The Birthday Party

The Birthday Party Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Harold Pinter

Harold Pinter was raised in London, the only son of Jewish parents of Polish origin. After the German bombardment of the city in 1940 and ’41, the Pinters fled London, an experience that the playwright’s biographer claims profoundly affected his later work. In 1948, Pinter attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art for just two terms before leaving to work as a professional actor touring the United Kingdom. After several years of doing this, he began to write plays in the mid-fifties, eventually penning The Room, which premiered as his first piece in 1957. Only a year later, he produced his first full-length play, The Birthday Party, and though it originally confounded audiences, it was well-reviewed and has gone down in history as a successful and influential work. Since then, he established himself as one of the critical writers associated with the Theatre of the Absurd, and eventually won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2005. He died of liver cancer three years later, shortly after acting in a production of Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape.
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Historical Context of The Birthday Party

Since The Birthday Party is intentionally set in an isolated and self-contained world, the play itself doesn’t reference any specific historical events. Rather, Pinter focuses on charting the deterioration of an individual in isolation while also showing the dangers of giving oneself over to people like Goldberg and McCann, who have come to collect Stanley on behalf of an unnamed “organization.” This plot enables Pinter to subtly comment on the hysteria that besieged the United States during the 1950s—a hysteria that came to be known as McCarthyism. This term refers to the republican senator Joseph McCarthy, who incited widespread fear in the US regarding the possibility of communist subversion, despite the fact that there was little evidence suggesting this might happen. As such, Goldberg and McCann’s insistence upon taking Stanley away for an unspecified crime echoes the accusations of treason that ran rampant throughout the ’50s.

Other Books Related to The Birthday Party

Because of its engagement with the notion of guilt as ever-present and seemingly inherent to the human condition, The Birthday Party is similar to Kafka’s unfinished novel, The Trial, which examines the ways in which its protagonist, Joseph K., gets swept up in a vague accusation and subsequent persecution. Similarly, The Birthday Party also owes tribute to the Biblical book of Genesis, which traces guilt and transgression all the way back to Adam and Eve and their failure to adhere to God’s command, which ultimately gave birth to the idea of original sin and, thus, atonement. Lastly, the play bears similarities to Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, which—like The Birthday Party—refuses to fully reveal its characters’ backstories and motivations, instead reveling in absurdity and meaninglessness.
Key Facts about The Birthday Party
  • Full Title: The Birthday Party
  • When Published: The Birthday Party was published in 1957 and premiered in 1958.
  • Literary Period: Modernism, Postmodernism
  • Genre: Drama, “Comedy of Menace,” Theatre of the Absurd
  • Setting: A rundown boarding house in a coastal English resort town
  • Climax: Stanley has a mental breakdown at his own birthday party, revealing dark and violent predilections.
  • Antagonist: From Stanley’s perspective, Goldberg and McCann are the antagonists of The Birthday Party, but some readers or audience members might reasonably argue that Stanley himself is the true antagonist.

Extra Credit for The Birthday Party

The Handmaid’s Tale. Harold Pinter wrote the screenplay for the 1990 film adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

Delayed Success. Despite the fact that The Birthday Party was well-reviewed and has been hailed as one of Pinter’s most influential plays, it was considered a failure when it made its debut in London, where it remained in theaters for only one week.