - Petey's wife, helps in the boarding house, 60 years old
  • Stanley - tenant of the boarding house, around 30 years old
  • Lulu - Meg's gullible and naive friend, in her twienties
  • Goldberg - called also “Simey” or “Benny,” a Jewish gentleman working together with McCann for a suspicious organization.
  • McCann - Goldberg's helper

Summary

The Birthday Party is an allegory of a man engaging and conforming into social life that is forced to go outside and get involved. There are six characters on stage whom the reader sees for the duration of two days walking in and out of a kitchen, a typical scenography for Pinter’s one-room plays. The play is divided into three acts, the first and the last having an analogous structure in which the couple, Petey and Meg, talk and eat cornflakes by the kitchen table, and the middle one where the titular scene takes place.

If you want to recall some more specific information you can check this site. Nevertheless, it would be better if you reread the part that you do not remember, since the play is not of a high volume.


The Birthday Part part II

Starting points to the discussion about the play and analysis of the language.


DISCOURSE ANALYSIS THEORIES

There are numerous ways in which we can try to analyse plays. Neil Bennison in the article “Accessing characters through conversation” presented some useful pragma-linguistic tools that may help with reading dramas. Noteworthy is also Vimala Herman’s theory of "turn management in drama". You can find both of the papers here. Please, read them before going to the next step. It will be a good base for analysing dialogues from the play.

Let us start with reading carefully from the very begining. It is crucial to pay attention not only to the words, their meaning but also the structure. Sometimes, as in this case we can observe that the situation in the beginning of the play is repeated at the end. In the opening scene of the play Pinter presents two characters, Meg and Petey, in a normal, everyday situation. We are not given any background information on the actual place or time of the events. We can only make out a vague description of the room and names of the people. From the beginning Pinter incorporates his style to create a sense of absurdity, obscurity and to bring humour. Even though the setting is familiar, the identity of the characters is left unknown and we are in doubt about what is going on. Inability to get the full picture creates an atmosphere of obscurity, mystery and horror. Nevertheless, Pinter includes numerous comic elements through the use of language that employs satire and irony. It is the first time we are acquainted with the characters and from the first utterances can observe the relationship between them. Meg, a woman in her sixties and wife of Petey, takes floor immediately and leads the conversation with her husband for the first half of the Act One. She badgers her husband with never ending questions that are repetitive and pointless, which shows her dominance in the marriage, but also her ignorance and tendency to gabbling. She is the dominant speaker, but her utterances are void of any content and do not introduce any new ideas.

MEG: I’ve got your cornflakes ready. (She disappears and reappears.) Here’s your cornflakes.

He rises and takes the plate from her, sits at the table, props up the paper and begins to eat. MEG enters by the kitchen door.
Are they nice?
PETEY: Very nice.

MEG: I thought they’d be nice. (She sits at the table.) [3]

This short dialogue between a husband and a wife is not only a verbal exchange, but it helps to establish a relationship between characters. As we have read in the paper by Bennison, the way the characters speak is vital for understanding of the plot, but also of the whole meaning of the play, thus it is significant to analyse the role of the language and word-constructions. Just by looking at the words, we can see that Meg's speech is significantly longer than Petey's. The lenght of their utterances differs. Usually, the longer someone's speech is, the more significant or important he or she is. But not in this case. Notice that Petey's utterance is merely an echo, a repetition of Meg's words. Meg's question is in fact a mere attempt to gain agreement and affirmation. He, on the other hand, is rather reserved and not very talkative, but possesses some kind of knowledge and is somewhat learned. He does not listen, ignores Meg’s inquiries and is unwilling to speak at all. His passive behaviour coincides with his static position, because – as it is stated in the authorial side notes – he is sitting at the table preoccupied with reading. He is not moving physically, but also does not take any action in the progression of the play.

To fully understand the play it is crucial not to create far-fetched interpretations that would not be later confirmed by the text. Let us analyse next excerpts od the dialogues between Meg and Petey.

MEG. Well, at least he did have it on his birthday, didn’t he? Like I wanted him to.

PETEY (reading). Yes
MEG. Have you seen him down yet? (PETEY does not answer.)
Petey.
PETEY. What?
MEG. Have you seen him down?
PETEY.Who?
MEG. Stanley.
PETEY. No.
MEG. Nor have I. That boy should be up. He’s late for his breakfast.
PETEY.There isn’t any breakfast.
MEG. Yes, but he doesn’t know that. I’m going to call him. [3]

As you can see, our theory that was created out of a short exchange between the couple is later proven to be right.

Read the following example, between two different characters, where languages plays an important role. The excerpt is taken from the pivotal scene, when Stanley is interrogated by McCann and Goldberg.

GOLDBERG. You look anemic.
MCCANN. Rheumatic.
GOLDBERG. Myopic.
MCCANN. Epileptic.
GOLDBERG. You’re on the verge.
MCCANN. You’re a dead duck. [3]

In this example from the Act III, the language is an indication of power. Quick and short exchanges create scenes full of tense, violent interactions and accusations. Whomever controls the stage – is superior to others and can manipulate them. Here both Goldberg and McCann have power over silent Stanley. Their words, even if absurd, create an effect of dread and horror. The dialogues are ambiguous and sometimes hard to follow, nevertheless the abundant amount of accusations increase the feeling of threat and instability. Words have no meaning, but play an important role in retaining power relations. Regardless of the illogicality of sentences, Goldberg and McCann stay in control and influence Stanley’s understanding of the situation. Language is used to impose new identity on characters – Stanley is lost and unable to define his true self in the belligerent situation. From the very beginning he is aware of the threat and is hellbent on avoiding the confrontation.

Tasks

Try to analyse the following excerpts using the pragma-linguistic tools and theories introduced earlier in Vimala Nelman's and Neil Bennison's papers.

# 1 The first excerpt comes at the beginning of the Act I when Stanley comes onto the stage. Previously he has been called numerously by Meg to come downstairs with no avail.

MEG: Say sorry first.

STANLEY: Sorry first.
MEG: No. Just Sorry.

STANLEY: Just sorry! [3]

Look at the exchange and think about the answers to the following questions. Try to create a short analysis of this fragment, paying attention to the following points:

  • Who has the power?
  • Is the language meaningful or totaly absurd?
  • Is there irony? Or mayby some humouristic elements were imployed?
  • Are there any of the pinteresque devices?
  • What effect do the constant repetitions have?
  • Do you think the repetitions create a rather slow or rapid exchange?
  • What can you infer from this exchange about the speakers' relationship?
If you answered all of these questions, check below if your understanding is similar. 

Stanley uses the language to discomfort others. Repetition is used to create a sense of absurdity and illogicality. Stanley repeats Meg’s words in a mechanical way, like a doll after a puppet master or a child after a mother. Pinter creates in this way a comical situation and the dialogues are obscure and void of any meaning. When Meg orders Stanley to apologize, he takes her words verbatim and repeats everything on purpose. He plays with her emotions, uses her own words against herself, thus he is in power.

# 2 The second excerpt comes from the closing scene after the party, where Meg and Petey talk during breakfast.

PETEY. It was good, eh?

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.[3]

Look at the exchange and try to analyse it acording to the following points:

  • Do the characters take turns or is it a conversation dominated by one speaker?
  • Is the language meaningful or totaly absurd?
  • Are there any of the pinteresque devices?
  • What effect do the constant repetitions have?
  • What can you infer from this exchange about the speakers' relationship?
If you answered all of these questions, check below if your understanding is similar. 

The last scene in which Meg recounts the events of the party to Petey brilliantly present the use of repetition to create a sense of absurdity. Meg uses repetitive phrase “I was” to convince herself that what she believes in, or wants to believe in, is true, and in fact the horrendous scene of Lulu’s rape and Stanley’s brainwashing did not take place. Repetition employed in this scene reveals that she lives in world of illusion, pretence, and seems unaware of what was really happening; as well as expresses her vain desire to be admired by others and be in the spotlight. The fourfold repetition of the statement that Meg was the “true belle of the ball” creates a dramatic effect of the play. Petey is aware of the horrendous events, but willingly reaffirms Meg’s utterance, allowing himself to once again avoid taking turns and engage in the conversation.

# 3 Analyse the following excerpt paying attention both to the structure of the dialogues, the length of the exchanges, the relationship of the interlocutors, the language and the meaning of it.

MCCANN. He doesn’t know. He doesn’t know which came first!
GOLDBERG. Which came first?

MCCAN. Chicken? Egg? Which came first?

GOLDBERG AND MCCAN. Which came first? Which came first? Which came first? [3]



Using your skills in future reading

This page's function is not only to introduce you to works by Harol Pinter, but also to prepare you for reading other plays by other writers. If you are interested in the topic it would be advisable to start with writers from the same designation form the Theatre of the Absurd. Below you will find a list of playwrights, together with the language in which they wrote their plays. If you are not a native English speaker it might me helpful for you to first read the original works. The rules of reading plays are universal and are not connected only to English.

Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard - English
Edward Albee - American English
Eugène Ionesco, Jean Genet - French
Luigi Pirandello - Italian
Friedrich Dürrenmatt - German
Miguel Mihura, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Fernando Arrabal - Spanish
Václav Havel -Czech


While reading different plays by different writers pay attention to the the language.

  • Is it straightforward?
  • Do the meanings convey something?
  • Does the writer have a distinct way of writing?
  • Does the play have a chronological order? If not, do you think it is important?
  • What is the relationship between the characters? Are the dialogues distinct in any way?
  • What register does the author use? Is the speech colloquial, formal or maybe contains a lot of specialised vocabulary?
CONGRATULATIONS

If you are reading this, congratulations! You have just learnt quite a bit about Harold Pinter and acquired some useful skills on reading drama.


External links

Adaptation of the Dumb Waiter
Adaptation of the Room

References

  1. Esslin Martin, 1960 “The Theatre of the Absurd”, The Tulane Drama Review, vol.4, No.4, pp. 3-15 [1]
  2. Abrams, M.H. 1999. A Glossary of Literary Terms, Boston, Heinle&Heinle
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 Harold, Pinter. 1965. The Birthday Party, London, Methuen.