The Birthday Party

by

Harold Pinter

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The Birthday Party: Act Three Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Sitting at the breakfast table the following morning, Meg informs Petey that she has run out of cornflakes and has nothing to feed him because Goldberg and McCann have eaten all the fried bread. Still, Petey sits and reads his newspaper as always, noting that Meg slept “like a log” the night before. “Oh, look,” Meg says at one point, picking up Stanley’s drum. “The drum’s broken. Why is it broken?” Hitting it with her hand, she says, “It still makes a noise.” She then adds, “It was probably broken in the party. I don’t remember it being broken, though, in the party.” Consoling herself, she points out that at least Stanley had the drum on his birthday, like she “wanted him to.”
The fact that Meg doesn’t remember the party is both significant and difficult to believe. Although she was certainly drinking, she didn’t seem to so drunk that she wouldn’t remember anything at all. Plus, it’s unlikely she’d forget that Stanley tried to strangle her, even if she really had been drunk enough to not remember certain parts of the evening. Her amnesia seems intentional, as if she is purposefully banishing the memory of the party from her mind in order to go on with her daily routine.
Themes
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Meg asks Petey if he’s seen Stanley yet, and when he says he hasn’t, she says, “Nor have I. That boy should be up. He’s late for his breakfast.” Petey points out that there isn’t any breakfast, but she says, “Yes, but he doesn’t know that.” She has, she reveals, already been upstairs to give Stanley his tea, but McCann opened the door and informed her that “they were talking.” “Do you think they know each other?” she asks Petey. “I think they’re old friends.” Looking out the window, she remarks that there’s a car in the driveway and asks Petey if there’s a wheelbarrow inside it, but he assures her the car only belongs to Goldberg—a fact that relieves her.
Meg cheerfully enacts her morning routine, which gives her a sense of order and calm. However, she is no longer in touch with reality, as the house has fallen into chaos and disarray but still she tries to move on as if nothing has happened. Even when it doesn’t make sense (and isn’t even possible), she insists that everyone must eat breakfast, blatantly refusing to accept reality. The play thus invites audience members to consider what qualifies as insanity, subtly suggesting that Meg’s refusal to acknowledge chaos is perhaps as insane as Stanley’s sudden breakdown the night before (though it’s worth noting that Stanley’s breakdown was violent and malicious, and thus ultimately more serious than Meg’s understated madness).
Themes
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Before Meg leaves to go shopping, Goldberg comes downstairs and says that Stanley will be along soon. Hearing this, Meg tells Petey to tell Stanley that she “won’t be long,” and then she exits. Turning to Goldberg, Petey asks if Stanley is “any better” this morning. In an unconvincing tone, Goldberg says, “Oh…a little better, I think a little better. Of course. I’m not really qualified to say, Mr. Boles.” Going on, he says that a doctor would have more to say. “Anyway,” he continues, “Dermot’s with him at the moment. He’s…keeping him company.” Confused, Petey says, “Dermot?” “Yes,” Goldberg says without explaining. He then posits that the birthday party was “too much” for Stanley, and when Petey asks what “came over him,” he says Stanley had a nervous breakdown.
In this moment Petey proves that he is perhaps the only one in the entire play who actually cares about Stanley. The mere fact that he asks how Stanley is doing is proof enough of this, considering that Meg—who most likely does remember what happened the night before—can’t even be bothered to stop pretending everything is okay (though this is perhaps a way of coping with the fact that Stanley tried to strangle her). On another note, when Goldberg refers to “Dermot,” he’s talking about McCann, since no one else is staying in the boarding house. Changing his associate’s name is an incredibly confusing thing to do, and yet he doesn’t pause to explain to Petey that he’s talking about McCann, instead pushing on to consider Stanley’s mental health in a somewhat callous manner.
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Petey asks Goldberg what brought on Stanley’s nervous breakdown, and Goldberg suggests that these kinds of things can happen in many different ways. “A friend of mine was telling me about it only the other day,” he says, explaining that “sometimes it happens gradual—day by day it grows and grows and grows…day by day. And then other times it happens all at once. Poof! Like that! The nerves break.” For some people, Goldberg maintains, these kinds of nervous breakdowns are “foregone conclusion[s].”
If one were to apply Goldberg’s understanding of nervous breakdowns to Stanley’s situation, it would be reasonable to consider that his life in isolation has contributed to the “day by day” degradation of his mental health. Living alone with nothing to do but follow Meg’s strange routines, he has been building up a store of aggression that Goldberg and McCann released the night before by exploiting his guilty conscience.
Themes
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Related Quotes
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Recounting his experience of the previous night, Petey says he came home to find the house completely dark because no one had put a shilling in the electricity meter. As such, he put a coin in the slot, but by the time he was inside, the party had already ended. “There was dead silence,” he says to Goldberg. “Couldn’t hear a thing. So I went upstairs and your friend—Dermot—met me on the landing. And he told me.” “Who?” Goldberg asks. “Your friend—Dermot,” Petey replies. He then asks if people can recover from nervous breakdowns, and Goldberg admits it’s “conceivable” that Stanley might already have gotten over it. Nonetheless, Petey says he’ll call a doctor if Stanley isn’t better by lunchtime, but Goldberg tells him this won’t be necessary.
The play’s ambiguity is often frustrating and difficult to understand, but in this moment Goldberg’s uncertainty becomes comic as well. After all, it was Goldberg himself who decided to call McCann “Dermot,” and now he acts completely confused when Petey aligns with this sudden change. As such, he demonstrates that no one in The Birthday Party is immune to the inscrutable ways that identities shift and stories change.
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When McCann comes downstairs with two suitcases, Goldberg says, “Well?” but McCann doesn’t respond. Finally, when Goldberg pushes him, he says, “I’m not going up there again.” This, he explains, is because Stanley has gone quiet. “He stopped all that…talking a while ago,” he says, telling Goldberg that he can go up himself if he wants to find out when Stanley will be ready to leave. He also says that he gave back Stanley his broken glasses, which he apparently tried to fit into his eyes. When Petey overhears this and says they can tape them, though, Goldberg says, “No, no, that’s all right, Mr. Boles. It’ll keep him quiet for the time being, keep his mind off other things.” He then says he and McCann will take Stanley to a man named Monty. “You’re going to take him to a doctor?” Petey asks. “Sure, Monty,” Goldberg replies.
McCann’s hesitance to go back upstairs suggests that whatever is going on with Stanley’s is difficult to witness. Although he and Goldberg were the ones to force him over the edge, McCann no longer wants to be around him, causing the audience to wonder why they psychologically unhinged Stanley in the first place. Petey, for his part, genuinely wants to help Stanley, but Goldberg has other plans, and when Petey asks if Monty is a doctor, Goldberg’s response is unconvincing. “Sure, Monty,” he says, failing to actually confirm anything about who Monty is or what he does. This ambiguity seems ominous.
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Goldberg informs Petey that he and McCann will most likely leave before Meg returns. Accepting this, Petey goes to check on his garden as they wait for Stanley to come downstairs. Alone in the living room, Goldberg and McCann prepare to leave. As they speak to one another, McCann starts ripping newspaper, and this annoys Goldberg, who tells him to stop because he finds it “childish” and “pointless.” Sitting down and leaning back in a chair, Goldberg closes his eyes and talks to McCann in a tired voice. “I don’t know why, but I feel knocked out,” he says. “I feel a bit…It’s uncommon for me.” Hearing this, McCann suggests they “get the thing done” so they can leave, but Goldberg says nothing. “Nat!” McCann says to Goldberg’s slumped body. “Simey!” With a jolt, Goldberg’s eyes open and he viciously tells McCann never to call him that.
McCann isn’t the only one affected by what he’s done to Stanley. Goldberg too appears troubled by the ordeal, though he finds himself incapable of articulating what he’s feeling or why he’s feeling it. McCann and Goldberg thus seem to feel at least a modicum of guilt, even though they supposedly did what they did to Stanley to punish him. This idea lies quite deep within the play, and Pinter never makes clear why McCann and Goldberg are suddenly so influenced by what they’ve done. The audience is once more forced to simply embrace the fact that a sense of meaninglessness lurks behind the play. By this point, it seems clear that there will be no resolution of the plot, and the characters’ motivations will remain ambiguous and strange.
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Goldberg tells McCann to look in his mouth, saying he wants his “opinion.” As McCann peers into his mouth, he says, “You know what I mean?” Going on, Goldberg holds forth about how he’s never lost a tooth, suggesting that he’s risen to his “position” because he’s “always been fit as a fiddle.” “All my life I’ve said the same,” he says. “Play up, play up, and play the game. Honour thy father and thy Mother. All along the line. Follow the line, the line, McCann, and you can’t go wrong.” He also asserts that he has always learned “by heart” and never written anything down.
When Goldberg says, “See what I mean?”, the play leaves the audience to guess what he’s talking about, since McCann doesn’t respond. Then, piggy-backing off this ambiguity, Goldberg once more tells stories about his past. This time, though, he recites a number of clichéd phrases, all of which he presents as small pieces of advice—but none of these phrases are very profound, and the overall effect of delivering them one after the other merely makes them meaninglessness.
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Related Quotes
“And don’t go too near the water,” Goldberg tells McCann. “And you’ll find—that what I say is true. Because I believe that the world … (Vacant.) … Because I believe that the world … (Desperate.) … BECAUSE I BELIEVE THAT THE WORLD …” In this moment, Pinter notes that Goldberg is “lost.” Having risen from his chair, he sits back down. “Sit down, McCann,” he says, “sit here where I can look at you.” Obeying, McCann sits on a footstool and listens. “My father said to me, Benny, Benny, he said, come here,” says Goldberg. “He was dying. I knelt down. By him day and night. Who else was there? Forgive, Benny, he said, and let live.” He then lists off a number of pieces of advice that his father gave him on his deathbed, all of which are cliché.
Goldberg’s desire to have insightful things to say about life is clear in this scene, especially when he says, “Because I believe that the world…” The fact that he can’t finish this sentence—and that he tries so “desperate[ly]” to do so—indicates how badly he wants to find meaning in life. Unfortunately, though, he can’t come up with anything profound to say, so he reverts to regurgitating the clichéd aphorisms his father told him on his deathbed. It’s also worth noting that his father calls him “Benny”—yet another name to add alongside “Nat” and “Simey.”
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“Work hard and play hard,” Goldberg says, concluding a list of life lessons his father taught him while dying. “All the same, give me a blow,” he adds, looking at McCann. “Blow in my mouth.” Obliging this request, McCann stands, bends over, and blows into Goldberg’s mouth. Refreshed, Goldberg asks for “one for the road,” and McCann repeats the process until Goldberg “breathes deeply” and “shakes his head,” at which point Lulu enters the living room, having come from upstairs.
By this point in the play, audience members most likely aren’t surprised by Goldberg’s strange request that McCann blow in his mouth. After all, it has already become clear that the play itself has very little in the way of an internal logic. Absurdity becomes the governing principle of the entire production, meaning there’s no reason why Goldberg shouldn’t feel rejuvenated by McCann’s hot breath in his mouth—an idea that in another play might need justification but, in The Birthday Party is just one of many oddities. Still, if one were to try to assign meaning to this action, it would be reasonable to say that McCann and Goldberg form a brief connection when McCann blows into Goldberg’s mouth, thereby transcending their isolation.
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Sensing that Lulu wants to speak to Goldberg in private, McCann steps out. “I’ve had enough games,” she says, and then accuses him of taking advantage of her. “You taught me things a girl shouldn’t know before she’s been married at least three times!” she says. “Now you’re a jump ahead!” Goldberg replies. At this point, McCann enters and says, “Your sort, you spend too much time in bed.” Advancing upon her, he says, “Confess!” “Confess what?” she asks, but he only tells her to get on her knees. Looking on, Goldberg says she might as well confess. “What, to him?” she asks. “He’s only been unfrocked six months,” he replies, as McCann hisses, “Kneel down, woman, and tell me the latest!” Moving toward the door, Lulu says she has “seen everything that’s happened,” insisting that she knows “what’s going on.” With this, she exits.
Once more, the play introduces information about a character’s past without fully explaining its accompanying story or its full implications. In this instance, Goldberg says that McCann is a recently “unfrocked” priest, and though this seems unlikely, both he and McCann do seem obsessed with the ideas of sin, guilt, and atonement. In some sense they do act as religious figures, especially considering Goldberg’s previous discussion of St. Thomas Aquinas’s theological argument on possibility and necessity. Nonetheless, the play leaves this idea unresolved, allowing Lulu to escape without confession and, in doing so, letting the play remain ambiguous.
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After Lulu leaves, McCann goes upstairs and fetches Stanley, who arrives dressed in “striped trousers, black jacket, and white collar” with a bowler hat in his hand. In his other hand he holds his broken glasses, and the audience sees that he is clean shaven. “How are you, Stan?” Goldberg asks. “He looks better, doesn’t he?” McCann says. “Much better,” Goldberg says. “A new man,” McCann agrees. They then promise to buy him new glasses, but Stanley doesn’t seem to register anything they’re saying. “Between you and me, Stan, it’s about time you had a new pair of glasses,” Goldberg says, pointing out that he’s been “cockeyed for years.” “You’re on the verge,” he adds, promising that he and McCann will “save” him. He says that they’ll do all sorts of things for him, making him rich and successful and happy.
Now that Stanley has had a nervous breakdown, Goldberg and McCann have molded him into a new person. On the surface, this new identity is an improvement, as evidenced by the fact that Stanley is no longer wearing dirty pants and a pajama shirt. Indeed, his clothing indicates that he has been rejuvenated and refreshed, but the fact that he doesn’t respond to McCann or Goldberg suggests that his transformation is perhaps not as positive as it might seem.
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“What’s your opinion of such a prospect? Eh, Stanley,” Goldberg asks. Concentrating hard, Stanley laboriously says, “Uh-gug … uh-gug … eeehhh-gag … Cahh … caahh …” Shuddering, he stops trying to speak. “Still the same old Stan,” Goldberg says. “Come with us. Come on, boy.” As they help him stand and make for the door, though, Petey enters and asks where they’re taking him. “We’re taking him to Monty,” Goldberg says. “He can stay here,” Petey replies, insisting that he and Meg can take care of him. Goldberg insists that Monty is the person Stanley needs, and then he puts the bowler hat on Stanley’s head and moves toward the door. “Leave him alone!” Petey yells, but this only causes Goldberg and McCann to stop, turn, and say, “Why don’t you come with us, Mr. Boles?”
Goldberg asks Stanley what he thinks of his and McCann’s promises to make him rich and “save” him, but none of this means anything to Stanley, who has never wanted to do anything but while away his days in isolation (for better or for worse). Furthermore, when he tries to speak, it becomes painfully clear that Goldberg and McCann have certainly not helped him, but destroyed him instead. Petey recognizes this, which is why he tries to stop them from taking Stanley away. Unfortunately, Goldberg and McCann only offer to take Petey to Monty as well, implying that if he puts up a fight, they will force him to conform to their ways—just like they forced Stanley.
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Goldberg tells Petey that there’s “plenty of room in the car” for him, but Petey remains rooted where he stands. As Goldberg and McCann take Stanley out the door, Petey screams, “Stan, don’t let them tell you what to do!” Listening to the car drive away, he goes to the table and picks up the newspaper, and the strips McCann cut all fall out.
When Petey tells Stanley not to let Goldberg and McCann tell him “what to do,” he reminds the audience that these two men have forced Stanley to abide by their rules. Using Stanley’s own guilt and sense of isolation against him, they bent him to their will, erasing whatever small amount of freedom and independence he had. Having destroyed the order of the boarding house, they then drive away as if nothing has happened, though the newspaper that McCann leaves behind is a reminder of the profound chaos they brought upon the house.
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When Meg comes home, she doesn’t know that Goldberg and McCann have taken Stanley. Sitting at the table, she asks if the two guests have already left, and Petey confirms that they have. “Oh, what a shame,” she says. After a moment, she asks if Stanley has come downstairs yet for breakfast. “No…he’s…” Petey begins. “Is he still in bed?” Meg asks. “Yes, he’s…still asleep,” Petey lies. “He’ll be late for his breakfast,” Meg complains, but her husband simply tells her to let Stanley sleep. “Wasn’t it a lovely party last night?” she asks, and Petey reminds her that he wasn’t there. “I was the belle of the ball,” she tells him. “Were you?” he asks. “Oh, yes. They all said I was,” she replies. “I bet you were, too,” he says. “Oh, it’s true. I was,” she says. And then, after a pause, she adds, “I know I was.”
By choosing not to tell Meg that Stanley has been taken away, Petey enables his wife to continue her daily routine. He clearly understands how important it is to her to maintain a sense of order and pattern. This kind of structure seems integral to her mental health, which is already rather compromised, considering that she won’t even acknowledge that Stanley tried to strangle her the night before. In addition, she now tells Petey that everyone told her she was “the belle of the ball.” The audience, though, knows that no one said this. As such, Pinter underhandedly confirms that Meg’s grip on reality is compromised, therefore suggesting one final time that she is no more sane than Stanley himself, though her instability manifests itself in smaller, more quotidian ways.
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