Harold Pinter, born in England, was a playwright, an actor, a screenwriter, a director and an absurdist. He also won the Nobel Prize in 2005. His style of writing is characterized by pauses, silence, repetitions, semantic ambiguity, irony and paradoxes. His colloquial and magnificent use of language led to the Pinterescue style of writing, named after him. Similarly we come across the Pinter Moment, which refers to a moment of silence on the stage. It’s said that he found meaning in silence. However what an irony for a writer to use more silence than words. But also, only a great writer could give words and meaning to silence. Pinter took themes that, in a way, defined life- the absurdity of existence, repetitive aggression, competition, the closed circle of life etc. Pinter’s plays are simple and difficult. They are lengthy and short. They define life but also its absurdity. His plays are contrasting within themselves.
There are several reasons why absurdity took over the fields of literature, art, painting, and life as a whole. The most important being the World wars of course and the Industrialization. It changed man’s nature along with urbanization. People started migrating, there was so much chaos all around. Apart from this, the advancements in science and technology further separated man from God and his faith in the Supreme. The common man began to question. The Birthday Party depicts man’s helplessness and anxiety. The play begins with “Is that you Petey?” There is a pause and then the sentence is repeated again. So the theme of repetition and the idea of absurd is presented in the very first line itself. Also, they are not at home but in a boarding house. Then we are introduced to Stanley Webber, who hasn’t appeared on stage yet. His presence in the play hasn’t been explained very well. The relation between Meg and Stanley is awkwardly different. The arrival of two strangers at the house remains mysterious throughout the play. The reason behind Stanley getting perturbed at the idea of arrival of guests is also not specified. The two guests, Goldberg and McCann, corner Stanley and ask him questions that are so irrelevant and confusing, the questions just keep getting absurd and aggressive. They are repeated and imposed forcefully. They are mysterious and threatening in demeanor. There is a crisis of identity and recognition. The use of drumming by Pinter is to further accelerate the effect he is trying to create. The sound seems ominous and suggestive of something unusually wrong. The situation is further intensified by the blind-fold game. The lights go out to create the wanted effect, plus the laugh of Stanley somewhat explains that he was about to assault Lulu.
We also see the sudden connection formed between Lulu and Goldberg. She starts admiring him merely because he gives a good speech. The age difference between the two is bizarre. The fact that Stanley is said to have had a nervous breakdown (out of nowhere) is representative of the life of people in those times. People were so lost and mentally disturbed that they barely found true happiness in thing, though they tried searching for it in every small thing possible. This is depicted when Goldberg takes so much interest in Stanley’s birthday party even though he hasn’t even met him yet. The play ends with Stanley being taken by Goldberg and McCann to a place that isn’t mentioned. They don’t specify where exactly they were going to take him and when Petey tries to stop them, they threaten him too, asking if he would like to accompany them. The loss of job of Stanley and the unclear businesses of the two stranger gentlemen remains a thing to ponder upon till the end. According to Michael Billington, Pinter’s biographer, The Birthday Party is a “cry of protest”.
Stanley, in this play, represents mankind. He is representative of the loss, disillusionment, anxiety, separation, feeling of lack of acceptance and lack of love and understanding. He has come far away from his home and lives as a guest in a house that is completely new and alien to him. He tries to avoid situations. He has separated himself from the world and created a little one of his own, trying to hide. He feels secluded from everyone and when this condition is disrupted by the arrival of two gentlemen, he feels lost, threatened and violated.
Throughout the play, Stanley is being given hints to improve his condition. Meg tries to bring out the joyful boy in him, Lulu asks him to take care of himself and stay hygienic, even Goldberg and McCann do the same however, their way is different. The birthday party is the central event of the play. It is here that several aspects of the life of people are introduced. It is because of this party, due to the arrival of the two strangers, that Stanley suffers a “nervous breakdown” and doesn’t recover. In the very first scene when Petey is reading a newspaper and Meg asks what the news is, he replies, “someone’s just had a baby”. The emphasis on birth is thus presented from the very onset of the play. Furthermore, the audience, just like Stanley, suspects the intention behind the celebration. This can be seen as the fact that there is only one party in the play where everyone was supposed to be happy and enjoying but even that turns into a chaos and the exposition of characters under the impact of liquor when they forget their roles in the society. In the end, Stanley is almost a dead-man-walking.
The play is a social allegory. There is the theme of pressures and demands imposed by the society on an individual, due to which Stanley had to kill the artist within himself and abide by the rules of the materialistic world. Towards the end we see that Stanley has submitted himself. He has been dressed up and made ready. While Petey keeps saying, “Stan, don’t let them tell you what to do”. It’s as if his conscience is dead and he’s capable of nothing. He doesn’t hear, speak, or turn around to wave goodbye. There is also the theme of decadence where life is discussed as a process of loss. Goldberg says to Stanley, “You are dead. You can’t live, you can’t think, you can’t love. You’re dead.”
Jones, Chris. “Harold Pinter found meaning in silence”. 2008. Chicago Tribune.
Mandre, Prashant. “The Absurd Elements in Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party” 2017. Epitome: international Journal of Multidisciplinary Research.
Bru. “Study of English drama: Major themes in The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter”. 2011. India Study Channel.
Pinter, Harold. The Birthday Party. Pdf.