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The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter: Summary, Themes & Analysis

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  • 0:00 Act One: Visitors to…
  • 1:33 Act Two: Party Time
  • 2:55 Act Three: The Next Morning
  • 4:04 Themes: Chaos Vs. Convention
  • 5:04 Theater of the Absurd
  • 5:30 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ian Matthews

Ian teaches college writing and has a Master's in Writing and Publishing

Harold Pinter's 'The Birthday Party' tells the story of several characters at an English seaside boarding house. Seemingly innocent situations spiral out of control as the characters' monotonous lives descend into chaos. Here's how it goes.

Act I: Visitors to the Boarding House

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: Party Time

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: The Next Morning

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.

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