The Birthday Party begins in the living room of an English seaside boarding house in the 1950s. There is a door leading to a hall on the left. A hatch, or interior window, opens to a kitchen in the back of the room. Table and chairs are situated in the foreground.
Petey, a man in his sixties, enters the living room with his newspaper and sits at the table. His wife Meg, also in her sixties, greets him through the hatch. Meg appears with Petey's breakfast of cornflakes, and asks him “Are they nice?” Petey agrees that there are, and the couple then engages in dull conversation about the weather and about the birth announcement of a girl mentioned in the paper. Meg opines she would rather have a little boy than a girl, and then gives Petey a plate of fried bread, asking again whether it's nice. Petey says that it is.
Petey then tells his wife that he met two men the on the beach the night before, and that they had asked for a room. Meg is surprised by the news, but quickly recovers and considers that the men probably heard about their boardinghouse's reputation, since it’s “on the list.” She does have a room prepared for visitors, although the two men would have to share it.
Suddenly, Meg says she’s going to “wake that boy,” indicating for the first time that there is a boarder in the house. Petey asks her if she already brought him his cup of tea, and Meg replies that she had watched him drink it earlier that morning. Meg then heads up the stairs and yells for Stanley Webber, insisting he come down for breakfast. She threatens to “come up and get him” otherwise. After a vocal count of three, she races offstage and up the stairs. From offstage, Meg's laughter and Stanley's shouts are heard as Petey continues to read the paper.
Meg reenters, out of breath and adjusting her hair. She rushes to prepare Stanley's cornflakes. Stanley, a scruffy, bespectacled, unshaven man in his pajamas, enters and flops down in his seat at the table, where he stares morosely into his cornflakes. He and Petey exchange pleasantries about the weather, and Stanley complains that he can’t eat his cereal because the milk has gone bad. Meg calls him a liar, but quickly replaces the cereal with fried bread.
Petey rises and exits out the side door for work, leaving Meg and Stanley alone in the room. The mood immediately shifts. Stanley teases Meg, calling her a bad wife for not giving her husband a cup of tea in the morning. Meg bristles and tells him to mind his own business, but quickly turns flirtatious when Stanley uses the word “succulent“ to describe her fried bread. She ruffles his hair, but he pushes her arm roughly away.
Meg fetches a pot of tea and pours it, coyly telling Stanley he shouldn’t call a married woman succulent. Stanley replies that a married woman has no place coming into his room and “waking him up.” Meg begins to dust the room, and asks him if he really thinks she’s succulent. He says that he does, but when she sensually strokes his arm and tells him she has had “some lovely afternoons in that room,” Stanley recoils and starts to lambaste her for the state of the house. His room needs cleaning and papering; he wants a new room. He continues to insult her and denies her a cigarette, even when she tries to tickle him with the feather duster.
Either oblivious to his behavior or accustomed to it, Meg changes the subject and mentions that two gentlemen are coming to stay. Stanley grows suddenly still. There has never been another boarder since he came to the house. He accuses her of lying, but Meg insists she is telling the truth. Stanley remains accusatory towards her, and they begin to shout until Stanley, very quietly, asks her, "who do you think you’re talking to?”
This is the first indication of Stanley’s mysterious past. Backtracking, he tells Meg that he has gotten a job, that he’s going to travel the world, and that he is going to play piano as he once had. In a long monologue, he tells of a concert he once gave, stating that his father had almost come down to see him, but then suddenly changing his story to claim he never invited his father because he had lost the address. He describes the concert as a great success, but claims his next show was a disaster. Stanley refers to a mysterious collective (only calling it “they”) who boarded up the concert hall and pulled a fast one on him. “They wanted me to crawl down on my bended knees. Well I can take a tip,” he says.
After his speech, Meg asks him not to leave. She tries to comfort him, but he cruelly claims that a van is approaching the house with a wheelbarrow that will take her away. She panics and accuses him of lying as he advances on her.
A knock at the door interrupts them. Lulu, a young girl in her twenties, has arrived with a bulky package. Meg asks her to leave it in the living room, but to prohibit Stanley from opening it. Meg leaves to do her shopping as Lulu enters. She opens the door for air, and playfully insists Stanley needs a bath and a shave. She asks him to join her on a walk outside of the house. Stanley objects at first, but then agrees they should go somewhere, anywhere. When Lulu asks where they will go, Stanley replies, “nowhere,” and quickly recedes back into his own inner turmoil. Lulu affectionately calls him a “washout” and leaves. Stanley washes his face in the kitchen, and then exits.
Two gentlemen, Goldberg and McCann, enter the room from the street. McCann is nervous, and wants assurance that Goldberg has brought them to the right house. Goldberg, in a pleasing tone, reassures McCann. Goldberg reminisces about his Uncle Barney, who used to bring him to the seaside on the second Friday of every month. McCann remains nervous, but Goldberg calmly insists that this impending job will be no different than those they have performed in the past. This perspective quiets McCann, who calls Goldberg a “a true Christian” and indicates that he is grateful for being invited on this job. Goldberg insists McCann is the best in his profession, and they settle into a discussion about the mysterious job they have come to perform. This is the first indication that a person in the boarding house is “the job,” though the particulars of the job remain unclear.
Meg enters, and Goldberg charmingly introduces himself and McCann. He quickly establishes a flattering repartee with Meg, whom he calls a tulip. Meg informs the gentleman that they have arrived on Stanley Webber’s birthday. Goldberg seems very interested in Stanley, and learns from Meg that he is her only boarder, that he once gave a concert, that he was a good pianist, and that he has been at the boardinghouse for some time.
Goldberg suggests that they throw an impromptu birthday party for Stanley. Meg is thrilled at the idea, and decides she will wear her party dress. She then shows the gentlemen to their room, at McCann's insistence.
Meanwhile, Stanley renters the room and sits at the table. When Meg reenters, he bombards her with questions about the gentlemen: Who are they? What are their names? When are they leaving? Stanley is visibly upset when he learns Goldberg’s name. He sits very still as Meg reassures him that the men will not bother him. To cheer him up, she gives him the package that Lulu had brought over.
Fatigued, he denies that it is his birthday, but Meg refuses to listen. He opens the package to find a toy drum with two drumsticks. Meg asks him to give her a kiss and he does, albeit upon her cheek. She asks him to play, and he hangs the drum from his neck and prances around the table tapping a merry beat. Then, Stanley suddenly begins to bang the drum erratically, almost savagely. He arrives at her chair and, leaning in towards her face, he bangs the drum harder and harder as if he were possessed.
The curtain closes on Act I.
Overall, The Birthday Party is both extremely conventional and entirely unique. Most of its elements are easy to recognize and understand, but the relationships between those elements is slippery and difficult to pinpoint. Pinter's work is prized for the way it approaches and comments upon the limitations of communication, and The Birthday Party is no exception. The play, especially in performance, suggests that our attempts to communicate with one another are futile and often tinged with deep-seeded resentments that we are unable to fully articulate. The truth, in order words, lies in the silence, not in the words characters use.
To best understand the play, it is useful to know about the famous 'Pinter pause.' Even a cursory scan of the play will reveal how precisely Pinter uses silence and pauses in telling his story. While it is perhaps not accurate to interpret this silence as deliberately designed to communicate an idea, it certainly does create a general unease, a feeling of sinister motives, that has become a hallmark of the writer's work. Please see the "Theatre of the Absurd" section of the note for more specifics about this style.
Act I of The Birthday Party opens with a traditional domestic scene of a husband and wife around the breakfast table. Their conversation is bland but comfortable. On the page, it can seem hardly theatrical: there is no conflict, no exposition, and no challenge to expectation. However, hidden beneath the surface of Petey and Meg’s morning routine is a heavy sense of apathy, a recurring theme within the play. Both Petey and Meg, like Stanley, have accepted their tedious existence to the point that they fear change, as proven by Meg’s reaction in Act III when she does not have breakfast ready. Her morning routine is disrupted and she is extremely upset. In performance, one can sense the undercurrent, which gives the scene tension if not conflict. Again, their relationship on the surface seems perfect - in the silence beneath it, however, an audience can sense a problem.
The specific setting of The Birthday Party is an English boardinghouse on an unnamed coast in the 1950s, but it is also set within the generalized idea of “the home” and “the family.” By establishing such a recognizable setting - the domestic home - Pinter sets the stage to reverse expectation and make commentary upon it. Effectively, he reinvents the domestic scene by adding elements of confusion and chaos. This juxtaposition led critic Irving Wardle to describe the play as a "comedy of menace," one in which a seemingly realistic scene is complicated by lies, deceit and confusion.
Stanley, as a character, represents the essence of confusion; he lies about his past, speaks rudely, lies regularly, and later denies any wrongdoing, even though Goldberg and McCann, who are also shrouded in mystery, strongly insist upon his guilt. Pinter establishes the layers of social norms so that he can later peel them back to reveal the ugly potential of the human condition.
Act I also introduces the odd relationship between Meg and Stanley. When Petey is present, Meg refers to Stanley as “that boy,” a stern but affectionate choice for her boarder. Of course, their relationship is far more intimate. Pinter explores the difference between her relationship with the men through the motif of "tea," or "making tea." Meg does not forget Stanley’s tea, but she does forget Petey’s. Stanley later calls her a bad wife for sending her husband to work without any tea, and what is implied is that she is far more interested in having tea ready when she is left alone with the boarder. Their sexual tension is abundantly clear, though the particulars of their relationship remain ambiguous. Meg is much older than Stanley, which allows the reader to create his or her own details: is Stanley taking advantage of a lonely old woman? Did they have a sexual relationship that faltered? An examination of their relationship reveals how ambiguous Pinter's play truly is.
Stanley openly flirts with Meg as she preens and struts about the room, fishing for compliments. Unlike her conversation with Petey, which centers on whether the food was "nice" and other pleasantries, Meg wishes to know whether Stanley finds her "nice." She wants intimacy with him; she wants to something deeper than her relationship with Petey affords. In effect, she is confessing the depth of her loneliness, her desire to break from an apathetic routine, but she cannot fully express this. Instead, we are meant to discover it while she is more than happy simply to be called "succulent."
It can be argued that Meg is simply delusional. Certainly, she harbors delusions about the quality of her house. She believes it is "on the list," but its shabby quality is mentioned by Stanley on several occasions. In Act II, Stanley will insist to Goldberg and McCann that it is not even a boardinghouse. Even if it is, its lack of boarders speaks volumes about its quality and reputation.
However, her greatest and most poignant delusions involve her relationship to Stanley. She may not have even had an affair with him. He may merely see her as comic relief, or as a way to ensure his security in the house. Her sentimental touches and her affectionate reminder of having spent “many lovely afternoons” in his room only inspire violent and rash outbursts from him. Is he tired of her flirtatious ways and delusions, or is he guilty of having entered into an affair with his much older, married landlady? Has Stanley taken advantage of her? They certainly seem familiar with one another, since Stanley allows her to enter his room uninvited, but again, Pinter leaves the exact details up to his audience.
Yet their conversation is barbed as well as comfortable. Meg worries both that Stanley will grow angry with her and that he will leave. The latter fear might connect to the pain of her own father's betrayal, as described in Act II. Regardless, it is rooted in a desire to break from the apathy of her life. Through the eyes of this younger man, Meg can see herself not as a generic housewife, but as something special - not as a failure (her business is quite meager, after all), but as a worthwhile woman. Stanley, on the other hand, is defined not by his fear but by his disgust. He is disgusted by himself, by the boardinghouse, and by Meg, who represents his guilty conscience, his jailer, or both. While she is comfortable because she accepts who he is, one could argue that she also makes him see himself too clearly, and hence does he hate her as well as accept her.
Pinter never confirms or denies the intimate details of Meg and Stanley’s relationship. Petey, however, offers some insight when he lies to Meg about Stanley’s whereabouts at the end of Act III. He knows she will be hurt when she finds that Stanley has left, and in an effort to spare his wife pain, he allows her to go about her domestic routine instead of telling her the truth. If nothing else, Petey recognizes her delusion, her need to find self-worth through the boarder. There is no specific incident within the play which conclusively determines what Petey knows of Meg and Stanley’s relationship, but lack of closure certainly aligns with the play's general ambiguities.
Confusion, one of the most dominant themes within the play, is perpetuated by the characters’ needs to maintain their delusions by lying to one another. Stanley consistently lies within the play. He tells Meg he has a new job and will be leaving, but in reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Stanley does not want to leave the boardinghouse, and yet he feels trapped there, stuck in the mindless and repetitive world of Meg and Petey’s relationship. He is both drawn to and disgusted by the safety of such a lifestyle. The exile is in many ways self-imposed, considering that he refuses Lulu's invitation to leave. His lies to Meg could be interpreted as yet another cruelty towards her, but they also reveal the extent of his self-hatred, and the brief respite these delusions bring. When he does cross the line into cruelty, telling Meg that she will be taken away by a wheelbarrow, he does not realize how poignantly he foreshadows his own fate within the play.
Stanley, like the other characters, is not what he seems. His continued deceit discredits him as a trustworthy character, and yet he suggests that he might indeed have a shady past when he asks Meg:
“Tell me Mrs Boles, when you address yourself to me, do you ever ask yourself who exactly you are talking to? Eh?” Such an address could suggest one of two pasts: either an entitled, wealthy background, or the self-appointed swagger of a violent man. Further, he lies about his father, confusing even himself. Even he has forgotten what is true.
As he continues his story about the concerts, he begins to reveal serious paranoia. His passion during this part of the speech suggests either that his is speaking truthfully or that his delusions have taken over. Meg does mention that he used to play piano at the pier, so the talent itself is not an invention, even if it now lays dormant. Either way, Stanley seems to believe he has been forced from his career and vocation. Perhaps an initial nervous breakdown forced him from a high life (real or imagined) to this secluded seaside boardinghouse. Regardless, he has certainly left his old life behind, and now sees fit to reinvent the particulars of his old life. The question is whether, for Stanley, the difference between the reality and his delusion really matters.
Adding to the play's confusing atmosphere is the miscommunication manifest in Pinter's use of language; miscommunication is another recurring theme throughout the play. Each character uses language not only to express himself, but also to further his own cause, lie, mislead, and simply cause pain. Pinter once reflected that he had used too many dashes in The Birthday Party, and not enough dots. Although his example is esoteric, his meaning is clear. The language serves to confuse us, even as the characters give lots of information. For instance, Goldberg’s long winded speeches reflect on a past which may or may not have relevance toward his current circumstances, and may or may not suggest a deeper interpretation. The dialogue is outwardly conversational, but his deliberately paced silences and carefully chosen language suggests a deeper turmoil than the characters mean to express. Consider how the superficiality of the opening dialogue hides deep apathy, or how Goldberg's charming demeanor only makes his presence doubly sinister. Similarly, Stanley’s hesitancy masks a deeper turmoil. His rash outbursts represent his fear, or perhaps his guilt. One of the most telling moments of the Act uses no dialogue at all - Stanley's possessive beating of the drum not only feeds the foreboding atmosphere, but foreshadows his own descent into madness.
Goldberg and McCann’s conversation in Act I showcases Pinter’s use of language as a dramatic element. Their entrance creates chaos, as they throw the seemingly unoriginal day at the boardinghouse into a state of perplexity. Goldberg and McCann’s friendly but businesslike conversation ironically creates a ominous atmosphere. They are here to “do a job.” By avoiding the particulars, the audience is left to construct their own sinister details, an effect made doubly effective when performances utilize the rhythmic silence and pauses.
Goldberg’s cryptic message is partly for the benefit of the audience. Pinter certainly does not want to give too much away, and yet Pinter himself may not know what the job is. He was famous for following his characters intuitively, learning about them as he wrote, rather than determining their identities before writing. If we accept this approach as true, then Pinter himself would have discovered the existence of a "job" precisely at this point of the play, and continued writing to determine its conclusion. As there is no conclusive resolution within the The Birthday Party, one can assume that Pinter did not know what happened to Stanley after he left the boardinghouse. He may not know what Goldberg and McCann’s “job” is, or if they successfully completed it. What this suggests, then, is that plot is far less important than atmosphere, and the general commentary on the limits of communication.
Pinter’s later works would examine characters similar to Goldberg and McCann, who represented a corrupt 'organization.’ However, in this early work, the two gentlemen only represent a potential organization from which they may have been charged with a job. At its core, The Birthday Party is frustrating from a story perspective but wildly successful in terms of atmosphere. Its sense of confusion and delusion are all the more powerful for its narrative ambiguities.