The Birthday Party

by

Harold Pinter

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Themes and Colors
Ambiguity, Meaninglessness, and Absurdity Theme Icon
Guilt and Transgression Theme Icon
Order, Chaos, and Sanity Theme Icon
Isolation, Freedom, and Independence Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Birthday Party, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Order, Chaos, and Sanity Theme Icon

In The Birthday Party, Meg adheres to a strict daily routine, one that imposes a pattern not only onto her own life, but onto the entire boarding house. In fact, she devotes herself so wholeheartedly to establishing this sense of order that she forces others—like Stanley—to play  along. For Stanley, this commitment to order is perhaps stabilizing, considering that he only starts to go crazy once Goldberg and McCann disrupt the regimented world of the boarding house. What’s strange, though, is that Meg’s commitment to order keeps her from seeing the changes taking place in her home. Indeed, she focuses on her daily patterns so intently that she fails to recognize the existential and subtle forms of chaos that are disrupting the sense of order she’s supposedly imposing upon the household; she simply continues her routines despite the fact that they no longer support any kind of true stability. Stanley, on the other hand, recognizes the chaos that has seized the boarding house, but then everyone around him considers him crazy. Through this contrast, Pinter challenges the notion that a commitment to order is an indication of sanity. By showing the ways in which Meg ignores the chaos surrounding her, Pinter demonstrates that sometimes implementing order for the sake of order is just as insane as plunging into disordered mayhem.

In the first scene of The Birthday Party, it is already clear that Meg has established a routine that she scrupulously upholds. She insists that Petey sit at the breakfast table and eat cornflakes, all the while expressing her discomfort with the fact that Stanley hasn’t come downstairs yet. “I always take him up his cup of tea,” she says. When Petey asks if Stanley drank the tea, she says, “I made him. I stood there till he did.” Of course, forcing Stanley to drink his tea in his bedroom after waking him up is rather intrusive, but this is how committed Meg is to implementing her routines. Her fastidiousness is important to keep in mind as the play progresses, as it sheds light on the bizarre behavior she exhibits once Goldberg and McCann’s presence begins to derail the prevailing sense of order. Indeed, the morning after they arrive, she runs out of cornflakes. This, it seems, is Pinter’s way of signaling to the audience the profound impact these two men have had on the boarding house. Having emphasized Meg’s obsession with feeding her husband and Stanley, Pinter now shows the audience that things have changed. And though the audience no doubt detects this alteration to Meg’s routine, she herself tries to ignore the change, instead choosing to move forward as she always does. “[Stanley] should be up,” she says to Petey. “He’s late for his breakfast.” Petey says, “There isn’t any breakfast,” to which she says, “Yes, but he doesn’t know that.” In this way, she stubbornly refuses to adjust, insisting upon upholding her normal routines even though the present circumstances render them pointless.

Pinter also makes Meg’s love of order evident when she buys Stanley a small drum for his birthday. Though he tries to tell her it’s not actually his birthday, she focuses only on the fact that she’s enacting a yearly ritual by giving him a gift. “This isn’t my birthday, Meg,” he says. “Of course it is,” she replies. “Open your present.” This interaction suggests that Meg cares less about reality than she cares about having the chance to adhere to the ceremonial tradition of gift giving. What’s more, the present itself denotes her fondness of order—after all, rhythm is made up of patterns and repetition, which are appealing to Meg because she tries so hard to lead a structured life.

Stanley’s birthday party erupts into total chaos, as Goldberg and McCann taunt him until he lashes out, tries to strangle Meg, and attempts to rape Lulu. It’s easy to see that this is not the kind of evening that normally takes place in the boarding house, but Meg remains unable to see or admit this; the next morning, she claims to not remember anything about the party. Of course, this is perhaps because she was drinking, but still, one would think she’d remember that Stanley tried to strangle her. As such, the audience intuits that she’s once again striving to adhere to her typical routine by casting aside any consideration that might upend her sense of order. She even picks up Stanley’s broken drum and, instead of telling Petey how it got destroyed the previous night, says, “It still makes a noise.” Once again, then, she denies all signs of disruption and disorder, instead concentrating on the ways in which things have remained the same. What’s more, Petey understands how badly his wife needs to believe that nothing has changed, so he tells her that Stanley is upstairs sleeping when, in reality, McCann and Goldberg have taken him away for good. By doing this, he gives her the opportunity to once more pantomime her way through her usual morning routine. In turn, Pinter presents her ignorant bliss as a form of insanity in and of itself. Although Meg doesn’t lash out like Stanley, there’s no denying that her unyielding devotion to order is delusional and maladjusted. In this way, Pinter warns the audience against thinking that madness only presents itself in outlandish and stereotypical ways. Insanity, he intimates, can manifest itself in utterly banal circumstances, too.

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Order, Chaos, and Sanity ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Order, Chaos, and Sanity appears in each act of The Birthday Party. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Order, Chaos, and Sanity Quotes in The Birthday Party

Below you will find the important quotes in The Birthday Party related to the theme of Order, Chaos, and Sanity.
Act One Quotes

MEG. […] I’m going to call that boy.

PETEY. Didn’t you take him up his cup of tea?

MEG. I always take him up his cup of tea. But that was a long time ago.

PETEY. Did he drink it?

MEG. I made him. I stood there till he did. I’m going to call him.

Related Characters: Meg Boles (speaker), Petey Boles (speaker), Stanley Webber
Page Number: 9
Explanation and Analysis:

MEG. What are the cornflakes like, Stan?

STANLEY. Horrible.

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!

Related Characters: Stanley Webber (speaker), Meg Boles (speaker), Petey Boles (speaker)
Page Number: 10
Explanation and Analysis:

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?

Related Characters: Stanley Webber (speaker), Meg Boles (speaker)
Page Number: 16
Explanation and Analysis:

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.

GOLDBERG. Really?

MEG. Oh, yes. Straight down.

Related Characters: Meg Boles (speaker), Goldberg (speaker), Stanley Webber
Page Number: 26
Explanation and Analysis:
Act Two Quotes

GOLDBERG. Is the number 846 possible or necessary?

STANLEY. Neither.

GOLDBERG. Wrong! Is the number 846 possible or necessary?

STANLEY. Both.

GOLDBERG. Wrong! It’s necessary but not possible.

STANLEY. Both.

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.

MCCANN. Right!

GOLDBERG. Right? Of course right! We’re right and you’re wrong, Webber, all along the line.

Related Characters: Stanley Webber (speaker), Goldberg (speaker), McCann (speaker)
Page Number: 46
Explanation and Analysis:
Act Three Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Goldberg (speaker), Stanley Webber, Petey Boles
Page Number: 64
Explanation and Analysis:

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!

Related Characters: Goldberg (speaker), McCann
Page Number: 72
Explanation and Analysis: