Harold Pinter: master of menace


Playwright Harold Pinter’s dialogue has been compared to everyday prattle that covers a menacing subtext. Truth and falsehoods are subjective, memory can’t be relied on, words are negotiating tools or weapons.

Pinter commented on this approach in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 2005. He said, “Language in art remains a highly ambiguous transaction, a quicksand, a trampoline, a frozen pool which might give way under you, the author, at any time.”

In “The Birthday Party,” testy chitchat builds to an angry outburst as Goldberg and McCann, two imposing guests at the boardinghouse, get to know Stanley Webber, a longtime resident and a recluse, during a house party.


Goldberg: When did you come to this place?

Stanley: Last year.

Goldberg: Where did you come from?

Stanley: Somewhere else.

Goldberg: Why did you come here?

Stanley: My feet hurt!

Goldberg: Why did you stay?

Stanley: I had a headache!

Goldberg: Did you take anything for it?

Stanley: Yes.

Goldberg: What?

Stanley: Fruit salts.

Goldberg: Did they fizz? Did they fizz or didn’t they fizz?

McCann: He doesn’t know!

Goldberg: You don’t know. What’s happened to your memory, Webber? When did you last have a bath?

Stanley: I have one every --

Goldberg: Don’t lie.

McCann: You betrayed the organization. I know him!

In “The Homecoming,” Pinter uncovers the brutality of family life, another theme in his work. Characters snarl and tear at one another, barely alluding to the sources of their anger and resentment. Max, in the play, is a retired butcher who dominates the household he shares with his two grown sons and his brother, Sam. Max’s third son, Teddy, brings his wife, Ruth, home to meet the family. The couple has been married for six years but didn’t invite relatives to the wedding. They all get to know one another during a conversation in the living room.

Ruth: What happened to the group of butchers?

Max: The group? They turned out to be a bunch of criminals like everyone else.


This is a lousy cigar.

He stubs it out. He turns to Sam

What time you going to work?

Sam: Soon.

Max: You’ve got a job this afternoon, haven’t you?

Sam: Yes, I know.

Max: What do you mean, you know? You’ll be late. You’ll lose your job. What are you trying to do, humiliate me?