The Birthday Party

by Harold Pinter

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 538

The Birthday Party is about paranoia, the inability to communicate, and the search for identity and truth. Stanley has been hiding in this seedy boardinghouse for a year, afraid, knowing that someone will eventually come to punish him. Yet he does not try to run away when Goldberg and McCann appear, because he knows he cannot escape his fate. He tells Lulu that the only alternative to “here” is “nowhere.” Stanley is estranged from his father for some unstated reason, possibly something to do with his mother. Perhaps he is hiding not from criminals at all, but running from his own guilt and projecting his fears onto the visitors. The party, with both the young Lulu and the older Goldberg making sexual innuendos, pushes Stanley over the edge. Whatever his offenses might be, they seem more horrible for being unspecified. Goldberg and McCann personify the dangers always present in the contemporary world, waiting to steal one’s comfort, sanity, and even life.

The characters are helpless to defend themselves because they cannot make themselves understood to one another. The Birthday Party opens with Meg asking several times, “Is that you, Petey?” Even after he replies, “Yes, it’s me,” she asks, “What? Are you back?” That she says this while looking at her husband indicates the frequent meaninglessness of words for the characters. When Stanley calls the fried bread “succulent,” Meg responds, “You shouldn’t say that word to a married woman.” That Harold Pinter considers human communication a mere jumble of words becomes even clearer when Lulu and Goldberg have a conversation simultaneously with Meg and McCann, rendering both discussions incomprehensible.

When Meg asks Petey to identify himself, it is only the first of numerous confusing references to the problem of identity. Who are Goldberg and McCann? Is Goldberg’s name Nat or Simey or Benny? Is McCann’s Dermot or Seamus? Is he a defrocked priest? Is Stanley a pianist or a criminal? Although Meg is clearly working-class, she recalls her childhood as the pampered daughter of “a very big doctor.” Pinter forces his audience to question what truly determines who someone is—what effect name, background, and occupation have on identity. The playwright wonders whether it is possible truly to know another person.

Pinter’s world does not offer absolute truths. A woman of simple faith, Meg insists that the cornflakes are “refreshing” because the package says so. She is more confused about other matters, pretending to be Stanley’s mother yet making sexual advances to him. She says of Stanley, “I think he’s a good boy, although sometimes he’s bad.” Stanley tells the visitors he has a responsibility to Meg and Petey, yet he places them in danger by living with them. Although Goldberg delivers four lengthy speeches about his traditional, homey values, he is apparently a gangster. He breaks down during one of these assertions and keeps repeating, “Because I believe that the world. . . .” His stated beliefs are part of a routine that masks his evil purposes, but even he is afflicted by doubts. With Goldberg representing Judaism, McCann Catholicism, Meg motherhood, and Stanley the arts, Pinter’s characters suggest the ways in which traditional values have failed the modern world.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1751

Absurdity As in many absurdist works, The Birthday Party is full of disjointed information that defies efforts to distinguish between reality and illusion. For example, despite the presentation of personal information on Stanley and his two persecutors, who or what they really are remains a mystery. Goldberg, in particular, provides all sorts of information about his background, but he offers only oblique...

(This entire section contains 1751 words.)

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clues as to why he has intruded upon Stanley's life.

What has Stanley done to deserve persecution? The facts of his past are so unclear that his claim to be a pianist may even be false. The Birthday Party influences the audience to doubt anything with certainty, which as it does in Kafka's work, intensifies the dreadful angst experienced by the protagonist. This effect is achieved through truncated dialogue, by Pinter's deliberate failure to provide conclusive or consistent information, and by his use of ambiguity and nonsense.

Alienation and Loneliness Stanley has isolated himself from society, with only the vaguest of explanations offered as to why. What is clear is that he has ‘‘dropped out’’ of everyday life. He is the sole lodger in the Boles' boarding house. He has forgone any efforts to make himself presentable, remaining depressed and sullen, half-dressed, unkempt, and unwilling to leave the womb-like comfort of his rundown digs.

Clues suggest that he is not simply hibernating. He is hiding out, fearful of some retribution if he is found. He is scared to leave the rooming house. He fends off Lulu's casual advances, and he is unwilling to look for a job as a pianist, though he fantasizes about taking a world concert tour.

While Stanley's loneliness is self-imposed, Meg's is not. She is mired in a marriage that is routine and uneventful, and she seeks to fulfill her needs by both flirting with and mothering Stanley. She is a decent but sad figure, easily tormented by Stanley, who treats her badly when he grows tired of her suffocating affection.

Lulu, too, looks to overcome her loneliness, first by trying to interest Stanley, then, at the birthday party, by flirting with the much older Goldberg. In the aftermath of the party, he goes to her room and introduces her to some sort of deviant sexual practices, aided by unidentified toys and devices carried in a mysterious briefcase. In the last act, she claims that she has been abused and abandoned by Goldberg, who dismisses her with the suggestion that she got exactly what she wanted.

Apathy and Passivity Although anger and even violence break through Stanley's apathy at key moments, he generally appears to have given up on life. His apathy is apparent in his slovenliness. He remains unshaven, unwashed, and half-dressed. He is unwilling to venture out, although he talks about dreams. He is, as Lulu says, "a bit of a washout.’’

In mood shifts that turn him suddenly aggressive, Stanley resists his tormentors, Goldberg and McCann, just as he sporadically lashes out at Meg. After the first interrogation conducted by his inquisitors, he kicks Goldberg in the stomach and threatens to hit McCann with a chair, and during the party he tries to choke Meg and, possibly, to rape Lulu. But at the end he is passive and docile, no longer able to resist, no longer even able to voice objections to his fate.

Doubt and Ambiguity In the sense that it conveys doubt and ambiguity, The Birthday Party is built on words that confuse more often than they clarify. Things that the audience or reader thinks are revealed by one snatch of dialogue may be contradicted or rendered illogical in the next, making it impossible to separate allegations from truth and fact from fiction. Even the most mundane issues are cloaked in doubt—questions for which there should be simple yes or no answers. Is it really Stanley's birthday, as Meg claims, or is it not, as Stanley insists? Has Meg really heard Stanley play the piano, as she claims, or has Stanley's situation made that an impossibility? Is he, in fact, even a pianist?

Although there are many details in the play, it is almost maddeningly free of facts that confirm anything or sufficiently explain the behavior of characters. For brief moments, some key things seem to be known, but soon they slip away like water down the drain. Most importantly, the cause that Stanley has allegedly betrayed is never really identified, and it remains as mysterious as Goldberg's sexual implements carried in his briefcase, the literalness of the Monty, or the exact nature of Stanley's approaching fate.

Guilt and Innocence Although Goldberg and McCann's verbal assaults on Stanley defy any easy interpretation, it is clear that Stanley is somehow vulnerable, that their accusations do wound him, and that there is guilt to expose and sins to expiate. Still, until the arrival of Goldberg and McCann, Stanley's self-imposed exile in the rooming house, though depressing, at least offers a modicum of security. He seems docile initially, only flaring up at Meg, whose motherly affection he finds suffocating. His dread is dormant until he learns that two strangers may arrive on the scene. They ignite his inner fear, offering some sort of retribution for Stanley's real or imagined crimes which, in their bizarre tribunal, run the gamut of crimes against humanity. Goldberg and McCann are hardly avenging angels, however. Although outwardly warm and engaging, Goldberg is perfectly willing to defile innocence. He not only seduces Lulu, he takes her on a journey into debauchery. It is such contradictions that obscure the intruders' true identities.

Language and Meaning A concern of absurdists is their belief that language, rather than facilitate, may prevent genuine human communication. Meaning is more likely to be conveyed not by what is being said but by its subtext, what is left unsaid or the manner in which it is said. With Pinter's work in particular, words tend to mask the authentic self, while silence threatens to expose it and make it vulnerable. Pinter's characters seem to dread silence.

In The Birthday Party words are used in non-communicative ways. For example, there are the inane exchanges between Meg and Petey, who, when they are alone, really have little or nothing to say to each other. They live in the ashes of their marriage, a condition they will not face. They evade the truth by mouthing empty and routine phrases that confirm only self-evident and insignificant facts. Their small talk both begins and ends the play.

Language for others is a tool of deceit, especially for Goldberg, who uses his insincere friendliness to torment Stanley. Using disingenuous flattery on Meg, Goldberg pushes for the birthday party, an ironic contrast to his more sinister purpose, which may well be to take Stanley off to be executed.

In The Birthday Party, as in many of Ionesco's plays, words are often used like physical objects. They are as palpable as clubs in Goldberg and McCann's interrogations of Stanley. In their inquisitions, their alternating lines even establish a rhythm that mimics striking blows.

In general, language is treated as an unreliable tool of human expression, which is of focal concern for Pinter. At the end of the play, it seems to fail altogether, at least for Stanley. About to be taken off by McCann and Goldberg, he is incapable of uttering anything but nonsensical syllables. It is only then that his terror is fully exposed.

Rites of Passage Although it may be argued that interpreting the basic action of The Birthday Party as a rite of passage is very tenuous, some critics view Stanley as a symbol of the alienated artist who must be socially reintegrated. In this schema, Goldberg and McCann represent, respectively, the Judaic and Christian strains that impose on modern society, their "organization," various obligations. In this scheme, described by Martin Esslin in Pinter, ‘‘Stanley is the artist who society claims back from a comfortable, bohemian, 'opt-out' existence.’’ The ritual of reintegration involves both the second-act initiation, the birthday party, and the third-act investiture, the dressing of Stanley in the habit or ‘‘uniform of respectable, bourgeois gentility.’’

There is also the second initiation, that of Lulu into sexual depravity, but this rite of passage is wholly secret and occurs offstage. It is one that also contributes an ironic comment on the other, for it is the fatherly Goldberg who is the ritual's high priest. The implication is that although society tries to redeem its outcasts, it also corrupts and violates its members.

Sex The death of love is a common theme or condition in much absurdist drama. Aberrant behavior, violent aggression and sexual repression are likely to play important roles, as they do in The Birthday Party. In his listlessness, Stanley seems largely indifferent to Lulu, who, obviously on the prowl, tries to encourage his interest. Although momentarily hopeful at the prospect of going off with Lulu, Stanley falls back into his fatalistic despair, killing any hope of a "normal" relationship. His sexual repression finally gives way to his aborted rape of her at the end of Act II.

In the seedy rooming house, love seems either ineffectually sad or depraved. Meg, even in the face of his abuse, flirts with Stanley, though she is twice his age; and Lulu flirts with Goldberg, who introduces her to unspecified (though presumably horrible) sexual experiences. With Goldberg, sex is an empowering experience, a violent way to control or destroy and a terrible mockery of its function in a loving relationship. In Pinter's world, such a healthy relationship seems an impossibility.

Violence and Cruelty At various points in the play, aggression gives way to verbal cruelty or physical violence, both actual and implied. Stanley is abusive towards Meg, whom he enjoys tormenting. During the party, he even tries to throttle her. Still, most of the threatened violence is directed at Stanley. Goldberg and McCann represent power that Stanley cannot effectively resist, although at first he tries. He attempts to remain uncooperative, and he even kicks Goldberg in the stomach; but he is really no match for the two men. After their abusive interrogation, when the party starts, they ritually disarm Stanley, breaking his glasses and controlling his behavior. Unlike Stanley's violence, evident in his manic drum beating, choking of Meg, and aborted rape of Lulu, the violence of Goldberg and McCann is either merely threatened or is exercised offstage, as in the sexual abuse of Lulu. That they can achieve their aims with little more than veiled threats makes them a very sinister pair.