The Birthday Party | Study Guide

Harold Pinter

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The Birthday Party | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


Act 1

The setting is the living room of a house in a seaside town in England. There is a door that leads to a hallway in addition to a back door and small window. One wall in the living room has an opening through which the kitchen area is visible.

A middle-aged woman named Meg serves breakfast cornflakes to her husband Petey who sits at the table. Petey reads the paper and the two of them make small talk. Meg asks if Stanley is up and talks about how she used to enjoy watching Stanley play piano. Petey shares that he spoke with two men the night before who asked for a room for a couple of nights. Stanley comes downstairs after Meg calls for him. He is unshaven and wears glasses. He complains about the cornflakes Meg serves him and his lack of sleep that night. He is grumpy and disrespectful to Meg and demands that she prepare a hot breakfast for him. After Petey leaves Stanley taunts Meg by telling her that she is a bad wife. An odd exchange ensues between Meg and Stanley that alternates between insults and flirtation. Meg informs Stanley that two men will be staying with them for a while. He is alarmed about the men but eventually says that he does not think they will show up.

Meg and Stanley talk about his piano playing. Stanley claims that he has played all over the world before clarifying that he once gave a concert. He then describes how someone played a practical joke on him one time and locked him in the hall where he was to perform. He left for good the next day and has been with Meg and Petey ever since. Stanley taunts Meg about a van with a wheelbarrow coming to take someone away.

Meg's friend Lulu enters with a parcel after Meg departs. Lulu is appalled at Stanley's appearance and suggests that he take better care of himself. Stanley invites Lulu to come away with him which she dismisses before she leaves.

The two men that Petey mentioned the night before arrive at the home. McCann and Goldberg enter with baggage through the front door and discuss whether they are in the right house. McCann is nervous. Goldberg rattles on about his Uncle Barney.

Meg returns and welcomes Golberg. Goldberg and Meg talk about Stanley, and then she invites both men to a birthday party that she will be having for him that night. Goldberg is excited about the party that Stanley knows nothing about.

After the men leave, Stanley enters. He asks about the two men and demands to know their names. Stanley is unnerved by their arrival and sits slowly at the table. Meg tries to cheer him up by giving him his birthday present. Stanley denies that it is his birthday but opens the package to find a boy's drum. He puts the rope around his neck and begins to march around the room drumming. The regular rhythm evolves into a frenzied banging before Stanley loses control of himself.

Act 2

McCann tears a newspaper into five equal strips at the table. Stanley enters and the men introduce themselves to each other. Stanley is sure that he has met McCann before, but McCann denies it. The men discuss business. Stanley describes his quiet life at the house to McCann. Stanley pleads with McCann for information about why he is there. Then he shares his love for Ireland and invites McCann out for a Guinness which is a type of Irish beer. All the while McCann just listens. Stanley is afraid and tries to recruit McCann away from Goldberg. McCann does not budge.

Petey enters with Goldberg and introduces him to Stanley. Goldberg reminisces about a beautiful girl from his youth. Petey departs for his chess night which leaves Stanley alone with the two men. They cross-examine Stanley and ask him questions about leaving the organization and a supposed wife. McCann accuses Stanley of betraying them. Goldberg orders McCann to remove Stanley's glasses and continues to fire questions at Stanley. The questions eventually become ridiculous. By this time Stanley is sweating and moaning.

Meg interrupts the scene and enters wearing an evening dress ready to begin the party. She is oblivious to what has transpired among the men. Four bottles of Scotch and one bottle of Irish whiskey are brought out for the party. Meg enjoys the flirty behavior from Goldberg. They prepare to toast Stanley's birthday by turning off the light and shining a torch on Stanley's frightened face. Lulu walks in and Goldberg is immediately enamored with her. The two begin to flirt. Goldberg offers a toast and the festivities begin. Stanley is quiet.

Meg suggests playing a game called blind man's buff where one person is blindfolded and must find one of the others standing in the room. They take turns being blindfolded. McCann begrudgingly takes his turn as well. McCann asks for Stanley's glasses, and Meg secures the scarf around Stanley's eyes. McCann then snaps the frames of Stanley's glasses and puts the drum in Stanley's path. Stanley walks into the drum and falls over. He rises and reaches Meg. He begins to strangle her just as the lights go out. Lulu stumbles and falls while the rest of the partygoers fumble for the torch. McCann eventually finds the torch and shines it on the table where they find Stanley giggling over Lulu on the table. Stanley backs up against the wall and his laughter grows louder.

Act 3

The next morning Petey enters and sits down at the dining room table. Meg does not remember much and is disappointed that the drum was broken during the party. She is worried about Stanley who has not come down for breakfast yet. Meg notices a big car and worries that there might be a wheelbarrow in it. Petey reassures her and tells her that Goldberg owns that car.

Goldberg comes down from upstairs and Meg leaves for the store to buy food. Goldberg tells Petey that Stanley needs to see a doctor for his nervous breakdown. Goldberg explains that these things can happen suddenly sometimes. Petey says that he will take Stanley to the doctor if he is not better by noon, but Goldberg tells him it has all been handled.

McCann comes down and tells Goldberg that Stanley has been upstairs trying to fit the eyeholes of the broken glasses into his eyes. Goldberg tells Petey that they will be gone by lunchtime. He will take Stanley to the doctor.

Neither Goldberg nor McCann want to bring Stanley downstairs. McCann is agitated. Lulu enters from upstairs. She is angry at Goldberg and accuses him of taking advantage of her. He responds by trying to flirt with her. McCann enters and taunts Lulu by asking her to confess. She angrily leaves after telling the men that she knows what is going on.

Stanley enters with a bowler hat in one hand and his broken glasses in the other. He stares and does not talk. Goldberg and McCann take turns telling Stanley what he needs. The suggestions become more ridiculous as they continue. Stanley is unable to speak. Petey arrives just as the men prepare to take Stanley out the door. Petey is angry and demands that they leave Stanley alone. He yells to Stanley to resist. The men leave with Stanley. Meg returns, and Petey tells Meg that Stanley is still asleep upstairs.

The Birthday Party Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction


1 Meg serves breakfast to Petey and Stanley.

Rising Action

2 Stanley tells Meg a wheelbarrow will take her away.

3 Meg tells Stanley about two male guests due to arrive.

4 Meg decides to throw Stanley a birthday party.

5 Meg gives a toy drum to Stanley for his birthday.

6 Goldberg and McCann interrogate Stanley.

7 The guests play the game blind man's buff at the party.

8 Stanley strangles Meg and forces Lulu across a table.


9 Petey and Goldberg discuss Stanley's nervous breakdown.

Falling Action

10 Stanley is helped downstairs and cannot speak.

11 Goldberg and McCann leave with Stanley.


12 Petey tells Meg that Stanley is upstairs sleeping.

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