The Birthday Party

by

Harold Pinter

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The Birthday Party: Act Two Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
That evening, McCann sits at the table and slowly tears a newspaper into “five equal strips” while Goldberg and Petey’s voices drift in from outside. Stanley enters the living room and greets McCann. “Were you going out?” McCann asks, and Stanley says that he was indeed planning on doing so. “On your birthday?” McCann says. “Yes,” replies Stanley. “Why not?” Trying to make him stay, McCann informs him that there will be a party for him. “Oh, really?” Stanley asks. “That’s unfortunate.” “Ah, no,” McCann says. “It’s very nice.” All the same, Stanley asserts that he’s not “in the mood for a party tonight” and that he plans to go out to “celebrate quietly” on his own. However, McCann is blocking the door and won’t move. “The guests are expected,” says McCann, explaining that the party will be an “honour” that Stanley won’t want to miss.
McCann’s pasttime of ripping newspapers represents the extent to which his—and Goldberg’s—presence destabilizes the boarding house. Their arrival has disrupted the prevailing sense of order, a fact embodied by his slow, methodical destruction of the newspaper. On another note, it’s strange that Stanley says he’d like to “celebrate” his birthday “quietly,” considering that he has previously suggested that it’s not his birthday at all. Once again, then, the details of The Birthday Party are ambiguous and even contradictory, leaving the audience with very little in the way of reliable information.
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“Excuse me,” Stanley says, moving to leave. However, McCann doesn’t let him pass, saying, “Why don’t you stay here?” Giving up, Stanley sits at the table and notes that he feels like he’s met McCann before. “Ever been anywhere near Maidenhead?” he asks, but McCann says they’ve never met and that he hasn’t been to Maidenhead. “There’s a Fuller’s teashop. I used to have my tea there,” Stanley says. “And a Boots Library. I seem to connect you with the High Street.” Still, McCann denies any connection, so Stanley starts talking about what it’s like to live in this coastal town. “I like it here,” he says, “but I’ll be moving soon. Back home. I’ll stay there too, this time. No place like home. I wouldn’t have left, but business calls.” When McCann asks if Stanley is “in business,” he says, “No. I think I’ll give it up.”
Yet again, Stanley presents his past life in a confusing, contradictory manner. This time, he suggests that he came to the boarding house because of “business,” but when McCann asks if he’s “in business,” he says, “No.” However, he then adds, “I think I’ll give it up,” a phrase that implies that he is, in fact, “in business.” Of course, he is perhaps purposefully contradicting himself in order to confuse McCann, but it’s safe to assume that Pinter is also hoping to confound the audience by withholding the actual details of Stanley’s life. In turn, viewers are left wondering what they actually know about the play’s protagonist—an experience that not only mimics what it would be like to encounter Stanley in real life, but also reflects the ways in which Stanley’s life of isolation has warped his sense of reality.
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Stanley reiterates to McCann that he intends to return home, saying that he “used to live very quietly.” He suggests that, though he doesn’t look like someone who would lead “such a quiet life,” this is only because he’s been drinking a lot while living in the boarding house. Still, he insists he’ll be “all right” when he goes home. Focusing on McCann, he asks why he came to the boarding house, saying that it’s a “ridiculous house to pick on” because it’s not actually a boarding house at all. Interjecting, McCann points out that Stanley seems rather “depressed for a man on his birthday,” but Stanley maintains that it’s not his birthday and calls Meg “crazy” for saying so. “That’s a terrible thing to say,” McCann responds.
It’s worth noting that Stanley says he’s been drinking too much while living in the boarding house, effectively confirming the detrimental effect this life of isolation has had on him. Furthermore, he once again contradicts himself, this time reverting to his original assertion that it isn’t his birthday, ultimately reinforcing the sense of ambiguity that runs through the play. Lastly, by calling Meg “crazy,” he alerts the audience to one of The Birthday Party’s primary interests: exploring whether or not a person is sane.
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Stanley becomes visibly shaken by the fact that Goldberg and Petey are lurking outside. “You want to steady yourself,” McCann says as Stanley rushes over to him and grabs his arm, saying, “Listen. You knew what I was talking about before, didn’t you?” McCann simply sits down and insists that he doesn’t know what Stanley’s talking about. “It’s a mistake!” Stanley says. “Don’t you understand? […] Has he told you anything? Do you know what you’re here for? Tell me. You needn’t be frightened of me. Or hasn’t he told you?” McCann feigns ignorance, simply saying, “Told me what?” to which Stanley says, “I’ve explained to you, damn you, that all those years I lived in Basingstoke I never stepped outside the door.”
Stanley becomes frantic and ridden with anxiety, as if he has a guilty conscience. His question, “Or hasn’t he told you?” implies that he wants to know if Goldberg has told McCann something unsavory about him. Stanley also reveals that he used to live in Basingstoke—the same place that Goldberg talked about when he first arrived and told a story about his uncle. As such, the audience learns that McCann and Goldberg most likely do know Stanley, despite the fact that McCann has insisted otherwise. This is how Pinter wants the audience to receive information: by piecing it together and struggling to make sense of the play’s ambiguity.
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Recognizing that McCann is Irish, Stanley invites him to a nearby pub that serves Guinness, but Petey and Goldberg enter and interrupt their conversation. After introducing himself, Goldberg launches into a long description of his mother. “‘Simey!’ my old mum used to shout,” he says at one point, and McCann says, “I thought your name was Nat.” Explaining that his mother called him Simey, Goldberg asks Stanley to talk about his childhood, but Stanley doesn’t respond. Filling the silence, Petey informs his guests that he has plans for the evening and won’t be able to attend the birthday party. When he leaves (along with McCann, who goes to get alcohol), Stanley suddenly shouts, “Don’t mess me about!” When Goldberg regards him, he claims to be the manager of the boarding house, saying, “I’m afraid there’s been a mistake. We’re booked out.”
Pinter pushes the ambiguity of the play to a rather hilarious and absurd point, where even McCann gets confused about his own friend’s identity. “I thought your name was Nat,” he says, earnestly voicing what audience members are no doubt thinking to themselves. However, such details are unimportant in The Birthday Party and are especially insignificant to Goldberg, who seemingly has no trouble shifting in and out of the past and present, all the while allowing the specifics of his life to fluctuate according to the conversation he’s having. In this way, each character becomes estranged from everyone else in the play—no one can truly connect because they know nothing about one another.
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Goldberg ignores Stanley’s assertion that the boarding house can’t accommodate new guests, instead approaching him and saying, “I must congratulate you on your birthday.” He says that he believes birthdays are “great occasion[s]” that are “taken too much for granted.” To him, though, birth is a wonderful thing to celebrate. When McCann enters with an armful of bottles, Stanley tells him to get the alcohol out of his sight, but Goldberg simply tells him to sit down as McCann sets the bottles on the sideboard. “I have a responsibility toward the people in this house,” Stanley says, refusing to sit. “They’ve been down here too long. They’ve lost their sense of smell. I haven’t. And nobody’s going to take advantage of them while I’m here.” Again, though, Goldberg tells him to sit.
Stanley’s anxiety in this scene comes to full fruition, as he pretends to be the manager of the boarding house, making it clear just how much he doesn’t want to be around Goldberg and McCann. However, what remains unclear is whether Stanley is afraid of Goldberg and McCann because they are bad men, or if he’s afraid of them because he himself has done something terrible and they’re here to punish him. It’s worth noting that Goldberg has told Stanley to sit down twice in a row; these commands hint at the fact that Goldberg and McCann are beginning to curtail Stanley’s freedom by ordering him around.
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Stanley refuses to sit, so Goldberg tells McCann to force him to do so. When Stanley holds his ground, McCann repeats the command: “Sit down.” “Why?” Stanley asks. “You’d be more comfortable,” he says. “So would you,” Stanley points out. With this, McCann agrees to sit if Stanley will join him, but when he lowers himself into a chair, Stanley says, “Right. Now you’ve both had a rest you can get out!” Hearing this, McCann bolts out of the chair and says, “That’s a dirty trick! I’ll kick the shite out of him.” Finally, after Goldberg yells at him to sit, Stanley takes a seat, at which point Goldberg and McCann close in on him, saying, “Webber, what were you doing yesterday?” Before he can answer, though, Goldberg says, “And the day before. What did you do the day before that?”
Once Goldberg and McCann finally succeed in forcing Stanley to sit, they begin to bombard him with questions. When they ask what Stanley was doing “yesterday,” it begins to seem more and more likely that Stanley has indeed transgressed in some way. However, the fact that they don’t wait for Stanley to respond—instead pushing on with their questions—indicates that they don’t actually care what he has to say. In turn, their interrogation loses some of its meaning, so that they’re simply going through the motions of questioning Stanley.
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“Why are you always wasting everybody’s time, Webber?” Goldberg asks, launching into a slew of questions that Stanley is hardly able to answer. He asks why Stanley bothers Meg, why he “behave[s] so badly,” what he wore the previous week, and why he left “the organization.” “Why did you betray us?” McCann chimes in. They then ask who Stanley thinks he is before inquiring as to when he came to the boarding house, where he came from, why he came, and why he stayed. “I had a headache!” Stanley answers. “Did you take anything for it?” Goldberg demands, and when Stanley confirms that he took “fruit salts,” Goldberg says, “Enos or Andrews? […] Did you stir properly? Did they fizz?” “Now, now, wait, you—” Stanley stammers, but Goldberg cuts him off, saying, “Did they fizz? Did they fizz or didn’t they fizz?”
As Goldberg and McCann interrogate Stanley, their questions become not only more and more absurd, but more and more meaningless. It obviously doesn’t matter what kind of “fruit salts” Stanley takes for headaches or whether or not he properly stirs this medication. And yet, Goldberg treats this question with the utmost seriousness, as if it’s a matter of life and death. This makes the entire interrogation seem rather inconsequential. After all, if Goldberg and McCann think Stanley is guilty for failing to make his “fruit salts” fizz, then even the most banal actions can be considered sinful, meaning that everyone in the world should be condemned. Stanley also responds to these absurd questions as if they truly are serious, thereby validating the interrogation and confirming that he has a guilty conscience.
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“You betrayed the organization,” McCann says. “I know him!” In response, Stanley shouts that McCann doesn’t know him, but McCann plucks his glasses off his face. When Stanley stands to retrieve them, McCann moves his chair so that Stanley has to feel his way to it once more. When he sits back down, Goldberg and McCann resume their absurd questions. “Why did you kill your wife?” Goldberg asks. “What wife?” Stanley says. “How did he kill her?” McCann chimes in. “How did you kill her?” asks Goldberg. “You throttled her,” McCann asserts. “With arsenic,” Goldberg adds. Switching tracks, Goldberg says, “Why did you never get married?” He then maintains that Stanley “skedaddled from the wedding.” Moving on, he asks why Stanley changed his name. “I forgot the other one,” Stanley answers.
Although some of their questions are silly and seemingly inconsequential, Goldberg and McCann do accuse Stanley of a number of heinous crimes. They also suggest that he has “betrayed the organization,” though no one clarifies what organization they’re referring to. Similarly, they contradict themselves when talking about Stanley’s wife, simultaneously suggesting that he killed her and that he never got married in the first place. By rendering this interrogation a chaotic and ridiculous affair, Pinter shows the audience just how easy it is to force a person into guilt. In fact, the mere suggestion of guilt seems to be Goldberg and McCann’s most powerful advantage, since they apparently don’t care about the specific details of Stanley’s supposed crime.
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“You stink of sin,” Goldberg says. “Do you recognise an external force?” Stanley doesn’t understand the question, but Goldberg only repeats it, saying, “Do you recognise an external force, responsible for you, suffering for you?” Stanley tries to stand, but Goldberg pushes him back into the seat and says, “Is the number 846 possible or necessary?” Stanley says, “Neither,” and Goldberg repeats the question, finally saying that 846 is “necessary but not possible.” However, Goldberg then says, “It’s only necessarily necessary! We admit possibility only after we grant necessity. It is possible because necessary but by no means necessary through possibility. The possibility can only be assumed after the proof of necessity.” McCann, for his part, says, “Right!” “Right?” Goldberg adds. “Of course right! We’re right and you’re wrong, Webber, all along the line.”
Here Pinter riffs on a heady theological argument laid out by Thomas Aquinas that draws upon modal logic, which interprets the words “possible” and “necessary” in nuanced ways. In this context, the word “necessary” is used to describe things that could never be different—in other words, 2 + 2 is necessarily 4 because the sum of those numbers will never create a different total. Thomas Aquinas proposed a theory of possibility and necessity that he claimed proved the existence of God. This theological connection makes sense given the context of this interrogation, considering that Goldberg tells Stanley he “stink[s] of sin,” an accusation that again suggests he is guilty. When he says, “Do you recognise an external force, responsible for you, suffering for you?” he essentially calls into question whether or not Stanley believes in God, which is perhaps why he proceeds by referencing Thomas Aquinas’s proof of God. However, what Goldberg then says about the possibility or necessity of 846 is essentially nonsensical. Even with an understanding of Aquinas’s argument, it’s highly unlikely audience members would be able to make sense of what Goldberg says, especially since he applies it not to God, but to a random number. Again, Pinter confounds his audience with meaninglessness.
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Finally, Goldberg and McCann ask Stanley to answer whether the chicken or the egg came first, and Stanley screams at this. “What makes you think you exist?” Goldberg asks after this yelp. “You’re dead. You can’t live, you can’t think, you can’t love. You’re dead. You’re a plague gone bad. There’s no juice in you. You’re nothing but an odour!” Hearing this, Stanley peers up from the chair, in which he has curled up. Pausing, he suddenly kicks Goldberg in the stomach and stands up, but McCann grabs a chair and prepares to strike him with it. “Steady, McCann,” Goldberg says. Before anything else can happen, the sound of a drumbeat fills the room as Meg enters wearing an evening dress and playing Stanley’s drum.
More than anything, Goldberg’s assertion that Stanley is “dead” is an acknowledgement of the negative effect isolation has had on him. “You can’t live, you can’t think, you can’t love,” Goldberg says, suggesting that the life Stanley has been leading in the boarding house has rendered him unable to function. And just when Stanley seems forced to face this fact, he lashes out, desperate to keep himself from coming to terms with the notion that he is essentially a broken person subsisting on nothing other than the weak semblance of order and sanity that Meg provides him. Given this sentiment, it’s quite fitting that Meg herself enters at this moment, banging Stanley’s drum—the very embodiment of this false sense of order.
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Upon seeing Meg, Goldberg regales her with compliments. They then start pouring drinks, and Goldberg urges Meg to walk up and down the room, claiming he used to work in fashion and saying, “Let’s have a look at you.” As the group lifts their glasses for a toast, Goldberg urges Meg to deliver a few words about Stanley, who stands silently to the side. “Switch out the light and put on your torch,” he says to McCann, ordering his associate to point the flashlight into Stanley’s face while everyone else stands up and listens to Meg’s speech.
As if they haven’t already made it clear to Stanley how much his isolated life has negatively influenced him, Goldberg and McCann single him out by forcing him to sit obediently under the harsh glow of McCann’s flashlight. In turn, the audience—and Stanley himself—feels just how alone he is, despite the fact that he’s surrounded by people who claim to be his friends.
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Standing there in the dark, Meg begins her toast. “Well,” she says, “it’s very, very nice to be here tonight, in my house, and I want to propose a toast to Stanley, because it’s his birthday, and he’s lived here for a long while now, and he’s my Stanley now. And I think he’s a good boy, although sometimes he’s bad. And he’s the only Stanley I know, and I know him better than all the world, although he doesn’t think so.” When she concludes her speech, she starts crying, and Goldberg pronounces her words “beautiful” and orders McCann to turn on the lights. At this point, Lulu slips in and meets Goldberg, who kisses her hand and immediately begins to flirt with her.
Although Goldberg says Meg’s words are “beautiful,” her speech makes it obvious that she doesn’t truly know Stanley very well. After all, she mainly focuses on how happy she is “to be here tonight” in her own house, as if she’s actually celebrating the fact that her boarding house finally has more than one tenant. Furthermore, she doesn’t say anything about Stanley as a person, instead highlighting how long he’s been staying in her house. Though Meg and Stanley appeared to be close in the play’s first act, their relationship is superficial—a fact that only deepens Stanley’s sense of isolation.
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Instructing everyone to raise their glasses once more, Goldberg decides to toast Stanley. “Well,” he says, “I want to say first that I’ve never been so touched to the heart as by the toast we’ve just heard. How often, in this day and age, do you come across real, true warmth? Once in a lifetime.” Going on, he says that he is “knocked over by the sentiments” Meg has expressed. “We all wander on our tod through this world,” he says to Stanley. “It’s a lonely pillow to kip on.” He then tells McCann to turn out the lights, and they all drink.
Like Meg’s speech, Goldberg’s toast only accentuates how utterly alone Stanley is, even surrounded by people who claim to care about him and who want to celebrate his birthday. By speaking so admiringly about Meg’s speech—which was actually quite impersonal—Goldberg underhandedly emphasizes how pathetic her words were. What’s more, he reminds Stanley that “we all wander on our tod through this world” (“on our tod” is Cockney slang for “on our own”), which he insists is “a lonely pillow to kip on.” He is intentionally making Stanley feel alone and estranged from everyone else.
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When the lights go on again, Meg and McCann fall into conversation while Goldberg and Lulu flirt with one another. As each pair converses, their sentences overlap in a strange cacophony, and Stanley simply sits in silence. Lulu tells Goldberg that she admired his speech, and he says that his “first chance to stand up and give a lecture was at the Ethical Hall, Bayswater.” When she asks what the lecture was about, he says, “The Necessary and the Possible.” He then tells her to sit on his lap, and as she does so, she asks if he has a wife. Goldberg tells her that he used to, launching into a story about his late wife who used to call him Simey.
Yet again, the details of Goldberg’s past are difficult to discern, as he contradicts himself whenever he talks about his personal history. In this case, he presents himself as some kind of public intellectual or professor, though he recently told Meg that he used to work in fashion. He also again refers to himself as Simey, thereby destabilizing the audience’s feeling that they even know who he is. Lastly, it’s worth noting that Stanley sits in silence during his own birthday party, completely isolated as the other guests have private conversations.
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While Goldberg and Lulu flirt—Lulu disclosing that she likes older men and that Goldberg looks like her first true love—Meg and McCann also become rather friendly. Reminiscing about their childhoods, they lose themselves in their memories without fully listening to one another. Finally, Meg suggests that they all play a game, and the group decides to play “blind man’s bluff.” Tying a scarf around Meg’s eyes, Lulu explains to everyone that they can’t move once the game starts. Meg, Lulu says, will walk around in her blindfold and try to touch one of the other players—if she succeeds, then that player is “it,” and it will be his or her turn to play the blind man.
“Blind man’s bluff” is a perfect representation of the isolation Stanley experiences in the boarding house. After all, the person who is “it” must wander blindly around a room while trying to find someone else, an act that embodies just how much Stanley is cut off from everyone around him.
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Walking blindfolded through the living room, Meg finds McCann, who—when he plays the blind man—finds Stanley. All the while, Goldberg and Lulu fondle one another. As McCann blindfolds Stanley, he takes his glasses, breaks them, and backs away. He then places the drum in Stanley’s path, causing the blinded man to step on it and break through the drumhead before falling to the floor. “Ohh!” Meg says, but Goldberg quickly shushes her. Getting back up, Stanley makes his way to Meg, reaches out, puts both hands around her neck, and starts to strangle her, at which point Goldberg and McCann rush over and force him to stop.
Considering that Stanley tries to strangle Meg right after he’s been blindfolded and ridiculed in front of the entire party, it’s reasonable to assume that this act of aggression arises from the experience of being forced to fully inhabit the depths of his own isolation. It’s also worth keeping in mind that Goldberg and McCann bombarded him with a number of absurd and unanswerable questions directly before the party began, psychologically unhinging him and then acting as if nothing happened. In addition, McCann sets him up so that he breaks the drum, which represents perhaps the last vestige of order and sanity in the boarding house.
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Just as Goldberg and McCann get Stanley to let go of Meg, the lights suddenly go out, leaving everyone in total darkness. “Where is he?” Goldberg says. Chaos ensues as McCann tries to find the flashlight, Goldberg barking at him the whole time until, suddenly, Lulu screams because Stanley is approaching her. “Who’s that?” McCann asks, but Lulu has fainted, and Stanley has picked her up and laid her out on the table. Finally, McCann finds the flashlight and shines it on Stanley, who is bent over and preparing to rape Lulu. Wrestling him away, Goldberg and McCann push him against the wall, his face lit by the flashlight as he begins to laugh like a madman.
In keeping with the notion that order and sanity have been disrupted in the boarding house, Stanley begins to commit an egregious act. He has, it seems, finally broken. If he wasn’t guilty before this moment, it’s clear he has now become the sinful person Goldberg and McCann have always assumed him to be. What’s interesting, though, is that the play never clarifies whether or not Stanley has always been like this, so it’s possible to believe that Goldberg and McCann have changed him for the worse by treating him like a criminal.
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