The Birthday Party and Oedipus

Not natural bedfellows perhaps but maybe that doesn’t matter to Oedipus…

I’m not entirely sure how much this adds to scholarship on either play but the comparison of the texts was very interesting for me as I hope it will be for others. Again, I’m slightly on edge about its unpolished state but I’m keen to get it out there!

Thanks to Pemba, Izzy, Milly, Georgia, Angus and Toby of U6enD1 with whom I’ve been discussing The Birthday Party this term. I hope this brings things together usefully for you.

‘I’ve seen everything that’s happened. I know what’s going on’ (Lulu, The Birthday Party).

Sight, knowledge, memory and power in Pinter’s The Birthday Party and Sophocles’ Oedipus the King

In his introductory essay to The Birthday Party, Bill Naismith cites Oedipus the King in order to show that ‘the idea of some crime or misdeed in the past coming back to haunt the present’ goes back to the origins of drama.[1] He goes on to say that The Birthday Party is fundamentally different from Oedipus, as it is from a host of similar plays (such as Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts and Arthur Miller’s All My Sons), because ‘the original misdeed’ in those plays ‘is tangible and the guilt acknowledged’. What I will argue here is that the The Birthday Party and Oedipus the King actually share many similarities beyond this narrative and that even in this seemingly fundamental difference, they are more similar than it seems on the surface. Themes of sight, knowledge, memory and power dominate and interrelate in the plays: both explore metaphorical and actual sight and blindness, real and unreal memories, and riddles, paradoxes and language games which lead to confusion. In this way, both question the conventional idea that knowledge is equal to power and both consider the role of the spectator – literally, the one who watches or sees – in this. In addition, though Oedipus’ crimes are in some senses, ‘tangible’, even infamous, the language of the ‘unspeakable’ around them in the play, creates an interesting link with Stanley’s nameless crime(s) in The Birthday Party.

On learning of his transgressions and acknowledging his guilt, Oedipus famously blinds himself, thrusting Jocasta’s brooches into his eyes. Simon Goldhill points out that in ancient Greek the terminology for seeing and knowing are closely related, the word for ‘I know’ (oida) being from the same root as the word for ‘I have seen’.[2] Because of this, as Goldhill goes on to argue, Oedipus’ search for knowledge is couched in the language of sight and clarity.[3] Oedipus taunts Teiresias, telling him that his ‘life is one long night so that [he] cannot / hurt [him] or any other who sees the light’ (374-75).[4] In response, Teiresias tells him, ‘You have eyes but see not where you are / in sin’ (413-14) and prophecies that he will leave the city ‘with darkness on [his] eyes, / that now have such straight vision’ (418-19). So, he sets up the paradox that supposed clear sight equals ignorance and only in blindness will Oedipus have true knowledge. Ironically, then, though Oedipus blinds himself so that his eyes ‘will never see the crime’ (1271) committed by and on him, it is in his blindness that he sees and knows his actions and their consequences most clearly. This paradox is also related to the reversal of his power in the play. At his most powerful, as the saviour and king of his city, Oedipus is at his most ‘blind’; by the end, he is not only without political power, in his banishment, but without physical power in his blindness, needing ‘some one to guide him’ (1293).

Though blindness is not explored literally in The Birthday Party, it is alluded to and toyed with several times, some of them in passing and others with greater significance. During Goldberg and McCann’s first interrogation of Stanley, Goldberg asks Stanley ‘What can you see without your glasses?’ and orders McCann to take them off him. As a result of this, Stanley is described as ‘stumbling’ as he follows McCann, trying to reclaim his spectacles, an image portraying the removal of Stanley’s ‘sight’ as symbolic of the duo’s power over him. Metaphorically it also reflects his increasing confusion in the scene as the questions become more contradictory and surreal. First he is accused of killing his wife, then of jilting her at the church, then of not knowing whether ‘the number 846 [is] possible or necessary’ and finally (after several surreal turns) of not knowing ‘Which came first’, the chicken or the egg. At this stage, Stanley is driven to screaming in his confused powerlessness and McCann suggests that they ‘Stick a needle in his eye’, recalling Oedipus’ blinding, not an act of self-mutilation here, but one of sadistic violence, reinforcing their power over him.

The metaphor of blindness as loss of power is reiterated later, at the party, in the game of blind man’s buff. Here, the parlour game, which ordinarily renders a person comically ridiculous in their powerlessness, is taken to an extreme, as McCann takes the opportunity to break Stanley’s glasses, making him permanently ‘blind’ and leads him to step on the drum, staggering around with it stuck on his foot.[5] By the end of the scene, the whole room is plunged into darkness and chaos ensues, with only moments illuminated by torchlight, and McCann and Goldberg, also temporarily ‘blinded’, are almost powerless to stop Stanley’s attacks, first on Meg and then on Lulu.

Though no character manages to challenge Goldberg and McCann’s menacing power successfully, there are characters who ‘see’ and understand their crimes. Lulu, for example, says that she has ‘seen everything that’s happened’ and ‘know[s] what’s going on.’ However, any power this may give her, is negated by her status as a woman who has had (dubiously consensual) sex with Goldberg. She is ‘slut-shamed’, under the guise of religion, McCann telling her to ‘Kneel down, woman’ and ‘Confess!’ Meanwhile, it is Petey who comes back in after his chess game, to realise that the lights were off because the meter needed feeding – an example of his clear sight – and who observes McCann and Goldberg through the hatch in the kitchen, ‘unnoticed’ by them. He comes closest to challenging the pair, insisting that Stanley can stay with them and questioning where they are taking him, even calling on them to ‘Leave him alone!’ Ultimately, though he calls out for Stanley not to ‘let them tell you what to do’, he is described here as ‘broken’ and the audience knows that he is not strong enough on his own to resist their power. He is an almost-hero, reduced to a somewhat pathetic passive bystander. Later, when Pinter spoke about his early plays, imbuing them with a (perhaps retrospective) politics, he reflected on this moment as the most significant he ever wrote, in what it says about the individual’s powerlessness against the tyrannous forces of the establishment.[6]

When Oedipus has blinded himself, he speaks of ‘madness and stabbing pain and memory / of evil deeds I have done’ (1316-17). In this way, memory, like sight, is linked to knowledge and is one of the things which he tries, futilely, to block out by his gruesome act. In the play as a whole, reminiscences are the means by which the mystery is unravelled, first Teiresias’, then the elderly messenger’s, then Jocasta’s and the herdsman’s. Bill Naismith writes that ‘From Pinter’s point of view the past is a continuous mystery, a place where both good and bad experiences can be remembered, more or less vaguely, and which leaves us in the present in a state of insecurity’ and exactly the same could be argued of Sophocles.[7] Oedipus’ hubris lies in his misplaced sense of security as the saviour of his city, rooted in, what he believes, is an unambiguous memory of his past. Though the validity of the other characters’ reminiscences is never questioned, Oedipus’ grasp of his own past is proven to be tragically weak, his memories based on misconceptions about his parentage and his status as the saviour of his city.

Though The Birthday Party is littered with reminiscences, they do not solve mysteries but rather serve to create new ones. In speaking about his early plays, Pinter said

Apart from any other consideration, we are faced with the immense difficulty, if not the impossibility, of verifying the past; I don’t mean merely years ago, but yesterday, this morning. What took place? What was the nature of what took place? What happened? If one can speak of the difficulty of knowing what, in fact, took place yesterday, one can, I think, treat the present in the same way. What’s happening now? We won’t know until tomorrow, or in six months’ time, and we won’t know then; we’ll have forgotten, or our imagination will have attributed quite false characteristics to today.[8]

So, the past is a ‘continuous mystery’ because memory is intrinsically unreliable, causing us to attribute ‘false characteristics’ to our pasts and presents. We can see this played out by Meg, the character with the slightest grasp on reality, who completely mangles her retelling of Stanley’s own reminiscence – real or otherwise – about his concert, telling Goldberg, for example, that ‘His father gave him champagne’ when his father had not even been there because Stanley had lost his address. At the end of the play, what she remembers is that ‘they all said’ that she ‘was the belle of the ball’, a memory which not only fabricates what others said to her, but which wipes out Goldberg and McCann’s bullying of Stanley, Goldberg and Lulu’s public sexual behaviour and the carnage at the end as the lights went out and Stanley tried to strangle her. Though the audience’s memories will tell them that this is completely untrue, it is completely true to her and suggests the slender grip which we all have on the narratives of our pasts. Meg’s language suggests that at some unconscious level she is aware of this too, as so much of what she says is in an attempt to ‘verify’ the past and present. In her conversation with Petey at the start, for example, she first questions ‘Is that you, Petey?’ three times and when he answers ‘Yes, it’s me’, she asks ‘Are you back’, seeking to reconfirm something which seems patently obvious to the audience. We may also see McCann’s repeated vandalism of Petey’s newspaper as a way in which Pinter as explores this idea: a newspaper might be viewed as one way by which we attempt to make sense of the present, or the recent past, but McCann’s repeated vandalism of the newspaper sabotages such an attempt.

The character who ‘remembers’ the most is Goldberg, telling long anecdotes about his past designed to reinforce his ideas about the importance of family and tradition. Yet as the play goes on, the repetition of clichéd linguistic tropes and stereotypical images in his stories, undermine their validity. His anecdote about his mother, for example, refers at the end to ‘The nicest piece of gefilte fish you could wish to find on a plate’, while the second, about his wife, to ‘The nicest piece of roll-mop and pickled cucumber you could wish to find on a plate.’ When he says, after the first example, ‘Childhood. Hot water bottles. Hot milk. Pancakes. Soap suds,’ the audience might feel that he is simply regurgitating these clichés associated with a happy childhood, possibly as a way of asserting his own dominance – a character with a secure grasp on his own past is at an advantage in this play – and indeed, the ‘falseness’ of his memories is underlined in many ways. For one thing, he is known by two different names – Simey and Benny – in these memories, and a third in the present, Nat. For another, in Act 3, when he confesses to McCann that he is feeling ‘knocked out’, he attempts to use another anecdote to build himself up again but it collapses into platitudes and unfinished sentences: ‘Play up, play up, and play the game … I kept my eye on the ball … Learn by heart … And don’t go too near the water.’ These are thrown into the speech, one after the other, with no explanation as to their place in his life. Similarly, the speech concludes with the three, repeated, unfinished sentences, ‘Because I believe that the world…’, with the instructions in the stage directions that the first is ‘vacant’, the second ‘desperate’ and the third ‘lost’. As Goldberg’s confidence falters, the play reveals that, like all the other characters, he has only a slim grasp on the reality of his past and present and his power is diminished as a result, albeit temporarily.

In both Oedipus the King and The Birthday Party, the emphasis on sight and blindness has interesting repercussions for the spectator. When the second messenger reports the death of Jocasta and Oedipus’ blinding, he says, ‘The worst of what was done / you cannot know. You did not see the sight’ (1237-38) suggesting that the audience cannot fully comprehend the horror of what has happened and that his first hand sight and knowledge has more power. He also says that Oedipus ‘shouts / for someone to unbar the doors and show him / to all the men of Thebes’ (1287-88). Oedipus knows, then, that in acknowledging his own guilt, he must be seen by his people (and by extension, the audience) as the guilty party. In contrast, Creon, who has ‘more careful attitudes’, would rather hide him away, saying that ‘It is most decent that only kin should see and hear the troubles of kin’ (1431-32). Oedipus, once he knows that the guilt is his, seeks transparency with his people, whereas Creon would hide the crime away. However, given the paradoxes in the play around sight, knowledge and power, the audience, or critic, should be wary about placing too much confidence in the clarity of their sight.

This is equally true for the audience or critic of The Birthday Party. When a play offers so little explanation in itself, critics are tempted to read into it whatever interests them most. Pinter himself, in a more political phase of his life, sought to explain away the intrigue of the play with a political explanation, while others have turned to psychology, seeing Goldberg and McCann as manifestations of Stanley’s troubled psyche.[9] Yet, both of these ignore the fact that the play’s menacing power lies in its destabilising ambiguities and mysteries. Stanley’s rather sadistic behaviour to Meg suggests that he might well have been capable of committing a crime in his past, as does his immediate guilty and defensive response on meeting McCann. However, Naismith’s picture of him as a non-conformist who has simply ‘opted out’ of social responsibilities in staying with Meg and Petey, relapsing into a sort of second adolescence, who must be reclaimed from this by the sinister representatives of a repressive establishment, is equally seductive.[10] The danger that Goldhill points out for critics of Oedipus, is true for any text, but particularly one as open as The Birthday Party. He writes that just as Oedipus’ search ‘searches out the searcher’, so the questions they ask of the play, informed as they are by the critics’ own interests, backgrounds and prejudices, will inevitably end up reflecting themselves back to them.[11]

According to Goldhill, this danger is particularly relevant to critics of Oedipus because of the way in which the language of the play expresses both a ‘hidden danger and overdetermined significance’.[12] By this, he means that even, or perhaps, especially, Teiresias’ truths are delivered in riddling language. The danger of his words is doubly hidden from Oedipus because he has reason to believe himself skilled in unravelling riddles after his encounter with the Sphinx, but this should warn the audience to be on their guard about their own skill and insight here. The ‘overdetermined significance’ applies to the various uses of the word ‘unspeakable’, which in the final instance is used by the second messenger to refer to Oedipus’ crimes. Not only was his crime of incest so horrific as not to be named, it was also legally ‘unspeakable’, in that the Athenian citizens of the audience were banned from using the term for one who commits incest under a law against personal abuse.[13] Finally, his crimes are ‘unspeakable’ because the language of kinship completely breaks down in the play because his sexual relations ‘to the interchangeability of terms. … The words ‘brother’, ‘children’, ‘wife’, ‘mother’ can no longer adequately delimit the relationships within the house.’[14] Therefore, Oedipus’ crimes are known, but there is still a kind of silence around them created by riddles and an overabundance of meaning.

In this way, it is not so different from The Birthday Party. The truth of Stanley’s crime, is obscured by the sheer number of accusations levelled at him by Goldberg and McCann and the surrealism of the interrogation is suggestive of a deliberate obstruction of meaning, culminating as it does in that most unanswerable of riddles, what came first, the chicken or the egg? Francesca Coppa explicitly refers to the ‘unspeakable’ in addressing the menace in Pinter’s ‘comedy of menace’. She says that it is dependent ‘on ignorance; the terror of it stems from the vagueness of the threat. We do not know what is happening or why, and the lack of information leads us to fear the worst: that the threat is somehow beyond articulation – literally unspeakable.’[15] Thus, unspoken and unspeakable go hand in hand in the two plays.

Both Oedipus the King and The Birthday Party suggest that sight and memory are not straightforward and that the possession of knowledge through each of these means is questionable at best. Both, therefore, warn that the process of spectating and interpreting is dangerous and that power is constantly being negotiated and cannot ever be relied upon and the plays are more similar and illuminating of each other than might, at first, be suspected. Harold Hobson’s observation of The Birthday Party, holds chillingly true for both plays: ‘Mr Pinter has got hold of a primary fact of existence… There is something in your past – it does not matter what – which will catch up with you… There is terror everywhere.’[16]


[1] Bill Naismith, Harold Pinter (London: Faber and Faber, 2000), pp. 37-38.

[2] Simon Goldhill, Reading Greek Tragedy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1986), p. 218.

[3] See, for example, 131, 132, 390, 439, 453, 710, 1059 and 1313-20.

[4] Quotations from Oedipus are from David Grene (trans.), Sophocles I (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1991).

[5] For more on games in Pinter, see Matt Oliver, ‘Game on – Mind Games and Manipulation in The Birthday Party’, in emagazine, 82, (London: English and Media Centre, December, 2018). Accessed at https://www.englishandmedia.co.uk/e-magazine/articles/31644 on 26/10/2020.

[6] Mel Gussow (ed.), Conversations with Pinter (London: Nick Hern Books, 1994), p. 71.

[7] Naismith, p. 8.

[8] Arena: Harold Pinter, Part 1 (first broadcast 26th October, 2002).

[9] See, e.g Naismith, p. 41.

[10] Naismith, p. 52.

[11] Goldhill, 220-21.

[12] Ibid, p. 220.

[13] Ibid, 214.

[14] Ibid, p. 215.

[15] Francesca Coppa, “The sacred joke: comedy and politics in Pinter’s early plays”, in Peter Raby (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Harold Pinter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), p. 51.

[16] The Sunday Times, 25th May, 1958.

Published by sophieraudnitz

English teacher, Classics PhD, teenaged boys and dogs

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