The Birthday Party

The Birthday Party Summary and Analysis of Act II


Act II is set later that night.

McCann sits at the table alone, methodically tearing pages of newspaper into five equal strips. Stanley enters the room, and is startled to see McCann. He starts to escape toward the kitchen, but changes course and casually greets McCann. When he hears some laughter nearby, he asks who it might be, but McCann does not answer.

He drinks a glass of water in the kitchen and then tries to leave. As Stanley approaches the door, McCann intercepts him. They introduce themselves and exchange pleasantries, although there is a barbed undertone to the exchange.

McCann insists Stanley stay for the birthday party that night, even though Stanley claims it is not his birthday and that the party will be just another booze-up. McCann whistles “The Mountains of Morne,” an Irish folksong which Stanley recognizes. They whistle the tune together. Stanley then tries to leave again, but McCann insists he stay. Stanley acquiesces, and they sit together at the table. Stanley asks McCann if they have ever met before. McCann denies it, and grows angry when Stanley touches one of the strips of newspaper. Stanley insists that they have met before, but McCann again denies it.

Stanley tells how he once lived a quiet life, rarely going outdoors. However, business brought him to the boardinghouse, and he has been there every since. He also insists he is the same man that he had always been, though he admits his appearance has faded from drink. He considers how no one would ever expect him to be a man who would cause trouble. He picks up a strip of newspaper, and McCann sternly chides him for it.

Stanley’s demeanor suddenly changes, and he asks McCann why he and Goldberg have come to the boardinghouse. McCann deflects the questions and observes that Stanley seems depressed on his birthday. Stanley again denies it's his birthday, and offers that Meg has gone “round the bend.” Becoming upset, Stanley grabs McCann’s arm and insists the other sit down and listen to him. McCann savagely hits Stanley and pushes him away.

Stanley, slightly mollified, insists again that he and McCann have met before, and that McCann is being deceitful. Stanley demands his story is true - he once lived in Basingstoke and rarely left his home, he had things delivered to his door, and he was practically a recluse. Suddenly, he switches topics and tells McCann of his fondness for Ireland and its people, especially its sunsets and policemen. McCann seems unimpressed.

Petey and Goldberg arrive, and Stanley is introduced to the latter. Goldberg tells the group about his mother, and about a former girlfriend whom he had once loved but whom he had never unfairly taken advantage of. He tells how his mother called him “Simey,” and prepared gefilte fish for dinner.

Goldberg asks Stanley about his childhood, but Stanley is unresponsive. Petey leaves for a game of chess with friends, and McCann follows to buy alcohol for the party. Stanley and Goldberg are left alone in the room. Goldberg, at ease, makes small talk, but Stanley won’t listen. Instead, he tells Goldberg there has been some kind of mistake, that the boardinghouse has no rooms left for them and so they must leave. Goldberg smoothly changes the subject to birthdays, comparing them to waking up in the morning. He says some people know how to appreciate the wonder of waking up, while others act as if they are corpses waiting to be washed.

McCann returns with some bottles, which he sets down on the sideboard. Stanley again insists they leave, but this time, Goldberg and McCann respond aggressively, insisting Stanley sit down. McCann insists forcefully, but it is Goldberg's quiet, threatening tone that effectively inspires Stanley to acquiesce.

They begin to interrogate Stanley with a series of both unnerving and seemingly unrelated questions. Through their quick, short questions, they reveal details of Stanley's past to the audience (or at least details of the past they have fabricated for him.) Their interrogation suggests that Stanley chases Petey from the house so that he can drive Meg crazy, and that he treats Lulu like a leper. When they ask why he came to the boardinghouse, Stanley claims it was because his feet hurt. They accuse him of betraying their “organization,” of being a traitor to the cloth, and of changing his name. They claim he left a girl at the altar, but also claim that he once had a wife whom he killed either by poison or by beating her to death. Stanley vehemently denies all of these claims. Goldberg and McCann’s questions grow irrational, and include queries like “why did the chicken cross the road?” and “who watered the wick in Melbourne?” Goldberg asks the difference between “the possible and the necessary.” They accuse him of lechery and of mother-defiling. They insist he is dead because he does not truly live. When they tell him he is nothing but an "odour," Stanley suddenly comes to life and kicks Goldberg in the stomach. Before they can react, Meg comes down the stairs beating the drum.

Meg enters the room dressed for the party. She places the drum on the table, and the scene's mood immediately brightens as Goldberg resumes his suave demeanor. McCann helps Stanley pour the drinks. Stanley is overwhelmed, but calm. Goldberg slaps Meg on her behind in a playful manner as he admires her dress, and encourages Meg to give a toast. Meg hesitantly but affectionately tells Stanley that she is happy he is staying at her boardinghouse, and that he is her Stanley now even if he pretends otherwise. She starts to cry.

Lulu enters. There is an immediate attraction between Goldberg and Lulu. The party guests pair off (Lulu with Goldberg; McCann with Meg; Stanley remains alone), and the dialogue shifts between the two couples. Goldberg and Lulu engage in a conversation filled with sexual innuendos revolving around childhood imagery and children’s games. Lulu confesses that she likes older men, and sits on Goldberg’s lap while he bounces her. She wonders whether Goldberg knew her when she was a child, and says he reminds her of the first man she ever loved. Meanwhile, Meg and McCann speak drunkenly of Ireland, and Meg conjectures that her father might have gone there after he abandoned the family when she was still a child.

The talk of childhood inspires Meg to request a game. They decide on blind man’s buff, and Meg blindfolds herself and stumbles about the room searching for the others. She stumbles across McCann, who then dons the blindfold while Goldberg fondles Lulu. McCann finds Stanley and ties the blindfold on him. In the process, he maliciously breaks Stanley's glasses. While Stanley stumbles around the room, uncharacteristically silent, McCann places the toy drum on the floor, and Stanley steps in it. One foot in the drum, he continues to meander until he comes across Meg. Suddenly, Stanley lashes out and tries to strangle her. Goldberg and McCann rush forward and rescue her. Then, the lights go out.

Confusion ensues as the characters bump into one another. McCann loses his flashlight, while Lulu screams and faints. In the dark, Stanley places her on the table. When McCann finally finds his flashlight, he shines it on the table, where Stanley stands over Lulu, who is unconscious with her legs spread open. It resembles a sexual assault. As he is struck by the light, Stanley begins to giggle and retreats towards the kitchen. Goldberg and McCann slowly approach him, and finally converge on him as he continues to laugh, louder and louder.

The curtain closes on Act II amid confusion and chaos.


The most prominent conflict in Act II is that between order and chaos. The act opens with a symbol of order taken to an almost perverse extreme - McCann methodically tears the newspaper into identical strips. The symbol serves as representation of how he and Goldberg approach their "job" - they are insidious and deliberate in their infiltration of the house, and not too quick to make their move. Interestingly, this same symbol will represent the chaos they leave behind when it resurfaces in Act III.

The tension between Stanley and McCann also reflects this conflict. On the surface, both men do their best to subscribe to social convention. Stanley is clearly unnerved and paranoid, and yet will not deliberately accuse McCann of what he suspects. Instead, he attempts to talk around the perceived threat, which further reflects the play's theme of imperfect communication. Similarly, McCann remains civil despite Stanley's bad attitude, at least until the latter touches the newspaper. By threatening to disrupt the semblance of order, Stanley insults McCann and leads him towards violence.

Once Stanley has disturbed their semblance of order, he takes an offensive tact and tries to dictate the terms of the conversation. He insists upon his version of his own past, in effect defending himself against a perceived threat. The audience is left to fill in any details - is Stanley telling the truth? what are the sins McCann thinks him guilty of? - even as Stanley demands his version is the absolute truth. Questions of identity, of who we think ourselves to be and who we truly are, resurface in this Act. Whereas in Act I, Stanley and Meg's conversation touched on dubious realities but had low stakes, the stakes here are much higher. We perceive that Stanley could be hurt if he cannot convince these men to accept his version of his past. The idea of an imprecise identity is reinforced in Stanley and McCann's exchange over previous acquaintance - McCann insists they have never met before, despite Stanley's insistence to the contrary.

Though Pinter does not give us details on Stanley's past, Stanley's behavior during this exchange suggests some past sin or crime. He is extremely paranoid even as he tries to maintain an air of civility, and insists preemptively that he does not seem the type of man who would ever cause any trouble. To confront the perceived threat would be to break decorum and risk violence, so Stanley relies on innuendo and subtext to communicate his point. McCann, a paragon of order and calm here, is unfazed.

Ultimately, the opening conversation is a masterpiece of theatrical conversation. There are many interpretations we can make, but we can only conjecture on motivations. The sudden shifts of intention, tone, and subject in the dialogue create through performance an uneasy feeling, a sense that nothing we see is easily categorized. While every bit of the conversation is easy to understand on its own, the overaching subtext - what is really going on - is elusive. Words do not capture our meaning, the play suggests. Instead, they become a trap that fails to properly express our worries and emotions. The only act that truly shifts the power dynamic is McCann's assault. When he hits Stanley, both men understand for a moment what is going on. However, once they return to language, the confusion and disorientation resumes.

Goldberg offers similarly ironic contradictions. A master of language, he knows how to make people respond to him. Both men, like Petey, and women, like Meg and Lulu, respond to his suave ways. And yet behind this seeming control is a sense of gleeful chaos and violence. He uses his control of orderly language to disguise a vicious intent. Clearly, he is not a hitman insistent on efficiency. If he were, he and McCann could easily overpower or kill Stanley. Instead, he attempts to manipulate the situation, to force Stanley into a madness of paranoia. Goldberg intentionally creates chaos, but does so by manipulating the orderliness of language.

This sense is apparent from the moment he enters the Act, with Petey. His story about his mother and a former lover seems to profess proper attitudes on women, even as it unnerves Stanley. Some scholars of The Birthday Party propose that Stanley’s past crime involved a woman, either his wife or a young Irish girl. This interpretation is supported both by this story and by several references during their interrogation scene. They mention that he was once married, and might have either killed his wife or left a woman at the altar. That they contradict themselves is not important - it's only language, after all - but what is important is the repeated motif of violence towards women.

Further, Stanley's attitudes help support this theory. Not only was he emotionally cruel towards Meg in Act I, but in Act II, he attempts to strangle her before preparing to sexually assault Lulu. Stanley is driven to a sort of madness by his oppressors, but rather than being the cause of this behavior, the madness arguably enables Stanley to act out his true self. As with any interpretation of this play, it is impossible to prove definitively, though a repeated cruelty towards women does support the idea that Stanley is guilty of such crimes.

One of the play's most famous scenes is the interrogation, for several reasons. Most prominent is Pinter's use of language and overlapping dialogue. The interrogation begins with somewhat legitimate questions, but quickly falls into a surreal mirage of ridiculousness. Both tactics, coming so quick on top of one another, serve to deepen Stanley’s paranoia, and lay the foundation for his nervous breakdown at the end of Act II. In performance, this scene plays quickly and violently, with the ridiculousness of the language only reinforcing the sinister, torturous intent of the characters. Again, what they say is less affecting than the way they say it, the true motivation behind the meaningless words.

There is almost a sense of a confession in the interrogation. Once Stanley submits to their judgment, he is quickly annihilated. This suggests a sense of unconfessed guilt, especially since their assessment of him is neither totally flawed nor totally truthful. After all, they contradict themselves, but he lacks the fortitude to argue. Instead, the interrogation forces him into a stupor that will not cease until he breaks down during the game. He will never again be the loquacious, arrogant fellow of Act I. He now has to look inward and confront whatever sins he has internalized. What he has done is never revealed - that he has done something is beyond question.

The one remark that does enliven Stanley is the accusation that he is only "an odour." By this point of the interrogation, Stanely has been reduced to a groaning animal, but the fear of death evoked by this claim is strong enough to force his resistance. They have pushed him too far and they prepare to be attacked, before they are saved by Meg's entrance.

Suddenly, order resumes. The scene quickly dissolves into civility once more as Goldberg again evokes a brighter tone. As the party kicks into gear, Goldberg controls the room through his command of language, while Stanley remains in a stupor. Order and chaos share the stage, and while most of the characters are drawn towards Goldberg's controlled order, the audience is aware of the chaos in Stanley, which creates a suspense and tension as counterpoint to the civility of the celebration.

Meanwhile, the theme of sexuality and the objectification of women continues to manifest through Goldberg's actions. He speaks to Lulu as a little girl, a role she quickly accepts when she bounces on his knee. It is a sick parody of the father/daughter relationship, a parallel to Meg’s strange, sexual mother/son relationship with Stanley. What a contradictory and confusing image, especially since Goldberg has come supposedly to punish Stanley for similar crimes. However, Goldberg's hypocrisy would never bother him - after all, his atonement is not at issue.

Finally, blindness becomes a motif in this Act. The final act that breaks Stanley is the destruction of his glasses, which leaves him blind to the world. The darkness of the blindfold reflects his confusion over the reasons for his torture, and is further manifest in the darkness that overtakes the room. However, when light is finally brought back, we see Stanley as he truly is, ready to repeat some kind of violence. The act closes on chaos - order has broken down, and the truth of Stanley's ugliness has come to light. The order he has maintained for these years on the boardinghouse has proved as fragile as the drum.