Very few details are straightforward or verifiable in Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party, a play about a spontaneous birthday party that quickly turns dark. In fact, most of what the characters present as fact is later contradicted or ignored. For instance, personal histories are frequently ambiguous, as characters like Goldberg and Stanley Webber tell conflicting stories about their own pasts. Indeed, there is so much flexibility in The Birthday Party that even the names of certain characters sometimes change. And yet, nobody in the play seems to notice or care about these fluctuations. Rather, the play simply moves on as if these details are arbitrary, failing to adhere to the conventions most authors employ in order to firmly ground the audience in the world of the story. Indeed, Pinter isn’t interested in making sure his viewers understand the exact details of his narrative. Instead, he intentionally destabilizes the audience’s understanding of his characters and their motivations, obscures what is happening in the plot, and manipulates the dialogue so that it’s often difficult to understand a conversation’s underlying structure. In this way, he encourages the audience to simply experience each moment on an emotional level, forcing them to take cues from the interactions between the actors rather than the scaffolding of any kind of overarching plot or meaning. In other words, Pinter uses ambiguity and even nonsense to elicit a visceral response from his audience, one that has more to do with the feeling of the play than anything else. Oddly enough, this ends up representing the characters and their emotions better than any kind of standard expository technique.
Throughout the play, the simplest details are often the most ambiguous. Personal histories are especially fraught in this regard, as made evident by Goldberg’s ever-changing assertions about his profession. At one point, for instance, he tells Meg to spin around in her evening dress, praising how she looks and claiming that he knows about fashion because he “used to be in the business.” Then, later in that very same scene, he references toiling in a “greenhouse” (though it’s unclear whether or not he worked as a professional gardener). Later still, he boasts to Lulu—whom he’s clearly attracted to—that he once delivered a “lecture at the Ethical Hall,” presenting himself as some kind of public intellectual. What’s more, even his name changes depending on the story he’s telling. Although he introduces himself as Nat, he refers to himself as Simey when telling stories about his mother or his late wife, and in one instance he calls himself Benny. He even gives McCann a different name in a conversation in the play’s final act. “Anyway, Dermot’s with [Stanley] at the moment,” Goldberg says (referring to McCann), and when Petey says, “Dermot?” he merely replies, “Yes.” Shortly thereafter, Petey takes Goldberg’s lead and also calls McCann “Dermot,” but Goldberg says, “Who?” The fact that Goldberg can’t even remember the name by which he called McCann only moments earlier suggests that he thinks such details are fluid and unimportant. Understandably, Petey is confused by this sudden change, and this confusion represents just how little he knows about the people staying in his boarding house. In turn, Pinter invites the audience to feel Petey’s bewilderment alongside him.
Pinter’s audience is subject to even more nonsense when Goldberg and McCann interrogate Stanley before throwing him a birthday party. Sitting him in a chair and bombarding him with foreboding questions that are unrelated and have seemingly no bearing on the play’s plot, Goldberg eventually barks, “Is the number 846 possible or necessary?” Stanley answers by saying, “Neither,” and Goldberg responds by telling him this is wrong and then repeating the question. Eventually, Goldberg declares: “It’s only necessarily necessary!” He then launches into a dizzying explanation that makes very little sense. McCann says, “Right!” when his partner finishes this ridiculous explanation, and then Goldberg adds, “Right? Of course right! We’re right and you’re wrong, Webber, all along the line!” In this moment, it becomes clear that Pinter doesn’t expect the audience to understand what Goldberg and McCann are talking about. He does, however, want the audience to understand and experience firsthand the feeling of disorientation that Goldberg and McCann’s words inspire in Stanley. Through increasingly absurd questions, they completely unhinge Stanley, who finally screams when they ask him to tell them if the chicken or the egg came first—a mundane and unanswerable question that reinforces the idea that Pinter cares first and foremost about enabling the audience to empathize with Stanley’s confusion.
Pinter’s decision to destabilize the expository details of The Birthday Party while giving privilege to ludicrous notions makes sense when one considers the fact that he is one of the first playwrights to produce work in a genre known as the Theatre of the Absurd. This genre is, according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, “theater that seeks to represent the absurdity of human existence in a meaningless universe.” By rendering his characters’ backstories and personal details difficult to understand, Pinter puts audience members in the position of having to accept that these kinds of details are “meaningless,” at least in the context of the play itself. What’s left, then, are the ways in which the characters interact with one another. During the actual birthday party, for example, McCann and Meg have a conversation while Goldberg and Lulu have their own discussion, but there’s very little in the way of true give-and-take. Instead, everyone but Stanley simply lists off memories, telling each other about their childhoods or repeating anecdotes about their lives without fully establishing why they’re telling such stories. And all the while, Stanley sits in utter silence at his own birthday party. This, it seems, is what Pinter is most interested in establishing: the ways in which Stanley exists in a “meaningless universe.” By flooding the plot with non-sequiturs and contradictions, he makes his characters’ lives seem unimportant and random, manufacturing a nonsensical environment so that the audience can better understand Stanley’s estranged perspective. Simply put, then, the lack of exposition in The Birthday Party becomes expository in and of itself, since it ultimately helps audience members relate to the protagonist.
Ambiguity, Meaninglessness, and Absurdity ThemeTracker
Ambiguity, Meaninglessness, and Absurdity Quotes in The Birthday Party
STANLEY. Who gave you the right to take away my tea?
MEG. You wouldn’t drink it.
STANLEY. (He stares at her. Quietly.) Who do you think you’re talking to?
MEG. (Uncertainly.) What?
STANLEY. […] Tell me, Mrs. Boles, when you address yourself to me, do you ever ask yourself who exactly you are talking to? Eh? (Silence. He groans, his trunk falls forward, his head falls into his hands on the table.)
MEG. (In a small voice.) Didn’t you enjoy your breakfast, Stan?
MEG. Have you played the piano in those places before?
STANLEY. Played the piano? I’ve played the piano all over the world. All over the country. (Pause.) I once gave a concert.
MEG. A concert?
STANLEY. (Reflectively.) Yes. It was a good one, too. They were all there that night. Every single one of them. It was a great success. Yes. A concert. At Lower Edmonton.
STANLEY. (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. (Pause.) 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. (Pause.) 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. (Takes off his glasses and wipes them on his pyjama jacket.) A fast one. They pulled a fast one. I’d like to know who was responsible for that. […] All right, Jack, I can take a tip. They want me to crawl down on my bended knees. Well I can take a tip…any day of the week. (He replaces his glasses, then looks at MEG.) Look at her. You’re just an old piece of rock cake, aren’t you? (He crosses to her and looks down at her.) That’s what you are, aren’t you?
STANLEY. (Abruptly.) How would you like to go away with me?
STANLEY. Nowhere. Still, we could go.
LULU. But where could we go?
STANLEY. Nowhere. There’s nowhere to go. So we could just go. It wouldn’t matter.
LULU. We might as well stay here.
STANLEY. No. It’s no good here.
LULU. Well, where else is there?
LULU. Well, that’s a charming proposal. (Pause.) Do you have to wear those glasses?
LULU. So you’re not coming out for a walk?
STANLEY. I can’t at the moment.
LULU. You’re a bit of a washout, aren’t you?
MCCANN. This job—no, listen—this job, is it going to be like anything we’ve ever done before?
GOLDBERG. 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. At all events, McCann, I can assure you that the assignment will be carried out and the mission accomplished with no excessive aggravation to you or myself. Satisfied?
MCCANN. Sure. Thank you, Nat.
MEG. […] He once gave a concert. […] (Falteringly.) 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. (With confidence.) They were very grateful. (Pause.) And then they all wanted to give him a tip. And so he took the tip. And then he got a fast train and he came down here.
MEG. Oh, yes. Straight down.
STANLEY. You’re here on a short stay?
MCCANN. That’s right.
STANLEY. You’ll find it very bracing.
MCCANN. Do you find it bracing?
STANLEY. Me? No. But you will. […] I like it here, but I’ll be moving soon. Back home. I’ll stay there too, this time. No place like home. (He laughs.) I wouldn’t have left, but business calls. Business called, and I had to leave for a bit. You know how it is.
MCCANN. You in business?
STANLEY. No. I think I’ll give it up. I’ve got a small private income, you see. I think I’ll give it up. Don’t like being away from home. I used to live very quietly—play records, that’s about all. Everything delivered to the door. Then I started a little private business, in a small way, and it compelled me to come down here—kept me longer than I expected. You never get used to living in someone else’s house. Don’t you agree? I lived so quietly. You can only appreciate what you’ve had when things change. That’s what they say, isn’t it?
You know what? To look at me, I bet you wouldn’t think I’d led such a quiet life. The lines on my face, eh? It’s the drink. Been drinking a bit down here. But what I mean is…you know how it is…away from your own…all wrong, of course…I’ll be all right when I get back…but what I mean is, the way some people look at me you’d think I was a different person. I suppose I have changed, but I’m still the same man that I always was. I mean, you wouldn’t think, to look at me, really…I mean, not really, that I was the sort of bloke to—to cause any trouble, would you? (MCCANN looks at him.) Do you know what I mean?
GOLDBERG. You stink of sin.
MCCAN. I can smell it.
GOLDBERG. Do you recognise an external force?
GOLDBERG. Do you recognise an external force?
MCCAN. That’s the question!
GOLDBERG. Do you recognise an external force, responsible for you, suffering for you?
STANLEY. (Starting up.) It’s late.
GOLDBERG. (Pushes him down.) Late! Late enough! When did you last pray?
MCCAN. He’s sweating!
GOLDBERG. When did you last pray?
GOLDBERG. Is the number 846 possible or necessary?
GOLDBERG. Wrong! Is the number 846 possible or necessary?
GOLDBERG. Wrong! It’s necessary but not possible.
GOLDBERG. Wrong! Why do you think the number 846 is necessarily possible?
STANLEY. Must be.
GOLDBERG. Wrong! 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.
GOLDBERG. Right? Of course right! We’re right and you’re wrong, Webber, all along the line.
Well, Mr. Boles, it can happen in all sorts of ways. A friend of mine was telling me about it only the other day. We’d both been concerned with another case—not entirely similar, of course, but…quite alike, quite alike. (He pauses. Crosses to the window seat.) Anyway, he was telling me, you see, this friend of mine, 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. There’s no guarantee how it’s going to happen. But with certain people…it’s a foregone conclusion.
All my life I’ve said the same. 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. What do you think, I’m a self-made man? No! I sat where I was told to sit. I kept my eye on the ball. School? Don’t talk to me about school. Top in all subjects. And for why? Because I’m telling you, I’m telling you, follow my line? Follow my mental? Learn by heart. Never write down a thing. No. And don’t go too near the water. 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…(Lost. He sits in armchair.) Sit down, McCann, sit here where I can look at you. (McCann sits on the footstool. Intensely, with growing certainty.) My father said to me, Benny, Benny, he said, come here. He was dying. I knelt down. By him day and night. Who else was there? Forgive, Benny, he said, and let live. Yes, Dad. Go home to your wife. I will, Dad. Keep an eye open for low-lives, for schnorrers and for layabouts. He didn’t mention names. I lost my life in the service of others, he said, I’m not ashamed. Do your duty and keep your observations. Always bid good morning to the neighbours. Never, never forget your family, for they are the rock, the constitution and the core!