The Birthday Party | Study Guide

Harold Pinter

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The Birthday Party | Themes


Pinter is recognized for using comedy and menace together to evoke a wide array of emotions from the audience. He uses these techniques in the play to develop the themes of fear, loneliness, and absurdity.


The fear of danger is ever present in The Birthday Party. Stanley is scared of the two strangers who plan to stay at Meg and Petey's home. Stanley's suspicion of the men suggests that Stanley has a shady past. He is sure that he has met McCann before when they first talk, and he grows increasingly agitated the longer he is with them. Goldberg and McCann's intense interrogation drives Stanley to a state of panic. His rhythmic drumming on his toy drum reveals his anxiety as it evolves into a frenzied banging. By the time they play a game at his birthday party Stanley is no longer in control of himself.

Stanley transmits some of his own fears to Meg by making her believe that someone wishes to take her away. Meg believes what Stanley tells her which is that there are people who want to take her away in a wheelbarrow to a van. Meg sees the large car that belongs to Goldberg and worries that it is there to take her away. Meg also fears abandonment. She is worried that Stanley will leave the home. This is the reason she takes care of him despite the disrespectful and mean way he treats her.

It is ironic that both men that pose a threat to Stanley also struggle with fear. Irony is the use of words to show the opposite of what is expected. McCann is hired to do a job that will cause harm to Stanley. He is one of the men that Stanley fears. However, McCann fears what he will be asked to do. He pleads with Goldberg for information to no avail. Goldberg is uneasy about facing Stanley after the birthday party and tells McCann that he does not feel well. Goldberg typically calms his own anxieties with stories from his youth that often have nothing to do with what is happening at the moment.


Stanley is the most isolated of the characters. He has very little contact with anyone outside Meg and Petey's house. He has no contact with his family. He chooses to spend much of his day in his bedroom and usually only comes down for meals. Stanley is attracted to Lulu, but rather than engaging with her he offers awkward suggestions. He rejects human contact despite being lonely. He is unkempt and does not take care of himself. He is rude and ungrateful. Stanley has built walls to protect himself, and loneliness is the cost he is willing to pay.

Meg's cheery disposition covers her loneliness. She needs to have people around, even Stanley who is cruel to her at times. Meg craves attention from her husband Petey who is often absent. He is in and out of the house all day and has a scheduled chess night each week. Petey is also distracted when he is home. At breakfast he listens halfheartedly to her chatter. Meg compensates by hosting an unwanted birthday party for Stanley. She invites Goldberg and McCann who are strangers to all of them. She wants to be seen as the "belle of the ball" by Petey, Stanley, and Goldberg. She enjoys feeling valued and she needs it.


Absurdity is a staple in Pinter's plays. The tension of the menace is interrupted by examples of ridiculous humor throughout. Meg's reaction to the ominous wheelbarrow is one example. Stanley tells Meg that there are people looking for her that will take her away by wheelbarrow to a van. The threat is so illogical that the threat becomes funny when Meg reacts with fear. The juxtaposition or positioning of opposing elements side by side adds to this comedy of menace. Menace and comedy stir contrasting feelings in the audience.

Goldberg and McCann's interrogation of Stanley is initially intense and relentless. They hammer Stanley with questions so quickly that Stanley answers before he even knows what the question is. The interrogation eventually resorts to ridiculousness. This type of sequence occurs again the morning after the birthday party when the men take Stanley away. The back-and-forth comments from Goldberg and McCann resemble a comedic routine.

Stanley's descent into a nervous breakdown is also complicated by the absurd. Meg gives Stanley a toy drum which he puts around his neck like a young boy. He marches around the room drumming until he suddenly becomes anxious. His drumming turns into frenzied pounding, and he loses control like a child having a temper tantrum. He falls apart completely at his birthday party when he is found leaning over Lulu who is pinned to the table. He backs himself against the wall and laughs like a crazy man. The climax or turning point of the play combines tragedy with absurdity to stimulate a complex array of emotions from the audience.

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