The Birthday Party

The Birthday Party Essay Questions

  1. 1

    Discuss Stanley and Meg’s relationship.

    Stanley and Meg's relationship is complicated and ambiguous, but clearly shows how depressed they both are. In the most obvious way, they are boarder and boardinghouse owner. However, there is also a mother/son dynamic at work. Meg mothers Stanley, fussing over his breakfast and kidding with him at the table. Most strange is their sexual dynamic. She also flirts with him by invading his room, tickling him, and affectionately touching his arm. She demands kisses in return for good behavior. Stanley responds to all her affronts with disgust, but this arguably comes from feeling trapped within her house. He makes no effort to change his life, and so must see his acceptance of her as the cost of living anonymously. Likewise, she sees in him an escape from the drudgery of her banal life with Petey. No matter what the truth of their relationship is, it is clear they accept it to fill in deeper fears and insecurities.

  2. 2

    How does the state of the boardinghouse mirror the personalities of the characters?

    The house, which is untidy and poorly kept, reflects the characters of Meg, Stanley, and Petey, though in different ways. Meg is scatterbrained, and the boardinghouse suffers for her lack of attention to it. She spends too much time prancing around in front of Stanley to notice that her home is in disrepair. In short, she is more interested in her delusion of the house than in the house itself. Stage productions and films of The Birthday Party further illuminate Meg’s untidiness with scenes in a dirty but quaint living room and dilapidated kitchen. The house also reflects Stanley's moodiness and generally unkempt appearance. He lives in a state of disruption. Finally, Petey's general disinterest in his life is reflected by his disinterest in the house. He would rather glance at the paper.

  3. 3

    Discuss Stanley’s and Lulu’s interaction in Act I. What does it show about Stanley?

    Lulu is interested in Stanley, but he is unwilling to consider any deeper relationships. He is too much committed to an anonymous life of lethargy. Lulu's questions bother Stanley, since they touch on the past he would like to forget. Further, he is bothered by her sexual interest in him. More than anything, she feels bad for him and treats him like a disgruntled child. When she leaves, Stanley washes his face, which suggests their sexual tension and the fact that he has little use for such sexuality. He needs to be alone, perhaps to stay hidden from his past, and perhaps because he is too depressed for anything else.

  4. 4

    Stage directions are essential in a play. Discuss Pinter’s stage directions in relation to character development.

    After Meg gives Stanley his toy drum, he hangs it around his neck and parades around the table. Pinter uses this scene to develop Stanley’s character, to reveal how he is both a conformist and a rebel. As he playfully taps a beat on the drum while circling the table and then begins to bang it “as if he were possessed,” Pinter uses very specific stage directions so that the action of the play, which was once stagnant, suddenly explodes. This creates tension, drama and unease. So much of the play has been unspoken and tense, and now the violence is made manifest. The same thing happens with the stage directions at the end of Act II. By using very few stage directions and then using specific ones, Pinter makes sure that his dramatic moments serve as a pay-off to the lingering tension of the play.

  5. 5

    Pinter was influenced by the surrealists. Provide one example of surrealism within the play.

    Surrealism needs the pretense of reality, which is then subverted. The play is full of such juxtapositions from its very opening. The interrogation scene in Act II is a particularly great example. While the set-up is recognizable - they are interrogating a suspect - their language is nonsensical and somewhat irrelevant. What matters is the power dynamic, which is exaggerated and menacing because they do not rely on language to cement it. Goldberg and McCann here appear prophetic and haunting in their interrogation of poor Stanley, who is neither guilty nor innocent, and yet is both. The play’s essence of surrealism lies in the chaos between that which is real and that which is imagined.

  6. 6

    Describe Stanley’s decent into madness.

    Stanley is a depressed character, rumpled and unkempt. He is nasty and rude to everyone expect Petey, to whom he shows a begrudging respect. However, these behaviors mask a deep depression that Goldberg and McCann exacerbate to lead him into madness. They threaten his poorly constructed world. From the moment he hears that two men are coming, he grows less arrogant and more on edge. His conversation with McCann in Act II reveals that he has lost control of his life, and is now desperate. The interrogation scene, though it only obliquely mentions specific offenses, drives him into a guilt-fueled stupor that then explodes into full-on madness during the party itself. Rather than physically harming Stanley, Goldberg and McCann attack his delusions, and all he has left is silence.

  7. 7

    There are several acts of submission within the play. Provide an example and discuss the motivation of the characters.

    The play is very much concerned with power struggles. One example is the interrogation scene in Act II. Goldberg and McCann must first convince Stanley to sit down, an act which proves difficult since he refuses to cooperate. Despite McCann’s forceful attitude and Goldberg’s sugarcoated words, Stanley will not sit until they corner him. Their intent is to reinforce the power dynamic, to make sure he knows that they have the upper hand. Although Stanley refuses to sit from fear that they will physically harm him, he is not relieved to be untouched when he sits. Instead, he is more harmed by accepting the power dynamic, since it leads him further down his slow descent to madness.

  8. 8

    Pinter often used language as a buffer between silence and action in his plays. Describe a scene within the The Birthday Party when language was used to create silence.

    Goldberg’s speeches often silence another character's opinions or arguments. For instance, when he and McCann first arrive, Goldberg speaks at length about his Uncle Barney in an effort to calm McCann. Goldberg uses his stories to distract, educate, and perhaps annoy. His words are so closely cropped together that they engender a silence, a void after he finishes speaking. His words are not confusing, but his strange use of them creates confusion. Language seems more a tool or a weapon in this way.

  9. 9

    Elements of realism are markedly present within the play. How is realism used in The Birthday Party?

    The boardinghouse and its inhabitants define realism within Pinter’s play. Meg is the simpleminded matron, her husband the inattentive owner, and Stanley their disgruntled guest. The domestic scene of the living room, table, and chairs creates a comparison to other popular English plays of the time period. Further, the relationships - a potential affair between matron and boarder, a pleasant but dull marriage relationship, a pretty young girl from the town - all seem recognizable. It is important that Pinter make these elements seem so realistic so that his subversion of them is more affecting. By stripping away the layers of realism, by revealing long hidden truths and creating chaos, the surrealist elements of the play soon take the foreground, leaving realism and any illusion of truth behind.

  10. 10

    Are Petey and Meg happily married? Provide examples to support your argument.

    It can be argued that Petey and Meg are happy because they have obviously made a life together. They are used to each other’s personalities, and have set a very strict routine wherein Meg prepares Petey’s breakfast, they talk to one another in the morning, and then Petey goes off to work. Neither Petey nor Meg is openly affectionate toward one another, but neither are they rude or dismissive. Lastly, Petey shows his protectiveness when he lies to her about Stanley's whereabouts in Act III.

    However, this complacency bleeds into disinterest. Meg frequently forgets his tea and even forgets he was not at the party. In fact, Meg clearly gets more validation from Stanley's cruelty than she does from Petey's pleasant kindness. Further, it seems plausible that he knows of her sexual attraction to Stanley, but ignores it. Ultimately, the question is whether happiness comes from unpleasant passions or from pleasant, comfortable apathy.