Harold Pinter’s play “The Birthday Party”

The ‘theatre of the absurd’, a term coined by the critic Martin Esslin in 1961, is used to describe the new style of theatre which developed following the Second World War. The concept refers to the plays of the 1950s and 1960s which centre on the notion that life is illogical, without purpose and devoid of meaning (Esslin, 1980).

Harold Pinter, according to Esslin, is one of the defining playwrights of the movement and like other playwrights at this time, such as Samuel Beckett, Pinter wants to communicate the enigmatic and problematic nature of human existence. Esslin states that however realistic the situations which arise appear to be, Pinter’s plays are essentially reflections on, and allegories of, the human condition. (Esslin,1963). Pinter emphasises the instability and comfortlessness of the human condition.

This post discusses Esslin’s assertion in relation to Pinter’s play The Birthday Party (1958). Pinter’s play centres on the life of the main protagonist Stanley Webber, an unemployed pianist, who, for the last year, has been living as a lodger with Meg and Petey Boles in their sea-side boarding house. Stanley is living in idle seclusion away from the outside world. However, the relatively peaceful, domestic atmosphere of the boarding house is disturbed by the intrusion of two unknown characters, Goldberg and McCann. The two men are “agents” of an “organisation” and have come to claim Stanley (Pinter, 1991). The characters in the play prior to the arrival of Goldberg and McCann are described by Malkin as a representation of domestic banality (Malkin, 1992). The dialogue in the opening scene between Petey and Meg is filled with inane questions asked by Meg followed by Petey’s monosyllabic answers:

MEG You got your paper?
MEG Is it good?
PETEY Not bad.
MEG What does it say?
PETEY Nothing much.

However the idiom changes drastically with the arrival of Goldberg and McCann and it is not long before the dialogue begins to breakdown (Malkin, 1992).

Stanley is subjected to a strange and disturbing cross-examination by the men. Pinter adopts stichomythia, a form of dramatic dialogue, during the interrogation scene where both Goldberg and McCann alternate in asking Stanley questions that range from the sublime to the ridiculous, all of which lack intelligible meaning (Silverstein, 1994). The language of nonsense is used abusively as Stanley is tortured with illogical questions. For example:

MCCANN What about the Albigensenist heresy?
GOLDBERG Who watered the wicket in Melbourne?
MCCANN What about the blessed Oliver Plunkett? 

The men’s interrogation of Stanley continues throughout the party itself which finally dissolves into a series of violent acts. Pinter’s dialogue is made up of incorrect syntax, tedious repetitions and also contradictions. Goldberg and McCann’s questions and statements are a combination of distorted clichés and idioms (Prentice, 2000). Dukore suggests that the linguistic absurdity present in The Birthday Party (1958) may suggest the absurdity of the human condition (Dukore, 1982). Through dialogue Pinter displays the inadequacy of the words we use in our everyday speech and how language itself has become an insufficient and defective tool for communication (Malkin, 1992).

The nature of language and dialogue is also central to the theme of menace in The Birthday Party (1958). The dramatic image of Pinter’s play is based on the individual search for security in a world filled with unease, fear, and lack of understanding between people (Esslin, 1963). The uneasiness and anxiety in The Birthday Party (1958) arise from the threat of invasion from the outside menacing world. When Stanley learns of the two men who will be coming to stay in the boarding house his initial reaction is one of shock and fear of that which is unfamiliar. When speaking to Meg he is quick to try to falsify her claims maintaining that the men will not come (Pinter, 1991). However, Pinter states that in the world we live in, as in the world of his plays, everything is uncertain and we are surrounded by the unknown; it is because of this we are constantly fearful of an invasion from that which is unfamiliar (Esslin, 1980).

The mysterious and unfamiliar presents itself in The Birthday Party (1958) in the form of the external world, personified by Goldberg and McCann, which intrudes on what seems to be Stanley’s safe and secure environment in the Bole’s boarding house. Goldberg and McCann embody the theme of menace in that they threaten to disturb, with language as their weapon, what is familiar and constant in Stanley’s life.

Dukore suggests that the fear of menace present in Pinter’s The Birthday Party (1958) may suggest the absurdity of the human condition, for Stanley, like all of mankind feels insecure and unsafe without certainties in his universe (Dukore, 1982). Stanley, like mankind, is fearful that what lies beyond the confines of his comfortable environment is threatening and hostile. Without knowledge man would grow more terrified of the surrounding world and I believe the purpose of this play is to highlight just that. Our quest for knowledge has limitations and in a bid to diminish the fear of the strange and unfamiliar what Pinter is perhaps trying to convey is that there will always be an unknown.

Esslin argues that Pinter’s The Birthday Party (1958) may also be interpreted as an allegory surrounding the nature of conformity. By using language as a weapon, Stanley, the pianist, the solitary and individual artist, is forced to confine to the ways of Goldberg and McCann (Esslin, 1980). The morning following The Birthday Party (1958), during which Stanley was subjected to further taunts from McCann, left unable to speak and reduced to a manic state of laughter, the “agents” bombard him with an extensive list of his faults and specify the benefits of submitting to their influence:

MCCANN Now you’re even more cockeyed.
GOLDBERG It’s true. You’ve gone from bad to worse.
MCCANN Worse than worse.

Goldberg and McCann are insistent that they bring Stanley to see Monty however Petey is not entirely convinced. He suggests that as Stanley is a guest in his boarding house he should be the one to look after him. However, the “agents” state that Monty is the finest there is and they subsequently offer to take Mr. Boles also. The final line that Petey speaks to Stanley, Pinter has described as being one of the most important lines he has ever written (Merritt, 1995):

PETEY Stan, don’t let them tell you what to do!

Perhaps, Pinter is commenting on the farcical nature of society and its blind adherence to conform to social norms. Stanley has lost every ounce of his individuality; he is even dressed like Goldberg and McCann wearing a dark, well cut suit and white shirt (Pinter, 1991). Perhaps Stanley’s glasses, now broken in his hands having been damaged at the party by McCann, are symbolic of this blindness. Even Goldberg, in the final moments of the play before taking Stanley away, admits to feeling uneasy. He reflects on his despair and criticises the way he himself was made into the person that he is now by the strict established disciplines of society and the world and also questions his own state of being:

GOLDBERG What do you think, I’m a self-made man? No! I sat where I was told to sit. I kept my eye on the ball.

Goldberg and McCann’s obedience to authority reflect that of Stanley’s initial rejection of, and rebellion, against it. Both parties automatically attack what does not conform to their sense of self (Prentice, 2000). However, in Act Three of the play we witness a re-birth of Stanley, a man no longer autonomous who has been re-created in the image of the all-powerful Other (Silverstein, 1994). Pinter here is perhaps alluding to the fallibility of man’s identity, how each of us lacks the ability to achieve a genuine and unalterable self as we are all products of the environment in which we immerse ourselves. Stanley’s once sheltered abode became occupied by Goldberg and McCann and if one views the change in Stanley on an allegorical level it is perhaps commenting on the farcical nature of conformity in society. Stanley’s transformation could be a reflection on society itself and how people strive to fit in to social norms, whether it is their true identity or a portrayal of a false façade.

In conclusion, I agree with Esslin’s assertion about the nature of Pinter’s play, in that one can view The Birthday Party (1958) as holding a mirror up to society revealing the problematic and enigmatic nature of the human condition. Language in Pinter’s play it seems has lost all importance and semantic power and instead becomes a weapon of destruction. The play seeks to highlight the limitations of our everyday speech in order for us to understand the often nonsensical nature of our means of communication. Limitations of language become apparent and language becomes insufficient when one is in search for truths surrounding the human condition and that, it seems, is what this play is trying to convey. The menacing nature of what is unknown and man’s fear of the uncertainty in the play also aims to reflect on the nature of man’s situation in the world. There will always be evidence of an unknown as our knowledge is limited and there will forever be something which is uncertain. The farcical nature of man’s quest for knowledge, as shown in the play, is that man will never achieve a full understanding of all that is around him. It is apparent also that The Birthday Party (1958) as an allegory of conformity seeks to portray the farcical and pointless nature of man’s adherence to social norms, but also to perhaps suggest that conformity is near impossible to avoid. Pinter, as Esslin argues, in his play The Birthday Party (1958) successfully portrays the volatility and bleakness which surrounds the human condition.