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Lies that Bind

by Steppenwolf Literary Manager Aaron Carter

When I lived in Seattle, I went to the Bumbershoot Music & Arts Festival. Now, this was in the days before kids. My wife Cassie was pursuing an MFA in poetry at the University of Washington and I was a computer programmer by day and slam poet by night. I was completely pulling off a kind of bohemian artist look with a head of giant crazy curly hair that I attempted to tame with mud cloth scarves that featured clay bead accents. This particular year, folk musician Ben Harper was headlining the festival. As Cassie and I walked through the crowd, I heard an excited teen voice cut through the din. “Oh my God! I think that’s Ben Harper!” I turned. Holding a finger to my lips, I gestured “shhhh....” and slipped further into the crowd as I heard the screams reserved for rock stars erupt behind me. The Birthday Party is a confounding play. Conflicting information abounds, and Harold Pinter does not offer us the relief of an objective truth: he chooses not to explain himself during the course of the play. As a result, there is no limit to the interpretations of Pinter’s play. The prevailing theories are political. The mysterious and unmotivated violence, for example, is held up as a critique of fascism. In a 2008 article in The Guardian, author Michael Billington relates Pinter’s own tentative assessment of why the play endures. “It’s possible to say,” said Pinter, “that two people knocking at the door of someone’s residence and terrorising them and taking them away has become more and more actual in our lives. It happens all the time. It’s happening more today than it did yesterday, and that may be a reason for the play’s long life. It’s not fantasy. It just becomes more and more real.” What strikes me about Pinter’s statement is that it is as personal and intimate as it is political. As a result, I find myself thinking about how The Birthday Party encourages empathy with its characters, even as it creates its social and political commentary. What happens if we focus on the individual needs of the characters rather the overall meaning of the play? We don’t know the truth in The Birthday Party because the characters contradict themselves and each other. While I suggest one might call it lying, Ian Barford, who plays Stanley, offers a more measured assessment. In response to a question from Meg, Stanley asserts “I’ve played the piano all over the world. All over the country. (pause) I once gave a concert.” As Barford points out, these statements could truthfully overlap and don’t necessarily constitute a lie. If not an outright falsehood, the juxtaposition of these statements indicates to me that Stanley has likely exaggerated his successes. Why do the characters exaggerate, or even lie? I think the same reason any of us lie. To inflate our sense of importance. To protect ourselves. To gain power over others. To hurt, and to soothe. The story of Stanley’s piano playing is an integral part of the mothering bond Meg has built with Stanley. Perhaps Stanley told the story as a harmless white lie to ingratiate himself when he first arrived. True or not, when Meg hears a contradicting story, the dissonance is an attack on the fabric of that relationship. Goldberg and McCann lie to Petey in order to obscure their identities and motives, enabling them to terrorize more effectively. The shadowy pair also create fictions for one another. McCann, for example, does not know his colleague’s first name. The “organisation” they work for seems so nefarious that McCann and Goldberg must protect themselves even from each other by hiding any hints of their true identities. Despite the fact that the actions of the characters can create confusion, the human truth in their needs and wants is immediately palpable. Somewhat paradoxically, the act of lying both confounds the audience and creates empathy through portrayal of behavior we can all identify with. Of course, it’s not just the characters that refuse to tell the truth. Pinter is also holding back. While in other plays the truth might be revealed in a climactic scene, we never definitively learn the objective facts, for example, of Stanley’s piano-related accomplishments. As I consider the emotional impact of Pinter’s rather terrifying play, I wonder if this withholding is a dramatic strategy as well as a political one. By taking objective truth off the table, Pinter may be purposefully undercutting our ability to sit in judgment of these characters. For example: we don’t know what, if anything, Stanley did. As a result it is impossible to determine if any kind of justice is served by the actions of McCann and Goldberg. I suggest that in order to judge, we must step outside a situation and evaluate dispassionately: we must distance ourselves. By removing our ability to achieve that objective distance, might Pinter be using the structure of the play to reinforce our immediate emotional connection with these characters? Even if the structure of the work creates more consternation than it does empathy, I remain compelled by the thought that we can personally identify with the fact that these characters use lies in an attempt to order their world and gain power. We each have moments in which we’ve told lies—large and small—to gain a sense of importance, to win an argument... to appear to be someone famous while attending an arts festival. We cannot know what events have conspired to visit this disturbing reckoning on Stanley. But I am uncomfortably aware, as this play unfolds, that I—like Stanley—once claimed to be a world renown musician. As I consider this odd overlap, I find myself made aware of a deep, collectively human fear: that having lied in what seems like a minor way I might discover that the inevitable punishment does not fit the crime. We desire a world of consequences, but want those consequences to be just and commensurate with our perception of the level of offense. I find myself empathizing with Stanley because I fear that his experience might be mine—that I could be called to account for wrongs I might not have even committed, and certainly do not understand.