Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 553
Stanley Webber, a boarder at a seedy seaside home. In his late thirties and unkempt, he indulges in fantasies about exotic cities in which he had performed as a concert pianist. In Kafkaesque fashion, he speaks of a career that was ended by persons he refers to as “them.” Filling his landlady’s need for a lodger and a surrogate son, he is comfortably ensconced as a member of the household until his position is threatened by the arrival of two strange, surrealistic guests, Goldberg and McCann. He suggests that the two have come to cart away Meg, his landlady, in a wheelbarrow. In the climactic scene, at his birthday party, Stanley beats the drum Meg has given him as a present, the tempo savagely increasing as he marches around the room. During a game of blindman’s buff, the lights go out. When the lights come back on, he is standing, with his glasses broken, over Lulu, who lies spread-eagled on a table. the next morning he appears in striped trousers, black jacket, white collar, and bowler hat, and is carted away by Goldberg and McCann to a mysterious healer, “Monty,” for treatment.
Meg Boles, the wife of Petey, with whom she operates a rundown boarding house. A mothering person in her mid-sixties who dislikes going out, she devotes her time to Petey’s meals and comfort. She dotes on Stanley, their boarder, as a surrogate son. the surrogacy, however, takes on an Oedipal cast. Although Stanley protests to the contrary, Meg insists that it is his birthday, whereupon Goldberg suggests that a birthday party be held. At the end, seemingly unaware of Stanley’s departure, she is enjoying reminiscing about being “the belle of the ball.”
Nat Goldberg, a menacing new guest in his late fifties, a “smooth operator” who takes charge of things, including his accomplice, McCann, with whom he quarrels at one point. In the form of cryptic questions about their pasts, their beliefs, and the forces that shaped their lives, Goldberg attacks first Lulu, then Stanley. He is a surrealistic, allegorical figure symbolizing the destructive impersonality of the modern world and its guilt-producing threat to the sensitive individual.
Dermot McCann, a thirty-year-old man who serves Goldberg in the nefarious activities in which they conspire. He makes an indelible impression with his neat, precise tearing of a sheet of newspaper, column by column. McCann, who is Irish-Catholic, and Goldberg, who is Jewish, suggest the Judaic-Christian influence that has shaped the modern Western world.
Petey Boles, a man in his sixties, Meg’s husband. A compliant husband, he functions in the story primarily to exchange breakfast banalities with Meg or with Stanley, their boarder. His blandness puts into sharp focus the strange behavior of Meg and Stanley and the menacing threats of McCann and Goldberg. He returns from work one day to announce the arrival of their two new guests. At the end, he returns to his routines as husband and deck-chair attendant as though nothing unusual has happened.
Lulu, a woman in her twenties. She appears mysteriously with a package. After flirting with both Stanley and Goldberg, she departs the next morning after being interrogated accusingly by Goldberg and savagely ordered by the puritanical “unfrocked” McCann to confess.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 231
Petey's wife, Meg Boles is a good-natured woman in her sixties. If only from a lack of any reference to offspring of her own, it is implied that she and Petey are childless, thus she fills a void in her life by turning the Boles's boarding-house tenant, Stanley Webber, into a kind of surrogate child. She insists on calling him "boy" and mothering him. She even takes liberties appropriate to a parent—though not to the landlady of an adult roomer—by invading his privacy to fetch him down to breakfast.
At the same time, Meg flirts with Stanley, trying to fill a second void in her life. Her marriage to Petey has settled into mechanical routine, as their listless and inane dialogue that opens the play reveals. Meg tries to win Stanley's approval of her as a woman, shamelessly fishing for compliments. Stanley, in his mildly perverse manner, responds by teasing her, knowing that she is both vulnerable and gullible.
As the play progresses, it becomes clear that Meg, though a mental lightweight, is a decent woman. She is also rather sentimental. Although it is probably not even Stanley's real birthday, she insists that it is, determined to help Stanley weather his self-destructive despondency. She also seems to be his last hope, and her absence, when he is taken away near the end of the play, intensifies his final wretchedness.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 169
Like his wife, Petey Boles is in his sixties. He is a deck-chair attendant at the unidentified seaside resort where he and Meg own their boarding house, which, although it is ‘‘on the list,’’ has seen much better days. Petey is dull and ambitionless, no more inclined than his wife to find challenges beyond the confines of their rooming house. The pair have simply settled into a humdrum existence appropriate to their mundane minds.
Because it is his chess night, Petey is not present during the birthday party. He leaves before it begins, then appears the following morning, when he makes a feeble attempt to prevent Goldberg and McCann from taking Stanley away, though he backs down when the two men suggest that they might take him as well. Petey's decency is finally as ineffectual as Meg's. At the play's conclusion, he can do nothing but slip back into vapid conversation with his wife, who reveals that she was not even aware that he had completely missed the party.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 168
Nat Goldberg, in his fifties, is the older of the two strangers who come to interrogate and intimidate Stanley before taking him away. He is a suave character, a gentleman in appearance and demeanor. He also seems to exude superficial good will, inclined to give kindly advice to both his henchman, McCann, and the other characters. He is nostalgic, too. He fondly and affectionately recalls his family and events in his early life. He also insists that Meg and the others honor Stanley with a birthday party.
Goldberg's soft-heartedness is, however, pure sham. His outward charm and polite manner mask a sadistic nature. This cruelty is first revealed in his initial interrogation of Stanley. His ugliness is further betrayed by his unspecified carnal use of Lulu, who complains the morning after the party that Goldberg subjected her to some deviant sexual experiences inappropriate even for wives. It is this discrepancy between Goldberg's calm appearance and his vicious interior that makes him the more sinister of Webber's two persecutors.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 798
See Nat Goldberg.
Described as a "girl in her twenties,'' Lulu is a neighbor who first appears carrying Stanley's birthday present, the toy drum and drum sticks that Meg had bought for him. On the flirtatious side, she is self-conscious about her sexual appeal and cannot sit still for long without taking out a compact to powder her face. To her, looks are obviously important, and she sees Stanley as a "washout" because he seems to care nothing about his unkempt appearance.
Behind her glamour, there is some youthful innocence to Lulu. She is blind to Goldberg's predatory nature and is drawn into his charm. She sits on his lap and flirts with him, a foreshadowing of what occurs between them later that night. That she is some sort of sexual sacrifice is also suggested in the conclusion to the bizarre events that take place when the lights go out during the party. When they are restored, she is revealed "lying spread-eagle on the table,’’ with Stanley hunched over her giggling insanely.
In the last act, Lulu seems broken by the night's experiences, but she is also angry. Goldberg, who baldly claims that he shares some of her innocence, had entered her room with a mysterious briefcase and begun sexually abusing her, using her, she complains, as ‘‘a passing fancy.’’ She leaves angry and frightened when McCann and Goldberg threaten to exact a confession from her.
McCann, in his thirties, is Goldberg's younger associate. Unlike Goldberg, who reveals a Jewish heritage, McCann is an immoral Irish Catholic, possibly a defrocked priest. Like Goldberg, he exercises careful self control, a quality which contributes to the sinister impression of both men. He is also methodical and compulsive, as is revealed in his ritual habit of carefully tearing Petey's newspaper into strips. He differs from Goldberg in important respects, however. More reticent, he is not as superficially warm or outgoing, and when he does speak he seems more inclined to echo Goldberg than to offer new observations. He is also physically more intimidating than Goldberg, who deliberately covers his viciousness with a mask of fatherly interest in the others and disarms everyone with his nostalgia. It is McCann who shoves Stanley at the party and snaps and breaks his glasses.
When he does talk, McCann usually just adapts to the mood set by Goldberg. Usually, too, he defers to Goldberg's age and authority, even obeying the older man's peculiar request that McCann blow into his mouth. However, at times he seems more Goldberg's equal partner, especially during the interrogations of Stanley, when, just as voluble, he become Goldberg's co-inquisitor.
See Nat Goldberg.
Until his nemeses Goldberg and McCann appear, Stanley is the only lodger at the Boles' run-down seaside boarding house. The basis of his relationship to Goldberg and McCann, at best hinted at, is never fully revealed, but their coming finally destroys Stanley's last vestiges of self-control. Near the play's end, when they have reduced him to idiocy, they haul him off in Goldberg' s car to face the "Monty," some vague, ominous fate.
Stanley, in his late-thirties, is an unemployed musician, reluctant to leave the boarding house, which has become a kind of refuge from "them," the nebulous persecutors who, in the past, destroyed his career as a concert pianist. He has grown both slovenly and desultory, and although he fantasizes about playing in great cities on a world tour, he has no real hope. Lacking a piano, he cannot even practice. As he confides in an honest moment, his only success in concert was in Lower Edmonton, a pathetic contrast to the cities he names as venues on his dream tour.
Stanley's dread of what lies beyond the boarding house traps him in a trying relationship with Meg, for whom he must act as both wayward child and surrogate husband. He is not always able to mask his disgust with this relationship and is prone to express his contempt for her in cruel verbal jibes and petty behavior. He also teases her. For example, he tells her that "they'' are coming in a van with a wheelbarrow, looking for someone to haul off, presumably Meg. His hostility finally takes a more violent form, when, during the birthday party, he tries to strangle her but is stopped by McCann and Goldberg.
Stanley, the nominal protagonist of The Birthday Party, barely struggles against his persecutors, quickly succumbing as if before some inevitable and implacable doom. Although he never evidences any guilt for his betrayal of the unspecified cause, he responds to his inquisitors as if he knows that there is nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. At the end, although unable to voice his feelings, he seems resigned to his unknown fate.
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