The Birthday Party

by Harold Pinter

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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 contingent forces that he fears outside. In fact, Petey and Meg form a sort of family unit: Petey is the father, absent at work and play, Meg is the fussy, doting mother, and Lulu completes the illusions of middle-class normality as “the girl next door.”

If Stanley’s withdrawal from the world represents a retreat back into childhood, however, his dream of infantile security turns to nightmare when two men, McCann and Goldberg, arrive to “do a job.” It is the night of Stanley’s birthday, and Meg has planned a party—hence the title of the play. She believes the occasion is merely an innocent celebration, which reinforces her surrogate sense of motherhood; for Stanley, the birthday party becomes a grim ritual of psychological terror. This contrast between Meg and Stanley’s understanding of the party is eerily illustrated at the end of act 1, when Meg gives Stanley a drum for his birthday. Stanley hangs his present around his neck and plays it, at first rhythmically, then erratically, his face “savage and possessed.”

Act 2 begins with Stanley’s initial encounter with McCann and Goldberg. Stanley tries to persuade them that they have come for the wrong man. The situation becomes increasingly violent as the men begin accusing Stanley of a series of offenses. Charged with “crimes” ranging from betraying some unnamed organization to “driving that old lady off her cork,” the accusations...

(This entire section contains 965 words.)

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at first seem trivial, but soon it is clear that what Stanley has committed are existential transgressions. In his refusal to act, in his withdrawing from the world, he is not, as he hoped, free: He is still a man with a past, which he must acknowledge. Just because he is no longer active, no longer vital, he is not excused from being acted on. Apathy is no refuge from responsibility.

As the interrogation continues, McCann and Goldberg use more progressively absurd logic to break down Stanley’s defenses, both the tactical strategies that he has devised to hide from his enemies and the psychological barriers that he has erected against his own sense of guilt, until finally Stanley is unable to answer even the childish riddle of why the chicken crossed the road. By the time Meg and Lulu join McCann, Goldberg, and Stanley for the party, Stanley’s breakdown is nearly complete.

After a vicious game of blindman’s buff, Stanley tries first to rape Lulu, then to strangle Meg. His resistance having snapped, he finally accepts his role as a sacrificial victim trapped in a fate that he can no longer deny. By act 3, Stanley’s transformation is complete. He is an image of a broken man, compliant, no longer able to speak.

Even though his next play, The Caretaker, would be more immediately successful, The Birthday Party represents a turning point in Pinter’s career. He not only proved that he could sustain a full-length work but also demonstrated an uncanny control of suspense. A sense of horror is sustained throughout The Birthday Party by Pinter’s contrasting the vicious attacks on Stanley and his increasingly pathetic denials with the harmless pretensions of Meg and Lulu, whose complicity in the plot against Stanley only increases the irony of their ignorance. Finally, The Birthday Party marks a change in Pinter’s approach to his material, from his cerebral, often abstract early plays to plays that were less about ideas and more about people. It was this shift in focus, from the philosophical concerns of the playwright to the human concerns of the characters, that assured Pinter his later critical and commercial success.


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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 drum around his neck and marches around the room, beating the drum frantically.

That night, Stanley comes downstairs to find McCann “sitting at the table tearing a newspaper into five equal strips.” Stanley tries to leave, but McCann stops him. When Stanley picks up the pieces of paper, McCann becomes violent and warns Stanley to leave the paper alone. Then Stanley tries to convince McCann that it is not his birthday, and the argument escalates into violence. When Goldberg joins McCann again, Stanley, desperate, claims that the room Meg promised the two men is not available, that it is taken, and that they will have to find lodging elsewhere. He tells them to “get out,” but instead they begin to interrogate Stanley, alternating comically nonsensical statements with serious accusations, until their tirade becomes an existential inquisition questioning Stanley’s identity. Finally, both men conclude that Stanley is dead.

The interrogation is interrupted by Meg, who brings Stanley his drum. As Meg begins toasting Stanley, Lulu joins the party, flirting with Goldberg, sitting on his lap, and embracing him. Meg then makes a play for McCann, and soon all of them are playing blindman’s buff. Blindfolded, McCann stumbles around the room until he finds Stanley and removes his glasses. In turn, Stanley begins to strangle Meg, the lights go out, and, in the confusion, Stanley tries to rape Lulu. When McCann finally finds a flashlight, Stanley is backed up against the wall, giggling hysterically.

The next morning Petey, who missed the party, sits at the table as usual, reading his paper. Meg complains that the drum she bought for Stanley is broken, but she does not remember it being broken at the party. She tells Petey that the men are upstairs in Stanley’s room “talking” and that the “big car” she sees in front of the house is probably Goldberg’s.

When Goldberg comes downstairs, he informs Petey and Meg that he and McCann are taking Stanley with them because Stanley suffered a “nervous breakdown.” McCann comes downstairs and explains that Stanley stopped talking and broke his glasses trying “to fit the eyeholes into his eyes.”

McCann begins tearing strips of newspaper again, which so irritates Goldberg that he starts shouting for him to stop, and when McCann calls him “Simey” he becomes even more agitated, calming down only when McCann blows into his mouth. Lulu drops by and accuses Goldberg of seducing her after the party, but Goldberg counters that she wanted him to do it. Insulted, Lulu claims that she has a “pretty shrewd idea” about what is going on and leaves.

When Stanley is finally brought downstairs, he is dressed in a well-cut suit and a bowler hat. Goldberg and McCann begin another sequence of absurd statements regarding Stanley’s situation, and by the time they finish, Stanley can respond only in unintelligible noises. Petey tries to stop them from taking Stanley, but Goldberg tells him they are delivering Stanley to “Monty” for “special treatment” and leave in a car with McCann and Stanley. While Petey resumes his breakfast, Meg insists that at the party that night she was “the belle of the ball” but is so confused that she still believes Stanley is upstairs in his room asleep.