Harold Pinter’s Comedies of Menace. Fear and Control in "The Birthday Party"

Term Paper, 2008
20 Pages, Grade: 1,5


Index of Contents


Fear In General

The Outside World

Stanley’s Horror of Meg

Meg’s Fears

A Psychological View on Stanley’s Fears



The Tormentors in Fear






Converging comedy and fear, that is a strange art practiced in the comedies of menace.

One of the most prominent authors who intermingles the two in his plays is Harold Pinter. But what is the role of menace and fear in a comic play? To examine this question closer the present term paper looks at the role of fear in one of Harold Pinter’s first plays, namely his first full length play The Birthday Party. As we will see none of the characters in the play is free from fear. Especially the main character Stanley, the permanent guest in Meg’s boarding house, is hounded by his emotions.

To begin with I will discuss how Pinter came to choose such a devastating theme and work on it to figure out the fear in the play, along with the emotions and actions it affects. Hereby the menace that the outside world projects on the main character Stanley will be an important factor.

Secondly we will analyse Stanley and his fears. Of great importance is that with different characters and different situations the menace distinguishes, and with that the kind of fear Stanley is driven by.

Then it is time to have a closer look at his relationship to Meg. Along with that I will try to expose Meg’s fears and how she fights them.

After that an attempt will be made to explain Stanley’s fear from a psychological point of view. Especially his relationship to Goldberg and McCann gives some good conclusions about his state of mind.

Afterwards McCann, the first intruder Stanley is confronted with, will be tackled. Following this there will be another approach on Stanley’s horror of Goldberg.

Furthermore a closer look at what scares Goldberg and McCann is taken. McCann’s weaknesses are demonstrated.

Goldberg’s doubts and fears are the most difficult to identify and he can control them most of the time. Due to the fact that Goldberg takes control of everybody and everything, even his fear, it is important to have a look at him.

Now the last two characters of the play, namely Petey and Lulu, are to be dealt with shortly. I will try to uncover their dreads and their relationship to Stanley.

Fear In General

In the following paper I will analyse the use of fear in The Birthday Party, a play about Stanley Webber who is trying to hide from the world in a nearly unvisited boarding house.

The feeling of fear is a very common one in Pinter’s plays, and especially in The Birthday Party the existential fear is very present. The play is marked “durch eine angst- und aggressionsgeladene Atmosphäre”.1 But it is not just being scared in one way, this fear shows itself in many variations. It cannot be seen as only one feeling with one consequence. The distinction of consequences goes as far as the range of differences in fear-variations. A lot of critics found that, in the play, the feeling of fear is connected to many other fields of life, as for example the use of language, identity, humour, dominance, control and subservience.

But before I have a closer look at the terror taking place in the play, I will shortly try to explain why there is such an atmosphere of fear in The Birthday Party. According to Gale “one idea was foremost in his mind as major theme” at the beginning of Pinter’s writing career in 1957.2 The theme Harold Pinter had in mind was fear, because he had lived through the days of World War II as a young Jew and along with that “he had gone to bed afraid that he might be awakened in the night by a knock at the door and that he and his parents would be taken forcibly from their home by unknown assailants”.3 Esslin agrees that this “existential fear” is “based on the experience of a Jewish boy” living in the “Europe of Hitler”.4 You will find that it is obvious that Pinter has transformed this fear into The Birthday Party and it ultimately becomes reality, only by looking at the ending of the play when Stanley is being abducted by his tormentors. Still different critics make different attempts to find the terror and its source in the play.

Gale, for example says that “There is concurrent need for and absence of psychological stability, and this discrepancy is the source of the terror”.5 His keyword here is “emotional relationships” which people require, but these ties do either not exist or if they exist they are likely to be broken so the “original lack of ties will recur” and make the resulting situation unbearable.6 To strengthen his theory he refers to Pinter as having insisted that “his writings deal with ‘the terror of the loneliness of the human situation’”.7 Having read The Birthday Party one probably can agree to Gale seeing Stanley’s bonds to the inhabitants of the boarding house. Superficially they form a little family with a typical familiar behaviour in which Stanley, although a little too old, plays more or less the role of the teenage-boy revolting against his parents, especially his mother Meg. But underneath the surface the family-ties are missing, they are not even distant relatives, in fact Stanley is a total stranger to the boarding house, which finally is a, or even the reason that makes it possible for the two other strangers to abduct Stanley.

Esslin focuses more on the relationship and the general action between Stanley and his tormentors Goldberg and McCann. A man “hidden away in a seaside boarding house” and “then two people arrive out of nowhere”, which he does not “consider an unnatural happening” or “surrealistic and curious” because, and here I can only agree, “surely this thing, of people arriving at the door, has been happening in Europe in the last twenty years, not only the last twenty years, the last two to three hundred”.8 To him this is “man’s existential fear, not as an abstraction, not as a surreal phantasmagoria, but as something real, ordinary and acceptable as an everyday occurrence”.9 This is “the core of Pinter’s work as a dramatist” to Esslin.10 Having ourselves a look at The Birthday Party we can find enough evidence for Esslin’s theory remembering the scene in which Meg tells Stanley that two men are to arrive:

“Meg. I’m expecting visitors.

He turns

Stanley. What?”11

In the following dialogue we find the formerly so confident Stanley interrogating Meg constantly, just as if he were afraid of something. I think we can agree that if he was not afraid of the strangers, he naturally would not keep on asking so desperately.

The Outside World

To the theory of “an existential struggle” in which Pinter’s characters are “indeed involved” and are “to defend themselves from what they perceive, often rightly, as very real threats to their autonomy and their personal relationships” Peacock has his own ideas.12 He does not consider the characters’ struggle as an existential one, “in that they are not, as Esslin suggests, primarily dramatized as examples of “man’s confrontation with himself and the nature of his own being” nor do Pinter’s plays reveal anything as metaphysical as the “absurdity of human existence.””13 The “existential dilemma” is, according to Peacock, more the “threat to their autonomy” and not a confronting of themselves, but rather confronting “other human beings whose demands are social, not metaphysical”.14 Peacock thinks that Stanley does not want to become a “part of society”, ”neither wants to communicate with strangers nor to leave the perceived security of his territory”, and his resistance to any attempt to pull him back into “the wider social world” is great.15 Stanley is afraid of the world outside the boarding house which is in its social needs manipulating. To fit into this world he would have to adapt himself to it as well as the world would adapt itself to him. But this would not happen only once, the unknown outside world is and will be in constant change and demand constant adaptation from Stanley if he did surrender himself to its mercy.

For the time being Esslin has a more superficial look at the relationship between the outer world and Stanley, who hides inside this “seedy boarding house in a seaside resort”, but he also finds “the room, the safe haven, menaced by an intrusion from the cold outside world”.16

Needless to say that menace evokes fear. Furthermore he generalizes this theme of The Birthday Party as a common fear of mankind at the time being. In his eyes “The Birthday Party might be seen as an image of man’s fear of being driven out from his warm place of refuge on earth”.17 To Trussler there is not only an importance in the threat of the outer world, but also, regarding the play’s setting, in the ultimately proven inadequacy of “the shelter of a room” which was supposed to be “a refuge from the threatening world outside”.18 But why is this outside world threatening? Is it dangerous?

To Zelter the outside world is “ein absenter, unbekannter, ungewisser, namenloser und irrealer Raum”, an absent unknown, vague, nameless and unreal space.19 Naturally mankind is afraid of anything they cannot name, identify and verify because they cannot control such a thing and this holds many dangers.

Now, in The Birthday Party, Zelter gives further details on this point when concentrating on the nameless and menacing approach to Stanley Webber through an anonymous outside world. According to him, Pinter uses semantically open and vague terms to describe the anonymous outer world.

“Ähnlich namenlos erscheint in The Birthday Party der bedrohliche Zugriff auf Stanley Webber durch eine anonyme Außenwelt, die Pinter mit semantisch offenen und unbestimmten Begriffen wie “they“, “organization“ oder “mission“ anreißt, ohne deren gesellschaftspolitische Hintergründe, Akteure und Absichten zu benennen.“20

These vague terms can successfully hide the background of the social politics, the protagonists, and the intentions. In addition even the names of the outer world’s representatives Goldberg and McCann prove to be unreliable. For that Zelter finds fully comprehensible evidence in the screenplay because, as we can see, during the play the names of Goldberg and McCann divide up into a multitude of arbitrary used names like Nate, Simey and Benny for Goldberg, and Seamus and Dermot for the one who calls himself McCann in the beginning. An example for this is shown in the following lines taken from The Birthday Party:

“LULU. I thought your name was Nat.

GOLDBERG. She called me Simey.”21

That, as Zelter writes, unambiguous naming of subject and object referring to reality is lost “Der Verlust der eindeutigen Benennungen subjekt – und objekt – bezogener Wirklichkeit”, shows itself in Stanley’s urgent questions about names, identity and background of the two visitors “zeigt sich nicht zuletzt in Stanleys drängenden Fragen nach den Namen, der Identität und der Herkunft der beiden Besucher“.22

Prentice on the other hand thinks the focus to be on “the individual level of the struggle”, though she also is aware of “the overriding threat of violence from a larger organization” which “is always there, distant and unseen”.23 In some way all these approaches find their evidence in the play and Peacock shortly tries to sum up all the varieties of fear appearing in the screenplay.

“On a more general level appear varieties of fear and guilt – fear of intrusion, fear of the unknown, the individual’s fear of domination by institutional forces, fear of women’s sexuality, and guilt from rejecting parental of social allegiances.”24


1 Eikmeyer, p. 259, 1990.

2 Gale, p. 18, 1977.

3 Gale, p. 18, 1977.

4 Esslin, p. 35, 1970.

5 Gale, p. 19, 1977.

6 Gale, p. 19, 1977.

7 Gale, p. 19, 1977.

8 Esslin, p. 36, 1970.

9 Esslin, p. 36, 1970.

10 Esslin, p. 36, 1970.

11 Pinter, p.30, 1990.

12 Peacock, p. 56, 1997.

13 Peacock, p. 56, 1997.

14 Peacock, p. 56, 1997.

15 Peacock, p. 56, 1997.

16 Esslin, p. 75-6, 1970.

17 Esslin, p. 83, 1970.

18 Trussler, p. 25, 1973.

19 Zelter, p. 266, 1994.

20 Zelter, p. 239, 1994.

21 Pinter, p. 69, 1990.

22 Zelter, p. 239, 1994.

23 Prentice, p. 22, 1991.

24 Peacock, p. 57, 1997.

Excerpt out of 20 pages


Harold Pinter’s Comedies of Menace. Fear and Control in "The Birthday Party"
University of Trier  (Anglistik)
Proseminar Harold Pinter
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
Harold Pinter, The Birthday Party, Plays, british playwright, comedy of menace, fear, menace, modern british dramatist, boarding house, nightmare, comedy, play, drama, British, modern, influential dramatist
Quote paper
Magister Artium Lukas Szpeth (Author), 2008, Harold Pinter’s Comedies of Menace. Fear and Control in "The Birthday Party", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/491640


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