Modernist (Un)Certainty in Pinter’s The Birthday Party: The Threat of Violence and Its Impact


Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party is of continuing interest to contemporary readers because the playwright deals with the topics of certainty and uncertainty, home and homelessness, past and present, which are not limited to the British context but can be studied in terms of modernism and postmodernism. Pinter, who deals with the modernist principle of negation and the aesthetics of postmodernism in his plays contributes to both movements.

Stanley, who takes refuge in the boarding house in a coastal town, wants to regain his self- esteem. To achieve this aim he builds his relationship with the landlady, Meg on lies and uncertainties. With the appearance of two men, Goldberg and McCann, Stanley is forced to leave his haven. The fact that he is taken away in a wheelbarrow makes the unfortunate development in Stanley’s situation more undignified. He has come down to the bottom from the self-deluding high state he thinks he resides in.  All the questions we may have about newcomers’ identity, their real aim in finding Stanley’s place, where they come from, and where they will take Stanley are left unanswered, and this makes the play a mystery not only for the audience but also for the characters.

In today’s world no one can foresee the future; not even the near future is accessible for the inhabitants of this world. Reading and experiencing Pinter’s play in which uncertainty prevails from the beginning till the end makes contemporary readers reconsider what life offers them nowadays.

            Keywords: modernism, postmodernism, violence, uncertainty, The Birthday Party


Harold Pinter’ın The Birthday Party adlı oyunu günümüzde okuyucular için ilgi çekici olmaya devam ediyor. Yazar bu eserinde kesinlik, belirsizlik, ev, evsizlik, geçmiş, bugün gibi sadece İngiltere bağlamında sınırlandırılmayacak temaları modernism (çağdaşçılık) ve postmodernism (yeni-çağdaşçılık) bağlamında ele almaktadır. Çağdaşçılığn vazgeçilmez unsurlarından olumsuzlamayı ve yeni çağdaşçılığın estetik değerlerini kullanan Pinter oyunlarında her iki akıma da yer vermiştir.

Bir sahil kasabasında saklanan Stanley öz-saygısını yeniden kazanmaya çalışmaktadır. Bu amacına ulaşmak için ev sahibesi Meg ile ilişkisini yalanlar ve belirsizlikler üzerine kurar. Goldberg ve McCann adında iki kişinin gelmesiyle Stanley sığınağını terk etmek zorunda kalır. Oyunun sonunda Stanley’nin el arabasında taşınarak sahneden çıkartılması onun talihsiz durumunu daha da onursuz hale sokar. Stanley, bir anda kendini hayal dünyasında yarattığı yüksek mertebeden tepetaklak olmuş bulur. Yeni gelen kişilerin kimlikleri, Stanley’nin yerini bulmadaki amaçları, nereden geldikleri ve onu nereye götürecekleri ile ilgili soruların tümü cevapsız kalır. Bu durum oyunu sadece okurlar için değil karakterler için de gizemli kılar.

Günümüzde gelecekle ilgili tahminler yapmak imkansız; yakın gelecek bile tüm dünya vatandaşları için bilinmezlerle dolu. Başından sonuna kadar bilinmezlerle ve belirsizliklerle dolu olan Pinter’ın The Birthday Party oyunu, çağdaş okurun günümüz dünyasının neler vaat ettiğini anlamasını ve bir kez daha değerlendirmesini sağlar.

Anahtar sözcükler: çağdaşçılık, yeni-çağdaşçılık, şiddet, belirsizlik, The Birthday Party.

Modernism implies social turmoil and a sense of menace that can be felt in all aspects of life, and thus a highly skeptical outlook which leads to nihilism and anxiety about the future. In modernism an ironic dismissal of the importance of truth and reason exists together with the need for truth and reason. Therefore the significance of truth and reason coexists with the immensely uncertain presence of the human being in an alienated world. Thought, reason, and observation come to be seen as dependent on language as a structural, mediating system and not as the acts of pure, nonmaterial consciousness with direct access to reality. (Source: http://homepage.newschool.edu/~quigleyt/vcs/modernism.pdf). As a result, on one hand there is the need to have meaning and truth at all stages of life and on the other there is the very real experience of the end of individualism. Impressionism, expressionism, surrealism and nihilism are the fundamental principles of  modernism, among which the latter two lead to the idea of the end of individualism. These literary movements emphasize respectively the role of individual perception and the exploration of the nature through the conscious and unconscious mind (impressionism), the focus on the inner vision and the inner spiritual reality that replaces the significance of the external realities of objects and events (expressionism), the liberation of the subconscious through the denial of the supreme authority of rationality (surrealism) and finally the absurdity that is present in the conditions of contemporary life which can be exemplified with people dying in wars, the fears of nameless millions, the uncertainty and inexplicable meaninglessness of the existence of human beings in a world void of any spiritual center (nihilism). Thus surrealism and nihilism promote the death of the subject. (http://vc.ws.edu/engl2265/unit4/Modernism/all.htm)
Harold Pinter’s plays connect him to modernism as he starts writing in the late 1950s when a commitment to the configuration of aesthetics and politics was at its peak. Negation, autonomy, resistance to meaning-making, estrangement and alienation exist in Pinter’s aesthetics and make him an exemplar of modernist discourse. Varun Begley, in Harold Pinter and The Twilight of Modernism (Toronto: Uni of Toronto Press, 2005) defines negation as the formal incarnation of protest against reality and the wish that it were otherwise, and he says that commitment to an aesthetic world takes the place of commitment to the real one. These notions (i.e, negation and commitment to an aesthetic world) are also the characteristic features of modern art. Modernist scepticism and the love of ambiguity are some of the dominant factors of Pinter’s early plays among which The Birthday Party has a special place. Written in 1958, this play marks the beginning of Pinter’s writing career, and his concern with power and language makes him a prominent modernist. Pinter’s plays cover a wide range, starting from early modernism to his modernist writings and finally to the postmodern plays he writes from 2000 onwords. The purpose of this paper is to examine uncertainty and violence in Pinter’s first full-length play, The Birthday Party. As a modernist playwright Pinter depicts violence with all its facets through his characters in The Birthday Party. The play displays the many-sided effects of violence, and it foresees the violence people are exposed to at all times. It was poorly received when it was first performed in 1958, though it has received a lot of attention more recently. Uncertainty and violence will be discussed in relation to Pinter as a modernist. Initially my concern will be the role of uncertainty in The Birthday Party. Secondly, I will focus on violence in the play which exists partly because of the mental disturbance of the characters and partly because of their highly vague past and present situations. Then, in the concluding part I will try to provide the vital link between uncertainty and violence, the relationship between which will be discussed as one of the characteristics of modernism in Pinter’s The Birthday Party.   
In the play the characters’ situation raises questions to which no acceptable answers are provided. Stanley claims that he was a successful, highly appreciated  pianist who gave regular concerts in the past, the truth of which statements can be vouched for  only by his vague memories. With his vague background and bizarre reasons for extending his stay in the boarding house Stanley is the catalyst, whose presence and supposed birthday changes the routine of all the characters. Stanley asserts that he has played the piano all over the world when Meg asks him whether he has been to the places he now lists as his new concert programme. He tells her that he was offered a job in a night club in Berlin, and that afterwards a world tour which would cover places like Athens, Constantinople, Zagreb and Vladivostock was planned. Stanley wants to impress or rather threaten Meg by saying he will leave her. But his new plan seems as uncertain as his account of his previous successes:

Stan: I had a unique touch. Absolutely unique. They came up to me and said they were grateful. Champagne we had that night, the lot. (Pause.) My father nearly came down to hear me. Well, I dropped him a card anyway. But I don’t think he could make it. No, I – I lost the address, that was it. (Pause.) Yes. Lower Edmonton. Then, after that, you know what they did? They carved me up. Carved me up. It was all arranged, it was all worked out. My next concert. Somewhere else it was. In winter. I went down there to play. Then, when I got there, the hall was closed, the place was shuttered up, not even a caretaker. They’d locked it up. (Act I, page 716)

The information provided by Stan is uncertain, and its validity is highly questionable, since his long awaited new attempt to start his concerts seems to exist only in his words. Meg seems not to lose her trust in Stan, but as the only sane character in the play, Petey, never shows any sign of acceptance or approval of Stan’s words (or his acts). The vagueness of Stanley’s family background stems from his incoherent answers or explanations as he wishes to present himself as someone with a solid background. But the more he tries to convince the listener of this background the less clear or convincing is the information he provides about his family and past life.  
At the very beginning of the play, Meg and Petey’s pointless conversation centers around Stan, whether he is awake or not, when he will come down to breakfast, if he had a good night’s sleep: their dialogue makes Stan’s identity vague. He could be their son, a mutual  friend or someone who is staying in their house. Soon it is made clear that Stan is a lodger. The uncertainty surrounding Stanley’s past is paralleled by our uncertainty about how and why he has come to reside in Meg’s boarding house1 and how long he will stay there.
Meg’s relationship with Stanley is also ambiguous, they can be seen as lodger and tenant, but they also provide a good example of a mother-son, or a  lover-beloved relationship. At the end of the first act Meg is vulnerable to Stanley’s outburst of anger when she witnesses his fierce, violent playing of the drum and his final tearing it into pieces, which can be interpreted as Stanley’s negative reaction to Meg’s warm acceptance of the new comers and her generosity in inviting them to the birthday party. The speech in which Meg makes a toast to Stanley is equally unclear:

Meg: Well – it’s very, very nice to be here tonight, in my house, and I want to propose to toast to Stanley, because it’s his birthday, and he’s lived here for a while now, and he’s my Stanley now. And I think he’s a good boy, although sometime he’s bad. (Appreciative laugh from Goldberg.) And he’s the only Stanley I know, and I know him better than all the world, although he doesn’t think so. (“Hear – hear” from Goldberg.) Well, I could cry because I’m so happy, having him here and not gone away, on his birthday, and there isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for him, and all you good people here tonight… (She sobs.) (Act II, page 727)

She delivers her speech in the dark, which adds to the mystery and ambiguity of  the birthday party.  What happens after the birthday party in Stanley’s room, why Meg does not hear or sense anything strange till next morning, when Petey comes back and why/how he is not disturbed by the presence of the two new lodgers all remain unanswered inquiries.
In addition to uncertainty violence is seen in various ways in The Birthday Party through the dialogue, the highly disparate/unrelated situation of the characters and the play’s strange mixture of suspense, humour and lack of communication as well as its excessively talkative characters. The Birthday Party belongs to the first stage in Pinter’s career when the playwright was interested in the state of characters who feel safe inside (a room) and are exposed to a menace that comes from inside, outside or from an unknown source. In his comedy of menace, in The Birthday Party Pinter depicts the threat that comes from outside with the unexpected visit of the newcomers, McCann, a  taciturn and menacing Irishman in his thirties, and Goldberg, a powerful and threatening Jewish man in his fifties. The relationship between Stanley and the two newcomers successfully blends uncertainty and violence. Violence is the result of the psychologically disturbed characters, whose disturbance sometimes extends to the point of schzophrenia. Stanley, Goldberg and McCann are all disturbed[2] in different ways; Stan is a mysterious guest in a house where he becomes a permanent dweller, and Goldberg and McCann are victimizers who represent authoritarianism. With their unexpected appearance Stanley’s peace is destroyed. Of the two, Goldberg is the boss: he tells McCann what to do and at times refers to his past, which he is very proud of. He boasts of not failing in anything he attempts or in his business:

Goldberg: I want your opinion. Have a look in my mouth. (He opens his mouth wide.) Take a good look. (McCann looks.)You know what I mean. I’ve never lost a tooth. Not since the day I was born. Nothing’s changed. (He gets up.) That’s why I’ve reached my position, McCann. Because I’ve always been as fit as a fiddle. All my life I’ve said the same. Play up, play up, and play the game. Honour thy father and thy mother. All along the line. Follow the line, the line, McCann, and you can’t go wrong. What do you think, I’m a self-made man? No! I sat where I was told to sit. I kept my eye on the ball. School? Don’t talk to me about school. Top in all subjects. And for why? Because I’m telling you, I’m telling you, follow my line? Follow my mental? Learn by heart. Never write down a thing. No. And don’t go near the water. And you’ll find – that what I say is true.
Because I believe that the world .... (Vacant) ....
Because I believe that the world ...... (Desperate)

(Lost) ....
(He sits in chair.) 
 (Act III, p: 734) 

Goldberg’s discourse is an example of verbal violence, since he asserts his power as the sole authority, but the authority seems to collapse as his speech breaks down into uncertainty. Although Meg sees no danger in the sudden appeareance of two strangers,  Stanley sees and smells the danger. He rejects the idea of the party and tears the toy drum given to him by Meg in a solitary moment even before the actual party.

Stan: What’s this?
Meg: It’s your present.
Stan: This isn’t my birthday, Meg.
Meg: Of course it is. Open your present.
(He stares at the parcel, slowly stands, and opens it. He takes out a boy’s drum.)
Stan (flatly): It’s a drum. A boy’s drum.
Meg (tenderly): It’s because you haven’t got a piano. (Act I, page: 721)

Stan hangs the drum round his neck and taps it first gently with the sticks, then as he marches round the table he begins to beat it fiercely, savagely in a possessed manner. The scene is reminiscent of Nora’s tarantella in A Doll’s House, where Ibsen makes Nora dance frantically just before the truth is revealed about her crime of forgery. Torvald vomits up his so called moral ideas and dissatisfaction with the presence of such a woman in his house who will contaminate her own children with her immorality and lies. Stan’s erratic, uncontrolled beating of the drum symbolizes approaching danger. Both Nora and Stanley’s lives are at stake in these scenes, but their attempts to gain time and reconsider what awaits them do not change the approaching danger. Stanley’s reaction to the coming threat is vain since    Meg’s ultimate role and contribution to the menace accelarates Stanley’s defeat. Stanley’s erroneous decision in choosing Meg – an ignorant, ineffective character - in whom he thinks he can find a secure haven becomes a great disappointment for him.
The birthday party is an occasion where both uncertainty and violence reign. Petey’s absence and Lulu’s presence add to the fierce struggle between the strong and the weak and bring variety to the violence show. Goldberg talks  to Lulu about having played piggy-back or pop-goes the weasel and pontoon, names which are totally unfamiliar to her. Goldberg’s taming of Lulu continues not always in gentle terms. Still she enjoys being singled out by Goldberg and confesses that she has always liked older men, since they can calm her down. When the party is over Lulu becomes aware of the trick played on her. She is unlike Meg, who is ignorant to the point of stupidity, and she regrets the fact that she has believed whatever Goldberg said and has let him get close to her:

Lulu: You didn’t appreciate me for myself. You took all those liberties only to satisfy your appetite.
Goldberg: Now you’re giving me indigestion.
Lulu: And after all that had happened. An old woman nearly killed and a man gone mad – How can I go back behind that counter now? Oh Nat, why did you do that?
Goldberg: You wanted me to do it Lulula, so I did it.
McCann: That’s fair enough. (Act III, page: 736)

Not only Stanley, for whom the birthday party is organized, but also Lulu, the lively, energetic, young character who has hopes for the future is exposed to violence. She is betrayed by Goldberg and punished due to her unreserved trust in him. Goldberg’s unexpected and sudden appearance affects Lulu’s calm and undisturbed life. There is not only verbal and physical violence in the play, there is sexism, as well, which has been revealed through Goldberg’s treatment of Lulu. As the lights go off while the birthday party continues, Lulu faints and is laid on the top of the table by Stanley. Goldberg and McCann search for Lulu till McCann finds a torch on the floor, shines it at table and finds Lulu lying spread-eagled there. Stanley giggles as the torchlight hits him. His satisfaction signified by his giggling and his stooping position  over Lulu imply rape.
Verbal violence is depicted in various ways, not only with harsh questionings of the victim, but also with the heavily loaded words of the stronger party in the duel of utterances. Goldberg’s satisfaction in finding Stanley is revealed through his speech just before the birthday party takes place.  His words are assertive, ironic and full of enthusiasm:

Goldberg: As a matter of fact, every single one of my senses is at its peak. Not bad going, eh? For a man past fifty. But a birthday, I always feel, is a great occasion, taken too much granted these days. What a thing to celebrate – birth! Like getting up in the morning. Marvellous! Some people don’t like the idea of getting up in the morning. I’ve heard them. Getting up in the morning, they say, what is it? Your skin’s crabby, you need a shave, your eyes are full of muck, your mouth is like a boghouse, the palms of your hands are full of sweat, your nose is clogged up, your feet stink, what are you but a corpse waiting to be washed? Whenever I hear that point of view I feel cheerful. Because I know what it is to wake up with the sun shining, to the sound of the lawnmower, all the little birds, the smell of the grass, church bells, tomato juice – (Act II, page: 724)

Goldberg’s self confidence is exposed in his speech as he can foresee his victory over Stanley in the birthday party. He describes an able man who presents an opposite case to Stanley’s situation. The corpse-like man he refers to in his speech is actually Stanley himself. In Act II, a violent but comic effect is achieved through the absurd cross-examination of Stanley by McCann and Goldberg. They push him into a corner with the question:

Goldberg: Which came first?
McCann: Chicken? Egg? Which came first?
Goldberg and McCann: Which came first? Which came first? Which came first?
(Stanley screams). (Act II, p: 726)

Although Stanley lives in his illusionary haven, menace comes from outside and his long-lived period of silent waiting comes to an end. He refuses to go out, rejecting Lulu’s advice of going out to get some fresh air. Without openly mentioning his fear of being found out by anybody he waits hopelessly for the approaching threat. After hearing that Meg has received two new lodgers he becomes tense and treats Meg crossly. The menace reaches a climactic point with the birthday party. Stanley cannot escape from his own birthday party, during which he finds himself in the game of “blind man’s buff” as the blind man and he accidentally comes to the point of almost strangling Meg and then raping Lulu. Meg recovers shortly afterwards but Lulu feels the unbearable burden of this unfortunate event for some time.
As a modernist playwright Pinter depicts violence with all its facets through his characters in The Birthday Party. In addition to violence, Pinter’s style creates a  unqiue effect of uncertainty too, by suggesting that the characters have secrets that neither the others nor the reader can discover. The characters fail to comprehend the reasons, the meaning or the significance of the lack of clarity in their past and present states. Stanley’s blindness at the end of the play symbolizes his loss of power and position. His glasses are broken, yet he wears a businessman’s suit and gets ready to be taken away by the two impostors. These two homeless, ganster-like characters have stil not revealed their identity clearly. McCann’s ignorance about Goldberg’s name or the various names used by Stanley, McCann and Goldberg exemplify the deliberate confusion in names.
In The Birthday Party, Pinter adds uncertainty to violence when Stanley is pursued by McCann and Goldberg because of his presumed betrayal of the organization. What Stanley has done previously to deserve Goldberg’s and McCann’s cross-examination and punishment is not known to  the audience:

McCann: Why did you leave the organization?
Goldberg: What would your old mum say, Webber?
McCann: Why did you betray us?
Goldberg: You hurt me, Webber. You’re playing a dirty game. (Act II, page 725)

Stanley’s past life is shrouded in uncertainty. The menacing strangers, one Jewish and the other Irish, perform a series of interrogations which turn out to be both scary  and exhilarating. Neither in Stanley’s nor in Goldberg and McCann’s cases does the experience of guilt pave the way to the sense of neurotically haunted and paralysed guilty people by the cries, yearnings and even looks of the victim. (Keane, John Reflections On Violence, p: 183-184)[3] A difference between these three characters’ sense of guilt can be suggested as:  Stanley’s decision of taking refuge in Meg’s place refers to the idea of his passivity till the two new characters appear. Whatever he has done previously as implied in the text as something treacherous, is traced by the organization and Stanley disappeared in a concealed place for a period of time. As part of the uncertainty that lies in the past life of Stanley violence prevails as suggested in the interrogation:

            Goldberg: Where was your wife?
            Stan: In ---
            Goldberg: Answer.
Stan: (turning, crouched) What wife?
Goldberg: What have you done with your wife?
McCann: He’s killed his wife!
Goldberg: Why did you kill your wife?
Stan: (sitting, his back to the audience) What wife?
McCann: How did he kill her?
Goldberg: How did you kill her?
McCann: You throttled her.
Goldberg: With arsenic.
McCann. That’s your man. (Act II, page 726)

Stanley is treated as a potential victimizer and criminal in this speech[4]. In explaining the reason for taking away and punishing Stanley, the two imposters refer to violence practiced on Stanley’s wife, whose existence is questionable.
The end of The Birthday Party is also ambiguous. Stanley leaves Meg’s boarding house with McCann and Goldberg who carry him to the car in a wheelbarrow. Stanley’s well tailored suit in the final scene is puzzling, since it could easily be interpreted as good treatment of Stanley by the two gansters. However, it is more likely that he has been dressed in this way to get prepared for the long awaited appointment with the “leader of the organization.”
With the presence of uncertainty and violence, and with the close bond between the two, the very texture and tone of The Birthday Party reflects the reality of the world we live in today.  Violence as seen in the play does not always take the form of physical violence. Pinter achieves the scary and exhilarating effect of verbal violence through the peculiar use of language, as his own style requires. Uncertainty prevails in many plays by Harold Pinter, and The Birthday Party is a good example of this with its many references to the ambiguity and obscurity surrounding Goldberg and McCann’s identities, their multiple names, their bizarre relationship and their mysterious connection with Stanley. Pinter successfully maintains the enigma throughout the play, as a modernist playwright. The impossibility of finding truth and reason behind the discourse and action in The Birthday Party parallels the vain attempt to provide meaning for the existence of human beings and clarity about their past and present states. The dictates of surrealism and nihilism are present in The Birthday Party.


1. The setting described at the beginning of the play reminds the reader of the stage directions of Ibsen’s realistic plays, even the play can be categorized as resembling the naturalistic plays of Chekhov and Strindberg, thus it provides a good example of modernist drama that follows the realistic period and precedes the post-modern period.

2. Pinter makes use of disabled and/or blind characters in several plays. In A Slight Ache the blind match seller is called Barnabas by Flora. Communication problems exist between Edward and Flora, as they do between Meg and Petey. Flora projects all her hopes and desires from her spouse on the blind man. Likewise, Meg fills in the gap in her married life with Stanley.  

3. In Reflections on Violence, Keane describes the relationship between guilt and shame as: “Those who are rendered guilty by the act of witnessing violence against others are sometimes gripped by the feeling that they could easily disappear down a hole, chased by the anger, resentment or indignation of the violated. Even though their actions do not directly cause the suffering of the violated, the guilty feel the way they do because an inner voice tells them that they are indeed responsible. The guilty are haunted by the sound within themselves of the voice of judgment. They feel permanent unease at what they have done to others. That is why they themselves often fear retaliatory punishment or even inflict it upon themselves, for instance by means of permanent guilt.” (London: Verso, 1996), 183.

4. Stanley’s passivity before the appearance of the newcomers and even after learning Meg’s plan to organize a birthday party for him ceases when he faces the threat caused by Goldberg and McCann. Although he cannot prevent Meg’s warm invitation of the strangers to her house and to Stan’s birthday party as guests of honor, he still does his best to defend himself during the interrogations.


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Harold Pinter, The Birthday Party, in Types of Drama: Plays and Contexts, ed. Sylvan Barnet, et al., Seventh Edition (New York: Longman, 1996.)

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This paper is presented in the12th International Cultural Studies Symposium organized by Ege University (April 29th-May 1st 2009) in Izmir, with the title “The Limits of (Un)Certainty in Pinter’s The Birthday Party.”
* Written by Dr. Gül Kurtuluş, Acting Chair, Bilkent University, Department of English Language and Literature.

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