The Birthday Party

by

Harold Pinter

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The Birthday Party: Act One Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
One morning, Petey Boles enters the living room of the boarding house that he owns with his wife, Meg. As he sits at the table and begins to read the newspaper, Meg calls from another room, saying, “Is that you, Petey? Petey, is that you? Petey?” When she peers out through the hatch that leads to the kitchen, she looks directly at her husband and asks, “Are you back?” Petey confirms that he has indeed returned from the beach, where he works as a deck-chair attendant, and Meg gives him a bowl of cornflakes. Sitting with him at the table, she asks him to tell her what it’s like outside and what’s happening in the news, making idle chit-chat.
When Meg asks Petey if he’s “back” from work, it becomes clear that she dislikes ambiguity. After all, she feels the need to confirm that Petey is home even though she’s looking at him, as if she can’t trust herself to come to conclusions about reality. As such, Pinter shows the audience that Meg is a strange, eccentric character who is perhaps a bit slow when it comes to interpreting the things taking place around her. He also intimates that The Birthday Party is a play interested in examining how people comprehend otherwise ordinary or unremarkable occurrences. Everything, it seems, is subject to uncertainty and needs confirmation.
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“Is Stanley up yet?” Meg asks, and Petey says that he doesn’t know. “I haven’t seen him down yet,” Meg says, to which Petey responds, “Well then, he can’t be up.” As such, Meg concludes that he must still be sleeping and shifts the topic of conversation by asking Petey what time he went out in the morning. “Same time as usual,” he answers. “Was it dark?” she asks. “No, it was light,” he replies. Beginning to weave as she sits at the table, Meg points out that sometimes Petey leaves in the morning and it’s still dark, but he reminds her that this only happens in the winter, when the sun rises later in the morning. After a moment, Meg asks if Petey enjoyed his cornflakes, and when he says he did, she jumps up and fetches him a helping of fried bread, proud to have made it for him.
From the very beginning of The Birthday Party, Pinter invites audience members to observe the way Meg perceives the world. Rather than looking outside for herself, she asks her husband what it’s like beyond the walls of the boarding house, suggesting that she doesn’t go out very often. This is an important thing to keep in mind, as her sheltered and naïve worldview is indicative of the play’s interest in isolation and solitude.
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“Oh, Meg, two men came up to me on the beach last night,” Petey says. “They wanted to know if we could put them up for a couple of nights.” In response, Meg says, “Put them up? Here?” She then triumphantly suggests that the strangers must have heard about their boarding house because the house is “on the list.” Getting to his point, Petey tells his wife that these two men will most likely arrive at some point in the day, and Meg tells him that she already has a room ready. She then decides to wake Stanley, and Petey asks if she already took him his cup of tea. “I always take him up his cup of tea,” she says. “But that was a long time ago.” When Petey asks if Stanley drank the tea, she says, “I made him. I stood there till he did.”
Here Meg’s commitment to upholding order and routine becomes especially apparent. After all, she not only seems to obsess over whether or not Stanley has risen yet, but also admits that she “always” takes him a cup of tea. What’s more, she says that she forced Stanley to drink this tea, implying that he didn’t even want it but that she is so devoted to following patterns that she won’t let him deviate from their morning ritual. This, it seems, is the only kind of agency she has in her life.
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Calling out, Meg warns Stanley that she’s coming to get him, and then she goes upstairs and the audience hears “shouts from Stanley” and “wild laughter from Meg.” When Stanley finally enters the living room, he is “unshaven” and wearing a “pyjama jacket” and glasses. He declares that he hasn’t slept at all, and Meg says, “Too tired to eat your breakfast, I suppose?” She pours him a bowl of cornflakes and tells him to eat them “like a good boy.” As he does so, he asks Petey, “What’s it like out today?” Interrupting their conversation about the weather, Meg says, “What are the cornflakes like, Stan?” “Horrible,” he replies, claiming that the milk is sour. “It’s not,” Meg insists. “Petey ate his, didn’t you, Petey?” Nonetheless, Stanley pushes the cereal away and asks for the “second course.”
Like Meg, Stanley asks Petey to tell him about the outside world. This is because he too has become accustomed to a sheltered, isolated life, as made evident by his shoddy, unkempt appearance. Unlike Meg, though, he doesn’t seem quite as concerned with order. In fact, her devotion to upholding the boarding house’s daily routines seems to bother him, though it’s worth noting that he more or less goes along with her patterns, obliging when she forces him to drink tea and begrudgingly coming downstairs when she tells him to do so.
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Meg tells Stanley she isn’t going to give him the second course, but he threatens to “go down to one of those smart hotels on the front.” At this, Meg jumps up and gives him his fried bread, all the while saying that he wouldn’t be able to get a “better breakfast” at a hotel. As she bickers with Stanley, Petey rises and says he’s going to return to work, and when Meg tries to stop him because he hasn’t had his tea yet, he waves her off, saying it doesn’t matter. Then, when Stanley and Meg are alone, Stanley calls her a “bad wife” because she didn’t make her husband a cup of tea. “You mind your own business,” she says in response. “You won’t find many better wives than me, I can tell you. I keep a very nice house and I keep it clean.”
Although Meg and Stanley have an odd relationship, they have clearly developed a certain co-dependency. Stanley needs Meg to make him go through the motions of everyday life, while Meg needs Stanley because otherwise she wouldn’t have anyone to care for—after all, Petey clearly doesn’t care whether or not his wife makes him tea or breakfast. The reason Meg needs someone to care for in the first place is because the majority of her life takes place in the boarding house, which she’s proud to run. She depends on residents like Stanley to validate the work she puts into keeping order.
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Stanley laughs at Meg for claiming that she keeps a “clean” house. “Yes!” she insists. “And this house is very well known, for a very good boarding house for visitors.” Laughing, Stanley points out that Meg hasn’t had any “visitors” other than him the entire time he has lived in her house. Changing the subject, she asks Stanley what he thinks of the fried bread, and he calls it “succulent.” “You shouldn’t say that word to a married woman,” she says, and this statement incites a strange back and forth in which Meg playfully calls Stanley “bad,” ruffles his hair, and brings him tea. “I don’t know what I’d do without you,” he mumbles, and she says that he doesn’t “deserve” the kindness she gives him. However, they then start arguing about whether or not the tea is over-steeped, and he calls her a “succulent old washing bag.”
Stanley and Meg’s co-dependent relationship becomes more apparent during this back and forth, especially since Stanley says, “I don’t know what I’d do without you.” Since he is her only boarder—and since Meg is so proud of running “a very good boarding house”—it’s clear that she too relies upon him. This dynamic also has certain sexual overtones, though Pinter only hints at this by staging a conversation about the word “succulent,” which bears vaguely erotic connotations. At the same time, it seems that Stanley doesn’t want to be too closely tied to Meg, and so he diminishes the sexual tension running between them by calling her an “old washing bag” (albeit a “succulent” one). As such, their relationship remains ambiguous.
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After several moments of dusting the sideboard and table, Meg turns to Stanley and asks, “Am I really succulent?” In turn, Stanley assures her that he’d rather have her than “a cold in the nose.” This delights Meg, but Stanley doesn’t take notice, instead crossing the room, collapsing in the armchair, and telling her she should clean the house because it’s a “pigsty.” Plus, he says, she should sweep his room and put up new wallpaper. “I need a new room!” he concludes, but Meg comes over and sits on the side of the chair. Petting his arm, she says, “Oh, Stan, that’s a lovely room. I’ve had some lovely afternoons in that room.” Hearing this, Stanley “recoils” from her touch in “disgust.” Nonetheless, she flirtatiously tickles him even as he tells her to “get away.”
Again, Stanley and Meg’s relationship emerges as complicated and rather unfathomable. On the one hand, they depend upon each other to alleviate their sense of isolation and to imbue their lives with a semblance of order. On the other hand, Stanley is hesitant to fully embrace Meg in a romantic way, “recoiling” from her touch and responding to her affection with “disgust.” This reaction most likely has to do with the fact that he actually likes isolation. Although the audience doesn’t yet know anything about his past, it seems clear that he is in this boarding house because he wants to cut himself off from the world.
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“Are you going out?” Meg asks. “Not with you,” Stanley says, and then she says she’s going shopping and that he’ll be lonely by himself. “Without your old Meg. I’ve got to get things in for the two gentlemen,” she says. At this, Stanley raises his head. “What two gentlemen,” he asks, and she informs him that she’s expecting guests. “Two gentlemen asked Petey if they could come and stay for a couple of nights. I’m expecting them,” she explains. “I don’t believe it,” Stanley replies, but Meg insists this is the truth. Advancing upon her, he says, “You’re saying it on purpose.” He then asks when Petey saw these men and who, exactly, they are, but Meg tells him she doesn’t know. “Here?” he continues. “They wanted to come here?” Once again, Meg confirms that this is the case, and after a troubled moment, Stanley says, “They won’t come.”
Considering that Stanley actively wants to lead an isolated life, it’s unsurprising that he dislikes the idea of new guests arriving in the boarding house. However, his response to Meg shows a certain amount of paranoia, as if he’s afraid of the people who might show up. When he says, “You’re saying it on purpose,” he insinuates that Meg is going out of her way to upset him. In turn, Pinter shows the audience that Stanley is deeply troubled by the idea of newcomers at the boarding house. As a result, he invites the audience to wonder why, exactly, Stanley is so perturbed by this. It’s natural to wonder—given his sudden alarm—if he’s actively hiding from something or someone.
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Having decided that the two new guests won’t come, Stanley says, “Forget all about it. It’s a false alarm. A false alarm.” He then asks where his tea has gone, and Meg tells him she took it away because he said it was over-steeped. “Who gave you the right to take away my tea?” he asks. “You wouldn’t drink it,” she says, and then he tells her to come to him. “Come on,” he says, gesturing for her to come closer. When she refuses, he says, “All right. I can ask it from here just as well. Tell me, Mrs. Boles, when you address yourself to me, do you ever ask yourself who exactly you are talking to? Eh?” When she fails to answer, he simply groans and “falls forward,” leaning on the table with his head in his hands.
When Stanley criticizes Meg for taking his tea away, the audience begins to understand why she cares so much about routine and order. Although it’s absurd that she forced him to drink tea earlier in the morning, it now makes sense—after all, he’s suddenly condemning her for doing the opposite. On another note, when Stanley asks Meg if she ever asks herself “who exactly” she’s speaking to when she “addresses” him, he infuses his own identity with ambiguity, lightly suggesting that she doesn’t even know him. Pinter thus intimates that Stanley is perhaps running from a dark past.
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Changing the subject, Meg asks, “When are you going to play the piano again? Like you used to? I used to like watching you play the piano. When are you going to play it again?” Stanley then points out that he can’t play the piano because the boarding house doesn’t have one. “I meant like when you were working,” Meg says, pointing out that he could play at the nearby pier. “I’ve—er—I’ve been offered a job, as a matter of fact,” he says, claiming that he’s “considering” the prospect, which would take him to a night club in Berlin. “How long for?” Meg asks, and he says, “We won’t stay in Berlin. Then we go to Athens.”
Finally, Pinter gives the audience information about Stanley’s past, making it clear that he used to be a professional piano player. However, this does little to clarify why Stanley has come to the boarding house. What’s more, it’s unclear why he no longer plays piano. Even the backstory Pinter provides about Stanley does very little to clear away the ambiguity surrounding his life, leaving the audience to continue trying to understand Stanley based only on his actions onstage.
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Again, Meg asks how long Stanley would be away for if he accepted the job, but he doesn’t pay attention, instead explaining that after Athens, he would travel to Constantinople, Zagreb, and Vladivostok. “It’s a round-the-world tour,” he finally suggests. “Have you played the piano in those places before?” Meg asks. “Played the piano? I’ve played the piano all over the world. All over the country.” After a pause, he says, “I once gave a concert.”
Given that Stanley won’t even go outside to check the weather, it seems unlikely that he’s actually considering traveling the world as a pianist. Indeed, it’s rather obvious that he’s stretching the truth in this moment, a fact that only adds to the ambiguity surrounding his life. When he says that he’s played the piano “all over the world,” he quickly corrects himself by admitting that he’s only played “all over the country.” Finally, he says that he “once” gave a concert, which is considerably less impressive than travelling the world as a concert pianist. In this way, Pinter continues to obfuscate the details of Stanley’s life, compounding the confusion surrounding his past with lies and half-truths.
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Elaborating, Stanley tells the story of the piano concert he gave, all the while using a tone that indicates he’s talking mostly to himself: “I had a unique touch. Absolutely unique. They came up to me. They came up to me and said they were grateful. Champagne we had that night, the lot. My father nearly came down to hear me. Well, I dropped him a card anyway. But I don’t think he could make it. No, I—I lost the address, that was it. Yes. Lower Edmonton. Then after that, you know what they did? They carved me up. Carved me up. It was all arranged, it was all worked out. My next concert. Somewhere else it was. In winter. I went down there to play. Then, when I got there, the hall was closed, the place was shuttered up, not even a caretaker. They’d locked it up.”
The details of Stanley’s story are murky and tenuous. For instance, it takes him two sentences to determine why his father didn’t come to the concert. It remains unclear whether or not this ambiguity arises because he can’t remember what really happened or because he’s making the story up as he goes along. Regardless, the tale ends with Stanley getting “carved up” by an unspecified “they,” suggesting that he has enemies who want to harm him. This is perhaps why he has been living in isolation—to escape these foes. However, Pinter only hints at this idea, purposefully letting Stanley’s backstory remain ambiguous so that the audience is forced to move through the play with a sense of incomprehension.
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Stanley insists that the people who wanted him to play a second concert hoodwinked him. “They pulled a fast one,” he upholds. “Well I can take a tip…any day of the week.” He puts his glasses on—since he took them off during his monologue—and looks at Meg. “Look at her,” he says. “You’re just an old piece of rock cake, aren’t you?” In response, she tells him not to go away again. “You stay here,” she says. “You’ll be better off. You stay with your old Meg. Aren’t you feeling well this morning, Stan? Did you pay a visit this morning?” Upon hearing this, Stanley suddenly “stiffens” and looks meaningfully at Meg before telling her that someone is coming in a van to collect her. Thoroughly scaring her, he says that these people will put her in a wheelbarrow and take her away.
Pinter once again emphasizes the fact that both Stanley and Meg are averse to the idea of leaving the boarding house, and thus connected through their isolation. Pinter also continues to develop their odd co-dependency, especially when Meg asks Stanley if he’s paid “a visit this morning” (a question about whether or not he has had a bowel movement). Once again, though, Stanley dislikes the level of intimacy he has with Meg, which is why he suddenly turns on her when she asks him this, purposefully trying to scare her by saying that someone is going to come collect her in a wheelbarrow.
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Telling Meg about these mysterious people with the wheelbarrow, Stanley says, “And when the van stops they wheel it out, and they wheel it up the garden path, and then they knock at the front door.” He tells her that “they’re looking for someone,” and she shouts, “No, they’re not!” At this point, a knock on the door interrupts their conversation, and Meg bustles offstage, where she conducts a conversation in whispers with an unseen person. “Hullo, Mrs. Boles,” says the new voice. “It’s come.” When this conversation concludes, Lulu walks into the living room with a parcel in her arms. Greeting Stanley, she tells him that she’s going to leave the package on the sideboard and that he’s “not to touch it.”
Once more, Pinter infuses The Birthday Party with ambiguity, this time presenting a mysterious package, which Lulu installs onstage without explanation. The fact that Stanley is “not to touch it” is especially intriguing, adding secrecy to the play’s structure even if only in a superficial way. This, it seems, is what Pinter is most interested in: introducing elements to the story without providing enough information to enable the audience to fully make sense of what’s going on. In turn, he forces viewers to simply surrender to the play and let it unfold on its own.
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Lulu remarks that the boarding house is “stuffy” and suggests that Stanley should get some air, but he insists that he went outside at “half past six.” “I went right out to the head land and back before breakfast,” he claims. “Don’t you believe me.” Taking out a compact mirror, Lulu hands it to him and says, “Do you want to have a look at your face?” Looking at his reflection, Stanley quickly withdraws. “You could do with a shave, do you know that? Don’t you ever go out? I mean, what do you do, just sit around the house like this all day long?” she says. She then invites him to come outside with her for lunch, prompting him to go one step further by asking if she’d like to “go away” with him. “Where?” she asks. “Nowhere,” he replies. “Still, we could go.”
The fact that Stanley is shocked by his own reflection illustrates just how cooped up he has been. He hasn’t even bothered to look at himself, let alone leave the house (despite what he tries to tell Lulu). However, he attempts to frame his isolation as a liberating thing, something that could inspire him to do seemingly anything. To do this, he suggests that he and Lulu should leave, upholding that they have “nowhere” to go and that this is the precise reason they can go somewhere in the first place. Under this interpretation, having “nowhere” to run to is actually a sign of freedom. In reality, of course, it’s the opposite, since going nowhere means not leaving at all. Still, Stanley seems eager to convince Lulu—and himself—that his lack of direction and purpose is beneficial and liberating, rather than inhibiting and depressing.
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“There’s nowhere to go,” Stanley continues. “So we could just go. It wouldn’t matter.” In response, Lulu says that they “might as well stay here,” but Stanley upholds that “it’s no good here.” After a pause, Lulu asks if he’s going to come for a walk with her, and he says, “I can’t at the moment.” Before leaving, Lulu says, “You’re a bit of a washout, aren’t you?”
Once again, Stanley tries to frame his own inability to leave as a liberating thing, thinking that he can go anywhere he wants because it doesn’t “matter.” He seems to be confusing the words nowhere and anywhere, and this mistake indicates the effect isolation has had on him. After all, if he were to argue that he and Lulu could go anywhere because it doesn’t matter where they go, his point would actually make sense—if it doesn’t “matter,” then there’s nothing stopping them from traveling wherever they want. But to say that there is “nowhere” to go is to say that there are no options at all, and this is why he finds himself unable to even go outside with Lulu for a short walk. He is, the audience sees, bound to the boarding house.
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Lulu leaves, a knock sounds on the door, and Stanley exits as Goldberg and McCann enter carrying suitcases. “Is this it?” McCann asks, and Goldberg tells him not to worry. “Sit back, McCann,” he says. “Relax. What’s the matter with you? I bring you down for a few days to the seaside. Take a holiday. Do yourself a favour. Learn to relax, McCann, or you’ll never get anywhere.” In response, McCann says, “Ah sure, I do try, Nat,” and Goldberg tells him that “the secret” to relaxing is focusing on breathing. He then launches into a story about when he was “an apprentice” who used to shadow his uncle, who used to live in Basingstoke and would take him “after lunch on Shabbuss” to sit on deck chairs and watch the tide. After a while, McCann interrupts Goldberg’s nostalgic story to ask if he’s sure they’re in the correct house.
Right away, it’s evident that Goldberg is prone to pontificating. Indeed, he likes to wax poetic about the past, offering life advice as McCann sits idly by and waits to talk about why they have come to the boarding house. This, it seems, is Goldberg’s way of ordering the world. Whereas Meg focuses on making breakfast and tending to Stanley, Goldberg imposes order on his life by holding forth in a self-important way.
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As Goldberg continues to reminisce about his uncle’s advice, McCann grows increasingly worried that they haven’t come to the right house. “What is it, McCann? You don’t trust me like you did in the old days?” Goldberg finally says. McCann assures him that he does indeed trust him. “But why is it that before you do a job you’re all over the place, and when you’re doing the job you’re as cool as a whistle?” Goldberg asks. He then assures McCann that when “they approached [him] to” take this job, he specifically asked for McCann as a partner. Flattered, McCann says this means a great deal “coming from a man of [Goldberg’s] position,” and Goldberg agrees that he does have quite the “position.” “You’ve always been a true Christian,” McCann says, to which, Goldberg says, “In a way.”
Unsurprisingly, Pinter doesn’t make it easy to understand the nature of Goldberg and McCann’s relationship, nor does he provide much insight into their backstories. Indeed, the audience has no idea who Goldberg refers to when he says that “they” “approached” him to take this job. He also doesn’t specify what Goldberg and McCann have come to do, and when McCann says, “You’ve always been a true Christian,” it becomes unclear how well these two men actually know each other. After all, they talk as if they’ve been friends for a long time, but Goldberg has already revealed—by talking about how his uncle used to take him to watch the tide after lunch on “Shabbus”—that he is Jewish. As such, Pinter shrouds these men in ambiguity.
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After complimenting Goldberg, McCann asks him if “this job” will be “like anything [they’ve] ever done before.” In response, Goldberg says, “The main issue is a singular issue and quite distinct from your previous work. Certain elements, however, might well approximate in points of procedure to some of your other activities. All is dependent on the attitude of our subject.”
Given the fact that Stanley is so wary of newcomers, it seems likely that he is the “subject” Goldberg is referring to. As a result, Pinter intimates that Stanley has reasons for hiding out in the boarding house, wanting to avoid something from his previous life. Nonetheless, the reasons for his isolation remain unspecified, as do the details of what Goldberg and McCann intend to do to him. In fact, even McCann doesn’t know what they’re going to do, and Goldberg’s answer is vague and ambiguous, leaving McCann—and the audience—with very little information.
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Meg enters the living room, and Goldberg tells her that he and McCann spoke to Petey about staying in the boarding house. “Very pleased to meet you,” Meg says, and Goldberg returns the compliment. “That’s very nice,” Meg says, and Goldberg replies, “You’re right, how often do you meet someone it’s a pleasure to meet.” Making small-talk, Goldberg asks about the boarding house, asking what Petey does for work and then asking her about the sole boarder, inquiring how long Stanley has been staying in the house and what he does for work. “He once gave a concert,” Meg says. “In…a big hall. His father gave him champagne. But then they locked the place up and he couldn’t get out. The caretaker had gone home. So he had to wait until the morning before he could get out. They were very grateful. And then they all wanted to give him a tip.”
When Meg tells Stanley’s story about playing a piano concert, she gets almost all of the details mixed up, as Pinter again reminds the audience that he’s uninterested in creating reliable backstories. Instead, he allows the characters’ pasts to fluctuate in an ambiguous way so that the only thing the audience can truly focus on is the present moment. What’s more, he demonstrates the extent to which Meg herself is unreliable. By telling a completely different version of Stanley’s story, she proves her inability to retain information, a fact that suggests she’s too immersed in her own world—a world of order and isolation—to successfully absorb what happens around her.
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Meg tells Goldberg and McCann that she wishes Stanley could play the piano tonight, since it’s his birthday. “His birthday?” Goldberg asks. “Yes,” she replies. “Today. But I’m not going to tell him until tonight.” “Doesn’t he know it’s his birthday?” Goldberg asks, but Meg says, “He hasn’t mentioned it.” Thinking for a moment, Goldberg tells her that she ought to throw Stanley a party. She immediately takes to this idea, loving the thought of staging a celebration. Looking at his friend, Goldberg says, “What do you think of that, McCann? There’s a gentleman living here. He’s got a birthday today, and he’s forgotten all about it. So we’re going to remind him.” Meg then declares that she’ll wear her “party dress,” which she hopes will look nice. “Madam,” Goldberg says, “you’ll look like a tulip.” Charmed, Meg takes Goldberg and McCann upstairs to show them the bedroom they’ll be sharing.
When Goldberg turns to McCann and says that they will “remind” Stanley that it’s his birthday, his words take on an ominous, foreboding quality. A certain malice lurks in this phrase, as if Stanley’s birthday party will be a perfect time to do whatever it is he and McCann have come to do. What’s funny is that Stanley doesn’t even know it’s his birthday, a fact that once more reminds the audience that ambiguity governs the entirety of the play. In addition, the idea that Stanley has forgotten his own (supposed) birthday suggests that his life of isolation has taken a toll on his intellect, estranging him not only from the world, but also from himself.
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After showing Goldberg and McCann their room, Meg comes downstairs again and speaks to Stanley in the living room. “Who are they?” he asks, pressing for details. He asks how long they’ll stay, why they didn’t come the night before, and why they’ve come in the first place. He then urges her to remember their names, and after she tells him Goldberg’s name, she promises that they won’t bother him. “I’ll still bring you up your early morning tea,” she promises. “You mustn’t be sad today. It’s your birthday.” Looking up, Stanley insists that it isn’t his birthday, but Meg only says, “It is. I’ve bought you a present.”
Unable to surmise the real reason Stanley is upset about the arrival of Goldberg and McCann, Meg assumes that he’s worried their presence will upset the boarding house’s daily routine. As such, she promises that she’ll still bring him his “early morning tea,” completely failing to intuit Stanley’s actual concerns (which, to be fair, Pinter doesn’t make clear even to the audience). She clings to order and tradition, refusing to accept that it isn’t Stanley’s birthday because she’s too excited by the idea of giving him a present—which is nothing more than a yearly routine—to believe him.
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Meg hands Stanley the parcel that Lulu brought to the house. When he opens it, he sees that it’s a small drum. “It’s a drum,” he says, confused. “A boy’s drum.” Happily, Meg tells him that she got him this because there’s no piano for him to play. “Aren’t you going to give me a kiss?” she asks, and he obliges by hesitantly kissing her on the cheek before drawing drumsticks from the package and looping the drum around his neck. Marching around the table in a circle, he begins beating the drum. “Still beating it regularly, he begins to go round the table a second time,” Pinter’s stage note reads. “Halfway round the beat becomes erratic, uncontrolled. MEG expresses dismay. He arrives at her chair, banging the drum, his face and the drumbeat now savage and possessed.”
It makes sense for Meg to give Stanley a drum, since marching drums represent rhythm, repetition, and pattern: in other words, order. As such, she’s immensely pleased when he starts to play, indulging her love of order. However, she’s “dismayed” when he strays from the rhythm. Playing a “savage” beat, he manages to destroy all sense of order by plummeting into chaos, and the fact that his face looks “possessed” suggests that this deviation says something ominous about his sanity, as if something wild and erratic has overtaken him.
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