Significance of the Title of Harold Pinter’s Play The Birthday Party
In his essay “Structure, Sign, Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”, Derrida demonstrated how a written text lacks structural coherence and organic unity and how the text undermines its own assumptions and is thus divided against itself. We come across almost an artistic demonstration of the theory in The Birthday Party, which revolves round a central event, namely “the birthday party” of the protagonist. In every culture, ‘birthday’ is treated as an important event and is invested with meanings through certain rituals, which are considered archetypal activities in the human culture in general. More particularly, in western culture ‘birthday’ is looked upon as a sacred moment in one’s life and this sacredness is generated from the memory of the greatest religious event, namely the birth of the Babe, the Son of God. Christ’s birth is significant not simply because it marks the Advent of the Redeemer as a point in time, but structurally it marks the beginning of the process of Redemption which is completed with Crucifixion, thereby redeeming mankind from the Original Sin. In the Christian culture this has remained the central event, in reference to which all other birthdays generate meaning through the repeated performance of birthday-rites. But keeping in mind Derrida’s theorisation, we can say in the context of Pinter’s play that the characters cannot locate any structure in reference to which they can justify their actions and, of course, existence. The reason is that everything is decentred.
From very beginning of the play we are introduced to the peripheries of life. First of all, the setting is not at home, but at a boarding house, which also faces the crisis of identity and recognition. Then at the query of Meg, the landlady of house, the birth of a baby is reported in the newspaper by her husband Petey who does not pay much attention to it. But on the contrary, his wife—possibly because of having no offspring, gets interested to the point of passing her judgement on the incident. In this way the concept of birthday is itself seen to be deconstructed at the very outset. Here the audience note an unconscious longing in Meg for possessing a son, and in the absence of any actual one she uses her husband and Staley later as surrogates who must behave as she wishes. In fact, she exploits her position as a food-provider. This ordinary activity from daily life gathers a ritualistic flavour if we relate her offering of fried bake to the birth of a baby somewhere in the town and to her blackmailing of Stanley with the threat of not giving him the breakfast in the case of his not following her command. Furthermore, excessive repeated emphasis on food may lead the reader to look for meaning in the Christian iconography.
With the arrival of two strangers, the play hinges on uneasy uncertainties and with the proposal of the strangers for holding a birthday party, it runs towards the central theme in a way which defies the structure of a traditional drama. The audience suspect, just like Stanley, the intention and feel the menace lurking somewhere in the corners still not visible. A birthday party is basically a communal activity intended for a gathering of individuals who come closer; but in Pinter’s play when the party begins, we find individuals not only being isolated from one another but also being disintegrated within themselves. The hollowness of Stanley’s existence is emphasized in Meg’s birthday gift of a drum for him, which he beats wildly in a desperate attempt perhaps to announce his existence, an act which fails utterly because sounds connect nothing and signify nothing. Under the impact of liquor the characters forget their roles in society and engage themselves in activities which may be called the explosion of their desires from id. Stanley also undergoes a total transformation or dehumanization. He is physically assaulted for his alleged attempt at raping Lulu by Golberg and McCann ironically enough as Goldberg rapes Lulu later and McCann usurps Staley’s place while flirting with Meg. In other words, he loses both Lulu and Meg to the strangers whose persecution of Staley does not stop here and goes beyond the curtain.
Towards the end of the drama, a new man is born out of Stanley’s old self, which was purely a construct of loosely gathered memories. We find Stanley in new appearance, well dressed and clean shaven; but he has undergone such inhuman torture (which may amount to anything) that he is no more the person he had been. In fact, he may be called dead-man-walking.