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. 

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