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First used by the theatre critic Irving Wardle in a 1958 article, the expression comedy of menace has become a catch-all phrase systematically applied to Harold Pinter’s plays. Yet it is much more than just a hackneyed expression appearing on programmes and posters and referring to the menacing atmosphere of Pinter’s comedies. Wardle has offered a specific semiotic and aesthetic definition of the genre based on the motif of the malevolent intrusion as well as on the paradoxical combination of comedy and menace. This paper will focus on the aesthetic definition of the genre, more precisely on the simultaneousness of farce and menace in Pinter’s The Birthday Party (1958) and The Dumb Waiter (1960). In these two plays, Pinter makes extensive use of nonsense and slapstick yet always endowing these comic devices with a strong sense of menace, arousing both the audience’s laughter and disquiet. As such, these plays can be deemed postmodern since, as we are reminded by Linda Hutcheon, “the postmodern partakes of a logic of ‘both/and,’ not one of ‘either/or’” (A Poetics of Postmodernism, New York: Routledge, 2000, p.49). Goldberg and McCann in The Birthday Party and Ben in The Dumb Waiter are indeed both clowns and oppressors and their use of physical comedy and whimsical language is as entertaining as it is unsettling, bringing to mind rather disquieting images of persecution and torture. This paper will thus throw light on the combination of farce and menace in these two plays, such overlapping being in fact the very definition of black humour. This simultaneousness will however be qualified in terms of production and audience response, the risk being that the comic prevail over the menacing and vice versa. This will be exemplified in the analysis of theatre productions and film adaptations which offer unequivocal interpretations of these two plays, erasing the eminently ambiguous nature of Pinter’s comedies of menace.

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Vanessa Guignery
Professor of English and Postcolonial Literature at the ENS de Lyon and member of the Institut Universitaire de France in Paris.
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