In Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party, Stanley Webber, the protagonist, is a recluse in his late 30s characterized by humour, consternation and fear. Highly capricious at one moment and highly humorous at another, he appears like a frightened animal. He appears to be a pianist in his past life. He is an escapist as he comes across as a recluse set apart by his aloofness from society. There appears to be no prospect of escaping from his existence and their appears to be no other alternative. Ruby Cohn states that in Pinter’s plays, the house as a metaphor is openly reduced to a room. The play The Birthday Party commemorates the birthday of Stanley who is adamant that it is not his birthday. Birthday not only signifies the anniversary of one’s birth, it also points to the day of one’s birth. And, in The Birthday Party, the celebration of the former helps to create the latter. The intruders transform Stanley into a new man .As he is reborn by the turn of events, the make-believe birthday renders into his true birthday.
At the outset of the play, Meg tries to wake Stanley up as if he were a baby. Stanley’s regression into childhood is first signified here. Stanley’s encouraging attitude projects the mother-mistress dichotomy. Meg coaxes him to have his breakfast and from the conversation, one infers that the mother-son relationship verges on a kind of sexual intimacy between the two. The mother-mistress dichotomy adds to the string of other incomprehensible relationships. Stanley brings into play the word “succulent” in connection with the fried bread, and Meg retorts that he should not have used the word with regard to a married woman.
Following breakfast, Stanley seems to be in a jovial mood. Lulu pays a visit to Stanley as she is informed that it is Stanley’s birthday. She has brought a birthday gift that contains a drum. Though we come across passing references to his being a pianist, there in no explicit evidence to suggest that he possesses the aptitude of a musician. Stanley first starts to beat the drum gently and then rhythmically and then loudly in a savage-like trance. The drum emblematizes his regression into childhood. But at his savage pounding of the drum, it also signifies humanity’s regression into nomadic roots-where instinct reigns over reason.
The play then reaches it’s a climatic juncture with the entrance of the two outsiders Goldberg and McCann as anticipated by Meg. They are tenants in Meg’s lodging house which she claims is now on the list as an available place for sea-shore travelers. Goldberg and McCann remind us of the incorrigible duo in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot They wait outside the apartment in irresolution and indecision, shooting vague questions at each other. As they confront Meg, she informs them of the Birthday party arranged by her. Ironically, the birthday party is being celebrated despite the fact that Stanley is insists that it is not his birthday. Goldberg enthusiastically offers help for the evening and sponsors drinks as well Stanley however is discontented at the arrival of the strangers and protests fearing intrusion into his aloofness, leisure and freedom. The second act is a celebration of the birthday party proper. It turns into a carnival of sexual absurdities, sadisms and unrefined display of evil. Stanley’s looks reveal that he is very uncomfortable with the social mingling. Besides boozing, Goldberg and Lulu, and McCann and Meg indulge in amorous tantics Nevertheless, this lends them only boredom and to make the atmosphere more lively, they play the blind man’s bluff. The game of blind man’s assumes symbolic dimensions. It is implies man’s lack of vision in the modern world. It also connotes man’s journey to his destination relegating his principles to the background. He only wants to accomplish his goal, unawares of what comes his way. Only the end matters, not the means.Tom Milne asserts that Goldberg’s(Jew) and Mccann’s(Irish) speeches are full of oblique shifting references to establishments against which the human beings can sin -big business, the IRA test cricket ,morality and so on.
The game assumes gruesome colours. When Stanley’s glasses are broken by McCann. With one leg still on the broken drum, he moves forward and stumbles. This is again suggestive, with one leg rooted in primitivism and the other in civility-he is torn between two worlds. As the lights fade away , shrieking cries are perceived in the darkness. A torch is reveals Stanley trying to seduce Lulu who lies spread-eagled on the table. The torch is remniscent of the ‘light’ in Wallace Steven’s “The Emperor of Ice-cream:”Let the light affix its beam.” On being discovered Stanley giggles in his usual childlike manner and moves away from his chasers. As the light dawns, Stanley who appears to be proper compared to other guests turns out to be the biggest hypocrite. Though his giggles are termed “childish” there, they come across to the readers as sinister. The corrosion of values in a seemingly civilized society is revealed here. Stanley’s over-powering of Lulu also represents the primitive patriarchal society that is all about control, particularly over women.
The third act opens on the following morning with the old man and woman having their breakfast as usual. The quietness that surrounds the atmosphere serves as a perfect foil to the previous days tumultuous events. It seems to camouflage bizarre incidents of the night. The two strangers bundle their things and get ready to go out. Goldberg and McCann want to take Stanley with them .Despite Petey’s repeated entreaties that he is happy where he is, he is dragged to the car in spite of himself. The car leaves, Megs comes back and continues conversing with her husband. Bernard.F.Dukore asserts in his essay “From Comic to the Non-comic” that the removal of Stanley can be considered as the theatrical climax. It resembles the symphonic finale of a musical theme.” The play dramatizes the advent of the unknown bringing a u-turn or changing the course of one’s life. Goldberg and McCann with all their anonymity function as perfect metaphors. Their objectives and intentions regarding Stanley remain in the dark. “…His rejection of society is not grounded on any metaphysical anguish or social philosophy or any particular vision of that value. It is an attitude in itself having no social or philosophical antecedents.”
Stanley typifies the person who does not want to submit to the dictates of custom, and the doctrines of society. At the end of the play, he is constrained to conform to society. No longer unkempt as in act one, he is as immaculate as a corpse. Clean-shaven, he wears a dark-well tailored suit and a white-collar and he holds his broken glasses,states Bernard.F.Dukore Apart from the dramatizing ‘menace’ motif, the play is also a drama in the absurd tradition echoing the senseless of man’s being, the futility of living and the existential dilemma. The thematic absurdity enters also the technique of the play exemplified in the cyclical plot, illogical statements and motiveless-flat characters. The names of the characters are commonplace and not high-sounding ones. The celebration itself is absurd in that there is nothing to celebrate. Communication is disregarded in the drama demonstrating communication lapse and generation gap in the Modern society. Expressionistic techniques are also utilized. Goldberg asks McCann to sit down. McCann wants the other to sit. The arguments then develop into a quarrel that echo what life is all about- position and competition. Such scenes are reminiscent of Girish Karnad’s Hayavadana where Devadutta and Kapila shuttle for priority over the head/body and Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story where Jerry and Peter fight for their seat on the bench, where the bench serves as a metaphor for position.
© Rukhaya M.K. 2007
(Please note that this was first published in 2007 on Yahoo Voices, it has now been plagiarized at other locations)
• Bernard.F.Dukore’s “From Comic to the Non-comic”
• Ruby Cohn’s “The World of Harold Pinter”
• Tom Milne “The Hidden Peace of Violence”