The Birthday Party

by Harold Pinter

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Explain Stanley Webber's character in The Birthday Party.

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The character of Stanley Webber in Harold Pinter’s play The Birthday Party is something of a recluse. He spends practically all his time shut away in his bedroom at Meg and Petey Boles’ boarding house. A lonely, isolated man, Stanley has nowhere to go, and so he refuses to venture outside of the boarding house.

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Stanley Webber is a very mysterious man, and there’s an awful lot we don’t know about him or his background. This is a wholly deliberate strategy on Pinter’s part as he doesn’t want to give too much away about his protagonist, preferring instead to keep the audience guessing about what really makes him tick.

Nevertheless, we can identify some of Webber’s salient characteristics. For one thing, he’s something of a recluse. He’s come to Meg and Petey Boles’ boarding house as a way of escaping his past life. We never know quite what it is that Webber’s running away from, but whatever it is it must be pretty disturbing, forcing him to stay cooped up inside his bedroom most of the time.

Webber is a lonely, isolated man who’s deliberately cut himself off from a world he clearly finds a source of unspeakable terror. Again, we don’t know why he feels this way, but isolation is a conscious strategy on Webber’s part to minimize his mental torment.

And Webber is indeed a very tormented individual. For some reason, Goldberg and McCann seem to bring out some of his worst qualities, most notably an almost psychotic penchant for violence. Whether such violence is the product of something previously lurking in the hidden depths of a tortured psyche or is a direct response to Goldberg and McCann’s aggressive interrogations, there’s little doubt that Webber is a danger to himself and others, which would appear to justify his decision to cut himself off from the world.

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Stanley Webber exhibits the typical characteristics of an absurdist protagonist. He is perpetually insecure, anxious, and despairing. He is also cynical and volatile. His reasons for sequestering himself at the boardinghouse are obscure, and the affliction that torments him is both psychological and emotional in nature.

The proprietors of the boarding house (where Stanley is currently staying) are Petey and Meg Boles. In the play, Stanley flirts shamelessly with Meg when Petey leaves for work. He ingratiates himself to Meg while engaging in sexually-suggestive banter with her. Yet, even as he toys with her, Stanley's conversation becomes more and more bizarre. He tells Meg that he's performed all over the country and the world as a pianist. Immediately after a concert in Lower Edmonton, he asserts that he was "carved up" and that this particular event had been prearranged. Stanley doesn't bother to explain what he means by being "carved up." Oddly still, Meg doesn't ask for an explanation.

Later, Stanley tells Meg that an untold number of men are coming to the boardinghouse. They will arrive in a van, and they will have a wheelbarrow with them. Stanley maintains that the men will be looking for someone, but he doesn't explain who the men are looking for. Later, two men, McCann and Goldberg, show up at the boardinghouse, ostensibly to carry out a "job."

Harold Pinter never entirely confirms whether McCann and Goldberg are the two men who are looking for Stanley. Meanwhile, Stanley engages in a bizarre conversation with them, telling them all sorts of stories about his background. He maintains that Meg is crazy and that, even though she's holding a birthday party for him, it really isn't his birthday at all. Later, he proclaims that he's the manager at the boardinghouse; he informs the men that they will have to look for another inn, as their room has been taken.

McCann and Goldberg indulge Stanley in his bizarre attempt to distance himself from them and from his past. Stanley uses bizarre lies, outlandish contradictions, and stubborn silences to outwit the men. However, McCann and Goldberg are up for the challenge. They engage in their own brand of scapegoating. They question Stanley's sanity and maintain that he's actually dead.

Nothing in the conversation between the three men makes sense. Pinter uses their conversation to highlight mutual, co-existing neuroses and anxieties. Simultaneously, Pinter makes no attempt to explain anything or to clarify the motives or rationales behind anyone's words or actions (a hallmark of an absurdist play). Stanley's avoidance of reality can be seen in his failure to communicate; his words make little sense. Because he chooses to avoid an impartial evaluation of his life and ultimately of reality, Stanley is driven into a psychological stupor.

At the end of the play, Goldberg ominously announces that Stanley needs "special treatment." The implication is that he and McCann will make sure that Stanley receives this "special treatment." Yet, Goldberg never clarifies what the "special treatment" is. Throughout the play, Stanley's character displays elements of uncertainty and instability. It is through his character that we begin to understand the deep disillusionment and anxieties felt by the survivors of the war.

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In the play "The Birthday Party" by Harold Pinter, the character of Stanley Webber represents many things in the Theater of the Absurd.  He has isolated himself from the world, living as the only resident in a boarding house which reinforces Pinter's idea that we are all isolated. He has lost the desire to care about his appearance, looking slovenly and lost.  Stanley claims to be a musician, but there is no real evidence to prove that he is, and Pinter keeps the reader wondering what is real and what is illusion through Stanley Webber. Stanley is suddenly in fear when Goldberg and McCann arrive at the boarding house though Pinter does not reveal why or who the two men are.  Stanley protests even to the point of violence, but at the end has lost even his ability to do that as he is hauled away by the two men to his unknown fate.

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