In The Birthday Party, Stanley Webber lives for a year in isolation in order to hide from his past. As he holes up in Meg and Petey’s boarding house, he presumably enables himself to lead the life he wants without having to reckon with whatever it is he did that forced him to disappear in the first place. However, Pinter spotlights the detrimental effects of isolation on Stanley’s quality of life, going out of his way to emphasize the extent to which this man is an unhappy hermit who might as well give himself over to his fate, since his current existence doesn’t even afford him the kind of freedom or independence that he’s supposedly protecting by going into hiding. Indeed, by the time Goldberg and McCann are finished with him, he stops resisting and agrees to leave, most likely because he has finally accepted that it’s impossible to lead a fulfilling life in isolation. At the same time, he leaves the boarding house in silence, no doubt destined for a life that is no more interactive or communal than the one he’s established in Meg and Petey’s home. As such, Pinter suggests that isolation not only negatively influences a person’s life in the present, but also has adverse effects on their ability to move forward and forge a life of freedom and personal agency.
Goldberg and McCann go out of their way to accentuate the extent of Stanley’s isolation. This, it seems, is how they intend to bring him to his wit’s end. At his birthday party, they insist that he sit in the middle of the room with the lights off as someone shines a flashlight in his face. In this configuration, they prompt Meg to give a speech in his honor. “Well,” she begins, “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.” After she concludes, Goldberg exclaims that she has delivered a “beautiful” and touching speech. However, it’s worth noting that she hardly says anything of note about Stanley as an individual. Rather, her supposedly kind words mainly have to do with herself, and then she toasts to Stanley “because it’s his birthday.” But it isn’t his birthday. What’s more, she says that Stanley is “the only Stanley [she] know[s],” a phrase that is less of a compliment than it is a plain fact that has nothing to do with Stanley himself. In these ways, her speech only shows him that no one in the boarding house truly knows or cares about him—after all, Meg is supposedly the person he’s closest to in this context, and even she can’t say anything meaningful about him.
As if these vapid remarks aren’t enough to show Stanley’s loneliness, he’s forced to sit with a flashlight shining in his face while everyone stares at him. In turn, he feels singled out and isolated even as his so-called friends celebrate him. Indeed, by turning the lights out and spotlighting Stanley, Goldberg and McCann heighten his sense of aloneness. This is clearly intentional, as Goldberg follows Meg’s toast by saying, “Lucky is the man who’s at the receiving end [of a toast], that’s what I say. How can I put it to you? We all wander on our tod through this world. It’s a lonely pillow to kip on.” Even though he’s supposedly celebrating Stanley by saying nice things about him, he states that life is “a lonely pillow to kip on,” a sentiment that only further accentuates the fact that Stanley is on his own.
Despite the fact that Stanley hasn’t left the boarding house for a year, it’s evident that he’s aware of the negative aspects of living in isolation. For instance, in the play’s first act, Lulu enters the kitchen to deliver a package, at which point she insists that Stanley could “do with” some air. “Me? I was in the sea at half past six,” he lies. When he asks if she believes him, she hands him a small mirror and says, “Do you want to have a look at your face? […] Don’t you ever go out?” Upon looking at himself, Stanley “withdraws,” an indication that recognizes the negative effect isolation has had on him. This is why he then asks Lulu to “go away” with him. When she asks where they’d go, though, he balks, saying, “Nowhere. Still, we could go.” Having remained sequestered in the boarding house for so long, he’s unable to even fully envision what it would be like to leave, especially alongside another person. Lulu again asks where they could go, and he says, “Nowhere. There’s nowhere to go. So we could just go. It wouldn’t matter.” In this moment, Pinter suggests that isolation has rendered Stanley incapable of making simple decisions, instead making him feel as if life beyond the walls of the boarding house doesn’t matter. In a strange way, though, this is a liberating idea—although Stanley says that “there’s nowhere to go,” he also says that this means he can “just go” anywhere. Unfortunately, though, this idea of freedom is so vague that he finds himself unable to act on it, and when Lulu asks one more time if he’d like to go out for a walk, he says, “I can’t at the moment.”
The morning after Goldberg and McCann finally push Stanley over the edge, he stops speaking altogether. Instead of using words, he makes guttural noises, saying, “Uh-gug…uh-gug…eeehhh-gag.” As such, he inhabits a new form of isolation, forgoing communication altogether. Shortly thereafter, Goldberg and McCann take him away. Finally, then, Stanley leaves his life of isolation, but there’s no indication that this is liberating, since he isn’t leaving of his own volition. What’s more, it seems unlikely that he’s headed toward a better life, one in which he actually has the freedom to interact with people and live out of hiding. Petey, for his part, seems to pick up on this fact as McCann and Goldberg take him away. “Stan, don’t let them tell you what to do!” he yells, urging him to stand up for himself and assert his independence. However, Stanley has lived for too long in isolation to be able to exercise this kind of agency, and so he merely retreats into the distance, resigning himself to his fate. In turn, Pinter confirms that isolation renders people incapable of seizing their independence and functioning as free-thinking individuals.
Isolation, Freedom, and Independence ThemeTracker
Isolation, Freedom, and Independence Quotes in The Birthday Party
MEG. What are the cornflakes like, Stan?
MEG. Those flakes? Those lovely flakes? You’re a liar, a little liar. They’re refreshing. It says so. For people when they get up late.
STANLEY. The milk’s off.
MEG. It’s not. Petey ate his, didn’t you, Petey?
PETEY. That’s right.
MEG. There you are then.
STANLEY. (Pushes away his plate.) All right, I’ll go on to the second course.
MEG. He hasn’t finished the first course and he wants to go on to the second course!
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?
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?
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?
Well—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. (An appreciative laugh from GOLDBERG.) And he’s the only Stanley I know, and I know him better than all the world, although he doesn’t think so. (“Hear—hear” from GOLDBERG.) Well, I could cry because I’m so happy, having him here and not gone away, on his birthday, and there isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for him, and all you good people here tonight…(She sobs and sits above table.)