Language and Rhythm in ‘The Birthday Party and ‘Betrayal’



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Language and Rhythm in ‘The Birthday Party and ‘Betrayal’

Harold Pinter is one of the most important and influential playwright writing in English, after the works of William Shakespeare. Pinter played a big role in reshaping the theatrical language and setting the standards for modern plays. However, today, Pinter’s influence in playwright writing is not highly recognized as before. In the plays, The Birthday Party and Betrayal, the playwright Harold Pinter adroitly employs the techniques of language and rhythm, which have an effect on the play and subtext (Baker 38). The use of language and rhythm in Pinter’s plays generally gives meaning to the plays, enhance tonalities, brings out the element of characterization, and helps in developing and strengthening of the major themes, as well as building the subtexts. The language Pinter uses is highly performative, and this serves as a reinvention to subtext.

The Birthday Party is a comedy of menace in which Pinter mainly explores the absurd, mysterious, secretive, and insidious forces that underlie the lives of the main characters and their relentless efforts to find peace, normalcy, and acceptance in the natural order (Raby 41; Pinter 752). Pinter creates an atmosphere of menace in the play by casting doubt on almost everything that the characters say. For instance, a character might make one clear statement at one point, and then deny it later. Therefore, there lacks exposition and development in the play, which helps build the subtext. It thus, becomes hard for the audience to believe any word said by the characters or any action they take, even if it is a genuine one. The subtext in this play involves the fact that, although the characters act in a comic manner, the audience can feel that there is more to that than it appears, since the funny moments are but a deception, capable of turning into dangerous times. Therefore, in order to build this subtext, Pinter makes sure to use a language form that will bring out the deceptive nature of the characters as they are. To achieve this, Pinter uses language aspects such as description, repetition, pauses, and syntax. All these serve the purpose of bringing out the absurd and confusing elements of the main characters in the play, thus making the subtext clearer to the audience (Pinter 750).

By basing on syntax, as an element of language, the play achieves good description of the scenes that enhance the play’s subtext. For instance, the playwright uses a combination of both short and long sentences in different scenes of the play The Birthday Party. The conversation between Petey and Meg is primarily composed of short sentences:

Petey: What?

Meg: Is that you?

Petey: Yes, it’s me.

Meg: What?

Petey: Yes,” (Pinter 751).

This aspect of language use impacts on the subtext in different ways. First, it helps establish the atmosphere in the couple’s house. To an extent, one might read tension in this kind of conversation, as the characters do not converse intensively, maybe for fear of accidentally revealing their secret information to the other party. Secondly, this aspect of language depicts the nature of relationship between Petey and Meg, in addition to the calm or mundane nature of their existence. The deceptive calm and tranquility is effectively brought out through language in order to be contrasted by the disruption and chaos that is to follow (Pinter 750).

Today, most playwrights use simplistic dialogues, which make the scenes shallow and flat, and least capable of engaging the audience. However, the dialogues Pinter uses are terrific and ensure that the audience is engaged. His use of language and rhythm is considered to have taken language back to the basics. These plays were produced in a century where there were great attempts to revive poetry in drama. Pinter’s plays are exemplary in the way language and rhythm has been used to create that aspect of poetic drama. Rhythm is an aspect of poetry, which Pinter has highly utilized in his subtext to make the plays be in form of poetic drama (Prentice 40). In the play The Birthday Party, Pinter has used the aspect of rhythm in different ways to create different impressions on the subtext. For instance, one-word sentences, followed by lengthy sentences have been used to create a variation in rhythm. Likewise, rhythm is also achieved by using repetition:

Stanley: I didn’t sleep at all.

Meg: You didn’t sleep at all? (Pinter 754).

Here, the probing nature of Meg is revealed. This builds on the subtext since it is evident that the characters are also aware of their deception, which is why Meg does not believe Stanley easily (Pinter 751).

When Stanley uses the words “I bet it is,” (Pinter 761), Meg responds with the words, “I know it is.” This is repetition, which puts emphasis on the speakers’ statements, boosting memorization. In essence, it might be argued that the playwright deliberately creates rhythm by use of repetition in order to draw the attention of readers on certain thematic aspects of the play. In this case, Pinter uses rhythm to creation the mood and the illustration of conflicts and tension, being the subtext, at the specific areas of the play where the technique of rhythm is employed (Mandala 122).

The second play, Betrayal, uses a reverse narrative style and structure. This helps in determining the motivations, actions, ideas, and deep layers of characters. The play focuses on the love triangle involving Emma, Jerry, and Robert (Pinter 85). Emma decides to take vengeance on Robert on suspicion that he once cheated on her (Pinter 77). The consequence is a full-blown illicit affair with Robert’s close and married friend Jerry. All the while, Robert had his suspicions on his wife but Jerry fails to realize early enough that Robert is aware of the affair. In this play, Pinter does not follow the classical conventions of language; he “invents” his own language. From the play, one can read between the lines that relationships are not for the faint-hearted, and that there is pain in intimacy. This is the subtext of the play, which Pinter uses language and rhythm to develop it in the play. Generally, he does this by exploring the complex themes of infidelity and social pretense in various social relationships (Pinter 77). In this play also, Pinter uses vocabulary, description, and syntax in ways that illustrate the tension, unease, and shifting of perspectives among the characters (Grimes 101).

Pinter has used pauses and silence in this drama. At the beginning of the play, the pause between Jerry and Emma, illustrates that Pinter is able to discover the mystery of the characters. Pauses and silence also show fear on the character’s side, because of past memories, which come back haunting. On the other hand, pauses indicate the internal conflicts between the characters, especially Robert, which builds up the subtext on endurance in relationships, and how the different characters contribute to the problem in the subtext.

Pinter uses varying linguistic techniques that help to illustrate the mental picture of the situation of love triangle. The conversation among the characters is captured in repetitions, suitable vocabulary, and rhythm in ways that shed important light on the peculiar nature of the characters at the center of the love triangle. Repetition is portrayed in the conversation of the major character in ways that provides insight into their character. For instance, Robert says gives his mind on Jerry when he says, “I’ve always liked Jerry. To be honest, I’ve always liked him rather more than I’ve liked you,” (Pinter 87). One of the important aspects of the play is that it uses language to furnish a sense of realism in order to achieve a vivid picture in the minds of the readers. For instance, the conversation between Emma and Jerry is brought out in a language that hints at some underlying deceit in their mutual characters. Using language, the reader is able to make out the character of Emma as naïve, careless, and unreflective, while Jerry is brought out as conniving and highly susceptible to romantic sensibilities. This then helps build and bring out the element of infidelity and pain in intimacy, which is the subtext of the play (Pinter 89).

Rhythm in Betrayal can be seen in the conversation between Jerry and Emma after the end of their illicit affair; “I ask about your husband, you ask about my wife,” (Pinter 84). The repetition in this sentence brings out an element of rhythm that creates expands on the difficult character adjustment process with which the two former lovers have to contend. The rhythm also marks a change in attitude and the unease that lingers on after the uncovering of the guilt of infidelity. Rhythm also helps in the process of memorization of the part and creates some significant impact on the minds of the readers and audience (Kumar 88). It also helps to lay emphasis on the unyielding nature of illicit love and the mental challenges that the subjects have to undergo in handling the aftermath. In some, sense, rhythm helps to bring out the moment of reckoning in terms of its impact on the consciences of the two characters Emma and Jerry. All these are instances that make the audience see how much pain intimacy can cause, and how one needs to endure in relationships, even with infidelity. Rhythm has therefore, helped make clear and enhance the subtext (Silverstein 34).

Gender difference is another hidden theme of the play, which the appropriate use of language helps to uncover it (Gordon 36). Such usages of language can be traced in the description that relates to the game of squash, which is used in this instance to describe men’s social lives; “a game of squash isn’t simply a game of squash,” (Pinter 86). The description goes on to describe the game of squash thus; “first there’s the game. Then there’s the shower. And then there’s the pint. And then there’s lunch,” (Pinter 86). The combination of repetition and description creates a suitable rhythm that helps the audience to create a mental picture of the nature of men’s social lives, which is different from women’s. The techniques of language and rhythm in this play have been used effectively to illustrate the underlying theme of infidelity and betrayal in vivid and potent details. These similarly are aspects of the subtext, which the audience can relate to when description and rhythm is used.

Conclusively, Pinter effectively employs the techniques of language and rhythm in the two plays, The Birthday Party, and Betrayal to enhance details on themes, to build on the subtext, lay emphasis on certain specifics, and build on characterization. Pinter, in all these plays leaves the audience to decipher the meaning and motives of the playwright. However, the elements of language he uses, in addition to rhythm, help the audience read in between the lines, and uncover the subtexts in the play. Language and rhythm as employed therefore, have the effect of enhancing the dramatic effects of the plays in ways that capture sensibilities and reflect on underlying meanings and motives for effective comprehension of readers and audiences, especially in deciphering and understanding the subtexts.



Works Cited

Baker, William. Harold Pinter. London: Continuum, 2008.

Gordon, Robert. Harold Pinter: The Theatre of Power. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan

Press, 2012.

Grimes, Charles. Harold Pinter’s Politics: A Silence Beyond Echo. Madison: Fairleigh

Dickinson University Press, 2005.

Kumar, Sanjay. Language as Stratagem in Pinter’s Plays. Jaipur: RBSA Publishers, 2008.

Mandala, Susan. Twentieth-century Drama Dialogue as Ordinary Talk: Speaking between the

Lines. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007.

Pinter, Harod. The Birthday Party. In Black, Joseph L. (Ed). The Broadview Anthology of

British Literature. Peterborough, Ontario, 2008.

Pinter, Harod. Betrayal. New York: Grove Press, 2012, Pdf.

Prentice, Penelope. The Pinter Ethic: The Erotic Aesthetic. London: Routledge, 2000

Raby, Peter. The Cambridge Companion to Harold Pinter. Cambridge: Cambridge

University Press, 2001.

Silverstein, Marc. Harold Pinter and the Language of Cultural Power. Lewisburg: Bucknell

University Press, 1993.



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