How Power Works in Pinter's The Birthday Party

By Michael Paller

In Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party, Goldberg and McCann arrive at an English seaside boardinghouse in search of a third man—Stanley. Who they are, whom they represent, and why they’ve come for Stanley are mysteries. Into this expositional vacuum rush uncertainty and unease. In Act Two, they subject him to a fierce interrogation, including a series of bewildering questions: “What about the Albigensenist heresy?” “Who watered the wicket in Melbourne? “What about the blessed Oliver Plunkett?” What’s the meaning of this? Is it code? The answer lies in how Pinter’s characters get and deploy power.

McCann (Marco Barricelli) and Goldberg (Scott Wentworth) confront Stanley (Firdous Bamji)
 in A.C.T.'s production of The Birthday Party. Photo by Kevin Berne.
Power isn’t always about physical violence: the knock at the door, the punch to the solar plexus. In Pinter’s plays, power is more often psychological, and words are the weapons. As theater critic Michael Billington wrote in his biography Harold Pinter, “Any conversation between two people conceals a tactical battle for advantage.”

In daily life we use words to refer to the things and concepts that they represent. But Pinter often uses words not to relay or discover information but to define a relationship in terms of power. A character makes a statement or asks a question and, regardless of the sentence’s literal meaning, the listener understands that he’s being asked to accept lower status in a struggle for power. When Goldberg asks Stanley, “Who watered the wicket in Melbourne?” (a reference to a notorious 1955 cricket match), he’s not asking for information. He means to dominate, confuse, and terrorize Stanley into submission.

“Power” in and of itself isn’t a theme. “Power must be resisted” is. A character asked to surrender power may choose to resist instead. Stanley resists with words of his own, and when they fail him, one can argue that he still tries to exert his will through sounds. He resists Goldberg and McCann all the way from the interrogation until the moment when Petey, Meg’s easygoing husband, urges, “Stan, don’t let them tell you what to do!”—a line that Pinter said was possibly the most important he ever wrote.

The one thing a Pinter character must never do when confronting power is admit fear or confess vulnerability. The battle must be played out to the end. No one in a Pinter play succumbs to power until the curtain comes down, and even then, there may be no clear-cut victor. Goldberg and McCann wield power inside the boardinghouse, but may well have none outside it. Neither man exits the play unscathed, and their fate is as unknown as Stanley’s. They too may discover the need to resist.

A.C.T.'s production of The Birthday Party ends this Sunday, February 4 at The Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets. Want to learn more about the power dynamics in Pinter plays? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

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