Gina Corcillo

A.A. 2010-11
Estivo (Giugno 2011)
Gina Corcillo
corso di laurea
area of study:
The Birthday Party
You make a good attempt at interactional analysis here. Pinter looks simple but it is
quite difficult to understand what is going on in his dialogues. You have shown that
you can trace the relationships between characters through their narratives.
story 1 – In this episode S fails to establish credibility because his story is incoherent..
Stanley’s hyperbole fails because he says “all over the world” and then “I once gave a
concert”. He gives a detail “lower Edmonton” but the place is so insignificant that we
cannot believe that he gave a concert there. As you rightly point out, the interaction
between M and S is also incoherent because S never really answers Meg and Meg
does not react to his story.
Story 2 – excellent analysis here; the only problem is that G’s story is as implausible
as Stanley’s (see my discussion of Uncle Barney below). As you say, there is a lot of
tellability in the sotry but it is hard to believe and no interaction to confirm whether
McCann believes it.
Story 3 – yes, I agree with your analysis (my analysis is below) and your point about
Goldberg controlling the conversation is quite right. This is very important in the
context of the play.
Story 4 – this story is like Goldberg’s other stories – high on tellability but totally
implausible. The fact that the story is absurd makes Lulu’s comment that he is a good
speaker even more absurd. But there is a sense in which G is a good speaker because
he is able to control all the conversations he is involved in. He is discursively
powerful and perhaps it is this that Lulu admires. You are right that there is more
collaboration here than in Goldberg’s other stories (story 2, for example).
Story 5 – yes another example of an autobiographical and self-aggrandising
monologue with very little collaboration.
Your conclusion is interesting. What Goldberg and Stanley have in common is that
their stories are implausible. Yet despite the implausibility, Goldberg emerges as a
powerful character. Everything revolves around Stanley yet he has no power. This
suggest that power is about the ability to control a conversation, i.e. how you talk,
rather than what you say. S and G both tell grandiose stories about themselves but it is
G’s ability to control what others say which gives him authority in the house.
Uncle Barney
Lack of collaboration in nostalgia is frequent in Pinter. In The Birthday Party
Goldberg indulges in childhood reminiscences which are perplexing both to his
listeners on stage and to the theatre audience:
Little kiss
Goldberg: … Anyway, I’d leave her with a little kiss on the cheek – I
never took liberties – we weren’t like the young men these
days in those days. We knew the meaning of respect. So I’d
give her a peck and I’d bowl back home. Humming away I’d
be, past the children’s playground. I’d tip my hat to the
toddlers, give a helping hand to a couple of stray dogs,
everything came natural.
Uncle Barney
Goldberg: You know one thing Uncle Barney taught me? Uncle Barney
taught me that the word of a gentleman is enough. That’s why,
when I had to go away on business I never carried any money.
One of my sons used to come with me. He used to carry a few
coppers. For a paper, perhaps, to see how the M.C.C. was
getting on. Overseas. Otherwise my name was good. Besides, I
was a very busy man.
H. Pinter, The Birthday Party, Act 1
In these bizarre portraits of his adolescence (Little kiss) and fatherhood (Uncle
Barney) Goldberg uses a mix of hyperbole (never took liberties, everything came
natural, I never carried any money) and cliché (give her a peck, we knew the meaning
of respect, take liberties, the word of a gentleman) to project an identity of himself as
a gentleman with old-fashioned family values. However, these anecdotes about his
past do not make these projected identities convincing. It is easy for a selfaggrandising story to come across as idle boasting (“talking the talk” in modern
parlance) or as simply untrue and indeed Goldberg’s stories of his childhood seem
almost comically implausible1. However, the main reason why these are not
successful as nostalgic stories per se is because the listeners do not participate
actively in them. The lack of response changes the effect of the narrative – a
technique which Pinter uses in nostalgic stories in other plays. For example, in Act 6
of Betrayal Robert insists on how happy he had been when walking about on Torcello
and that he had “wanted to stay there forever”; however, the lack of participation from
Jerry makes this story seem a forlorn and sentimental one. In The Homecoming,
Max’s nostalgic recollections of the family Christmas is delivered in total silence, as
are his recollections of his father’s deathbed (Bowles 2009). In Old Times Anna’s
monologue beginning Queuing all night, the rain, do you remember? is filled with
nostalgia for the London of her youth. Her monologue concludes with three questions
in quick succession … and does it still exist, I wonder? do you know? can you tell
me?. After a slight pause Deeley replies We rarely get to London. This typically
Pinteresque pattern of a lack of preface followed by a long monologue story followed
by a pause is repeated when Anna comes up with a further long reminiscence of
London beginning Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten our days at the Tate, which is
received in total silence by Kate. The intensity of the descriptions, filled with chaotic
Billington (1996: 82) describes these speeches as “swathed in fake sentiment” but
argues that the “private Edens” described by Pinter’s characters in this kind of speech
are an indication of “how we all use a real or romanticised past to buttress the
insecure present” (p.83).
detail of their hypothetical life in London, without preface or response, has a typically
disconcerting effect – a vivid and involving story which is unsupported in the
interactional present.
Concert (Meg and Goldberg)
The final reference to Stanley’s identity in Act 1 takes place when Goldberg
questions Meg about the occupants of the house. It prompts Meg to retell Stanley’s
story of his concert in Lower Edmonton:
Oh yes, a resident. What’s his name?
Stanley Webber.
Oh yes? Does he work here?
He used to work. He used to be a pianist. In a concert party
on the pier.
Goldberg: Oh yes? On the pier, eh? Does he play a nice piano?
Oh, lovely. (she sits at the table) He once gave a concert.
Goldberg: Oh? Where?
Meg (falteringly):
In … a big hall. His father gave him champagne.
But then they locked the place up and he couldn’t get out.
The caretaker had gone home. So he had to wait until the
morning before he could get out. (With confidence) They
were very grateful (Pause) And then they all wanted to give
him a tip. And so he took the tip. And then he got a fast train
and he came down here.
Goldberg: Really?
Oh yes. Straight down.
Meg’s story arises as an illustration of her claim that Stanley is a good piano player.
In order to justify the claim Meg therefore needs to tell a convincing story. However,
the narrative she produces is decidedly erratic. At the start she responds hesitantly
with short, one-sentence answers (“Stanley Webber”; “He used to work. He used to
be a pianist. In a concert party on the pier.”; “he once gave a concert”). She is
described as speaking “falteringly”, she struggles to remember details and although
she speaks “with confidence” about the reaction to Stanley (“they were grateful”), the
pause that follows, which is attributable to Meg as she has not selected anyone to
speak, chimes awkwardly with the confidence with which she has uttered her previous
Meg’s story is part of a question-answer session in which the appropriacy of the story
as a justification of Stanley being a good piano player is at stake. In this respect her
account suffers from the same kind of incoherence as Stanley’s original one and
achieves little in establishing his narrated identity as a concert pianist. It is unclear
who “they” refers to or why they are “grateful”. As well as this lack of reference,
Meg’s retelling is inaccurate. Her reconstruction involves picking up individual
lexical items of Stanley’s story “concert … hall … father … champagne … caretaker
… tip” and stringing them together to form a different story. Most retellings tend to
reformulate much longer stretches of talk rather than individual items but Meg seems
unable to remember longer stretches of discourse and relies solely, and comically, on
lexical retrieval. Her transformation of the word “tip” is particularly revealing. She
has interpreted Stanley’s use of the expression “take my tip” in its literal sense (“take
some money”) not according to Stanley’s original meaning (“take a hint”). In
interpreting an idiomatic expression in a literal sense. Meg is showing herself to be a
character who finds it difficult to “do non-literal’ (Edwards: 2000).
The position of Goldberg in this retelling is also significant. He is not an
enthusiastic, participatory listener. Instead he elicits the story from Meg through his
questions and then casts doubt on her account at the end. Even though he has not
heard the story before, his scepticism of Meg’s retelling is justified and contributes to
the impression he gives of a person who is controlling the conversation.