Debbie Bell Fish
Dr. Nicole Peeler
12 April 2009
On the Brink of Disaster
Harold Pinter, born in 1930, was a child during the world-changing
event of World War II. During his Jewish childhood, he was evacuated to
safer environs several times, but still forced to endure some trauma caused
by the bombing during the Nazi Blitz. As a young man, he refused military
service on the grounds that he was a conscientious objector, and was fined
twice for his stubborn refusal to submit to authority on the issue. While
most critics allege that his political and anti-war themes were not prominent
until the 1970’s, one cannot help but see the beginnings of these ideas in
his early play The Birthday Party, first performed in 1958 (Pinter 603). It
is in this early play, written not many years after the horrific nuclear
bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, that Pinter exposes a world of horror from
which the characters wish to retreat, and an environment of denial and
escapism that cannot save Stanley Webber, who is broken by the political
machinery necessitated by the attitudes of the Cold War.
The Birthday Party is Pinter’s earliest full length play, and the
1958 initial performance was poorly received. In 1964, the audience was
evidently better able to relate to his message, ambiguous though it is, and
the play was a critical success (Pinter 606). It is a hallmark of Pinter
plays that they can be interpreted in a myriad of ways, and on a number of
levels. As stated in C. D. Innes’s book Modern British Drama, “Each of
Pinter’s dramatic situations is designed to have ‘any number of
implications,’ so that each spectator can apply it to his own experience”
(335). Typically filled with bizarre situations and scenes, Pinter’s plays
give the viewer a lot to process, and create for him a bizarre world whose
characters, their actions, and their words can be arranged to support a
number of analyses.
The Birthday Party opens in a typical home of a typical seaside town,
and displays the marriage of a typical older couple, Meg and Petey. Simon O.
Lesser in his article “Reflections on Pinter’s The Birthday Party” alleges
that “the setting is too appallingly real to question” (36). Petey is
reading the newspaper, the 20th century harbinger of the state of a world
very often in chaos. Meg asks Petey amusing questions, and one senses she is
a lonely woman, in need of attention and praise. Petey’s answers are only
enough to barely respond, until he reveals the imminent arrival of two men to
stay in the couple’s boarding house. Meg’s question “Had they heard about
us, Petey?” (Pinter 611) breaks the light, amusing tone of Act I with its
dual meaning. While Meg implies the men have heard of the boarding house
because “This house is on the list,” (611) and would provide the tourist
with a pleasant stay, the viewer feels an ominous foreshadowing as to the
true purpose of the visitors, the list, and the reason that “they heard
about” the couple. In spite of the somewhat comic effect of this opening
scene, the viewer senses something ugly is on the horizon.
Another visitor to the home is Stanley Webber, a young musician of
sorts, who has been a boarder there long enough to develop a relationship
with the couple. Meg dotes on Stanley, treating him like a cherished child
on one level, and the object of sexual desire on another. Stanley is
depressed to the point of being reclusive and untidy in his personal habits,
and appears to be hiding from something or someone. He will soon shun the
sexual overtures of both Meg and the much younger and more attractive
neighbor, Lulu. Stanley is not a typical young man of his age, and exists in
contrast to the older couple’s typical and happy outward demeanor.
While the audience knows that the setting is in a small seaside town
in England, no real specific time period is disclosed, although clearly, from
some of the references, it is modern. Additionally, a sense of modernism
pervades the scenario, and the viewer suspects that it is set
contemporaneously with its creation, the mid-1950s. It is in Stanley’s Act I
teasing of Meg that Pinter sets up the soon-to-be unfolding plot, when the
young man says:
They’re coming today… They’re coming in a van…They’ve got a
wheelbarrow in that van…A big wheelbarrow. And when the van stops they wheel
it out, and they wheel it up the garden path, and then they knock at the
front door…They’re looking for someone…They’re looking for someone. (615)
Indeed, this scene heightens for the viewer several things: a sense of fear
and paranoia, and a sense of impending doom. It is perhaps this aura that is
the most evocative of the time frame.
Someone is looking, and that is the two men who soon enter the
boarding house. There is initially no evidence of their purpose, but Stanley
immediately senses that he is their target. Stanley’s offense is never
explicitly revealed, and the viewer gets little information of the back-
story, but he does tell Meg that he was engaged to play a concert, and when
he arrived the place was “shuttered up.” He elaborates by saying: “They
carved me up. Carved me up. It was all arranged, it was all worked out…They
pulled a fast one” (Pinter 614). Clearly Stanley is in trouble with people
in some powerful position, and hence his depression and escape into the
barren world of Meg and Petey’s boarding house.
Like Stanley, Meg, and Petey, the people living in the post-World War
II era are trying to escape the reality of their day. They have lived
through one hellish experience, which concluded with the most frightening,
destructive event in human history—nuclear war. Pinter demonstrates that
many are still waiting for the “other boot to drop,” as they try to ignore
and/or deny the inevitable conclusion—that nuclear war will, sooner or later,
come to devastate the earth. It was the 1950s, and Meg and Petey are
examples of the battle weary who retreat into a superficial reality, barren
and empty, with a focus on the meaningless details of life.
While countless generations before have had to face war and
destruction, the sheer size and scope of impending nuclear war dwarfs the
former fear. While these generations have had vague notions regarding “the
end of the world,” the people of the Post War era had seen concrete evidence
of the power of the weapons that the war had produced. Martin Esslin, in
his book Pinter: The Playwright, says, “On another level The Birthday Party
might be seen as an image of man’s fear of being driven out from his warm
place of refuge on earth. The play would then, like Beckett’s Endgame,
emerge as a morality about the process of death itself, a kind of modern
Everyman” (87). Man’s “warm place of refuge” is under threat by the
weaponry he has created. There was no haven to be found, nor any escape.
When Lulu flirts with Stanley, she first confronts him about his depression
and his poor hygiene. He proposes that they go away together, but when she
asks for details, he replies: “There’s nowhere to go” (Pinter 615).
It is this sense of the futility of modern life that pervades the
play, inviting the viewer to confront his own feelings in this most dangerous
modern era. Meg escapes in fretting over cornflakes and other domestic
trivia, Lulu in casual sex, Petey in the newspaper and chess games. Stanley
alone seems to have no meaningless outlet in which to find solace. Even
while hiding, he has known that the two men would come, sooner or later, just
as most honest, thinking people realize that in all probability, mankind will
again face nuclear war.
Goldberg and McCann come into the home quietly enough, seeming normal
and even charming. Goldberg proposes that they give Stanley a birthday
party, and sweetly tells Meg she will look “like a tulip” in her party
dress. As Stanley sees the two for the first time, he lights a match, and
watches it burn. He knows what is coming for him, although he says “I didn’t
think they’d come” (Pinter 618), evidence of his attempt at denial.
Before he confronts them, he receives his present from Meg: a boy’s
drum. Stanley will put his musical instrument, most associated with
warfare, “round [his] neck” (like a noose), and then go marching around the
table. Stage instructions direct that “Halfway round the beat becomes
erratic, uncontrolled. Meg expresses dismay. He arrives at her chair,
banging the drum, his face and the drumbeat now savage and possessed “(Pinter
619). As always, war will contort man into an insane and savage race.
The two visitors are, as Stanley expected, looking for him. They are
bizarre characters, and some interpretations of the play allege that they are
the embodiment of evil, or possibly alien and/or supernatural characters.
Goldberg, obviously Jewish by his name, reminisces about his early days on
several occasions. He speaks of his youthful girlfriend, saying “I never
took liberties—we weren’t like the young men these days in those days. We
knew the meaning of respect” (Pinter 621). Soon, he again remembers his
childhood, asking Stanley, “Eh, Mr. Webber, what do you say? Childhood. Hot
water bottles. Hot milk. Pancakes. Soap suds. What a life” (622). Like
many people, even the bizarre Goldberg remembers the pre-war era as a simpler
time and place, and an age that is gone forever. When he says, “Time’s
getting on. Round the corner, remember?” (622), it is a reminder to the
audience that humanity has turned a corner with the event of the dropping of
the atom bomb, and life can never return to that simpler time.
McCann, the Irish character, is obviously younger than and
subordinate to Goldberg, He seems far less menacing, and more genuine,
whistling cheerfully the song “The Mountains of Morne.” The song is whistled
twice during the play, once by McCann and later by Stanley, during an early
part of the interrogation scene. One of the verses of this classic Irish
song, written in 1896 by the Irishman Peter French, clearly identifies it as
a song bemoaning the loss of a better time, and remembering “young Peter
O’Loughlin,…the head of the force”:
You remember young Peter O’Loughlin, of course
Well, now he is here at the head of the force
I met him today, I was crossing the strand
And he stopped the whole street
With one wave of his hand
And there we stood talking of days that are gone
While the whole population of London looked on
But for all these great powers, he's wishful like me
To be back where dark Morne sweeps down to the sea. (Old
It is a small detail, to be sure, but for those in the audience who
recognized the tune, it would help reinforce Pinter’s theme concerning the
loss of a gentler time because of man’s warring.
Goldberg and McCann are characters that remind the viewer that there
is something almost otherworldly and evil in the nature of man, as was
demonstrated by the parties in conflict in World War II. It is not a German
trait or an Italian trait or an American trait, but a human trait. While
these two characters have some bizarre lines, and occasionally seem
supernatural in nature, they exhibit far more human characteristics.
Goldberg reminisces for the good old days, and McCann shows some mild empathy
for Stanley. They both seem to work for some large organization, and it is
their responsibility to apprehend Stanley and return him to whatever plight
is to be his fate.
In reference to the symbolic use of Goldberg and McCann, Simon Lester
From one point of view the play’s six characters constitute a
microcosm of society. In particular, they mirror the fundamental economic
division in society, the division between exploiters and exploiter. Goldberg
and McCann are of course the exploiters—symbols both of the anonymous forces
that control life and the managers, operators, and decision makers who
understand those forces well enough to use them for their own ends. (37)
Clearly, it is the powerful people who control the military-
industrial complex that feeds the aggressive mindset at the heart of the
world’s problems, and possibly at the heart of Stanley’s problem.
The interrogation scene in Act II is one of the most bizarre in the
play. Goldberg and McCann demand that Stanley sit down, and the questioning
begins typically with “What were you doing yesterday?”, but soon gets to “Why
did you leave the organization?” (Pinter 623). A list of nonsense questions
ensues that underlines both the bizarre nature of modern life and people’s
attempts to withdraw and escape from the horrors of it in mindless detail.
The pair interrogates Stanley as to what type of “fruit salts” he takes for
headaches, but eventually gets to a serious, although strange question: “Is
the number 846 possible or necessary?” (624). To explain this oddity,
Goldberg explains: “We admit possibility only after we grant necessity. It
is possible because necessary but by no means necessary through possibility.
The possibility can only be assumed after the proof of necessity” (624).
While this strange speech can take on many meanings, as is usual for
Pinter, it could be construed to reference the rationale for the destruction
caused by nuclear war. Justified as necessary to end the carnage of World
War II, the unthinkable possibility of a nuclear holocaust can only be
considered in light of its necessity. It is a twisted logic, and an insane
discussion, but nonetheless, it was one that obviously was had at some point
by many people in positions of power. It is the logical extension of the
paranoid thinking of an “us versus them” mentality that is the beginning of
an aggressive and martial mindset. Stanley is told that he has “betrayed our
land…[and] our breed” (Pinter 624), a charge reminiscent of the attacks
always levied against pacifists who question the aggression of their
country. When the pair demands the answer to the riddle “Why did the chicken
cross the road?” and “Which came first? …Chicken? Egg?” (624), it reminds
the viewer of the impossibility of ever logically unraveling the age-old
disputes between “us and them.”
Soon the “discussion” becomes violent, as Stanley has had all he can
tolerate, and he kicks Goldberg. McCain lifts a chair as a weapon over his
head, and Stanley seizes a chair and covers his head in self-defense. They
circle silently, chairs overhead, armed as were the major powers involved in
the Cold War standoff. For an audience in the late 1950s and early 1960s,
the two chairs with the eight legs pointed upward would be a reminder of the
armed nuclear missiles, which would soon set off the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Missiles had been invented during World War II, although not used then, but
by the time of the play’s creation, they were seen as the nuclear delivery
device to be most feared.
It is at this juncture that Meg re-enters the stage, dressed in her
evening attire and carrying the drum and sticks, which she places on the
table in the middle of room, as the birthday party begins around it. Meg is
urged to give a toast, and in it she expresses her maternal feelings for
Stanley, saying “…he’s the only Stanley I know…I’m so happy, having him here
and not gone away,…and there isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for him…” (Pinter
626). Pinter reminds the viewer of the true victims of what has begun under
the guise of the necessary: the children and all future generations. While
all people around the world feel similarly and vow that there is not anything
they would not do for their children, no one seems able to defuse the
impending doom of a nuclear holocaust.
In this same scene, Goldberg will reply, ironically, as the bearer
of violence, asking “What’s happened to the love, the bonhomie, the unashamed
expression of affection of the day before yesterday, that our mums taught us
in the nursery?” (Pinter 626). It is a question that contrasts the stark
distrust of the Cold War with the teachings of childhood concerning love,
forgiveness and tolerance. Goldberg praises Meg’s speech as “the sum total
of her devotion, in all its pride, plume and peacock, to a member of her own
living race” (626). Truly, says Pinter, mankind has forgotten that we are
all members of our own living race—the human race. One last hint in this
scene is given by the playwright as to his obscure meaning. Goldberg brags
on his own ability to speak in public, and when asked as to his usual topic,
replies: “The Necessary and the Possible. It went like a bomb” (626).
An astute look at the play up to this point can lead one to assume
that Goldberg and McCann are representatives of that segment of humanity that
believes militaristic might is the duty of responsible countries. By the
1950s, nuclear armament was seen as a necessity, and ironically, the only
possible way to avoid conflict. Blind distrust in lieu of open dialogue and
diplomacy was viewed as responsible foreign relations. Pinter demonstrates
the absurdity of such a position when the characters begin a game of blind
man’s buff. Each player in turn becomes “blind” as he is touched by the
blindfolded protagonist of the game, and soon all are eliminated. As
country after country in the 21st century creates and stockpiles nuclear
weaponry, it is clear that, like the characters in the game, the blindness is
contagious. The world is blind to the true nature of the dangerous standoff
and blind to the inevitable fate of a world full of nuclear weapons. As
Mahatma Gandhi once said of this war-like attitude, “An eye for an eye makes
the whole world blind” (The Quotations Page 1). Pinter would doubtless
The conclusion of Act II shows the corrupting forces of warfare.
While Stanley is blind-folded, McCann has placed the drum in his path, and
Stanley “falls with his foot caught in it” (Pinter 629). Enmeshed in the
symbol of warfare, he begins to strangle Meg, and a blackout occurs. During
the ensuing melee, “a sharp, sustained rat-a-tat with a stick on the side of
the drum” can be heard. Stanley is found giggling, hunched over an
unconscious Lulu, who is spread-eagled on the table. The viewer if unsure as
to what exactly has occurred, but Martin Esslin, in The Peopled Wound: The
Work of Harold Pinter, alleges that “Thus Stanley, having tried to strangle
Meg and to rape Lulu, seems to have gone out of his mind, as the avenging
representatives of the organization finally lay hands on him” (77). Stanley
is unable to hold out against Goldberg and McCann, and their methods and
attitudes of violence. He snaps and gives in, becoming even more violent
than they have been. It is a warning of what warfare will do to a person,
and a people.
As Austin Quigley states, “Something final occurs in the pattern of
group activity, something that closes off certain possibilities and
momentarily excludes awareness of acceptable alternatives” (226). In the
midst of the blackout, Stanley loses his glasses and they are broken, rending
him virtually, and permanently, blinded. Stanley’s been blinded and broken,
and his brain-washing is complete. He has joined the opposition,
lost “awareness of acceptable alternatives,” and, along with it, lost his
Act III begins on the following morning, again at breakfast. Pinter
observes the unity of time, and concludes the action within twenty-four
hours, having come full circle back to Meg and Petey’s breakfast table.
Again, Petey is reading the newspaper, oblivious to the chaos around him and
the violence of the previous evening. It will be he who must witness
Stanley’s final condition, as the two men take him away in a big black car.
Goldberg justifies this action by stating that they are taking Stanley to
see “someone with the proper …mnn… qualifications ….to have a look at him”
(Pinter 631). Goldberg goes on to explain Stanley’s illness by
saying, “day by day it grows and grows and grows…day by day. And then other
times it happens all at once. Poof! Like that! The nerves break. There’s
no guarantee how it’s going to happen, but with certain people…it’s a
foregone conclusion” (631). While ostensibly he is explaining the onset of
a mental breakdown, he could also be explaining the world’s madness
culminating in warfare. Judging from the history of the world, Pinter, like
most people, recognizes it is a foregone conclusion that it will happen again.
The most absurd and strange occurrence of the play happens between
the two ominous figures as they prepare to escort Stanley out. Goldberg
brags on his level of physical fitness, but asks McCann to “give me a blow…
Blow in my mouth.” McCann bends down and does so, and Goldberg requests
another, “one for the road” (Pinter 634). While this may be interpreted in
many ways, it does stand to reason that it could also demonstrate the
fellowship and “life’s breath” shared by members of a common mentality.
Through the mouth and breath comes language, and it is the enabler for shared
ideas of all meanings, but it is particularly important to spreading the mean
and hostile ideas of aggression and war.
Stanley is, according to Goldberg and McCann, one of them now.
Goldberg tells him he has “gone from bad to worse” and that they “can save
[him]” (Pinter 635). They go on to elaborate on the proper care and
treatment he will be entitled to, and this includes a long list of items
including a “stomach pump…oxygen tent…prayer wheel…plaster of Paris…crash
helmet…[and] crutches” (635). All of these are used to treat and help in the
case of accidents and injuries, endemic in warfare. They then tell him:
GOLDBERG: We’ll make a man of you.
McCANN: And a woman.
GOLDBERG: You’ll be re-orientated.
McCANN: You’ll be rich.
GOLDBERG: You’ll be adjusted.
McCANN: You’ll be our pride and joy.
GOLDBERG: You’ll be a mensch.
McCANN: You’ll be a success.
GOLDBERG: You’ll be integrated.
McCANN: You’ll give order.
GOLDBERG: You’ll make decisions.
McCANN: You’ll be a magnate.
GOLDBERG: A statesman.
McCANN: You’ll own yachts.
McCANN: Animals. (635-36)
Stanley has gone to the other side, and will reap the rewards of that side.
Once he has been “re-orientated” to their beliefs, he will have power and
money, but nonetheless, he will, like them, be an animal. It is their side
that views life as the animals do, and it is their side that has created
the “dog eat dog” world that has brought mankind to the edge of nuclear
Petey’s one futile gesture is demonstrative of the world’s actions in
response to the animals that Goldberg and McCann represent. He says to
them, “Leave him alone!” (Pinter 636), but in response they invite Petey to
join them in the big car. He instinctively knows that to stand up to them
will mean that he too must be overcome as Stanley has been. He turns his
head, abandons his symbolic son, weakly saying only, “Stan, don’t let them
tell you what to do!” (636). Yet Petey and the audience know that they tell
us all what to do, and we all are subject to the consequences of their
Finally, Meg returns and Petey denies what he has just seen with his
own eyes, telling her that Stanley is still upstairs asleep. But it is Meg
and Petey and all of us who are asleep, ignoring or denying the peril that we
have now faced for half a century. Like Meg , we laugh, dance and sing at
the party, focusing on the unimportant, ignoring the monsters that live among
us, taking us closer and closer to the brink of disaster.
Works Cited and Consulted
Cahn, Victor L. Gender and Power in the Plays of Harold Pinter. New York:
St. Martin’s Press, 1993.
Esslin, Martin. Pinter: The Playwright. London: Methuen, 1977.
Esslin, Martin. The Peopled Wound: The Work of Harold Pinter. Garden City,
New York: Doubleday, 1970.
Hayman, Ronald. Harold Pinter. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.,
Innes, C. D. Modern British Drama. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
2002. Googlebooks. Accessed 12 April 2009.
Lester, Simon O. “Reflections on Pinter’s The Birthday Party.” Contemporary
Literature, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Winter, 1972). pp. 34-43. University of
Wisconsin Press. JSTOR. Accessed 4/9/09.
Old Poetry. Internet. Accessed 9 April 2009.
Pinter, Harold. The Birthday Party. Modern Drama: Selected Plays from 1879
to the Present. Ed. Walter Levy. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey:
Prentice Hall, 1999. 603-637.
Quigley, Austin E. The Pinter Problem. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton
University Press, 1975.
The Quotations Page. Internet. Accessed 12 April 2009.