A key element of “the absurdist theater” is its focus on confusion and chaos. In The Birthday Party, these elements manifest constantly, especially through its characters.
The primary way in which the themes manifest are through the ambiguities of lives and pasts. Stanley has some sort of mysterious past that deserves a violent reckoning, but nobody really provides its details. When Stanley describes his past to Meg in Act I, there is even the sense that he himself is confused about its particulars. Goldberg's name and past seem shrouded in mystery and delusion, and Meg convinces herself to believe things about her life that are clearly not true. Further, because of these type of confusions, the situation devolves into total chaos. From the moment Goldberg and McCann arrive, the audience can sense that the simplicity of the boardinghouse is about to be compromised, and indeed, the chaos at the end of Act II confirms it.
The only truth of The Birthday Party is that there is no truth, only chaos and confusion from which we make order if we choose.
Perhaps the most pessimistic aspect of The Birthday Party is that the only alternative Pinter gives to chaos and confusion is a life of apathy and complacency. The play's opening sets this up - Petey and Meg reveal a comfortable but bland life in which they talk in pleasantries and ignore anything of substance. Stanley might be more aggressive than they are, but he too has clearly chosen the safety of complacency, as he makes no effort to change his life. His lethargic lifestyle reflects the attraction comfort has for him. When Goldberg and McCann arrive, they challenge this complacent lifestyle until the whole place falls into chaos. Ultimately, Petey chooses to refortify the complacency of the boardinghouse over bravely fighting for Stanley; neither choice is truly attractive.
The precision Pinter employs in crafting his rhythmic silences is enough to justify language as a major theme, but he moreover reveals how language can be used as a tool. Each of the characters uses language to his or her advantage. In effect, characters manipulate words to suggest deeper subtexts, so that the audience understands that true communication happens beneath language, and not through words themselves. When Stanley insults Meg, he is actually expressing his self-hatred and guilt. Goldberg is a master of language manipulation - he uses speeches to deflect others questions, to redirect the flow of conversation, or to reminisce about past events. His words are rarely wasted. Meg, on the other hand, repeats herself, asking the same questions over and over again in a bid for attention. Even though she often speaks without affectation, her words mask a deep neurosis and insecurity. These are just a few examples of instances in which language is used not to tell the story, but to suggest that the story is hidden. In essence, language in The Birthday Party is a dangerous lie.
One of the great ironies in this play is that it uses what appears to be a fairly undramatic, realistic setting which nevertheless hides a surplus of guilt. The theme of atonement runs throughout the play. Stanley's past is never detailed, but he is clearly a guilty man. He is vague about his past, and does anything to distract Goldberg and McCann. He does not wish to atone for whatever he did, but is forced to do so through torture. Goldberg, too, wishes to avoid whatever sins torture him but cannot fully escape them; his mood in Act III shows that he is plagued by feelings he does not wish to have. In the end, all of the characters are like Lulu, who flees when McCann offers her a chance to confess - everyone has sins to atone for, but nobody wants to face them.
Perhaps most fitting for a contemporary audience who would see this play as something of a period piece, the theme of nostalgia is implicit but significant in The Birthday Party. Goldberg, particularly, is taken by nostalgia, frequently waxing poetic both on his own past and on the 'good old days' when men respected women. Certainly, Goldberg tells some of these stories to contrast with the way Stanley treats women, but they also suggest a delusion he has, a delusion that breaks down when he himself assaults Lulu between the second and third acts. He idealizes some past that he cannot live up to.
Other characters reveal an affection for nostalgia as well. During the birthday party, Meg and Lulu both speak of their childhoods. However, their nostalgic feelings have darker sides. Meg remembers being abandoned, whereas Lulu's memories of being young lead Goldberg to bounce her perversely on his knee. Similarly, the characters play blind man's bluff specifically because it makes them nostalgic, but the sinister side of such nostalgia is inescapable in the stage image of Stanley preparing to rape Lulu. Nostalgia is lovely to feel, the play seems to suggest, but more insidious in its complexities.
The Birthday Party is full of violence, both physical and emotional, overall suggesting that violence is a fact of life. The violence is doubly affecting because the setting seems so pleasant and ordinary. Most of the men show their potential for violence, especially when provoked. Stanley is cruel and vicious towards Meg, but much more cowardly against other men. Both McCann and Goldberg have violent outbursts no matter how hard they try to contain themselves. Their entire operation, which boasts an outward civility, has an insidious purpose, most violent for the way it tortures Stanley slowly to force him to nervous breakdown. In both Acts II and III, they reveal how language itself can be violent in the interrogation scenes.
Much of the violence in the play concerns women. Stanley not only intimidates Meg verbally, but he also prepares to assault Lulu. Goldberg in fact does assault Lulu. Finally, the threat of violence is ever-present in the play. Even before we realize that disaster might come, we can feel the potential through the many silences and tense atmosphere.
Sexual tension is present throughout the entire play, and it results in tragic consequences. Meg and Stanley have a strange, possible sexual relationship that frees him to treat her very cruelly. The ugliness of his behavior is echoed when Goldberg calls him a “mother defiler” and “a lecher.” In fact, Goldberg suggests that Stanley's unnamed sin involves his poor treatment of a woman. Lulu seems interested in Stanley as well, but is quickly attracted to Goldberg in Act II. Her innocence makes her prey to men's sexuality. Her openness leads to two consecutive sexual assaults, and yet she is nevertheless upset to learn that Goldberg is leaving. All in all, it is a strange, perverse undercurrent throughout the play - sex is acknowledged as a fact of life, and yet does not ever reveal positive aspects of the characters.
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...