Back To CourseSAT Literature: Help and Review
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Ian teaches college writing and has a Master's in Writing and Publishing
The Birthday Party opens in the living room of a boarding house on the English seaside. Petey, a man in his 60s and one of the owners of the boarding house, sits reading his paper and eating breakfast. His wife, Meg, helps him run the house. Their life is boring, and their conversations are bland. Petey tells Meg that two men are coming to stay at the house.
Stanley, the house's only current guest, comes down for a breakfast of cornflakes at Meg's insistence. Meg flirts with him after Petey leaves for work. He seems annoyed by her advances. When Meg tells Stanley that the house is getting some new guests, he gets tense and weird. He has, after all, been the only boarder since he got there. Stanley's response is our indication that mystery surrounds him. He begins to hint as his departure, but eventually relents. The tension is broken when Lulu, a young woman, arrives with a package.
Meg leaves to go shopping, and after a brief exchange with Lulu, Stanley goes upstairs. The two men, Goldberg and McCann, arrive at the house, talking to each other about some mysterious job. Meg arrives and welcomes them, flirting and telling them that today is Stanley's birthday. Stanley reenters the room and interrogates the men about who they are and when they intend to leave. He's very upset when he hears Goldberg's name, and he denies that it's his birthday. To lighten the mood, Meg gives him the package that Lulu brought. It contains a toy drum, which he plays intensely as the curtain closes.
Act II begins with McCann tearing a newspaper into strips, which is interesting, since reading it is part of Petey's morning routine. Stanley enters, and they start talking. Stanley believes they've met before, but McCann denies it. Petey arrives with Goldberg, then McCann and Petey leave the house.
When McCann gets back, he and Goldberg corner Stanley. They interrogate him and begin to verbally abuse him, asking questions about a woman he left at the altar and a wife he murdered by poison or beating. As their questions become more outlandish, they even ask, 'Why did the chicken cross the road?' They refer to an 'organization' he betrayed and say he's a walking corpse because he refuses to live. Stanley kicks Goldberg to stop the harassment, and the scene is interrupted by Meg coming downstairs to start Stanley's birthday party.
The party starts off innocently enough, but the characters start to couple up with each other: Lulu with Goldberg, Meg with McCann, and Stanley alone. The couples' conversations turn sexual, and Meg suggests they play Blind Man's Bluff. Stanley is eventually 'it,' and McCann gets him to step into the drum. Chaos ensues, with Stanley nearly strangling Meg. The lights go out, and when McCann finds a flashlight, Lulu is on the table with her legs spread. Stanley is standing over her, and he starts laughing hysterically.
Act III is a parallel to Act I. It opens with Petey downstairs, reading his newspaper. Meg enters, frantic that she doesn't have any cornflakes to serve the guests. She tells Petey she has a headache and that the drum is destroyed. Petey tells her it's okay and she should let Stanley sleep. When she begins her usual chatter, Petey distracts her and she leaves. Goldberg comes downstairs and explains that Stanley had a nervous breakdown and must be taken away.
Petey leaves and McCann enters. He and Goldberg have a tense moment that descends into absurdity. Lulu arrives and yells at Goldberg for taking advantage of her. She leaves and McCann retrieves Stanley from upstairs. McCann and Goldberg mirror their interrogation of Stanley from earlier, this time promising him a better life with them. Stanley is unable to speak. They take him away, and Petey allows them to go. He yells after them, 'Stan, don't let them tell you what to do!'
The play closes on Meg and Petey talking. He lies to her, telling her that Stanley is still asleep, and she tells him what a nice time she had at the party. She was the life of the party, she says. He agrees, and the curtain closes.
The main theme of The Birthday Party is the intrusion of chaos into the convention and routine of everyday life. Petey and Meg's life is boring at the beginning of the play, even considering Meg's strange relationship with Stanley. That all changes with the arrival of McCann and Goldberg; these two men bring chaos and disorder into the sleepy boarding house.
This is evident in the structure of the play. Act I focuses on the morning routine at the house: breakfast, newspaper, shopping, etc. In Act II, a monkey wrench gets thrown into the works, as we see McCann destroying the newspaper, the image that represents order for the characters. Act III is back to the morning routine but twisted around from the intrusion of chaos. Petey reads his newspaper, but McCann later tears it into strips.
The end of the play sees Petey struggling between order and chaos, as he realizes that Stanley's presence was a source of stability for Meg. Stanley's leaving will likely cause further chaos, so he lies to his wife to preserve order.
The Birthday Party is an example of a genre called theater of the absurd. After World War II, Pinter and other playwrights, like Saul Bellow and Samuel Beckett, wrote plays calling attention to the absurdity of trying to preserve our everyday ways of life. With so much chaos in the world, these plays ask what's the point of the morning newspaper? The way absurdity creeps into Petey's morning routine is a perfect example of that idea.
The Birthday Party, the story of several characters at a seaside boarding house, shows what happens when chaotic forces invade a routine, everyday life of morning paper, breakfast, and shopping. Two men arrive to take the house's only guest away, and in allowing them to do it and lying to his wife afterwards, Petey, the play's main character, illustrates the tension between chaos and routine. Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party sits squarely in the theater of the absurd genre.
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Back To CourseSAT Literature: Help and Review
14 chapters | 222 lessons