Drama of Language in Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party and The Caretaker

Master's Thesis 2010 125 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Linguistics





Chapter I

Chapter II
Language in Drama: From General to Particular

Chapter III
Linguistic Analysis of The Birthday Party

Chapter IV
Linguistic Analysis of The Caretaker

Chapter V



Harold Pinter is the product of a post-war generation that attempted to reject the evils of the twentieth century and presents a new outlook on society. Pinter began as an uncompromising minority author and created the taste by which he is appreciated, i.e., the inculcation of the so-called 'Pintersque'. In accordance to my capacity within this limited time what could I include in this small effort is; as it is a descriptive type of research work the dissertation trees to present" A Linguistic analysis of Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party and The Caretaker in an analytical way. In this work the language is studied for theme, character, thought and action and reality.

The first chapter deals with the life and career of Harold Pinter as well as the achievement of Pinter's drama in creating a new taste and form of language. The second chapter deals with language in general development of language from nineteenth century realistic drama to contemporary absurd drama, language which took a u-turn with the advent of John Osborne and other and language in the dramas of Pinter. The third Chapter deals with the linguistic analysis of The Birthday Party, linguistic absurdity of the drama reveals the absurdity of the basic human condition.

The fourth chapter presents linguistic analysis of The Caretaker in which Pinter offers a vast range of language use in the art of deception. The fifth chapter the last and also the concluding chapter deal with analysis of Pinter dramatic dialogue. Pinterian language, which is highly ambiguous, provides multiple meaning, Incomprehensibility of the audience in judging the worth of his drama is in veracity and infinitudes of language.

Pulkita Anand


I am aware of the limitation and shortcoming of my dissertation which is entitled A Linguistic Analysis of Harold Pinter ’ s The Birthday Party and The Caretaker, but this small effort could not be completed without the constant and expert guidance, inspiration and proficient suggestion of immense value of my supervisor sir Dr. Rooble Verma, Reader, School of Studies in English Vikram University, Ujjain. Without whom this dissertation would not have been completed.

I would also like to thank the star of inspiration for my life, for whom my words are so small to convey the very feeling for her with my conscious mind and emotional heart. My reference is to none other than Madam Nirmaljit Oberoi, Professor, School of Studies in English who taught me something for my life. I would also like to thanks Dr.Achala Sharma, Head of the Department, School of Studies in English Vikram University, Ujjain, Dr. Anjana Panday, Professor School of Studies in English and Dr.B.K.Anjana, Professor School of Studies in English for their encouragement that always inspired me to complete my task. I am also grateful to School of Studies in English, Departmental library and Central library, Vikram University, Ujjain for permitting me to make ample use of their resources.

I would also like to express my gratitude to my most honourable parents and friends. Without the help and encouragement of all I would not have achieved this humble objective.

I express my sincere thanks to all my acquintance, who helped me directly or indirectly in making this dissertation a success.

Chapter-1 Introduction

Harold Pinter was born on October 10, 1930 into a Jewish family in Hackney, in East London. His father was a tailor who worked for twelve hours a day to met out his family needs and lived in a comfortable terraced house. The consciousness of being a Jew never left Harold Pinter. It was even sharpened by the activities of Oswald Mosley and his British Union of fascists during 1930s. The growing Fascist movement posed a threat to the Jewish community in particular. There were violent conflicts between the fascist and their two main enemies, the Jews and the communist. Pinter never forgot this grim situation early in life, and his writing reflects it. For instance, it is Hackney that provides the characters in his plays with their ambitions hopes, desires and frustrations. The attitudes and occupations of the people infuse his work. In the Hackney of Pinter's youth were the divisions which have made their way into his plays the brooding sense of danger under the surface calm, the sense of unreal gentility, the cockney intermingled with ordinary speech. The disturbing events of the 1930s and World War II with their latent violence, actual violence and retribution left an indelible mark on his psyche. They find an echo in The Birthday Party and other plays.

Harold Pinter is the product of a post-war generation that attempted to reject the evils of the twentieth century and presents a new outlook on society. But he is deliberately not didactic in his dramas. Rather, he expresses the experience of man in transition, not in terms of the young man in anger or revolt, nor of the emptiness of man faced with spiritual absurdity; he portrays man in his fear, joy and humour, stupidity and ambition. Harold Pinter is a difficult author in that his plays do not have an easily pin down able meaning. The abundance of critical writing on Pinter has only contributed to this difficulty. Some writers rate him so high that even Pinter himself is embarrassed while others dismiss him as a spurious dramatist with excuse of depth. The fact of course is that he rank in between these extremes. Pinter is a remarkable writer who should be closely studied before evaluated.

The World War II, which broke out in 1939, affected the childhood of Harold Pinter. He moved to Cornwall for fear of air- raids mounted by the Fascists on the Jewish population. He returned to London in 1944, where he attended Hackney Downs Grammar School and displayed his enthusiasm for English and theatre. He led an active vigorous life. His passion for cricket made him captain of the school team. He never lost interest in the game, which become for him a symbol of security and tranquility. In his plays, there are allusions to the game. Both the intensity of his theatrical voice and the menace that stalks and indeed characterises his early plays owe something to this environment. In 1948, he received a grant to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art but soon dropped out shortly afterwards he started reading the works of the Samuel Beckett (Waiting for Godot), who exercised a great influence on his work. In 1949 he was twice fined for refusing National (Military) service, an early indication of Pinter's determined oppositionalism, which has marked his statements over the years as well as characterising the subject matter of many of his plays.

He went through Jame Joyce's Ulysses and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and wrote his comments on these two books. His study and appreciation of these books. His study and appreciation of these books brought him closer to James Joyce in outlook and taste. In 1951, he was taken on for a Shakespearean tour of Ireland here he got a chance to rehearse and act Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet. During this period, he wrote and published a number of poems. Before taking part in the Shakespearean tour, he had taken part in a few radio plays and attended the central school of speech and Drama. In 1952, he acted in provincial repertory theatre. In August 1960, he had two poems published in a magazine called Poetry London. These poems were 'New year in the Midlands' and Chandeliers and Shadows' his first professional publications included in his poems and prose (1949-1977). Because of serious printer's errors in the former, Poetry London repeated it in November, with two new poems, this time under the penname of Harold Pinta. On 19 September 1950, he gave his first professional performance in 'Focus in Football Pools', for BBC Radio.

In 1953, Pinter achieved not only another break through in theatre and acting but also in love. He was selected to appear in a classical reason of plays being held at the king's Theatre, Hammer Smith, London, by Sir Donald Wolfit (1902-68), a famous actor and theatre manager. It was here that he first met actress Vivien Merchant, They were married in 1956. In 1958, a son was born to them, christened as Daniel. The next year, in 1954, Harold adopted the stage name David Baron. From 1954-57, he played standard West End and Broadway comedies and mysteries in provincial repertory theatres, including Colchester, Torquay, and Bourn mouth. During these years as an actor he wrote-not plays, but poetry and fiction, including a short story, 'The Black and white' which he turned into The Dwarfs' based on his youth in Hackney. This novel was the genesis of his play of the same title. Betrayal a play about marital infidelity, contained the first major female role not created for Vivien Merchant, and this happened to coincide with public knowledge that Pinter had left his wife for another person. Pinter’s greatness as a dramatist rests on the production of the last eighteen years or so, he spent under the influence of the wife-muse Vivien Merchant.

No adjectives have been derived from the names of Osborne, Beckett, whiting or Arden but the words 'Pinterish' or 'Pinteresque' are already familiar, which must mean that his style is the most distinctive, or at least the most easily recognizable.1

Harold Pinter is the most obviously consistent of new British dramatists : his setting remains relatively simple and taken from the world he lives in his play progress, with little plot development, but by a progressive revelation of inner tensions and appetites, towards a moment of clarification when (as he has described it) Something is said that cannot be unsaid. His ear for the nonverbal qualities of speech and his eye for gesture of stage-business that is both usual and grapping seemingly casual and yet revelatory, have given a similarity to the dramatic texture of all his plays. His interest in everyday ritual has also continued, from a birthday party to a homecoming, through seeking living-space, taking possession, or taking "care" of a room, to taking breakfast or lunch, taking orders, fulfilling routines, visiting, collecting, and so on.

The development of Pinter lies in his manipulation of dramatic focus. His stage is thinly populated; much of the conversation is in monologue style with pause and in an incoherent slovenly manner, as if the men in the room are apprehensive of some imminent disaster from outside invaders, waiting for something. His first play, The Room (first presented by the Drama Department of Bristol University, 1957) has only six characters. The Birthday Party (first presented at the Arts theatre, Cambridge, April 28, 1958) six, The Dumb waiter (first presented at the Hampstead Theatre Club, January 21, 1960) two, The Caretaker (first presented at the Arts, Theatre Club, London, April 27, 1960) three , The Homecoming (first presented at the Aldurych Theatre, London, June 3, 1965) six.

Pinter himself considers the situations in his plays to be authentic. As a Jewish boy in London during Hitler's time, he experienced fear, isolation and insecurity, the basic emotional structure of his plays. Talking about The Room he explains, "This old women is living in a room which she is convinced is the best in the house and she refuses to know anything about the basement down-stairs. She says it's damp and nasty and the world outside is cold and icy; and that in her warm and comfortable room her security is complete...an intruder comes to upset the balance of everything in other words points to the delusion on which she is basing her life. His characters are all British in origin, but the anguish they suffer from and the sense of insecurity inherent in their living have something peculiarly continental about them; and meaningless talks, communication gaps, recurrent fits of violence and cruelty underscore the image of a world which has lost its relevance. The central core of inspiration of his plays in the realization of the loss of identity and certitude that is so real, and not a mere metaphysical proposition, to the harassed Western men today. His plays deal entirely with personal contact but he deals with them impersonally, and his interest is psychological.

Instead of the strength of intellectual comprehension we witness in his plays the strength of intuitive imagination Situations develop, as in a dream or nightmare, devoid of apparent logic but with an inner convincing intuitive relevance of their own; sudden, apparently inexplicable eruption of violence crystallises the atmosphere of suspense and provides a justification of the prevailing nervousness; these mark the peculiar quality of the world bringing into sharp focus the fluid nature of reality. This philosophical attitude has been most convincingly embodied in his play and the characters living in the islands of their own existence, finding no objective correlative with the outer world, conversing with no apparent logical sense, strengthen its reference and substance. His people are always "I" or "they", the we-ness of social organisation, as a living reality, is never there. Incidents and characters revolve in concentric multi coloured circles, their centre remaining invisible, until at the close we discover the all important centre and as if in a flash, we see the relatedness and significance of the whole fabric.

The works of Printer are coloured with references to and impact of the suburbs of Hackney, both implicitly and also explicitly. In the theatre of Pinter juxtaposition between the past and the present is expressed through many dramatic devices such as suspense, pause, silence etc. It is also noteworthy that Pinter used to visit Hackney recurrently during the period of writing his plays, using it for the locale of his film version of The Caretaker, for the sitting in The Homecoming and for the railing canal reminiscences of 'Night'. Hackney affords the raw material for the ambitious; hopes and fears; and even occupations of the characters of his works. Davies in the play The Caretaker is also dissatisfied with his work of cleaning the floor. In Hackney of Pinter’s youth, we find the dichotomies, which enter into his work the brooding sense of danger under the surface clams; the sense of unreal gentility and the cockney dialect intermingled with ordinary speech. For the idiomatic speech of Pinter's plays particularly in 'The Birthday Party' and the 'The Homecoming' Pinter is indebted to the Hackney of his childhood days.

The term 'Comedy of Menace' was not originally coined for Pinter by critics. This term first appeared as the subtitle of a play. 'The Lunatic View' (1957) by David Campton. In Pinter's plays the power of menace emanates from an inability of the audiences to pinpoint and to ascertain its source and origin. Fear envelops the plays of Pinter as mist does the air. If it can be described at all, it is simply the constant threat to the individual personality by the forces of the system. In 'comedy of menace', Characters are humorously but horrifically menace by mysterious outsiders Pinter as an East end Jew grew up during the war, when menace was a familiar pattern of society. Undoubtedly, Pinter's plays produce as gruesome sense of awe and fear, but it is present in a particular English way. That is, Pinter excellently adapts the European Absurd to the English native wit. The awe is conveyed through the most ordinary concrete objects and ordinary people. The menace emanates from a collision of man's basic needs for security recognition and acceptance on the one hand and the pressures of society for deadening conformity on the other. At that time his play more than those of any other playwright's were responsible for the newly coined term 'comedy of Menace'. This phase certainly makes sense, when applied to The Birthday Party, in which a pair of mysterious hoods arrives at a desolate seaside guesthouse and kidnap its one resident.

To his many imitators, Pinter's dialogue amount simply to the contrast between Cockney and sudden, seemingly outlandish dictionary words, and his tone, to a calculated gulf between a threatening situation and the character's dulled response to it. Generally his dialogue established a network of internal echoes. It is a world made up of bits and pieces, details of London's overnight bus services, random information about places the speakers have visited in the past-That accumulate to transform the real landscape into a primitive map, full of uncharted regions and rumored monsters. The effect is musical; each scrap of new material is announced like a fresh theme and developed for its thematic possibilities. Pinter in other words, evolved his own type of poetic drama at a time when the poetic drama movement was at its most unfashionable. But his work relates back, not to T.S. Eliot's west end comedies, but to the Eliot of Sweeney Agonistes.

Pinter's characters operate, as if they were all stalking around a Jungle, trying to kill each other, but trying to disguise from one another the fact that they are bent on murder. One of the worrying things in Pinter is that we can never trust what is said to be literally true. It is much safer, in fact, to assume that it is a play, rather than the truth unless we can actually discover that it is the truth. The characters in Pinter hide their emotions, because to show emotion in Pinter's world is a fatal weakness, which is mercilessly punished by the other characters. The Pinteresque characters have to construct the mask and this mask almost never slips. Pinter denied that his characters are allegorical symbols, and to be seen as messengers of death or representative of any other abstract force. He has expressed considerable interest in the nature of reality, the impossibility of any person ever knowing exactly what is true and what is false and the manner is which people communicate or fail to communicate each other. He seems fabricated by the ambiguity of language, and the way in which people form relationship Pinter's remark are not the final answer to his plays; they are like the test itself something to be explored and followed up, a starting point rather than a conclusion.

To discuss Pinter in relation only to the theatre is to distort the picture. Pinter next contributed sketches -'One to Another' and ' Piece of Eight' to a couple of reviews at the end of the 1950s. He also wrote two radio plays- 'A sight Ache' (1959) and 'A Night out' (1960) - before securing his first West end Success with ' The Caretaker' is 1960. His next full-length play 'The Homecoming', was produced by the Royal Shakespearean company in 1965. He also wrote Television plays such as Tea Party (1965) and The Basement (1967). He wrote Screen plays for the Pumpkin Easters (1964): Accident (1965) and The Quiller Memorandum (1966). Pinter has also regularly produced stage version of his own Radio and Television works, which as 'A Sight Ache' (1961), 'The Collection' (1962) and 'The Lover' (1963) and adapted 'The caretaker' for film in 1962 Pinter's next play to be filmed was 'The Birthday Party' which opened in New York in 1968.

After 'The caretaker' film, Pinter began to write screen adaptations of novels by other writers. ' The servant' from Robin Maugham's work was his first collaboration with director Toseph Losey.It opened in 1963.The next year his version of PenelopeMortimer's The Pumpkin Eater opened in 1966. The Quiller Memorandum based on Adam Hall's The Birlin Memorandum. 'Accident' adapted from Nicholas Mosley's Novel, opened in 1967. In 1969, Pinter adapted L.P.Hartley's 'The Go-Between'. In 1971 he wrote a screen version of Aidan Higgins's Novel ' Langrisho, Go Down, which has not yet been filmed. In 1974, he adapted F.Scot Fitzgerald's 'The Last Tycoon', directed by Elia Kazan . In 1979 he adapted Jhon Fowler 'The French Lieutenant's Woman' while adapting the works of others, Pinter continued to write his own original plays. Although Pinter had not directed his own plays since 1964, he directed works by others: Robert Shaw's 'The Man in the Glass Booth' (London, 1967; New York, 1968); Simon Gray's Butler (London 1970; New York 1971); James Joyce's Exiles (London 1970); John Hopkins' Next of Kin (London 1974); Gray's Otherwise Engaged (London 1975); New York (1976); Noel coward's Blithe Spirit (London 1976); Gray's The Rear Column and close of play (London 1978, 1979) BBC televised Monologue- written in 1972 a one-man play with Henry Woolf. On 3 December 1975 Pinter played the role on BBC radio.

To have taken possession of so much territory form avant-garde theatre to the mass media- is evidence of Pinter's unusual position on the English scene. He began as an uncompromising minority author and created the taste, by which he is appreciated. In March 1964 Pinter won the British screen Writers' Guide Award for his screen play of The Servant a novel by Robin Maugham. In 1965 Pinter Won the British Film Academy Award for the best screen plays of 1964. In 1966 Pinter won the title of commander of the British Empire. In March 1967, he won the Tony Award for The Homecoming of fullength play.

Pinter being an honest writer warns us that the material he is selling us is made up of coins that ring false. Hence, he is unreliable and conscientious about advertising his unreliability. But he is honest in revealing his dishonesty. It is interesting to note that in Pinter repressed sex is associated with blindness, Blindness at a critical moment of life, generally associated with sex, recurs in many of his plays. Pinter uses blindness as a symbolic gesture to communicate the lack of correspondence with a certain phase of reality and the beginning of a new chapter among the new wave of British playwrights, the 'kitchen-sink school'. The affinity of his work with this group of playwrights, however, is a very superficial one. For Pinter is not a realist in their sense at all. He is not concerned with social questions; he fights for no political causes.

Like Beckett he is essentially concerned with communicating a 'sense of being; with producing pattern of poetic imagery, not in words so much as in the concrete, three-dimensional happening that takes place on the stage like Beckett, Pinter wants to communicate the mystery, the problematical nature of man's situation in the world. However natural his dialogue, however naturalistic some of his situations may superficially appear, Pinter's plays are also basically images, almost allegories, of the human condition. It is significant to note that Pinter's some plays despite their initial failure should, over the years have become a commercial success. Actually speaking his plays on the English stage heralded the triumphant emergence or perhaps renaissance of the reader- participant, because in a Pinter play it is the reader who contributes to the meaning of the text. Pinter's play also heralded the exist of the passive reader, the reader consumer. In Pinter, mastery over a language becomes a form of control over one's own precipitous exit, hasty with drawls, instant disguises. We can use languages to analyze the Pinterian Language, which both on social and on a psychic level becomes the tactical instrument of one's own cowardice, a camouflage behind which we hide note necessarily what we are but what we fear or suspect we might be.

The stage craftsmanship of Pinters is marked with an utmost precision. The very fact that he distinguishes among three dots, pauses and silence to suggest varying durations of non-speech or taciturnity is an evidence of his scientific precision. In his plays he sometime uses a long monologue, in which the character the more intelligent and articulate of the two, lays bare the sorrow and humiliation of the social subordinates. On reading such type of passages in his plays. What is remarkable and central to Pinter's technique: the dramatic charity the poetic intrinsically that slowly hypnotize the audience and make them aware of the unspoken thought lurking behind the spoken words. This masterly handling of the dialogue, the gaps that speak so eloquently and the provocative imaginative pause brilliantly suggest the introspective intrinsic character of his dramatic vision Mr.Esslin’s comment on his play The Dumb Waiter is worth noting:

Ultimately what is being conveyed is a complex existential situation though its emotional tone and in this case it the emotional situation of simple people in a social contest, which is beyond their power of comprehension.2

Pinter's credit lies in transforming at essentially thriller plot into a work of art. Pinter frame a picture of the exploitation of the uneducated and the less intelligent by the astute and the powerful of their helpless incomprehension of the machinery that controls their fate has been painted but it is the social equation that appeals to our intelligence and the human content of the piece dominates our imagination, Pinter emerges here as a poet of the sorrow and humiliation of modern industrial community, drawing our attention to the unprivileged area of humanity. The social content and the large human relevance are there, and we are grateful for that Pinter's art is a triumph of balance, combining the naturalistic and the anti-naturalistic modes And the vision that ensues from his plays is one that emphasis patterns of experience rather than a network of ideas. Guido Almansis and Simon Henderson observe:

Like many of his contemporaries on the continent, Harold Pinter is a writer who refuses to broadcast a message to the world. He is an author without authority, a communicator in the paradoxical position of having nothing to say. 3

Pinter might have insinuated through his plays a tradition Pinter seems to exclude moral, intellectual and spiritual experiences from his plays. The sensual and emotional experiences are his primary concern. There is not cosmic enlargement of individual suffering. His speech may contain nonsense or even sheer lies, but he cannot afford to be developed in his consciousness he must speak and keep up the pretence of having established relationship of course we emerge from a Pinter play with a firmer conviction that communication between human being is difficult and often dangerous, that family ties are loose and often harmful, that social connections are trustworthy and often deadly: that memory is unreliable and often treacherous; that others are always a mystery to us as we are to them (and as we are even to ourselves); that man is alone in this miserable world Is that all? No, the greatest treasure-trove in Pinter's plays is not to be found by rummaging among his ideas; the gold lies at the end of a different rainbow. To put it is other words it's nothing to do it in the world with the question of intelligence. It's a way of being able to look at the world. It's a question of how far you can operate on things and not in things.

We can perceive in Pinter an existential vision Paradoxically represented in a naturalistic from. To describe his vision as existential is not to delimit Pinter. It is merely to draw attention to the fact that his characters' perception of reality, which is so subjectively handled, brings Pinter close to those existentialists in philosophy and literature who have expressed the dominant mood of the modern times. We can locate Pinter at the edge of a whole plateau of subjective experimentation, with pressure of naturalism felt at the back and the insights of the non-naturalistic beckoning ahead. He has no religious vision to present, but the material, empirical world in not the only world for him. While not wholly breaking free of naturalistic conventions as the absurdists did, he is basically concerned like them with expressing the incomprehensibility of human experiences and the incursion of nameless despair into ordinary life. A non- naturalistic vision is taught to be concretized on a naturalistic stage. The greatness of his achievement resides in his competence in harmonizing form and theme that are traditionally viewed as incompatible.

For Pinter repetition is a dramatic technique but in frequently a playwright habit. The affinities of The Birthday Party and The Caretaker to The Homecoming and Old times, or of all plays to Betrayal testify to a distinctive artistic signature, but each play differs substantially from the others in focus and form within the parameters of his art, Pinter's writing demonstrates remarkable variety as well as remarkable quality. Pinter is among the most important dramatist now living.

Research is the systematic and objective analysis recording of controlled observations that nay lead to the development of generalization principles or theories, resulting in prediction and possibly ultimate control of event.

This work is a type of descriptive research what is, describing, recording, analyzing and interpreting condition that exist. It involves some type of comparison or contrast and attempts to discover relationship between existing nonmanipulated variables. Descriptive research differs from other as it involves the development of generalization.

Sources for research are of two types: Primary sources are the first hand material written by the author. Secondary sources are the works on the author such as critical books, history textbooks and encyclopedias etc.


Chapter-2 Language in Drama: From General to Particular

Broadly speaking, language is a means of communication. It is through language that the interaction between human beings takes place. In any interaction of human beings the total cultural surroundings of the communicants come into the picture. Language itself is a system of human culture, in fact the most important system. Once language was man's possession, culture, his unique adaptive mechanism became possible. “Without language”, says H.L. Smith, “there could be no culture, and man remained hominoid, with language and culture he became hominine”.1

'Man is a social animal', remarked Aristotle long age, and he is 'a social animal' by virtue of language. Society cannot exist without language any more than language can without society. There are two forms of language - spoken and written. According to Diamond, the written part of a speech may or may not bear a record of "an oral language of song."2

A language does not consist only in the sum-total of words. It originates in the systematic organization of these words, and a sequence must be maintained at all time. But more often than not the logical, syntactical rules and conventional style become an obstacle rather than help in communicating our mind.


1 Ronald Hayman, Harold Pinter : Contemporary Playwrights 3rd ed. (London : Heinemann, 1975), p.1.

2 A.D. Choudhari, Contemporary British Drama : An Outsider's view (India : Arnold Heinemann, 1976), p.100.

3 Qtd. in Chitranjan Misra, Harold Pinter : The Dramatist (New Delhi : Creative Publishers, 1992), p. 137.


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Title: Drama of Language in Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party and The Caretaker