The Birthday Party Summary

Harold Pinter

The Birthday Party

  • Plot overview and analysis written by an experienced literary critic.
  • Full study guide for this title currently under development.
  • To be notified when we launch a full study guide, please contact us.

The Birthday Party Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.  This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter.

The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter is a three-act play.In act 1, Petey and Meg Boles are the proprietors of a resort on the coast of England. Meg is preparing breakfast while Petey reads the paper.They talk about Stanley Webber, their tenant, and two others who might rent a room. Meg wakes Stanley for breakfast, and after Petey leaves for work, Stanley compliments her cooking, calling it succulent. She flirts with him, and he changes his tune, telling her that her tea is muck and the resort is a pigsty.

Meg pivots and tells Stanley about the potential new tenants. Stanley seems worried at first, but then Meg asks about his musical career. Meg leaves to shop, and Lulu appears with a package. She chastises Stanley for his appearance and for being anti-social, and then leaves. Stanley spies on two men who arrive—McCann and Goldberg. McCann is asking if this job will be the same as earlier jobs.

When Meg returns, Goldberg introduces himself and McCann and then asks about Stanley. Meg answers that it is Stanley’s birthday, and the other two suggest a party. She leads them to their room upstairs. When she returns, Stanley asks her about the men.He tells her it is not his birthday, yet he accepts a present—the package Lulu left. It is a drum, which he beats more and more wildly until the end of the first act.

Act 2 begins in the evening. McCann is ripping Petey’s newspaper apart. Stanley enters and the two discuss the birthday party. Stanley tells McCann that he would prefer to celebrate by himself, but McCann insists that Stanley attend.

Stanley attempts to leave the resort, but McCann stops him, insisting they have met before. Stanley plans to return home and tells McCann he is the same man he always was, in spite of his drinking. He becomes more upset as he cannot figure out why McCann and Goldberg are there, and grabs McCann, protesting that what he said was said in error. Goldberg and Petey arrive, and introductions are made. Petey tells them he will miss Stanley’s party because it is his chess night.

Petey and McCann exit, and Stanley turns his efforts toward Goldberg, trying to convince him to leave the resort. Goldberg resists Stanley’s attempts, talking about life and celebrating it. When McCann returns, he and Goldberg question Stanley and tell him that he is dead. Stanley adamantly disagrees and tries to fight McCann and Goldberg. At that point, Meg, dressed for the birthday party, enters the room playing the toy drum. They turn the lights out and McCann shines a flashlight on Stanley’s face while Meg, Goldberg, and McCann toast the birthday boy.

The lights are turned back on as Lulu arrives for the party. Meg tries to get Stanley to dance, though he refuses, while Lulu and Goldberg flirt. McCann sings. They decide to play a game of blind man’s bluff. McCann breaks Stanley’s glasses and trips him.Stanley tries to strangle Meg. McCann and Goldberg hurry to save Meg, and the lights go out again. When McCann finds the flashlight, Stanley has switched to attacking Lulu. The others move toward him and the curtain falls.

Act 3 begins the next morning. Once more, Petey is at the table reading the paper. Meg pours Petey tea after explaining that McCann and Goldberg ate the whole breakfast. She planned to wake Stanley, but he was talking to McCann. She asks Goldberg about the car and wheelbarrow, which he says donot exist. She leaves to go shopping, and Petey asks Goldberg about Stanley’s health, to which Goldberg responds that Stanley suffered a breakdown. Petey offers to get a doctor but Goldberg assures him that it is not necessary. Petey learns that McCann and Goldberg will be taking Stanley to Monty.

Petey goes out and shortly after, Lulu appears. McCann has once more shredded he newspaper. Goldberg hits on her, but she rebuffs him. McCann and Goldberg advance on her, but she manages to escape them, fleeing through the back door. McCann goes to fetch Stanley, who cannot even speak when questioned again about his health. Petey returns and tries to stop them taking Stanley away, but McCann and Goldberg threaten Petey, and leave with Stanley.

Meg returns and asks Petey about McCann and Goldberg, and he tells her they left—but he tells Meg that Stanley is still upstairs, in bed. They settle into a conversation about the birthday party as the third and final act ends.