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...
(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...
(The entire section is 947 words.)
Act I Summary
The Birthday Party opens in the living-dining area of a seedy rooming house at an unnamed seaside resort in England. Petey and Meg Boles, the proprietors, converse while she prepares his breakfast and he reads the newspaper. Their talk is inane, centering on their tenant, Stanley Webber. Petey also tells her of two strangers who might come to rent a room.
Meg decides to wake Stanley for breakfast and goes to his room. Unshaven and half-dressed, Stanley comes downstairs and sits at the table to eat. After Petey goes off to work, Stanley teases Meg about her "succulent" fried bread, but when she becomes affectionate, he gets irritated and complains that her tea is "muck" and the place is a "pigsty."
Meg tells Stanley about the two men who may be new tenants. At first he is worried but then shrugs the information off as a ‘‘false alarm.’’ Meg fends off his insistence that she obey him, getting him to speak of his musical career. He tells her that once, after a piano concert, he had been "carved'' up by persecutors identified only as "they." He then scares her by saying that the strangers will soon arrive, bringing a wheelbarrow in a van, looking to haul her away.
After Meg leaves to shop, Lulu enters with a package. She airs out the room, then sits at the table and chides Stanley for his unkempt appearance and anti-social behavior. He rejects her offer of going out, and she concludes that he is ‘‘a bit of a...
(The entire section is 451 words.)
Act II Summary
It is evening of the same day. McCann, at the living room table, methodically tears Petey's newspaper into strips. Stanley enters and begins a polite conversation. When McCann mentions the birthday party, Stanley insists that he wants to celebrate alone, but McCann says that, as the guest of honor, Stanley cannot skip out on it.
When Stanley tries to leave, McCann blocks his path. Stanley angers him by picking up one of the strips of paper. McCann, now even more intimidating, contradicts Stanley's claim that they had met before. Unnerved, Stanley starts speaking of his plans to return home, asserting that he is the same man he was, despite his heavy drinking. Frustrated in his attempts to find out why McCann and Goldberg have intruded, he grows almost frantic. He finally grabs McCann by the arm, saying that what he has told him was a mistake. McCann observes that Stanley is in a bad state and that he is "flabbergasted’’ by Stanley's behavior. Stanley then speaks of his admiration for the Irish.
Goldberg enters with Petey, prompting a new round of introductions. Goldberg talks about his youth, confessing that he was then called "Simey,’’ while Petey explains that it is his chess night and that he will miss the party. When he and McCann exit, Stanley tries to convince Goldberg to pack up and leave, but Goldberg simply talks about celebrating life, implying that late risers, like Stanley, miss out on a lot. Stanley cuts him off and orders...
(The entire section is 604 words.)
Act III Summary
It is early the next morning. As before, Petey sits at the table reading the newspaper. Through the hatch, Meg explains that Goldberg and McCann had eaten all the breakfast food. She enters to pour Petey some tea and spots Stanley's present, broken and discarded in the fireplace. She plans to fetch Stanley down, observing that she had gone up earlier and found him talking to McCann. Meg asks Petey about Goldberg's car and the suspicious wheelbarrow, which, he tells her, does not exist.
As Meg prepares to go shopping, Goldberg enters. She asks after Stanley and then about Goldberg's car, which he praises for its ample room. She leaves, and Petey inquires about Stanley's health. Goldberg tells him that Stanley had suffered a sudden, unexpected mental breakdown. Petey, growing suspicious, says that if Stanley does not improve, he will fetch a doctor, but Goldberg assures him that things are under control.
McCann arrives with two suitcases and tells Goldberg that he gave Stanley back his broken glasses. Petey suggests that they repair the busted frames with tape, then asks again about a doctor. Goldberg says that they will be taking Stanley to "Monty,'' and that the doctor is not needed.
Petey goes out, and McCann begins tearing the morning paper into strips again, annoying Goldberg. The two men try to decide whether to bring Stanley down, but the matter seems to depress Goldberg. When McCann, trying to console him, calls him Simey, he...
(The entire section is 496 words.)