The Play

(Comprehensive Guide to 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 first regularly, then erratically, finally uncontrollably.

As act 2 opens, Stanley meets McCann and says he is not in the mood for a party. McCann is busy tearing paper into strips, and when Stanley picks up a piece, the visitor is angered. Stanley suggests that they have met before, probably in Maidenhead, but McCann insists that he has never been there. Stanley claims that he plans to return to his home and explains why he is living in this town: “I started a little private business, in a small way, and it compelled me to come down here— kept me longer than I expected.” Although McCann expresses no suspicions or threats, Stanley starts defending himself, asserting he is not “the sort of bloke to— to cause any trouble.” McCann denies knowing what Stanley is talking about. Stanley adds that it is not his...

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Dramatic Devices

(Comprehensive Guide to 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 loved”; morally, he is empty and dead.

Pinter provides frequent visual clues to the significance of the action. McCann’s nervous tearing of paper indicates his instability. The drum not only helps explain Stanley’s relationship with Meg but also underscores how helpless he is; his eyeglasses further suggest that he cannot cope with the world without assistance. When McCann breaks them it foreshadows Stanley’s mental breakdown. Switching the lights off not only shows how lost he is, but also indicates that all the characters are stumbling in darkness; shining the light in his face illustrates his possible guilt. The game of blindman’s buff, played with a man attempting to bluff his way out of his predicament, is a metaphor for Stanley’s situation and the randomness of the modern world.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Seaside town

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

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, the lives of seemingly ordinary characters are intruded upon by inexplicable, sinister happenstance.

Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

In the late-1950s, when Pinter wrote The Birthday Party, the developed nations of the world were deeply mired in a cold war that...

(The entire section is 644 words.)

Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

The Birthday Party uses a single setting, the living-dining room of a seaside boarding house somewhere on...

(The entire section is 1045 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1950s: Britain's decline as a world power continues and challenges to its remaining global influence persist for decades,...

(The entire section is 289 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Investigate the ways in which Pinter's ethnic background and his early years growing up in a working-class section of London helped shape...

(The entire section is 103 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

On March 22, 1960, two years after its first staging, The Birthday Party was televised by ARD (Associated Rediffusion-TV). The work...

(The entire section is 174 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

Franz Kafka's novel The Trial, written in 1914 but not published in English until 1937, bears similarities to...

(The entire section is 214 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Brustein, Robert. ‘‘A Naturalism of the Grotesque’’ in the New Republic, Volume CXLV, 1961,...

(The entire section is 676 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 263 words.)