The Birthday Party Themes
Table of Contents
The Birthday Party has been interpreted in many ways. The very vagueness, the uncertainty, and the mystery of the events and their motivation have given rise to varying interpretations. The play has evoked a wide-ranging response. Indeed, the greatest quality of this play is the wealth and diversity of the comments which it seems to make on life, not explicitly but by implication. The variety of ideas which this play conveys constitutes its main strength.
Three Main Interpretations
One important way of looking at the play is to regard it as an image or metaphor of the author’s existential anxiety. The chief agent of this anxiety is Goldberg who is the dominant partner in the team of terrorists. In a poem which Pinter subsequently wrote to throw some light on the significance of the play, he represented Goldberg as being at the centre. The following lines in that poem are significant:
“The thought that Goldberg was
A man to dread and know
Jarred Stanley in the blood
When, still, he heard his name.”
Goldberg thus might be more than merely the agent of the evil power pursuing Stanley: Goldberg might be that power itself. At the same time, in the second part of that poem, it is suggested that Goldberg and McCann might, essentially, be forces in Stanley’s own mind, that the two men might be symbolic embodiments of Stanley’s own thoughts. Thus Goldberg and McCann may be treated as the concrete men of weight and time, of skin and bone, and yet they are also essentially embodiments of Stanley’s thoughts. This ambivalence between the concrete reality of these two men and their simultaneous force as symbols or dream-images or thoughts, is an important aspect of the play. Another point made clear in the poem referred to above is the theme of the room. The room in the boarding house where the action of the play takes place symbolizes the home from which Stanley is expelled. Thirdly, we have here the image of blindness which occurs in Pinter’s first play, The Room. That image recurs in a number of other plays by Pinter, and is clearly present in The Birthday Party. The breaking of Stanley’s glasses by McCann renders Stanley almost blind. The feeling of blindness is aggravated when the lights go out and there is a blackout in the room.
Society’s Treatment of an Artist
One way of looking at this play is to regard Stanley as an artist whom society claims back from a comfortable, bohemian!, “opt-out” existence. This view finds support particularly from the final image of Stanley in the clothes of respectable, middle-class gentility- the well-cut suit, the white collar, and the bowler hat. He is now clean-shaven also. Stanley was an artist having doubts about his creative ability, he has not worked for a long time, he has come down from a piano to a little boy’s drum, and even that is broken by him in his clumsiness in the game of blind man’s buff. Stanley has defied the conventions of society by his mode of living, and he has refused to accept the values of society. Society would like to pull back this man from the mode of life which he has adopted because, if he is allowed to continue living like this, he might pose a threat to society and because his example might encourage other people also to revolt against the prevailing social standards of conduct and behaviour. The suggestion at the end of the play seems to be that Stanley has been made to conform to those social standards and has been made respectable, though at the same time he has been deprived completely of his individuality and been turned into an automation. The author’s sympathies are naturally with the artist who has thus been treated by society in the interest of conformity.
A Morality Play about the Process of Death
Another way of looking at the play is to regard it as an image of man’s fear of being driven out from his warm place of refuge on the earth. The play would then emerge as a morality about the process of death itself. In the first Act Stanley teases Meg with a threat that some people would be coming in a van with a wheel-barrow in order to take away a particular individual from this house. Meg feels badly scared by the threat because she imagines herself as the victim. The van with the wheel-barrow in it thus symbolizes a hearse with a coffin. Stanley does not specify who it is that will be taken away in the wheel-barrow. It might be Meg, and Meg’s reaction is therefore one of fear. But it is possible that Stanley may be frightening her with the possibility of himself being taken away or liquidated.
In the light of the subsequent events in the play, it can be supposed that Stanley’s game to frighten Meg is merely a projection of his own fear that someone will come to take him away. Goldberg’s black car at the end would then also represent a hearse, while Stanley’s correct dress, his speechlessness, and his blindness would be an image of him as a dead body laid out and lying in state, as it were. Goldberg and McCann could then be seen as messengers, sent by a supernatural power to transport a human being into the kingdom of death. Goldberg, with his strong Jewish family feeling and his sentimentality, could then be seen as a grotesque caricature of Jehovah the lord over life and death, while the brutal torturer McCann could represent a projection of Stanley’s fears of the physical suffering one undergoes while dying. Stanley loses first his sight (because McCann breaks Stanley’s spectacles), then Stanley loses his powers of speech, and finally he ceases to exist as a living man. Stanley is then taken away, dressed in funeral clothes, by two men in a large, black, hearse-like car as Goldberg has already said to him: “You’re dead, you can’t live, you can’t think, you can’t love. You’re dead.” In this way the play depicts man’s decay into death and life as a process of loss.
A Metaphor for the Process of Growing up and Expulsion from Childhood
On another plane The Birthday Party could be seen as an image or metaphor for the process of growing up, of expulsion from the warm, cosy world of childhood. Meg, with her strong combination of motherly affection and sexual desire for Stanley, is a mother image seen from the view point of an Oedipus complex. Stanley is unwilling to leave the warm, though seedy, nest which Meg has built for him. He is afraid, not only of the outside world, but also of sexuality outside of the cosy mother-son relationship. That is why he refuses to go out with Lulu. Going out with Lulu would not only mean having a girl friend apart from the mother-son relationship which he has with Meg, but also going out into the outside world. And that is why, at the climax of his mental crisis (his birthday party), he first attacks Meg, the mother-figure because she has not opposed the destruction of his relationship with her. Of course, Meg did not oppose the threat to their relationship because she was not aware of the meaning of the visit of Goldberg and McCann. And that is why, moments later, he tries to rape Lulu. He has been driven away from his infantile sexuality, and is being pushed into an adult relationship (with Lulu) from which he had been shrinking. (That also is the reason for Goldberg’s provocative love-play with Lulu in Stanley’s presence). It is because the individual’s feelings in this crisis are ambivalent that Stanley’s actions are ambivalent and charged with aggression both against the mother figure and girl whose attraction frightens him and therefore excites feelings of hatred.
Moreover, if Meg is a mother-figure with suggestions of sub-conscious incestuous desires, then Goldberg, with his exaggerated Jewish family feelings, is a father-figure par excellence. In that case Stanley’s fear of the avenging demons (Goldberg and McCann), who have been sent by the organization”, would be an expression of his feelings of guilt over his incestuous impulses, and his fear would also be an expression of his dread of punishment by the father-figure. Seen from this angle, Stanley’s removal in the garb of the respectable gentleman would become an image of the adult’s nostalgic leave-taking from the cosy, comfortable, warm world of his childhood.
The Theme of Communication or the Failure to Communicate
Another theme dealt with in The Birthday Party is that of the use of language and the capacity or incapacity of people to communicate with one another through this medium. A striking example of the failure of communication occurs in the way Meg tries to tell Goldberg how Stanley, while describing that concert to Meg, had told her that his concert had proved an enormous success but that another concert which he had wanted to give had not materialized because of the hostility of certain people towards him. The version which Meg gives to Goldberg is hopelessly muddled and shows how Meg had completely failed to understand Stanley or is unable to recall exactly what Stanley had told her. “His father gave him champagne” she says. “But then they locked the place up and he couldn’t get out. And then they all wanted to give him a tip. And so he took the tip.” She had evidently not understood even what Stanley had meant by saying: “I can take a tip.” And she has forgotten that Stanley’s father was not even present at the concert. Pinter seems to be saying that both language and memory can fail and can let down a person. Nobody can thus be sure that what he has been told or is being told is the truth. Language and memory are unreliable agencies. This view of Pinter leads us to think that much of the language in The Birthday Party may be deceptive, a smoke-screen thrown around the reality. Thus Goldberg’s reminiscences of his youth may not be wholly true. Either his memory may be deceiving him or he may deliberately be deceiving others. Goldberg is talking thus about his past in order that others should not know the reality of his character or should not know the truth about the present situation. Goldberg’s account of his youthful relationship with a girl does not seem to be true. He says that he never took liberties with a girl because young men in those days were very scrupulous. But the same Goldberg thinks nothing of seducing Lulu. In short, Pinter in this play shows that people are either unable or unwilling to communicate their real feelings and thoughts to others. However, this is not to be treated as a hard and fast rule. Sometimes the exact truth does come out from a person’s words. For instance, Meg’s birthday speech is an accurate expression of her real feelings about Stanley. Similarly Petey’s concern about Stanley towards the end of the play is genuine. But Lulu’s accusations against Goldberg towards the end of the play may be a mere pose on her part.
The Individual’s Unwillingness to Leave the Warmth of the Womb
It is also possible to see the play as bringing into focus the individual’s unwillingness to leave the warmth of the womb and be born into a world which is apparently hostile or at least inhospitable. Meg mothers Stanley, feeds him, looks after his comfort and well-being, and protects him again the outside world. But life in the womb cannot continue forever, nor can the child in the womb refuse to emerge into the world outside when the time is ripe for it. The child in the womb cannot escape being born; its birthday cannot be warded off.
A Penalty to be paid for Acquiescence: A Political View
Yet another view of The Birthday Party has to do with a sense of the shared guilt implicit in any society which claims the individual’s right to participate in decision-making, even if only through the occasional machinery of elections. Thus anyone living in a society which permits injustice or inhumanity may be called upon to pay the penalty for his acquiescence in, or submission to that injustice or inhumanity. Goldberg says to Stanley: “You betrayed our breed;” and McCann asks: “What about Ireland ?” It is useless for Stanley to protest against these accusations. This view of The Birthday Party represents a political approach to the play.
A Biological Interpretation
A biological interpretation of the play has also been offered by a critic. According to this interpretation, the play demonstrates that the patterns of human behaviour includes such tendencies as aggression and appeasement which in turn are connected with the demands of territorial possession, sexual self-assertion, and self-preservation. Now, a number of Pinter’s plays depict, directly or indirectly, the importance of territory, the manner of a man’s response to intrusion from outside, and the rivalry of males over a sexually challenging female. In The Birthday Party, Goldberg and McCann invade Stanley’s territory. Stanley displays fear, attempts appeasement, struggles desperately, but has to surrender. The development of the relationship among these three characters seems to follow patterns of animal behaviour. The interrogation of Stanley the conflict that ensues, his final submission, his passivity once he realizes that escape is impossible these are similar to the behavior which biologists have observed among rats, for instance.
Loneliness too is among the themes of the play. Meg will be lonely after Stanley’s departure; Stanley, despite the relationship which had developed between him and Meg, was essentially lonely because Meg is after all no kindred spirit from his point of view; Petey has no real understanding with Meg and must be lonely too. Lulu was, and will again be, lonely, and it has been surmised that she would become a prostitute. Personality and its dual aspect constitute yet another theme. There is the personality which a human being presents to the world and to himself of his qualities and abilities. And there is the reality of a person, what a person really is. Stanley presents a distinct personality in the boarding-house: the personality of a disappointed concert pianist held back by his enemies and yet of a person more intelligent than, and superior to, Meg and Petey and Lulu. He appears to believe in this superior image of himself and is moderately happy. But this image loses its validity when Goldberg and McCann reduce it to nothingness and destroy it. Meg at the end thinks that she was “the belle of the ball, but the audience would not endorse the view she has of herself. Goldberg appears to be a self-confident and strong man, but he is badly shaken and feels “knocked down” after his night’s experiences. Such is the difference between appearance and reality.
However, it should be noted all these interpretations represent different approaches to the play by different people. Pinter himself has offered no interpretation of it. On the contrary, he once declared that he never started a play from any kind of abstract idea or theory and never treated his characters as allegorical representations of any particular concept.