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Once asked what his plays are about, Pinter lobbed back a phrase "the weasel under the cocktail cabinet", which he regrets has been taken seriously and applied in popular criticism. Despite Pinter's protestations to the contrary, many reviewers and other critics still find that Pinter's "remark", though "facetious"(teasing), is still an apt description of his plays. Now the Phrase "comedy of menace" is often applied to it and suggests that although they are funny, they are also frightening or menacing in a vague and undefined way. Even as they laugh, the audience is unsettled, ill at ease and uncomfortable. Pinter?s own comment clarifies it:
"more often than not the speech only seems to be funny - the man in question is actually fighting a battle for his life".
(What situations appear funny to us? But in fact for the character concerned is a terrifying experience.)
Now the question arises that does Pinter?s work really go in accordance to the ?comedy of manners. A critic says:
"Pinter restored theatre to its basic elements: an enclosed space and unpredictable dialogue, where people are at the mercy of each other and pretence crumbles. With a minimum of plot, drama emerges from the power struggle and hide-and-seek of interlocution. Pinter's drama was first perceived as a variation of absurd theatre, but has later more aptly been characterized as 'comedy of menace,' a genre where the writer allows us to eavesdrop (spy) on the play of domination and submission hidden in the most mundane of conversations. In a typical Pinter play we meet people defending themselves against intrusion or their own impulses by establishing themselves in a reduced and controlled existence. Another principal theme is the unpredictability and elusiveness (ambiguity) of the past."
The general setting of the play is naturalistic and mundane, involving no menace. However one of Pinter?s greatest skills is his ability to make an apparently normal and trivial object, like a toy drum, appear strange and threatening. Pinter can summon forth an atmosphere of menace from ordinary everyday objects and events, and one way in which this is done is by combining two apparently opposed moods, such as terror and amusement.
Another technique that Pinter uses to create an atmosphere of menace is to cast doubt on almost everything in the play. One method of doing this is to have a character give a clear and definite statement and then have him flatly deny it later on.
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"The Birthday Party by Pinter as a Comedy of Manner." 123HelpMe.com. 18 Feb 2020
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Thus , Shifting identities ("the theme of identity") makes the past ambiguous: Goldberg is called "Nat," but in his stories of the past he says that he was called "Simey" and also "Benny", and he refers to McCann as both "Dermot" (in talking to Petey ) and "Seamus" (in talking to McCann ). Given such contradictions, these characters' actual names and thus identities remain unclear. According to John Russell Brown (94),
"Falsehoods are important for Pinter's dialogue, not least when they can be detected only by careful reference form one scene to another.... Some of the more blatant lies are so casually delivered that the audience is encouraged to look for more than is going to be disclosed. This is a part of Pinter's two-pronged tactic of awakening the audience's desire for verification and repeatedly disappointing this desire"
Then there is typical presence of Pinteresque language. Language as such is simple and frank. An example:
Meg- What are u smoking?
Stanley- A cigarette.
Meg- Are you going to give me one?
Soon there appear the famous pauses and silences, the air of unease that deepens into menace. These are seen as essential elements in this comedy of menace.
The atmosphere of menace is also created by Pinter?s ability to drop suddenly from a high comic level to one of deep seriousness. Much of Birthday Party is both frightening and funny. Stanley is destroyed by a torrent of words, but mingled in with the serious accusations eg "He?s killed his wife" (and others!) are ones which are trivial and ludicrous eg "Why do you pick your nose?" By this technique the audience is made aware that the comedy is only a surface layer. The sudden outbreaks of violence in the play confirm this and leave the audience unsure of what will come next. For example: the funny gift of the ?drum? given to Stanley by Meg and violent beating of it by Stanley.
What about other characters? Meg is grotesque, horrific but still funny. She dances and looks stupid in her party frock, but inadvertently is the naïve accomplice, terrorising Stan at the party. Petey is tongue-tied and silent, his emotions and thoughts remain unexpressed and bottled up.
High suspence and un-answered questions are present throughout the play. Are Goldberg and McCann emissaries of some secret organisation that Stan has betrayed? Or male nurses sent out to fetch him back to an asylum from which he has escaped? Or agents/messengers from another world? The question is never answered.
Pinter had a trigi-comedy view of the world. Menacing outside forces are always at work. The menace in the form of Goldberg and McCann represents a hostile outside world. They are the exception to the rule where life is normal and pleasant outside (and inside until they arrive!).Pinter said:
"Everything is funny until the horror of the human situation rises to the surface! Life is funny because it is based on illusions and self-deceptions, like Stanley?s dream of a world tour as a pianist, because it is built out of pretence. In our present-day world, everything is uncertain, there is no fixed point, and we are surrounded by the unknown. This unknown occurs in my plays. There is a kind of horror about and I think that this horror and absurdity (comedy) go together."