How does Pinter exploit the verbal and the visual in the Birthday Party

Published: 2021-09-12 18:45:07
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Category: Visual Arts, Birthday Party

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The Birthday Party is a play in which the visual and the verbal are carefully put together to create certain effects in the spectators. Pinter exploits both the verbal and the visual to show the personalities of the characters as well as their relationships, often with much ambiguity as the visual and verbal do not always match. Indeed, the contrast between the visual and the verbal can at times be very disconcerting for the spectators, creating an atmosphere of uncertainty and secrecy. Pinter also explores power, both verbal and visual, and how it is used to create fear and violence as well as the idea of secrecy.
Obviously, the verbal and visual are very important for the characterisation, it is through what characters say and do that we are able to know more about them and the other characters.
Petey is the first character that we see on stage, he is also probably the character that we doubt the least; for example, when he says that it is his chess night we are inclined to believe him. He is perhaps the only character, aside from Stanley, who is not taken in by Goldberg and McCann, which we see through his questioning their actions; "Where are you taking him?" He also is not seduced by Goldberg's speeches the way Meg and Lulu are, all he says after Goldberg talks about his childhood is "Well, we all remember our childhood".

Petey's blunt manner here shows that he is not really interested by the two newcomers, perhaps why he does not stay for the party. Petey is also quite blunt with his wife, Meg; he answers her questions but does not really elaborate what he is saying or take any interest in her, often just answering "yes" or "no". The spectators get the impression that he would much rather be left alone, in fact the only things he seems to show any real interest in are the paper and his chess night, thus making it seem that he prefers the "outside" world to the community in the boarding house.
Meg is almost the exact opposite to Petey. Unlike him, the boarding house community seems to be her world; the only time she leaves is to go shopping. She is also very proud of it, saying "this is a very good boarding house. It is. It's on the list" to Petey. Meg seems to be quite simple, asking stupid questions and making obvious statements such as "But sometimes you go out in the morning and its dark". She also seems to believe everything people tell her, for example, she believes that Stanley is a concert pianist despite this being very unlikely. She is a trusting character who latches on to others, perhaps because her own husband does not seem to care for her. She admires Goldberg and listens to what he says; it is he who suggests that she throw a party for Stanley's birthday and she asks him what she should drink and whether she looks nice; she seems to want his approval.
She also cares for Stanley, saying "he's [her] Stanley now", and despite the fact that he sometimes bullies her; she still cares about what he thinks, for example, on page 21 after he menaces her she says in a small voice "Didn't you enjoy your breakfast Stan?" The audience gets the impression from what she says, and perhaps the nervous facial expressions we could imagine her to have at this moment, that she worries a lot about pleasing Stanley, an idea emphasised by her panic when she realises she has nothing to give him for breakfast on page 70. Overall, verbally and visually, Meg seems to be a simple and trusting character that cares a great deal about her guests and what they think.
However, her last words, "Oh, it's true I was. (Pause) I know I was." perhaps show that she is not so trusting as she seems as the pause and repetition could mean that she is trying to convince herself that what she says is true while she knows that it is not. Meg's uncertainty also appears at other points in the play where the stage directions say that she is uncertain or uneasy, such as on page 54. Perhaps this uncertainty is simple because she is not comfortable in social situations or maybe she thinks the others are making fun of her, for example, when Goldberg asks her to make a speech. The audience can get the impression that she chooses to believe the others because it is easier than confronting them, which could cause her whole world to fall apart.
A lot of Meg and Petey's characterisation is done through their relationship with each other. Indeed, Pinter exploits their dialogues to add humour to the play. The fast rhythm created by the short sentences shot back and forth can remind the audience of a tennis game while Meg's constant questioning can make the audience laugh, for example on page 11:
"Petey: Someone's just had a baby
Meg: Oh, they haven't! Who?
Petey: Some girl.
Meg: Who, Petey, who?
Petey: I don't think you'd know her.
Meg: What's her name?
Petey: Lady Mary Splatt.
Meg: I don't know her."
Their dialogue is full of pointless questions, obvious statements and vague words such as "nice" which is repeated 15 times throughout the dialogue. It seems obvious to the audience that they are speaking simply for the sake of it, to fill the gap created by silence, as Meg often asks a question after a lull in the conversation to try and keep it going. The way some of the dialogue is repeated in the third act also emphasises the routine of Meg and Petey's lives as a married couple. Their actions also seem quite stereotypical, for example Petey, the husband, reads the paper while Meg, the wife, makes him breakfast, tidies the room, darns and goes shopping. Thus both the visual and verbal come together to show Meg and Petey as a comedic, stereotypical, old married couple.
Lulu is a neighbour; she is the character who seems to care about visual appearance the most. The first time we see her in the play she starts putting on makeup and tells Stanley to take more care over his appearance. However, despite her saying that he looks "terrible" she still asks him to go for a walk with her. Thus showing that what she actually says is not always what she thinks as if she attaches so much importance to appearance she would not want to go out with him. Lulu is also attracted to Goldberg because of his verbal power, indeed she says "That was a wonderful speech" and "you're a marvellous speaker" to him. Therefore we can assume that speech is important to Lulu.
The audience only finds out what happened between Lulu and Goldberg the next morning, although we are made aware that they are attracted to each other at the party when they embrace, by what they say. However, neither character says exactly what happened; we have to guess through hints that are made. Whereas the night before the two were physically very close, Lulu sitting on Goldberg's lap, in the morning Lulu keeps away from him, it says in the stage directions that she backs upstage left and retreats to the back door, thus creating a visual reminder of their separation. What is actually said is quite ambiguous; Lulu insists that Goldberg is the one at fault, comparing him to Eddie, her "first love", saying "he wouldn't come into my bedroom at night with a briefcase" and "you made use of me by cunning when my defences were down".
However, Goldberg replies "Who opened the briefcase, me or you?" and "Who took them down?", thus implying that Lulu can only blame herself for what happened. Despite the seriousness of this scene and Lulu's being obviously upset there is also humour when Lulu says "You taught me things a girl shouldn't know before she's been married at least three times!". This adds some humour to the otherwise serious dialogue but makes Lulu lose her credibility. The ambiguity remains about whether Goldberg did use Lulu against her will as in previous scenes Lulu has acted in a quite experienced manner.
Lulu does seem like a character who is quite sure of herself at other times; she doesn't mind saying what she thinks, for example she criticises Stanley, saying "you're a bit of a washout, aren't you?" As well as this, at the end she leaves the house without giving in to McCann and confessing. Indeed, she actually says "I know what's going on. I've got a pretty shrewd idea." it's not certain whether this is true but either way it shows that she does possess a certain amount of intelligence as she knows Goldberg won't want people finding out what they did to Stanley. Overall, Lulu shows through what she says that she is an intelligent character but her relationship with Goldberg shows that she may act in a more experienced way than she is.
Stanley is another character who shows a lot of pretence, the way he speaks and acts changes depending on the characters he is with. Throughout the entire play we wonder who he really is and what he is doing in the boarding house. In a way he plays many different roles in the play. With Meg he is a son, a boarding house guest or a angry lover, with Lulu he tries to be a "real" man, with McCann and Goldberg he tries to be strong but he soon breaks down. Indeed, it is hard to work out exactly who Stanley is without looking at each of his relationships with the other characters.
When we first see Stanley, he is dressed in pyjamas and is unshaven; he could seem like a stereotypical lazy teenager, especially as he has slept in. Indeed, before we see him Meg and Petey talk about him and Meg continually calls him "the boy". She also says that she'd rather have a boy when Petey tells her that a Lady Mary Splatt has had a baby girl. This could lead the audience to believe that Stanley is their son. When Meg goes to wake him up we do not see what happens, we simply hear laughter from Meg and shouts from Stanley, and it is not certain exactly what is happening. Perhaps Meg is tickling Stanley (something that she later threatens to do), perhaps she is taking his covers or perhaps she is doing something of a more sexual nature as when she returns she is panting and her hair is messed up.
The first dialogue we see between Meg and Stanley involves Meg continuing to treat him like a child, saying he can't have his second course until he's finished his first. However, Stanley does not act like a child; he threatens to leave Meg, saying "I'll have to go down to one of those smart hotels on the front". Later on, Stanley morphs back into a child, teasing Meg when she tells him to say sorry first, replying "Sorry first" instead of sorry, while Meg says he deserves the strap before becoming flirtatious, speaking "coyly". The speed in which Meg changes both verbally and visually from treating Stanley like a son to a lover is quite startling, one second she is ruffling his hair and the next she is sensually stroking his arm.
However, one thing remains constant, and that is Stanley's reaction to her touching him, every time he recoils or pushes her away. He also criticises her verbally, saying she isn't a good wife and doesn't know how to make tea. It is due to all this changing that the audience does not know for certain what their relationship is, we do get the impression though that they have had a sexual relationship is the past as Meg says "I've had some lovely afternoons in [your] room" and asks him to give her a kiss on page 36. It seems as though Stanley is ashamed of what happened though, which is why he treats her so badly.
Stanley's relationship with Lulu is quite different. He tries to talk to her, talking about the weather in a way which echoes Meg and Petey's conversation. This makes it seem as though he has very little contact with anyone else as this is the only way he knows how to talk, an idea emphasised by Lulu asking him if he ever goes out. He also lies to her, saying he went swimming "all the way to the headland" that morning, which we know to be untrue, and asks her to go away with him but does not know where to. This dialogue shows that Stanley is socially inept as well as emphasising his lack of contact with the outside world.
Stanley's relationship with McCann is hard to ascertain, we can not even be sure whether they knew each other before coming to the boarding house. Although, at the beginning of the second act McCann asks Stanley if they've met before and Stanley replies that they haven't, Stanley later goes on to say that he's "got a feeling" they've met before. They both whistle the same song, making it seem as though they do have a link. Stanley tries to act verbally powerful with McCann, mimicking Goldberg; he talks about his past and business, a theme which Goldberg made a speech about in the first act. However, Stanley soon falters in his speech, pausing and ending with the words "Do you know what I mean?" which McCann answers with an abrupt "No". This shows the audience that McCann is not really interested in Stanley's words, and perhaps that he is not taken in by his lies. The power of speech does not seem to work well with McCann as he refuses to answer Stanley's questions about why they are here, thus making Stanley seem quite weak, especially compared to the threatening and violent Stanley we saw with Meg in the first act.
It seems that Stanley knew Goldberg, or at least of him, prior to his arrival at the boarding house as he seems afraid of him before he has even spoken to him: In act one when Meg tells him Goldberg's name he does not reply, just stays sitting still, the audience could think that this is because he is afraid as if he didn't recognise the name he would've perhaps said so when Meg asked him. He also asks McCann questions about him, although he does not say Goldberg's name but simply refers to him as "he". Goldberg however says that he "hasn't had the pleasure" when Meg asks him if he's met Stanley, this fits with McCann's refusing to acknowledge that Stanley may have known him before: the two characters try to hide any links they may have with Stanley. Stanley also tries to make Goldberg leave, again showing his fear of him, either because he is from some kind of organisation that Stanley has run away from or because Stanley is simply afraid of "outsiders". Thus, Stanley shows his fear through what he says, despite never stating that he is actually afraid.
Stanley's relationships with Goldberg and McCann revolve around secrecy and power. Indeed, the characters of McCann and Goldberg themselves seem to be defined by their power as well as their origins, which are shown verbally and visually
McCann is a typical Irish name, and the two Christian names he is called by in the play, Dermot and Seamus, are also typically Irish. As well as this we could imagine that the character speaks with an Irish accent. There are also certain humorous things to do with McCann's "irishness". Firstly, when Stanley asks him where he is from he replies "Where do you think?", this could seem funny to the audience as it is plainly obvious that McCann comes from Ireland. Secondly, McCann refuses to drink Scotch whisky, pouring himself Irish whisky instead.
McCann is also characterised by his physical power. It is always he who carries out physical actions, such as breaking the glasses, bringing Stanley downstairs and fighting physically with him. McCann's physical power is easy to see but this power also causes him to act like a servant as he has to carry the suitcases and the alcohol. This is a visual reminder of Goldberg's superiority to him, which is shown verbally by both characters in the play as well. For example in the first act McCann asks Goldberg many questions and needs assurance from Goldberg, making it obvious that it is he who is in charge.
Unlike McCann, Goldberg is a Jewish character. He does not seem to take so much pride in his roots as McCann as he never actually mentions that he is Jewish. However, Goldberg and Simon (Simey) are typical Jewish names and throughout the play we are reminded of his origins through the use of Jewish words such as "gefilte (fish)". His religion is also used in a humorous way when McCann says "You've always been a true christian" and Goldberg replies "In a way", this could make the audience smile as the fact that Goldberg is Jewish is very obvious. Goldberg seems to try hard to show that he is integrated in the English "way of life". He uses many idiomatic expressions and also creates an image of a cosy family life in the past.
Goldberg is characterised by his verbal power instead of physical power. Indeed, except at one point in the play, when he tries to strangle McCann, he seems to be completely physically incapable of action; he is almost always sitting down and cannot defend himself when Stanley kicks him in the stomach during the interrogation scene. Goldberg's physical inability is contrasted with his verbal ability. Whenever Goldberg speaks in the first two acts, whether it is about Stanley, the past or something else, the other characters are in his thrall. They cannot help but listen to him, and the results of this depend on how he uses his power, for example he causes Stanley to break down by interrogating him and seduces Lulu through his speeches. Sometimes when he speaks he uses complicated words, making it hard for the other characters to understand him, such as when he "explains" to McCann what they are going to do he says "The main issue is a singular issue and quite distinct from your previous work. Certain elements, however, might well approximate in points of procedure to some of your other activities".
It is unlikely that this explanation has helped McCann to understand. This complicated sounding explanation, however, would probably make Goldberg seem even more important to both McCann and the audience. Goldberg also uses idiomatic expressions such as "You're getting on her wick" or "I gave her a peck"; he also changes a vulgar expression into a more polite version: "You're getting on my breasts". These expressions are used quite often in his long speeches with the occupants of the boarding house and Lulu which makes it seem that Goldberg is trying to make his language suitable for these people, while still keeping his verbal power. Goldberg's manipulation using language is particularly obvious when the lights all go out as he stops using long speeches to make people do what he wants and instead gives plain orders, such as "Everyone quiet! Help him find the torch." He is also very capable at questioning characters, as shown by his violent interrogation of Stanley but also the efficient, softer interrogation of Meg on page 31.
However, in the last act, Goldberg seems to lose his power: He keeps pausing and seems unsure of what he wants to say, this uncertainty climaxes with the lines: "Because I believe that the world... (Vacant.)....Because I believe that the world... (Desperate.) ... BECAUSE I BELIEVE THAT THE WORLD...(Lost.)....". It is as though he has used up all his verbal power the night before and has none left. We also notice that Petey, unlike Lulu and Meg, talks back to Goldberg, telling him to do things, thus emphasising his loss of power. In order to get his power back, Goldberg orders McCann to blow in his mouth on page 79. This shows how despite being a powerful character, Goldberg relies on McCann to act for him and to keep him in power.
Goldberg and McCann have used their verbal and visual powers not only to control Stanley but also to "break" him. By the end of the play he is incapable of speech and his appearance is completely changed. He "is dressed in a dark well-cut suit and white collar and "he is clean-shaven". This change in Stanley's visual appearance is a sign of his inner change. Another sign of this change is his lack of comprehensible verbal reactions to Goldberg and McCann's goading him. Indeed, he simply makes noises such as "Uh-gug...uh-gug...eeehhh-gag...Caahh..." before visually showing his resignation by shuddering and dropping his head.
Thus, the power struggles in this play, and perhaps also in real life, are shown through the verbal and the visual aspects of the play and its characters
Violence and fear are two very important themes in the play that are linked to power. Pinter exhibits these themes through the verbal and the visual. Indeed, there is a sort of crescendo of violence and fear in the play involving dialogues, language and images.
In the first act, the violence is kept minimal until the end, and the majority of this violence is directed from Stanley towards Meg. There are many exclamations and Stanley swears, saying "Not the bloody table", he also "throws her arm away" when she goes to ruffle his hair. These small things soon become larger, with Stanley menacing Meg: "Tell me, Mrs Boles, when you address yourself to me, do you ever ask yourself exactly who you are talking to?" and scaring her by talking about a wheelbarrow. The last image from the act involves Stanley and Meg again, in the stage directions it says "beating [the drum] regularly, he begins to go round the table a second time. Halfway round the beat becomes erratic, uncontrolled, Meg expresses dismay. He arrives at her chair, banging the drum, his face and the drumbeat now savage and possessed." The crescendo of the drumbeat could represent the crescendo of the violence in the play itself and this violent image also sets Stanley up to commit violence later on in the play.
The second act opens with a menacing image; McCann tearing up strips of newspaper. We can imagine a violent tearing sound to accompany his actions. After this threatening image McCann and Stanley's conversation soon turns violent, with Stanley grabbing hold of McCann's arms and McCann speaking "savagely [and] hitting his arm". Stanley is obviously afraid, asking McCann questions such as "Has he told you anything" in a "hissing" voice. Their dialogue ends when Goldberg enters with Petey however the violent and menacing atmosphere starts up again once Stanley is alone with Goldberg and McCann. The violence starts verbally, with many questions asked quickly and exclamations, with accusations such as "He's killed his wife!" The violent dialogue soon becomes visual as shown by the stage directions, "[Stanley] looks up slowly and kicks Goldberg in the stomach, Goldberg falls. Stanley stands.
McCann seizes a chair and lifts it above his head. Stanley seizes a chair and covers his head with it. McCann and Stanley circle." This shows how the fight with words (the interrogation) has become a physical fight. It is obvious, however, that Stanley has lost the fight as he is incapable of speech, he can only grunt and make animal sounds. It is also McCann who has the last word, shouting, "The bastard sweat pig is sweating" before the scene calms down abruptly due to Meg's arrival.
The violence of the act is kept at bay for a while; however, there is a disconcerting image, which can remind us of the interrogation scene. This is when a toast is made to Stanley with the lights off and a torch shining into his face, just like a stereotypical interrogation scene. The violence of the act is continued in the game of blind man's buff; this violence is visual and is only punctuated by the characters' asking questions and their fearful exclamations.
It involves Stanley, who is playing the "blind man", first McCann breaks his glasses and Stanley treads on the drum, he then tries to strangle Meg when the lights all go out. The darkness of the stage creates more fear, both amongst the characters but also perhaps among the audience. The sounds that are heard; grunts, a drumbeat, whimpers and then a scream add to this fear and alarm. The act ends with Stanley seeming to try to rape an unconscious Lulu and then Stanley backing away against the wall while everyone else walks menacingly towards him. This is the climax of the violence and menace of the play and this image emphasises how Stanley has had a break down, while also showing his inner feelings: he hates Meg, so tries to kill her; he is attracted to Lulu but the only way he can show his "manliness" is to rape her.
In the last act, there is a lot less violence than in the second. However, there are reminders of the violent second act in the broken drum and glasses. There is also a scene between Goldberg and McCann in which we see Goldberg act violently for the first time, instead of speaking violently: he yells murderously "Don't call me that! NEVER CALL ME THAT" and seizes McCann by the throat... McCann also yells at Lulu "savagely" to confess. The audience can notice that the violence perpetuated in this act seems to have less meaning than in the first and second. In the first, the violence helps to characterise Stanley and make us understand what he is capable of whereas in the second it is part of McCann and Goldberg's "breaking" Stanley, but in the third act it seems to be more associated with the anger of the characters and have less of a real aim.
The only violence that does have an aim is the violence that happened upstairs; this violence is mentioned by McCann and Goldberg without referring to it directly. We understand that McCann and Goldberg are actually afraid of what happened through what they say, for example McCann says on page 73 "I'm not going up there again". This non visual violence that we are left to imagine seems worse than the violence we saw on stage because of our lack of knowledge of it.
All of the visual violence in the play seems quite serious, however at times this is contrasted with humour in the characters' speech. A good example of this is during the interrogation scene in which serious questions and accusations are interspersed with comic lines and expressions, such as McCann saying "Mother defiler" followed by Goldberg asking why Stanley picks his nose. Stanley himself joins in with this humour at times, saying "No hands" when Goldberg asks him how many fingers he uses to play the piano. The verbal humour placed alongside violence and seriousness can be quite disconcerting for the spectators and could cause them to take the violence a little less seriously.
Much of the characters' fear is caused by the violence of other characters, however, it is also caused by the unknown or secrecy which is shown through verbal communication, or lack of verbal communication, between characters. Stanley's fear in the first act is the main example of this, when Meg mentions the two men that are coming Stanley shows fear, through his actions and his words. He repeats things such as "It's a false alarm. It's a false alarm" and paces the room, which indicates worry. Stanley is also afraid because he doesn't know why the two men are there, something which is shown by his frantic questioning of McCann.
McCann himself also worries about the unknown. We see him question Goldberg about what the job will involve and what he will have to do, his worry is shown particularly through Goldberg 's mentioning it. He tells him first to stop worrying and then to stop being so nervous. This shows that fear of the unknown is not simply limited to weaker characters such as Stanley but also physically strong ones; an idea which could also apply to real life.
The audience itself never finds out who Goldberg and McCann are and why they are here. Indeed, much of what we know about Goldberg and is past is what he has decided to tell the other characters and we find it impossible to believe him. This is for several reasons: Firstly, he paints a picture of a good, family life which is hard to connect with his seduction of Lulu and his behaviour towards Stanley. Secondly, the way he describes his mother is almost identical to the way he describes his wife; the echoes in his description of them make it seem as though he is almost making them up. Lastly, we know Goldberg lies, for example he tells Petey that McCann is called Dermot and later on in the book he calls him Seamus, he also tells Petey that Stanley is alright.
Lies seem to be quite important in this play, especially when talking about the past. Many of the characters lie to each other or at least say something which we could think was a lie. Stanley talks about being a concert pianist and his business, Goldberg talks about his family and Meg talks about hers, while Petey lies to Meg at the end about Stanley still being upstairs. Many of these lies do not seem to do any harm; in fact they seem to make the characters feel better about themselves as they become nostalgic and reflective. However, they add to the level of uncertainty which we find in the play and make it even harder for the audience to know what is going on.
To conclude, Pinter takes advantage of both the verbal and the visual to emphasise certain things and explain them completely, such as the characters and their relationships, while also using them to show the themes of the play: Power, violence, fear and secrecy. He also uses it to relax the tension at times through humour but most of all it is used to create ambiguity. The audience can be sure of very few of the things that are said in this play which leads to many varied interpretations of the events and the characters. Perhaps this is what Pinter was hoping for.

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