The Play (Masterplots II: Drama)
The Birthday Party is set in an unnamed English seaside town where Meg Boles, in her sixties, runs a failing boardinghouse and her husband, Petey, is a deck-chair attendant. Their only boarder is Stanley Webber, an unemployed pianist in his late thirties, whom the apparently childless Meg treats as if he were her little boy. She feeds Petey and Stanley what she considers to be a “nice” breakfast: cornflakes and fried bread. When Meg tells Stanley that two men are going to be staying there, he becomes alarmed and refuses to believe that they will come. He talks about leaving, saying he has been offered a job on a world tour, and tells Meg about the one concert he gave years earlier. Lulu, a young neighbor, arrives with a package. She asks Stanley why he never washes or leaves the house. She tries to get him to go outside and eat her sandwiches. When the two men, middle-aged Nat Goldberg and thirtyish Dermot McCann, appear, Stanley slips out the back door.
The visitors are there for some unspecified purpose, and McCann is nervous over whether they are in the right house. After Meg says it is Stanley’s birthday, Goldberg insists they have a party. Stanley returns after the strangers have gone upstairs, to learn from Meg that he is to celebrate his birthday. She gives him his present, the package delivered by Lulu. Stanley unwraps the child’s drum Meg has given him (because he does not have a piano), kisses her, and begins playing it, at...
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Dramatic Devices (Masterplots II: Drama)
The Birthday Party is full of the ominous pauses for which Pinter is famous, the breaks emphasizing the banality of the conversations and the uncertainty of the speakers. Pinter’s dialogue moves rapidly; the characters usually speak only one sentence (or sentence fragment) at a time, especially when Goldberg and McCann team up against Stanley. They perform these routines as if they were a pair of music-hall comedians, which makes their words all the more absurdly threatening. In the party scene, Goldberg demands (quite seriously) that Stanley answer the question “Why did the chicken cross the road?” Pinter uses humor not to alleviate tension but to emphasize the unreality of the situations:
MEG: That boy should be up. He’s late forhis breakfast.PETEY: There isn’t any breakfast.MEG: Yes, but he doesn’t know that.
Just as nothing in The Birthday Party is as it seems, much of the dialogue carries more than one meaning. Goldberg says that with Stanley’s party, “We’ll bring him out of himself.” Instead, they drive him within himself. Lulu refers to Goldberg’s drink: “You’re empty. Let me fill you up.” She tells him, “You’re the dead image of the first man I ever...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Seaside town. Unnamed coastal English town. Long popular with English vacationers, many English coastal towns featured amusement parks and other entertainments, along with public beaches. Some of the smaller coastal towns gained reputations for seedy raffishness as their old seafront hotels and tourist accommodations lost much of their former grandeur due to neglect and the ravages of time. They have been satirized in a number of literary works, including The Birthday Party, which is apparently set in one of them.
Boles boardinghouse. Dilapidated seaside establishment run by Meg and Petey Boles. For some time, it has had only one tenant, Stanley Webber. The play’s primary set is the Boleses’ living room, which has a table and chairs at its center and a square porthole in the wall separating it from the kitchen. That the home is cheaply run is apparent from the meager breakfast that Meg serves. Although she boasts of the house’s cleanliness and says it is on an approved list of such accommodations, her claims are probably exaggerated. Petey supplements their income by collecting paltry fees from people who use seaside deck chairs. The arrival of oddly menacing strangers, Goldberg and McCann, suggests the presence of something sinister beyond the household, but neither the name, the nature, nor the purpose of this menace is ever disclosed. As in the fiction of Franz Kafka,...
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In the late-1950s, when Pinter wrote The Birthday Party, the developed nations of the world were deeply mired in a cold war that pitted the communist powers of the Soviet Union and Red China against the free-world nations, including both the United States and the United Kingdom. Fears of a third world war, one fought with atomic weapons, were widespread. At the beginning of the decade, war had broken out in Korea, pitting communist North Korea and its ally, Red China, against South Korea and a United Nations "police force'' comprised largely of American troops. Further outbreaks of open warfare were threatened throughout the 1950s, as in 1956, when Hungarian rebels, pleading for help from the West, were crushed by Soviet troops and tanks.
In the same period, the United States and the Soviet Union began the ‘‘Space Race,’’ an undeclared competition in which each country sought to prove itself the most technologically advanced. The Soviets launched Sputnik I in 1957, the first artificial satellite to be put into orbit, and in the following year, the United States sent up its counterpart, Explorer 1. Meanwhile, other events were setting the stage for further armed hostilities. The 1954 Geneva Accords divided Vietnam into North and South Vietnam, a division that would lead to war and the increasing involvement of the United States, while in Cuba, Fidel Castro began the rebellion that would bring...
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The Birthday Party uses a single setting, the living-dining room of a seaside boarding house somewhere on the coast of England. Its anonymity contributes to a sense of place as symbol, especially in allegorical interpretations of the play.
Although doors permit characters to enter and exit the room, there are features suggesting that the room is isolated from the world outside. The wall separating the room from the kitchen has a hatch allowing characters in the kitchen to peer into the room, like jailors peering into a prison cell. There are also windows that permit characters to see into the room but give no real glimpse of what lies beyond them.
References to the outside world beyond the room offer virtually no clues to time or place. Petey reads a newspaper (which McCann later destroys), but the information he relates from it is trivial. Names and places alluded to are either of little help or simply misleading. In his fantasy concert tour, Stanley mentions Constantinople, which had become Istanbul in the fifteenth century when it fell to the Turks, and in their interrogation of Stanley, Goldberg and McCann ask him about the Blessed Oliver Plunket, an Irish Catholic martyr executed in England in 1681, and about the medieval, Albigensian heresy. Such puzzling references help create the impression that the setting is either a microcosmic symbol or an existential, timeless vacuum.
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Compare and Contrast
1950s: Britain's decline as a world power continues and challenges to its remaining global influence persist for decades, reaching armed conflict in 1982 in the war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands.
Today: Although the United Kingdom still holds some far flung territories, including the Falklands, in 1998 it ceded Hong Kong, its last important Crown Colony in the Far East, to the Republic of China. The breakup of what was once the Great British Empire is now virtually complete.
1950s: Popular culture is on the verge of explosion with the impact of both television and rock music, though old institutions like the English dance hall are still popular. These halls feature sentimental ballads, swing dance music, and vaudeville comedians.
Today: Television and rock music dominate western culture. The dance-hall is long gone, having given way to large scale, arena concerts.
1950s: The Irish Republican Army (IRA) tries to achieve its primary objective, an end to British rule in Northern Ireland. Its activities, although sporadic and of varying severity, constitute a continual threat. The organization employs terrorist methods, murdering British soldiers and bombing government and commercial buildings. Although inconclusive, there are hints in Pinter's The Birthday Party that it is the IRA that Stanley is supposed to have...
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Topics for Further Study
Investigate the ways in which Pinter's ethnic background and his early years growing up in a working-class section of London helped shape both his pacifism and his craft.
Research the influence of Franz Kafka on Pinter's ‘‘comedies of menace.’’
Compare the style, structure, and techniques of Pinter's The Birthday Party with those of Eugene Ionesco' s Bald Soprano or Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot.
Investigate Pinter's own observations about language and silence as concerns in his early work.
Research the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the possibility that it may be interpreted as the organization betrayed by Stanley Webber in The Birthday Party.
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On March 22, 1960, two years after its first staging, The Birthday Party was televised by ARD (Associated Rediffusion-TV). The work was directed by Joan Kemp-Welch and featured Richard Pearson as Stanley and Margery Withers as Meg. There has been no release of the video.
The Birthday Party was adapted to film in Britain in 1968. It was produced by Max Rosenberg, Edgar J. Scherick, and Milton Subotsky, directed by William Friedkin, and adapted by Pinter. The film features Robert Shaw as Stanley, Patrick Magee as Shamus McCann, Dandy Nichols as Meg Bowles, Sidney Tafler as Nat Goldberg, Moultrie Kelsall as Pete Bowles, and Helen Fraser as Lulu. The film has not yet been released on video in the United States.
In 1986, The Birthday Party was again produced for British television by Rosemary Hill. It was directed by Kenneth Ives and featured Colin Blakely as McCann, Kenneth Cranham as Stanley, Robert Lang as Petey Harold Pinter as Goldberg, Joan Plowright as Meg, and Julie Walters as Lulu. The video has not been released in the United States.
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What Do I Read Next?
Franz Kafka's novel The Trial, written in 1914 but not published in English until 1937, bears similarities to Pinter's play. Its anti-hero, Josef K., beset by vague guilt, is taken to his execution by polite gentlemen who are death's angelic summoners. Along with Beckett, Kafka had a major and acknowledged influence on Pinter, who, in 1993, adapted The Trial to the screen.
Pinter's long one-act play, The Dumbwaiter, written at about the same time as The Birthday Party, includes parallel characters that invite contrast. In it, two hired killers, Ben and Gus, await orders from an organization which remains as mysterious as that for which Goldberg and McCann work.
Ernest Hemingway's short story ‘‘The Killers,’’ first published in 1927, has a chilling pair of killers who appear in a small-town diner looking for their victim. Like Goldberg and McCann, they are unnervingly calm and fastidious in their manners. Critics have noted their similarity to Pinter's characters in both The Dumb Waiter and The Birthday Party.
John Osborne's play Look Back in Anger, produced in 1956, is a seminal work in the Angry Theater of post-World War II Britain. Its protagonist, Jimmy Porter, offers an interesting contrast to Stanley...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Brustein, Robert. ‘‘A Naturalism of the Grotesque’’ in the New Republic, Volume CXLV, 1961, p. 21.
Darlington, W. A. ‘‘Enjoyable Pinter’’ in the Daily Telegraph, June 21, 1964, p. 18.
Esslin, Martin. The Theatre of the Absurd, revised and enlarged edition, Penguin Books, 1976.
Ganz, Arthur, editor, Introduction to Pinter: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, 1972.
Hobson, Harold. ‘‘The Screw Turns Again’’ in the Times, May 25, 1958, p. 11.
Hollis, James, Harold Pinter: The Poetics of Silence, Southern Illinois University Press, 1970, p. 15.
M. M. W., "The Birthday Party'' in the Manchester Guardian, May 21, 1958, p. 5.
"Puzzling Surrealism of The Birthday Party'' in the Times, May 20, 1958, p. 3.
Shulman, Milton, ‘‘Sorry, Mr. Pinter, You're Just Not Funny Enough’’ in the Evening Standard, May 20, 1958, p. 6.
Tynan, Kenneth, ‘‘A Verbal Wizard in the Suburbs’’ in the Observer, June 5, 1960, p. 17.
Burkman, Katherine H., The Dramatic World of Harold Pinter: Its Basis in Ritual, University of Ohio Press, 1971.
This study treats Pinter's early plays not as comedies but rather as recreations of ancient fertility myths...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Baker, William, and Stephen Ely Tabachnick. Harold Pinter, 1973.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Views: Harold Pinter. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. An eclectic collection of essays by various critics. Comprehensive analysis of general themes as well as selected specific texts.
Bold, Alan, ed. Harold Pinter: You Never Heard Such Silence, 1984.
Burkman, Katherine H. The Dramatic World of Harold Pinter: Its Basis in Ritual. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1971. An analysis of Pinter’s work viewed through Freudian, Marxist, and myth analysis. Heavy on theory with solid literary analysis of individual plays.
Esslin, Martin. Theatre of the Absurd. New York: Viking Penguin, 1987. Overview of the avant-garde and how the term relates to selected dramatic works. Includes an excellent discussion of Pinter’s early work.
Esslin, Martin. Pinter: The Playwright, 1984.
Gale, Steven H. Butter’s Going Up: A Critical Analysis of Harold Pinter’s Plays, 1977.
Gale, Stephen H., ed. Harold Pinter: Critical Approaches. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1986. A collection of essays by various critics on a wide range of Pinter’s work. Places the material...
(The entire section is 263 words.)