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Comedy of menace


Comedy of menace is the body of plays written by David Campton, Nigel Dennis, N. F. Simpson, and Harold Pinter. The term was coined by drama critic Irving Wardle, who borrowed it from the subtitle of Campton's play The Lunatic View: A Comedy of Menace, in reviewing Pinter's and Campton's plays in Encore in 1958. (Campton's subtitle Comedy of Menace is a jocular play-on-words derived from comedy of mannersmenace being manners pronounced with somewhat of a Judeo-English accent.)

Citing Wardle's original publications in Encore magazine (1958), Susan Hollis Merritt points out that in "Comedy of Menace" Wardle "first applies this label to Pinter's work … describ[ing] Pinter as one of 'several playwrights who have been tentatively lumped together as the "non-naturalists" or "abstractionists" ' (28)" (Merritt 225). His article "Comedy of Menace," Merritt continues,

centers on The Birthday Party because it is the only play of Pinter's that Wardle had seen [and reviewed] at the time, yet he speculates on the basis of "descriptions of [Pinter's] other plays, 'The Room' and 'The Dumb Waiter', [that Pinter] is a writer dogged by one image—the womb" (33). Mentioning the acknowledged "literary influences" on Pinter's work—"Beckett, Kafka and American gangster films"—Wardle argues that " 'The Birthday Party' exemplifies the type of comic menace which gave rise to this article." (225)

In "Comedy of Menace", as Merritt observes, on the basis of his experience of The Birthday Party and others' accounts of the other two plays, Wardle proposes that "Comedy enables the committed agents and victims of destruction to come on and off duty; to joke about the situation while oiling a revolver; to display absurd or endearing features behind their masks of implacable resolution; to meet … in paper hats for a game of blind man's buff"; he suggests how "menace" in Pinter's plays "stands for something more substantial: destiny," and that destiny, "handled in this way—not as an austere exercise in classicism, but as an incurable disease which one forgets about most of the time and whose lethal reminders may take the form of a joke—is an apt dramatic motif for an age of conditioned behaviour in which orthodox man is a willing collaborator in his own destruction" (Wardle, "Comedy of Menace" 33; rpt. in The Encore Reader 91).



The Birthday Party (1958)
The Dumb Waiter (1960)
The Caretaker (1960)
Pinter's later plays
Celebration (2000)
"Apart From That" (Sketch) (2006)
Billington, Michael. Harold Pinter. 1996. Rev. ed. London: Faber and Faber, 2007. (13). [Updated 2nd ed. of The Life and Work of Harold Pinter. 1996. London: Faber and Faber, 1997. (10).]
Gussow, Mel. Conversations with Pinter. London: Nick Hern Books, 1994. . Rpt. New York: Limelight, 2004. .
Jones, David. "Travels with Harold". Front & Center Online ("The Online Version of Roundabout Theatre Company's Subscriber Magazine"). Roundabout Theatre Company, Fall 2003. (3 pages.) Web. 9 Oct. 2007.
Merritt, Susan Hollis. Pinter in Play: Critical Strategies and the Plays of Harold Pinter. 1990. Rpt. with a new preface. Durham and London: Duke UP, 1995. (10). (13).
Pinter, Harold. "Apart From That". Areté 20 (Spring/Summer 2006): 5–8.
–––. The Birthday Party, The Caretaker, and Celebration. In The Essential Pinter. New York: Grove Press, 2006. (10). . (Parenthetical references to this edition of the three plays appear in the text.)
–––. The Caretaker and The Dumb Waiter: Two Plays by Harold Pinter. 1960. New York: Grove Press, 1988. (10). (13). (Parenthetical citations to The Dumb Waiter in the text are from this ed. of the play, which is accessible online via Google Books "limited preview". It was reissued again with a new cover after Pinter won the 2005 Nobel Prize in Literature.)
Wardle, Irving. "The Birthday Party". Encore 5 (July–Aug. 1958): 39–40. Rpt. in The Encore Reader: A Chronicle of the New Drama. Ed. Charles Marowitz, Tom Milne, and Owen Hale. London: Methuen, 1965. 76–78. (Reissued as: New Theatre Voices of the Fifties and Sixties. London: Eyre Methuen, 1981.)
–––. "Comedy of Menace". Encore 5 (Sept. – Oct. 1958): 28–33. Rpt. in The Encore Reader and New Theatre Voices 86–91.
–––. "There's Music in That Room". Encore 7 (July–Aug. 1960): 32–34. Rpt. in The Encore Reader and New Theatre Voices 129–32.
Billington, Michael. Harold Pinter. 1996. Rev. ed. London: Faber and Faber, 2007. (13). [Updated 2nd ed. of The Life and Work of Harold Pinter. 1996. London: Faber and Faber, 1997. (10).]
Gussow, Mel. Conversations with Pinter. London: Nick Hern Books, 1994. . Rpt. New York: Limelight, 2004. .
Jones, David. "Travels with Harold". Front & Center Online ("The Online Version of Roundabout Theatre Company's Subscriber Magazine"). Roundabout Theatre Company, Fall 2003. (3 pages.) Web. 9 Oct. 2007.
Merritt, Susan Hollis. Pinter in Play: Critical Strategies and the Plays of Harold Pinter. 1990. Rpt. with a new preface. Durham and London: Duke UP, 1995. (10). (13).
Pinter, Harold. "Apart From That". Areté 20 (Spring/Summer 2006): 5–8.
–––. The Birthday Party, The Caretaker, and Celebration. In The Essential Pinter. New York: Grove Press, 2006. (10). . (Parenthetical references to this edition of the three plays appear in the text.)
–––. The Caretaker and The Dumb Waiter: Two Plays by Harold Pinter. 1960. New York: Grove Press, 1988. (10). (13). (Parenthetical citations to The Dumb Waiter in the text are from this ed. of the play, which is accessible online via Google Books "limited preview". It was reissued again with a new cover after Pinter won the 2005 Nobel Prize in Literature.)
Wardle, Irving. "The Birthday Party". Encore 5 (July–Aug. 1958): 39–40. Rpt. in The Encore Reader: A Chronicle of the New Drama. Ed. Charles Marowitz, Tom Milne, and Owen Hale. London: Methuen, 1965. 76–78. (Reissued as: New Theatre Voices of the Fifties and Sixties. London: Eyre Methuen, 1981.)
–––. "Comedy of Menace". Encore 5 (Sept. – Oct. 1958): 28–33. Rpt. in The Encore Reader and New Theatre Voices 86–91.
–––. "There's Music in That Room". Encore 7 (July–Aug. 1960): 32–34. Rpt. in The Encore Reader and New Theatre Voices 129–32.
  • "Plays by Harold Pinter" at HaroldPinter.org: The Official Website of the International Playwright Harold Pinter (Index of Harold Pinter's plays; includes dates of composition and productions).
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