Meg's query to Petey reveals how important her delusions are to her. The play opens as Meg and Petey at breakfast. She asks Petey inane and repetitive questions, which sets the tone of not only their marriage but also the atmosphere of the boardinghouse. They are clearly in a rut - the boardinghouse is in disrepair and they have only one boarder - but Meg wants assurance to the contrary. Her delusion allows her escape from the tedium of her life, but it requires constant attention.
“Oh Stan, that’s a lovely room. I’ve had some lovely afternoons in that room.”
Although it is never openly stated, there is a strange sexually-tinged relationship between Meg and Stanley. Meg is openly affectionate with him, sometimes in mothering ways but more often in flirtatious ways. However, the cruelty with which Stanley rebukes her flirtation makes the truth ambiguous. Nevertheless, she ignores his repudiations, insisting he cares for her; her delusions of importance and beauty require that she not only believe the affair is happening, but also that he enjoys it. When Meg says the above line, she is both indicating her belief in their affair, and revealing how she will reinvent his feelings to suit her delusion. It is a "lovely room," no matter what he says.
“You’re a bit of a washout, aren’t you?”
Lulu is closer to Stanley’s age than any other character is. She is described as an attractive woman in her twenties, but Stanley seems unimpressed. In Act I, Lulu berates Stanley for not leaving the house, and for always being underfoot. When Stanley refuses to go out with her, she insults him in the above manner. The insult still contains a bit of flirtation, though, which indicates both the strange relationship between men and women in the play, and her desperate desire to have someone, so strong that she even pursues the out-of-sorts, lethargic boarder.
“At all events, McCann, I can assure you that the assignment will be carried out and the mission accomplished with no excessive aggravation to you or myself. Satisfied?”
In this reassurance to McCann, Goldberg reveals the depth of his insidiousness. Not only do they have a sinister purpose in mind - the "assignment" - but they will also treat it with little personal investment. The tone is businesslike and detached, which is unsettling when we realize that Stanley is the target. This quote also reveals the differences in their characters at the top - Goldberg is collected, whereas McCann is jumpy. These roles later reverse somewhat.
“Shall I put it around my neck?”
Like a noose, Stanley puts the toy drum Meg bought him for his supposed birthday around his neck. This death imagery adds to the ominous atmosphere, suggesting that things are about to change at the boardinghouse, and not for the better. This scene also indicates how Stanley’s depressive rages can turn violent very quickly, as he wildly bangs the drums while the curtain closes.
“Why do you call me sir?”
Stanley’s mysterious past is alluded to in several scenes. Here, Stanley tries to convince McCann that they are mistaken about his identity without ever directly admitting that they might know him. It is one of the many scenes in which characters talk around one another. When McCann refers to Stanley as "sir," he overreacts, suggesting that the truth of the scene is the tension beneath it, and not the meaningless language they use.
“You’re dead. You can’t live, you can’t think, you can’t love. You’re dead. You’re a plague gone bad. There’s no juice in you. You’re nothing but an odor.”
During the bizarre interrogation scene in Act II, Goldberg gives this assessment, one of the play's most poignant. It is poignant because it is true not only of Stanley, but ostensibly of everyone in the play, as well as of the apathetic post-war Britain that Pinter was commenting on. Too many of the characters choose comfort because it is safer, but the flipside is a depressing apathy. And, as the play suggests, the truth of life never goes away and will sooner or later rear its dangerous, ugly head.
“Well - it’s very, very nice to be here tonight, in my house, and I want to propose a toast to Stanley, because it’s his birthday, and he’s lived here for a long while now, and he’s my Stanley now. And I think he’s a good boy, although sometimes he’s bad. And he’s the only Stanley I know, and I know him better than all the world, although he doesn’t think so. Well, I could cry because I’m so happy, having him here and not gone away, on his birthday, and there isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for him, and all you good people here tonight…”
Meg’s rambling affection for Stanley explains why she has invited these strangers to his birthday party. In her simplistic fashion, she wants what is best for Stanley; she is the only person in the play who truly cares about him. However, her toast also reveals her own personal blindness. Part of his misery is her unceasing attention to him, and her delusions which he must continue to entertain. When he attempts to strangle her before being taken away after his breakdown, he shows her how he truly feels, which makes her delusions all the more upsetting.
“Yes she does sometimes. Sometimes she forgets.”
Petey seems unconcerned during much of the play, but this line, spoken to Goldberg in Act III, shows he knows more than he lets on. When he explains that she sometimes gives him tea and sometimes forgets, he in some ways suggests that he sees nothing more than his physical surroundings. However, considering how tea is a symbol for Meg's affection (Stanley establishes this in Act I), and considering Petey's willingness to lie to her at the end about Stanley's disappearance, the line also has a significant subtext - Petey knows that his wife walks a fine line of sanity, held together by her delusions that can often distract her.
“Let’s finish and go. Let’s get it over and go. Get the thing done. Let’s finish the bloody thing. Let’s get the thing done and go!”
Usually, McCann is extremely deferential to Goldberg. Here, however, McCann is flustered and upset because of Goldberg’s seeming disinterest in the job. McCann relies on Goldberg to keep them calm and focused, and Goldberg's trouble in this Act make McCann doubly nervous. He does not want to get invested, since the job troubles him, but Goldberg has seemingly gotten invested. McCann cannot handle losing his calm mentor, and so he snaps for a moment.
The Birthday Party Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Birthday Party is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
I think it is a bit of both. Comedy of menace," a term coined by critic Irving Wardle, describes a play which paints a realistic picture while creating a subtext of intrigue and confusion, as if the playwright were employing a sleight-of-hand...