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The Birthday Party

Despite its cheerful name Harold Pinter's (1930-2008) play The Birthday Party (1957) is anything but. Often described as a comedy of menace, The Birthday Party explores themes of chaos and existentialism.

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The Birthday Party

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Despite its cheerful name Harold Pinter's (1930-2008) play The Birthday Party (1957) is anything but. Often described as a comedy of menace, The Birthday Party explores themes of chaos and existentialism.

The Birthday Party: Harold Pinter

Harold Pinter was a British dramatist, poet, screenwriter, actor and director; winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature and the Olivier Award.

Pinter was born on October 10th 1930 in London. From a young age, he developed an interest in poetry. From 1951 until the early 1960s, he worked as a repertory actor and started writing plays. In the 1960s he became a key figure in the Theatre of the Absurd.

Throughout his career, Pinter produced works for stage, film and radio. He wrote poetry and acted until the last years of his life. Pinter was also politically active in many antiwar campaigns. He died on December 24th 2008 in London.

The Birthday Party: play

Cake, balloons, confetti, music. These are the usual elements that make up a fun birthday party. Well, that's not what Stanley Webber's birthday party looks like. The main character in Harold Pinter's play The Birthday Party (1958) is forced to celebrate his birthday by two mysterious men, all the while not being sure if it is his birthday at all.

The Birthday Party is a three-act absurdist play. The play also falls under the genre category of comedy of menace.

Absurdism is a philosophical movement that started in the 19th century in Europe. Absurdism deals with the human search for meaning that often fails and reveals that life is illogical and absurd. One of the main absurdist philosophers was Albert Camus (1913-1960).

The Theatre of the Absurd (or Absurdist drama) is a genre of drama that explores ideas connected to absurdism.

A comedy of menace is a term used to describe a genre of plays that became popular in British theatre during the 1950s and 1960s. Comedies of menace are characterized by their dark humour and unsettling themes, which often revolve around power struggles, violence, and psychological manipulation. A comedy of menace play typically features a small group of characters who are trapped in a confined space, such as a room or a house, and whose interactions become increasingly tense and absurd as the play progresses.

The Birthday Party is Harold Pinter's first full-length drama which he wrote in 1957. The first performance of The Birthday Party was in May 1958 at the Lyric Hammersmith theatre in London.

TheBirthdayParty,Cake,StudySmarterFig. 1 - What starts as an innocent birthday party soon turns sinister in Harold Pinter's play.

The Birthday Party: plot overview

In short, the play is a darkly comic and unsettling portrayal of a man named Stanley, who is living in a seaside boarding house run by Meg and Petey Boles. The action of the play revolves around Stanley's birthday which Meg insists on celebrating despite his protests.

Overview: The Crucible

AuthorHarold Pinter
GenreComedy of menace, theatre of the absurd
Literary PeriodPostmodernism
First performance1958
Brief Summary of The Birthday Party
  • Stanley's wife, Meg, wants to celebrate his birthday despite his protests.
  • Two mysterious strangers, Goldberg and McCann, arrive which disrupts the birthday party and turns Stanley's world upside down.
List of main charactersPetey Boles, Meg Boles, Stanley Webber, Lulu, Goldberg, McCann
ThemesExistentialism, order and chaos, identity, and power
SettingAn English seaside town not far from London.
AnalysisThe play is an exploration of power dynamics and human psychology and has been interpreted as a commentary on the threat of fascism, and an allegory for the human condition.

Act one

Meg and Petey Boles are talking at breakfast when Meg remarks that Stanley should be downstairs. Meg and Petey are elderly and married. Stanley a man in his thirties boarding with them. Meg fetches Stanley; while he is eating breakfast, she tells him there are two new guests arriving. Stanley is suspicious of this as he has never seen any other guests but himself.

Petey leaves for work and there is a knock on the door. It is Lulu, a young lady who brings a package for Stanley. She asks Stanley if he'd like to go for a walk, but he declines. Lulu leaves. There is another knock on the door, and this time Stanley hides in order to eavesdrop. The two guests, Goldberg and McCann, enter and vaguely talk of bureaucratic work they need to do. They go to their room and Stanley opens his present which is a small drum.

Despite claiming to be a pianist, Stanley proceeds to bang on a drum instead of playing the piano.

Act two

That evening, Stanley meets McCann in the living room. As they talk, McCann is reluctant to let Stanley leave and Stanley becomes increasingly anxious. Stanley denies that it is his birthday and claims Meg is crazy. Goldberg enters the room and the pair begin to interrogate Stanley. Their questions seem strange; at one point, Stanley is accused of killing his wife. Stanley denies any knowledge of their accusations, but his behaviour becomes erratic.

Meg appears and gives a generic toast to Stanley to start the celebration. When Lulu comes, she starts dating Goldberg right away. The party decides to play a game called 'blind man's buff,' in which one player must locate the other players while wearing a blindfold. When it is Stanley's turn, McCann places the drum before him and trips him. This creates an explosion in Stanley and he tries to strangle Meg and then sexually assault Lulu. Goldberg and McCann pull Stanley off while he laughs in a mad frenzy.

TheBirthdayParty,Present,StudySmarterFig. 2 - Stanley's birthday present proves the catalyst for his downfall.

Act three

The final act begins like the first with Petey and Meg at the breakfast table. Meg doesn't appear to remember the events of the previous evening. She leaves to go shopping and Goldberg enters. Petey worries about Stanley, but Goldberg tells him he suffered a nervous breakdown. Goldberg claims that he and McCann will take Stanley to a doctor, though Petey is dubious.

When Stanley comes downstairs he can barely speak and his glasses are broken. Petey tries to prevent the pair from taking Stanley but is incapable. As they leave, Petey tells Stanley: ‘Stan do not let them tell you what to do!’ Meg returns noticing that the car is gone and asks after Stanley. Petey lies and says he is still sleeping. Meg talks about the success of the party, ignorant of Stanley's abduction.

Meg: It was a lovely party. I haven't laughed so much for years. We had dancing and singing. And games.

The Birthday Party: characters

The Birthday Party main charactersDescriptionNarrative purpose
StanleyA down-on-his-luck pianist who is living in a seaside boarding house run by Meg and Petey. He is reluctant to celebrate his birthday and becomes increasingly paranoid and confused as the play progresses.Stanley represents the individual struggling against oppressive forces.
MegThe owner of the boarding house and a motherly figure to Stanley. She insists on celebrating his birthday, despite his protests, and is easily swayed by the opinions of others.Meg and Petey represent the conformity and acceptance of societal norms. Petey also serves as a kind of observer and commentator on the events of the play.
PeteyMeg's husband and a kind-hearted boarding house owner who tries to maintain order and normalcy in the face of the chaos that ensues.
GoldbergA mysterious and menacing man who arrives at the boarding house with his partner, McCann. He claims to be an old friend of Stanley's and seems to have a hidden agenda.Goldberg and McCann represent the oppressive forces that seek to control and manipulate individuals for their own ends. Goldberg represents the brute force and violence that underlies McCann's psychological manipulation tactics.
McCannGoldberg's partner, who is more quiet and reserved than Goldberg. He is responsible for much of the violence in the play and seems to relish in his power over the other characters.
LuluA young woman who is brought to the boarding house by Goldberg and briefly interacts with Stanley.Lulu represents another form of power

Stanley Webber

Stanley is the main character in the play. It is his birthday party that the drama is named after. Stanley resides at the boarding house owned by Petey and Meg. Stanley's past is unclear, though it is hinted that he used to be a pianist.

At the beginning of the play, it seems that Stanley has been living in isolation for quite some time - he has no work to do, he oversleeps every morning and he barely leaves his bedroom, let alone the house. When Goldberg and McCann arrive, they bring Stanley out of his shell, though not in a positive way. They bully him until he cracks and acts violently with Meg and Lulu at his birthday party.

The next day, he has lost the ability to speak coherently and he lets Goldberg and McCann take him away without putting up much of a fight. Although nothing is clear, it seems that Stanley had a wild past that has come to haunt him; that's why the two men kidnap him.

Petey Boles

Petey Boles is an elderly man and Meg's husband. The two of them run the boarding house together. Petey works as a deckchair attendant at the beach. He's the only character in the play who doesn't attend the birthday party.

Petey seems passive at first, yet he's also the only one who notices that something is wrong with Stanley. Petey tries to stop Goldberg and McCann from taking Stanley away by encouraging Stanley to stand up for himself. When Stanley doesn't do that and is taken away, Petey pretends in front of Meg. He tells her that Stanley is asleep in his room. Perhaps Petey goes back to being passive in order not to trouble his wife.

Meg Boles

Meg Boles is an elderly woman. She's Petey's wife and runs the boarding house with him. Meg lives for the routines of everyday life which she follows even when they no longer make sense.

Meg acts as a kind of motherly figure to Stanley. She likes to take care of him and insists on throwing a birthday party for Stanley even though he tells her it's not his birthday. Meg is naive - she doesn't realise that Goldberg and McCann are cruel to Stanley. The morning after the party, she seems to have forgotten about the disturbing events from the night before. At the end of the play, Meg is doing exactly what she did at the beginning - waiting for Stanley to come for breakfast.

Goldberg

Goldberg was one of the two new guests that disrupt the boarding house along with McCann. Goldberg is an enigmatic character who gives himself various names throughout the play. He is charming and smooth talking. Goldberg seduces Lulu and charms Meg. He and McCann are intent on upsetting Stanley psychologically but the pair are unclear on their reasons for doing so, referring to Stanley as 'the job'.

McCann

McCann is Goldberg's Irish accomplice who is possibly a former priest. He is not sure why he is there to interrogate Stanley but is willing to do so dutifully. Like many of the characters, McCann's past is unclear. By the end of the play, McCann pressures Lulu into confession and seems troubled by Stanley's condition. However, this does not prevent him from performing his task.

Lulu

Lulu is a young woman in her twenties. She first comes to the boarding house to bring Stanley a birthday present. While she is there Stanley asks her to run away with him but it appears an empty gesture. At the party, she flirts with Goldberg and seemingly went to bed with him after. These actions occur offstage, but the morning after Lulu is annoyed at Goldberg for not wanting to continue their relationship.

The Birthday Party: themes

The main themes of The Birthday Party are existentialism, order and chaos, identity, and power.

Existentialism

Existentialism is a central theme in many absurdist plays and The Birthday Party is no exception.

The play questions the meaning of existence. It can be interpreted as an exploration of Stanley's struggle to find meaning in a meaningless world. The characters often repeat what they say and do, and struggle to make sense of the events unfolding around them. The arrival of McCann and Goldberg forces the inhabitants of the boarding house to confront the fundamental questions of existence.

Existentialism is a philosophical movement that was prevalent in Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries. Existentialist philosophers and writers address and explore the meaning of existence, the human search for purpose, and the anxiety that existence has no meaning in an absurd world.

Existentialism proposes the view that conscious reality is too complex to have a single specific meaning. Therefore individual perceptions and choices are of value.

Elements of fact like names and characters' history are treated ambiguously and change throughout the play. Nothing that the characters say in the play can be taken at face value. This hints at their existence lacking meaning or substance as their lives appear hollow.

Goldberg says to Stanley:

You’re dead. You can’t live, you can’t think, you can’t love. You’re dead. You’re a plague gone bad. There’s no juice in you. You’re nothing but an odor.

This is perhaps true about all the characters in the boarding house. The characters often repeat themselves and their actions which can give the impression their lives are stuck in a repetitive cycle.

Order and chaos

Many of the play's characters find comfort in order and the play explores what happens when chaos disrupts that order.

The boarding house, with its strict routines and mundane rituals, represents a kind of order that provides a sense of stability and security for its inhabitants. Meg and Petey go about their daily routines without question, while Stanley withdraws into his own world, playing the piano and avoiding interaction with others. Meg is obsessive about routine, which seems to be a kind of coping mechanism that reasserts itself throughout the play. She even brings Stanley down for a breakfast that isn't there.

When the routine is broken by the introduction of Goldberg and McCann, Stanley's well-being deteriorates. Stanley becomes paranoid the minute he realises there are new guests and by the end of the play he appears to have suffered a breakdown. The characters' devotion to routine is almost detrimental to their health, as proven when chaos is introduced.

Goldberg and McCann purposefully disrupt the normal routine of the boarding house by insisting on having breakfast at a different time and demanding that Stanley change his clothes, which is a manipulation tactic to break down Stanley's defences and force him to confront the hidden desires and impulses that lie beneath the surface of his identity.

At the same time, the chaos introduced by Goldberg and McCann serves as a kind of liberation for the characters, allowing them to break free from their mundane routines and confront the hidden desires and impulses that lie beneath the surface of their lives.

Identity

The drum is an important symbol in the play because it represents both the ominous and liberating aspects of the play.

Later, when two menacing strangers arrive to take Stanley away, the drum becomes a tool for resistance and defiance as Stanley uses it to disrupt and drown out their attempts to communicate with him. In this context, the drum represents a way for Stanley to assert his individuality and resist the oppressive forces that threaten to consume him.

The Birthday Party: themes

Some key themes of the play that have been analyzed and discussed by critics and scholars include:

  • The use of language and silence: Pinter is known for his use of cryptic and ambiguous language, as well as long pauses and silences, which create a sense of unease and tension. In The Birthday Party, this is evident in the character of Stanley, who struggles to communicate effectively and is frequently interrupted or ignored by other characters.
  • The exploration of power dynamics: The arrival of Goldberg and McCann disrupts the balance of power in the boarding house, and the characters' relationships and identities are constantly in question. Critics have suggested that the play can be read as an allegory for the abuse of power and the threat of fascism.
  • The theme of identity: The characters in the play are often uncertain of their own identities and struggle to define themselves in relation to others. This is particularly evident in the character of Stanley, who is defined by others' perceptions of him and the social norms of the time.
  • The dark humour and absurdity of the play: While The Birthday Party deals with serious and unsettling themes, it is also marked by its dark humour and absurd situations. The tension and confusion created by the dialogue and action of the play can be seen as a reflection of the absurdity of the human condition.

The Birthday Party - Key takeaways

  • The Birthday Party (1957) is a play written by English playwright Harold Pinter.
  • The play has been described as a 'comedy of menace' and part of the theatre of the absurd.
  • The plot centres around a birthday party held for Stanley Webber which turns sinister after the arrival of two strangers.
  • The play's two major themes are existentialism and the effect of chaos on order.
  • Harold Pinter has won many awards for his playwriting, including the 2005 Nobel Prize for Literature.

Frequently Asked Questions about The Birthday Party

Stanley Webber's birthday is being celebrated in Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party.

In the play, The Birthday Party an innocent birthday party turns sinister after the arrival of two strangers.

The main themes of The Birthday Party are existentialism and chaos and order.

The play, The Birthday Party, has been described as a 'comedy of menace' and part of the theatre of the absurd.

The Birthday Party explores the meaningless nature of human existence.

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