Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
The Birthday Party, Pinter’s first full-length play, opened in 1958 to terrible reviews at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith. One performance reportedly played to exactly six people. Most critics found the play confusing, obscure, and unconvincing. The general theatergoing public, conditioned by the popular media, were equally dismissive, and the play closed after only a week. It seems that neither the public nor the critics were aesthetically or culturally prepared for Pinter’s style, accustomed as they were to the established genres of the day, which, aside from musicals, consisted of strict realism or drawing-room comedies—the one an act of forceful social engagement, the other a clever, farcical escapism.
The play did, however, attract the attention of Harold Hobson, theater critic of the London Sunday Times, who had championed Pinter’s first play, The Room, when it was produced at Bristol University in 1957. Following the critical and commercial success of Pinter’s next full-length play, The Caretaker, The Birthday Party finally proved itself worthy of Hobson’s accolades (and prescience) with a successful 1960 revival in London. Later that same year, it was televised by the British Broadcasting Corporation, and in 1968 it opened on Broadway. Along with The Caretaker and The Homecoming, The Birthday Party is generally considered to be one of Pinter’s most significant plays, perhaps one of the most important plays of the mid-twentieth century.
The play, in three acts, centers around Stanley Webber, a retired musician in his late thirties, who is living at a boardinghouse in a resort town on the coast of England. Apparently, he is hiding from some unspecified event in his past that has forced him into exile, isolated from the world outside the confines of his room. Living in the house with Stanley are the proprietors, Petey and Meg Boles, both in their sixties. Petey works at a beachside hotel, while Meg manages the house. Aside from an occasional visit from a young woman named Lulu, their lives are dull and ordinary, punctuated only by habit.
The uneventful, monotonous life at the house, however, seems to be exactly what Stanley needs to maintain his isolation. The order of his routine provides him with a measure of security against the...
(The entire section is 965 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Petey Boles and his wife, Meg, are the proprietors of a dilapidated boardinghouse in a seaside town in England. One morning, as they are discussing the local news over breakfast, Petey mentions that two men approached him on the beach the previous night and asked him for a room. He says the men had agreed to drop by later that day to see if the room is available. Meg tells Petey that she will have the room ready if the men arrive.
When their only lodger, Stanley Webber, joins Petey and Meg for breakfast, he complains that he “didn’t sleep at all.” As soon as Petey leaves for work as a deck chair attendant on the promenade, Meg begins her morning chores, telling Stanley about the two men who spoke to Petey. This news upset Stanley at first, but, after reflection, he dismisses the incident as a “false alarm.”
When Lulu, a young neighbor, drops by to deliver a package, she questions Stanley about his morning activities and complains that his appearance makes her feel depressed. In response, Stanley first lies about what he did that morning, then asks her to “go away” with him, though they both agree that there is nowhere for them to go. Lulu calls Stanley “a bit of a washout” and leaves.
When two men named Goldberg and McCann arrive, Stanley avoids them by slipping out the back door. The men reminisce about “the golden days” and the “old school” and suggest that an informant provided important information regarding their “present job” which, according to Goldberg, is “quite distinct” from their “previous work.” Meg tells them that if they take the room they can join the household in celebrating Stanley’s birthday that night. She explains that he was formerly a pianist and that she hopes he will play at the party. She promises to invite Lulu and to wear her party dress, hoping that the party will improve Stanley’s attitude; he was “down in the dumps lately.” Goldberg and McCann decide to take the room and to attend the party.
As soon as they leave, Stanley returns and asks Meg about the men. When Meg tells him that they are the “ones that were coming,” Stanley is visibly dejected. To cheer him up, Meg opens the package Lulu delivered. It contains a drum that Meg then gives to Stanley for his birthday present. Stanley slings the...
(The entire section is 947 words.)