The idea of the comedy of menace is closely associated with Harold Pinter. Pinter specialized in creating plays that are both ominous and humorous. His characters tend to inflict damage on each other that is more psychological than physical. An atmosphere of foreboding is maintained throughout the play, as diverse types of threats—such as the imminent arrival of a mysterious, unnamed person—are suggested. The characters frequently express apprehension over upcoming events. All the while, this tension is simultaneously relieved and enhanced through comic dialogue. Although an unhappy ending sometimes is revealed, just as often the tension remains unresolved. This leaves the audience in the same anxious state as the characters.
The Birthday Party includes most of these elements. The title suggests a joyous occasion, but even the “fact” of a specific day being someone’s birthday is a matter of dispute. Tensions between characters are immediately established. There is an apparently hostile relationship between Stanley and Meg, his landlady. The audience is unsure how serious this animosity is, and wonders if the situation will escalate. The anxiety level rises as a new complication is introduced: two strangers arrive. When Meg insists it is Stanley’s birthday and suggests that he forgot, the new arrivals—named Goldberg and McCann—make the concept of throwing a party seem like a threat.
As the characters play traditional party games, the intimidations escalate. In their version of blind man’s bluff, Stanley’s glasses are broken. The other men’s threatening language and behavior encourages sympathy with Stanley, who often seems the victim. However, Stanley is sometimes aggressive, such as when he tries to attack a neighbor. In the end, Goldberg and McCann lead Stanley away from the house. The audience is left not knowing the reason for their departure. Perhaps Meg brought them there to rid her of an undesirable tenant, or perhaps they are figures from Stanley’s past.