Scholarly article on topic 'Direct-indirect Impoliteness and Power Struggles in Harold Pinter's Plays'

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Abstract of research paper on Languages and literature, author of scientific article — Nazan Tutaş, Nihal Demirkol Azak

Abstract Characters in Harold Pinter's plays are always on alert against any kind of physical or psychological threat. They verbally struggle for survival or dominance. This struggle is characterised by direct or indirect impoliteness strategies they use. Impoliteness in their language is the most important weapon to win the struggle for power. Taking Culpeper's five impoliteness strategies as its basis, this paper examines Pinter's The Birthday Party (1957) and Old Times (1970) in terms of the linguistic impoliteness strategies the characters employ in their power struggles, their preferences to adopt direct or indirect strategies and the way these preferences affect the power relations between them.

Academic research paper on topic "Direct-indirect Impoliteness and Power Struggles in Harold Pinter's Plays"

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Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences 158 (2014) 370 - 376

14th International Language, Literature and Stylistics Symposium

Direct-Indirect Impoliteness and Power Struggles in Harold Pinter's Plays

Nazan Tuta§a, Nihal Demirkol Azakb*

aAssoc. Prof. Dr., Department of English Language and Literature, Ankara University, Ankara, 06100, Turkey bResearch Assistant, Department of English Language and Literature, Ankara University, Ankara, 06100, Turkey


Characters in Harold Pinter's plays are always on alert against any kind of physical or psychological threat. They verbally struggle for survival or dominance. This struggle is characterised by direct or indirect impoliteness strategies they use. Impoliteness in their language is the most important weapon to win the struggle for power. Taking Culpeper's five impoliteness strategies as its basis, this paper examines Pinter's The Birthday Party (1957) and Old Times (1970) in terms of the linguistic impoliteness strategies the characters employ in their power struggles, their preferences to adopt direct or indirect strategies and the way these preferences affect the power relations between them.

©2014TheAuthors.Publishedby ElsevierLtd.Thisisanopenaccessarticle under the CC BY-NC-ND license (http://creativecommons.Org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/).

Peer-review under responsibility of Dokuz Eylul University, Faculty of Education.

Keywords: Harold Pinter; politeness/impoliteness theory; negative/positive face; direct/indirect impoliteness.

1. Introduction

Nobel Prize-winning English playwright Harold Pinter's plays are famous for his characters' struggle for power. Knowles (1995: 190) states that "Pinter's writings have always shown a consistent concern with direct and indirect

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forms of power - physical, social, and oral". His major plays are usually set in a single room whose occupants are threatened by outside forces or people. Often these characters are ordinary people who have no strong desires or ambitions and who are engaged in a struggle for survival or domination. There are those who are in power and those who play the role of the victim, powerless and weak. In this power struggle, the most effective weapon used is the "language". According to Peacock (1997: 48) "By lowering language's informational potential Pinter makes the audience aware of the strategic employment of language as a mode of defense, but at the same time he also reveals its potential as a weapon". The language used for these purposes is often impolite.

Linguistic politeness is often described as attempts to maintain each other's face in interaction. The most well-known and dominant theory on linguistic politeness is that of Brown and Levinson (1978). According Brown and Levinson (1987: 61-62), everyone has a face, "the public self-image" that they want to maintain. Mills (2003: 6) describes Politeness as the expression of the speakers' intention to mitigate face threats carried by certain face threatening acts toward another. The term face is divided into two different categories by Brown and Levinson (1987: 61-62): negative and positive face. Negative face is the want to preserve one's own independence, and positive face the want to be liked by others. They further identified two kinds of politeness, deriving the concept of face: negative and positive politeness. Negative politeness requires making a request less infringing and respecting a person's right to act freely. Positive politeness seeks to establish a positive relationship between parties; and it requires respecting a person's need to be liked and understood (Brown and Levinson, 1987: 70).

Generally politeness and impoliteness are considered to be opposites of each other but Mills (2003: 139) disagrees saying that they cannot be taken to be "polar opposites since impoliteness functions in very different and context-specific ways". Jonathan Culpeper develops impoliteness strategies which are based on the theory of Brown & Levinson (1987). Culpeper (1996: 8) says: "Instead of enhancing or supporting face, these impoliteness strategies are a means of attacking face". Culpeper (1996: 8-9) defines five impoliteness strategies:

1. Bald on record impoliteness - The face threatening act (FTA), a threat to a person's face, is performed in a direct, clear, unambiguous and concise way in circumstances where face is not irrelevant or minimized (Brown and Levinson, 1987: 69). It is the most obvious and straightforward impoliteness.

2. Positive impoliteness - Refers to the strategies that are designed to damage the addressee's positive face wants, the desire to be appreciated or approved of. Below is a list of some strategies for positive impoliteness:

• Ignore, snub the other - fail to acknowledge the other's presence.

• Exclude the other from an activity

• Disassociate from the other - for example, deny association or common ground with the other; avoid sitting together.

• Be disinterested, unconcerned, unsympathetic

• Use inappropriate identity markers - for example, use title and surname when a close relationship pertains, or a nickname when a distant relationship pertains.

• Use obscure or secretive language - for example, mystify the other with jargon, or use a code known to others in the group, but not the target.

• Seek disagreement - select a sensitive topic.

• Make the other feel uncomfortable - for example, do not avoid silence, joke, or use small talk.

• Use taboo words - swear, or use abusive or profane language.

• Call the other names - use derogatory nominations.

3. Negative impoliteness - the use of strategies designed to damage the addressee's negative face wants. Frighten - instil a belief that action detrimental to the other will occur. Below is a list of some strategies for negative impoliteness:

• Condescend, scorn or ridicule - emphasize your relative power. Be contemptuous. Do not treat the other seriously. Belittle the other (e.g. use diminutives).

• Invade the other's space - literally (e.g. position yourself closer to the other than the relationship permits) or metaphorically (e.g. ask for or speak about information which is too

intimate given the relationship).

• Explicitly associate the other with a negative aspect - personalize, use the pronouns 'I' and 'you'.

• Put the other's indebtedness on record.

4. Sarcasm or mock politeness - the FTA is performed indirectly with the use of politeness strategies that

are obviously insincere, and thus remain surface realisations. Face threatening acts are performed by

means of implicature and these indirect impoliteness strategies may be denied if required.

5. Withhold politeness - the absence of politeness work where it would be expected. For example, failing

to thank somebody for a present may be taken as deliberate impoliteness.

Culpeper (2005: 38) sees impoliteness as something that is performed intentionally. Bousfield and Locher (2008: 8) argue that power is a critically important aspect in the study of impoliteness. According to them, power is a vital part of interaction and "impoliteness is an exercise of power" (ibid). Culpeper (1996: 354) also connects power with the use of impoliteness. He states that impoliteness is more likely to occur when the speaker is more powerful than the addressee. When the speaker is in a higher position he or she can use impoliteness more freely since he or she might have the means to "(a) reduce the ability of the less powerful participant to retaliate with impoliteness and (b) threaten more severe retaliation should the less powerful participant be impolite" (ibid). Therefore, one could argue that impoliteness is likely to occur in situations where the speaker has more power.

The aim of this study is thus to analyse Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party (1957) and Old Times (1970) according to Jonathan Culpepper's impoliteness strategies in terms of linguistic impoliteness and power struggles.

2. Analysis of Impoliteness and Power Relations in The Birthday Party and Old Times

Both The Birthday Party (1957) and Old Times (1970) focus on power relations consisting of three parties. In these tripartite power relations one party is usually the desired object to be taken under control in the end by the other two parties who struggle to gain power. One of these two parties who strive to gain power appears as a 'menace' later in the play. The arrival of the menace initiates the power struggle. In their power battle their quest for domination leads to verbal attacks in the form of 'impoliteness'.

In The Birthday Party, Meg and Petey run a boarding house in an English seaside town and their only guest is Stanley Webber, a retired musician in his thirties who has not stepped outside the house since he came there. The play tells the story of a trio relationship in which Stanley is kept under Meg's control until the arrival of two unknown intruders called Goldberg and McCann.

At the beginning of the play Petey, who has just come back from work, is exposed to Meg's pressing questions concerning his breakfast, his job or the news on the newspaper. Insistently asking all these unnecessary questions she forces Petey to give answers and attacks his wish not to be disturbed or distracted. In this way, Meg employs negative impoliteness strategies by making an assault on his negative face. Meg demands answers because she needs to be heard and thus wants her existence to be approved. Petey, who avoids hurting his wife, answers all her questions and satisfies her desire to be approved, thus enhances her positive face.

Meg then directs her attention to Stanley, who is asleep upstairs. After calling out to him from the living room, she goes upstairs to fetch him and then makes him have his breakfast. Stanley has a very central position in the house. Meg, who tries to guide and manipulate him like a child, even corrects the language he uses:

Stanley: What about some tea?

Meg: Do you want some tea? (Stanley read the paper) Say please.

Stanley: Please.

Meg: Say sorry first.

Stanley: Sorry first.

Meg: No. Just sorry.

Stanley: Just sorry! (The Birthday Party, 27-28)

Meg does not respect Stanley's need to be free to act or his desire not to be interfered with; and thus invading his personal space, she adopts negative impoliteness strategies and damages his negative face. Although Stanley is forced to live under the control of Meg and exposed to her persistent threat to his negative face, he resigns himself to this dominance-subservience relationship with Meg. Even if he sometimes employs impoliteness strategies as well in response to Meg's attacks by failing to thank her for her services and thus withholding politeness, Stanley lets Meg interfere his life because she reinforces his positive face through fulfiling his 'needs to be appreciated, liked or approved'. Likewise, Meg's needs to be recognised and approved are met through the dominance she asserts over Petey and Stanley as well. Any interference to this interdependency relationship between Stanley and Meg would be perceived as a threat.

However, before long, an outside menace appears and disrupts their ongoing relationship. The arrival of two strangers called Goldberg and McCann initiates a struggle for power. As soon as they come in, Goldberg takes control of the boarding house. He takes the authority out of the hands of Meg and Petey as the hosts of the boarding house. Neither Meg nor Petey are powerful enough to cope with the authority of Goldberg. In this struggle for power they yield to his dominance and submit to his demands just from the beginning. His first demand is to organize a party for Stanley when he learns that it is his birthday. However, in spite of his threat to Meg and Petey's negative faces through his invasion of their territory and his demands imposed upon them, Goldberg at the same time enhances their positive faces through building rapport and paying compliments, in order to make it easier for them to comply with his authority.

Unlike Meg and Petey, Stanley is disturbed by the unexpected arrival of these two strangers. Perceiving them as a threat to his life in the house, Stanley is determined not to give in easily. Tension in the play increases along with the power Goldberg and McCann exercise over Stanley. In response to this threat, Stanley adopts a strategy of counterattack. Asking questions such as "Staying here long?" (BP, 47) or "Why are you down here? [...] Why did you choose this house?" (BP, 51), he forces Goldberg and McCann to answer and by violating their right to act freely he threatens their negative faces. When these questions prove to be useless in his counterattack, he tries to send them away by asking them directly to "Get out" (BP, 55). Disrespecting their freedom of action and attacking their negative face, he challenges their authority. Instead of coming to terms and building rapport with Stanley to enhance his positive face and solve the problem, Goldberg and McCann intensify their verbal assault in response to his challenge. Their verbal aggressiveness escalates gradually and their first attempt to control him is to force him to sit down. In reply to Stanley's direct negative impoliteness strategies, they also adopt the same direct strategies, and forcing him to sit down they disrespect his right to act freely. After refusing to sit down for a while, Stanley gives in and sits down in the end. In this way they assert their physical dominance first - they stand while Stanley sits down. Agreeing to sit down, Stanley gives way to their verbal assault as well.

In their conversation which turns gradually into an interrogation, Goldberg and McCann employ direct impoliteness strategies to threaten Stanley's both positive and negative faces such as 'giving commands, making accusations, frightening or seeking disagreement'. Their questions and accusations are illogical or contradictory:

Goldberg: When did you last have a bath?

Goldberg: When did you last wash up a cup?

Goldberg: Why did you kill your wife?

Goldberg: Why did you never get married?

Goldberg: Is the number 846 possible or necessary?

McCann: Chicken? Egg? Which came first? (BP, 58-62) These illogical and contradictory questions asked insistently and incessantly become verbal weapons in the

hands of Goldberg and McCann and render Stanley powerless gradually. Giving commands or asking questions are negative impoliteness strategies threatening his negative face as it places burden on him and constrain his freedom of action. These questions are followed by irrational accusations such as "betray[ing] the organisation" (BP, 58), "kill[ing] his wife" (BP, 59), "contaminating] the womankind" (BP, 61) and "betray[ing] land" (BP, 62). Along with the questions and accusations which attack Stanley's negative face and drive him into the corner, using insults such as " You're a fake [...] You're a plague, Webber. You are an overthrow. You're what's left!" (BP, 59-62) Goldberg and McCann employ bald on record impoliteness strategies and threaten Stanley in the most obvious and straightforward way, which intensifies their attack.

Seeking disagreement, Goldberg and McCann threaten Stanley's positive face and employ positive impoliteness strategies. Through pressing questions and accusations, they also adopt negative impoliteness strategies damaging his negative face. Perceiving them as threat to his both positive and negative faces, the offensive attitude Stanley adopts in the beginning turns into a defensive one during the interrogation. However, his responses become inconsistent and illogical. When he is not allowed to defend and express himself, he loses his ability to talk. Finally, he is ultimately silenced and defeated in this battle. During his birthday party, he is forced to play 'blind man's buff. They switch off the lights and shine a torch on his face as if he is still in an interrogation. At the end of his birthday party Stanley is totally broken both mentally and physically. As Prentice (1994: 28) states, in Pinter's plays when a character allows him/herself to be put in "a subservient position, for even a moment, [it] can result in annihilation - physical, psychological, or both". From now on Stanley is a puppet in their hands.

Stanley dies metaphorically in the end. Let alone the ability to counterattack, Stanley cannot even talk and he can hardly walk. Saying that "What makes you think you exist? [...] You're dead. You can't live, you can't think, you can't love. You're dead" (BP, 62), Goldberg and McCann take him under their total control. In this power struggle Stanley is doomed to fail, because in his counterattacks he attempts to use the same direct strategies they use. He attacks them with their own weapon. Once he fails and is taken under their control, they promise Stanley that they will take care of him and make a new man out of him:

Goldberg: We'll watch over you.

McCann: Advise you.

Goldberg: Give you proper care and treatment.

[... ]

Goldberg: We'll make a man of you.

[... ]

Goldberg: You'll be re-orientated.

McCann: You'll be rich.

Goldberg: You'll be adjusted.

McCann: You'll be our pride and joy.

[... ]

McCann: You'll be a success. (BP, 92-93)

With these promises Goldberg and McCann take Stanley with them and leave the boarding house in the last scene. When they leave, neither Meg nor Petey can stop them. The play ends with a conversation between Meg and Petey consisting of unnecessary questions and answers just like the one in the beginning of the play. Indeed there is a deep silence in the scene and both of them talk to cover this silence and avoid the reality. Pinter (1976) describes this silence as the one "when perhaps a torrent of language is being employed" and he says the speech is "a constant stratagem to cover nakedness" (14-15).

Like The Birthday Party, Old Times, too, centres on a tripartite power relation. The play tells the story of a trio relationship in which Kate is trapped between her husband Deeley and her old friend Anna, both of whom try to assert their power over each other to win Kate in the end. Anna, an old friend whom Kate has not seen for twenty years, will come from Sicily to visit. This expected visit is perceived by Deeley as a threat to their marriage and their peaceful life in the country.

This play like The Birthday Party also begins with a conversation between husband and wife. The arrival of

Anna as a menace initiates the struggle for power between Anna and Deeley for the possession of Kate's affection. The language they use in this power struggle is notable for its indirect impoliteness.

In this battle in order to gain control over the other party Deeley and Anna make use of the past. However, the memories they tell are different and contradictory versions of the various events; there is no single past and each person intentionally creates his/her own distorted version of the past. For instance, both Deeley and Anna give contradictory accounts of the film 'Odd Man Out' which they claim they watched with Kate for the first time. They both make use of the past to exclude each other from their memories with Kate. Anna, who talks about beautiful old days she lived with Kate in London twenty years ago, particularly emphasizes the pronoun "we" in her sentences like "... to look back, half the night, to do things we loved, we were young then" (Old Times, 13). The pronoun "we" in her sentences includes Anna and Kate while it excludes Deeley; thus it enhances Kate's positive face but threatens Deeley's positive face indirectly. In this way Anna employs indirect positive impoliteness to attack. Deeley, then, counterattacks saying "We rarely get to London" (OT, 14)to exclude Anna from their lives with the use of simple present tense and the pronoun "we". Thus, he implies that the friendship between Kate and Anna stays in the past. Also he belittles London with which Anna associates their happy old days. Deeley adopts indirect positive and negative impoliteness strategies through excluding her and despising the city she loves. In response to this attack, Anna scorns Deeley through a sarcastic comment like "How wise you were to choose this part of the world" (OT, 15) employing sarcasm or mock politeness strategy. Deeley frequently reminds Anna that he is Kate's husband. With this move, Deeley attempts to exclude Anna from Kate's life. However, Anna is determined not to give up easily; when she learns that Deeley often goes on business trips, she says to Kate "I think I must come and keep you company when he's away" (OT, 35) and with this offer she implies that she can take his place. Deeley counterattacks Anna's ongoing indirect assaults talking about her age indirectly.

Kate does not get involved in this incessant cold war between Anna and Deeley throughout the play; instead, she sits and watches the ongoing battle. In their conversation Anna and Deeley use the third person singular pronoun "she" when they talk about Kate, as if she were not there. In fact it is not Anna and Deeley who exclude Kate from the conversation; on the contrary, it is Kate herself who chooses to step aside and watch them. She intentionally prefers to be a silent audience; however, she is an active observer. Silence as her own choice is her weapon to control them. They need Kate's existence to keep this battle going. Without her presence, the struggle would mean nothing. Kate is an audience to be satisfied by the two players, Anna and Deeley. To please and win Kate, both Anna and Deeley include her into the memories they tell and thus building rapport with her they enhance her positive face. They serve her by bringing her tea, offering to run her bath or getting her clothes ready for her. Telling the most intimate and private memories about Kate, although they invade her personal space metaphorically, their aim is not to threaten her negative face but to show that they know Kate better than the other. Defining her as "Lovely to look at, delightful to know" (OT, 22) they see her as something to be looked at, watched, known, possessed or won at the end of this struggle. However, all their efforts prove to be vain as Kate does not get involved in their game and does not say what they want her to say. She uses her own strategy, not theirs. Although to assert their power they attack each other insistently with their indirect impoliteness strategies throughout the play, Kate's silence as her weapon keeps them under her control.

At the end of the play, delivering the last and the longest speech, Kate utterly declares her power over both Deeley and Anna. It is now her turn to attack. With her long monologue, she beats them in their own game not with their indirect strategies but with a single direct attack. Talking about a memory from London days, she despises them directly and describes both Anna and Deeley as 'dirty' (OT, 67-68). In reply to their indirect cold war strategies, she asserts her victory with a direct attack and ends the battle. The play ends in a deep silence, but Kate's last words still echo in ears.

3. Conclusion

As can be seen in the above analyses, using linguistic impoliteness for power struggle is the common strategy in both plays. There are characters who want to dominate others through linguistic impoliteness but their strategies are different: in The Birthday Party direct impoliteness strategies are used whereas in Old Times indirect

impoliteness strategies are employed.

In both plays, the impolite language used by the characters who want to take control of Stanley and Kate, forces them to give offensive or a defensive responses. In The Birthday Party, Stanley uses direct impoliteness strategies and wants to shoot the authority with its own weapon but he fails and loses the power struggle.

Kate in Old Times, on the other hand, does not respond to Deeley and Anna using their strategy. She consciously prefers to be the spectator to their game. The indirect impolite language Anna and Deeley use does not help them in their power struggle. But Kate uses her own strategy of being silent and through her last direct impolite attack she eventually wins the power.

Both plays end with the silence of the main characters. While Kate chooses to stay silent as she becomes the powerful figure in the end, Stanley loses the power struggle and is silenced by the authority.


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