The Birthday Party has been described as a Comedy of Menace. This was initially coined in an article by the drama critic Irving Wardle in 1958 as a play on words from “comedy of manners” – “manners” pronounced with an exaggerated English accent becomes “menace." And the term stuck.
Beyond the play on words, of course, the term does fit The Birthday Party quite well. The menacing element in the play is destiny “as an incurable disease which one forgets about most of the time and whose lethal reminders may take the form of a joke" (Wardle, "Comedy of Menace" in Encore magazine). The celebration of Stanley’s birthday hangs menacingly enough over most of the play, to resolve into what we can only imagine is Stanley’s destiny – being taken away by two mysterious men.
The Birthday Party is also often given as example for Theatre of the Absurd, which refers to the fluidity and ambiguity of time, place, and identity in the text. As an audience member of The Birthday Party, you can expect to feel confused at times about the story line, as the facts seem to contradict themselves at times, and characters respond to more than one name.
For example, in Act One, Stanley describes his career, saying "I've played the piano all over the world," followed immediately by "All over the country," and then by "I once gave a concert”. The character Goldberg responds to ‘Nat’, but in his stories of the past he refers to himself as ‘Simey’ and also ‘Benny’, and when talking about his partner McCann, he calls him both ‘Dermot’ and ‘Seamus’. Of course, none of this is actually absurd, one could theoretically come up with a plausible explanation for the multitude of names – nicknames, and the story about a career as a pianist could just be a lie that Stanley decides to tone down. But in the context of a staged play, for an audience member who is trying to follow the story, things get amusingly confusing. Which is, of course, part of Pinter’s charm.
By Ana-Catrina Buchser for the Dragon Theatre