Themes and Meanings
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.
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 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...
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