Befuddling `Birthday’

The Aurora Theatre Company’s The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter has just been extended through March 11 in Berkeley. That’s good news for Pinter fans. It also gives us more time to figure out just what the heck that show is about.

To that end, and with her permission, I’d like to share with you an e-mail I received from Susan Dunn. She and her husband, Jeff, formulated a theory. Please note how well-written this missive is. And then play along. Contribute your own theory about what Pinter is up to with The Birthday Party. There are no wrong answers. Pinter himself says he doesn’t even know. Note: if you haven’t seen the show, there are spoilers ahead.

We saw the The Birthday Party last night and I think my husband nailed a great way to figure out the play — not that there is only one way. But you might see the genius in this play through his interpretation.

Stanley is everyman, and in act one, he is a child. He sleeps late, has no responsibilities, and is cared for by the couple as though he was their child. And he acts like a child, being wilful, demanding, mercurial, etc. Won’t even get up to get his breakfast plate. Meg can’t help but keep caring for him (since he is the child), but like many children, he drives her crazy. Also, in Act 1, when Lulu comes in, he is not yet sexually mature, so he shows a lot of interest in Lulu, but he doesn’t know how to get her (and maybe even what “get her” means at that stage). He is afraid of the two men, and we don’t know why, but when we realize what they are up to, we know why Stanley is afraid, and hides from them like a child. At the end of the first act, he gets his gift — a drum, and does what many spoiled kids do, uses it in a way that torments his parent (Meg).

In Act 2, Stanley starts to mature. The two men arrive, and he can’t escape them They represent growing up. Goldberg is the authoritative, confident and persuasive adult figure that represents a concept of “following the rules” and achieving success. His success is emphasized by McCann who is his henchman who pays “fealty” to Goldberg in many ways throughout the play, through deference, through blowing in his mouth (representing that a power person can make an underling do ANYTHING), through following orders no matter what. So the strangers are there to carry Stanley through to maturity. He resists, but he can’t escape. Stanley is dependent on his glasses, or he THINKS he is. But the glasses are really like a Blankie or a thumb. They are what he needs to stay a child. When McCann breaks the glasses, its because Stanley won’t be needing them anymore as an adult. During the birthday party, Stanley has his last moment of resistance, rebellion and victory when he finds Lulu in the dark and has sex with her on the table. His face at the end of that scene shows Goldberg that he has bested him…. for the moment.

In Act 3, which suffers because we don’t see much of Stanley, he is being educated (school?) by McCann who is upstairs in his room doing a lot of talking. This represents the brainwashing that we all go through to leave the careless world of childhood behind and assume tradition, responsibility, respectability, and in Pinter’s view, inanity. When Stanley emerges, he is a brainwashed zombie. Goldberg and McCann list all the wonderful things he will have in his new world, but in Pinter’s view, there is really a huge loss. He has lost his will and his soul. Goldberg asks him what he thinks, and his croaking response shows that now that he is brainwashed, he can’t really THINK anymore, although he can get through the mindless world of being a working adult (drone). When he puts on the glasses, they don’t illuminate anything for Stanley. They are only lenses now, not the artifacts of childhood, freedom and power which a child exerts on the adult world. That aspect of the glasses is lost forever. Petey’s last words underscore this view of the play when he says to Stanley “Don’t let them tell you what to do”. The irony of course is that its too late – both for Petey and for Stanley.

I found this a very satisfactory way to look at The Birthday Party, and it made more sense to me than thinking that the 2 men were the agents of death, which is another interpretation. What do you think?

One thought on “Befuddling `Birthday’

  1. Could I ask if anyone else picked up on the sexual reference within LuLu’s name? The fact that many people call the female genitalia a Lulu must have some relevancy within the play? She is a sexually charged woman and on many occasions throughout the play- plays upon her female sex – Goldberg using her and Stanley Raping her in the dark with her legs spread eagled. Just a thought… any comments?

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