ABSTRACT – HAROLD PINTER – THE BIRTHDAY PRESENT 1958. Methuen Press. One of Pinter’s most disturbing plays. A middle-aged couple, Petey and Meg, are running a seaside boarding house, which has clearly seen better days. Petey works as a seafront deck-chair attendant too. They have one sitting tenant, Stanley, a piano player, who has been with them for over a year. Meg is convinced that the day that starts as the play opens is Stanley’s birthday, though he denies it. The day starts off simply and almost banal, as Meg makes cornflakes for her partner and he reads the newspaper. Meg seems a little mad, but well meaning. She treats Stanley to a birthday present, which is just a child’s tin drum. He is insulted by it but half-heartedly plays it; Meg is very touchy with Stanley, though he prefers to be left alone. He gets very aggressive and unpleasant to her when Petey is not around. To Stanley’s shock, Meg suddenly gets two guests, McCann & Goldberg. It is these men who decide to have a birthday party for Stanley at their expense. Stanley is afraid of the men, and seems to know them. It soon becomes apparent that they are IRA men who seem to regard him as a traitor to their cause. They interrogate him fiercely, but only occasionally mention the Black & Tan cause. They ask him why the chicken crossed the road and other childish questions until he screams. He gets violent, and they are about to fight with him when the party started by Meg starts. Everyone enjoys himself or herself except Stanley who knows the men will want to hurt him again when no one is looking. Petey has gone out to a chess match and misses the party.
During a game of Blind man’s Buff, when everyone but him is drunk, Stanley is forced to wear the blind and when he catches Meg, he tries to strangle her to death. The lights fail, and everyone goes to bed. Meg has no memory of the near tragedy the next day. She wants to take a cup of tea to Stanley, but McCann & Goldberg insist that they will take care of him upstairs. The next morning, as Meg goes out to buy more breakfast cereal, McGann and Goldberg bring Stanley downstairs in front of Petey and try to take him away in their car. Petey protests. They threaten to take him too. He watches helplessly as they take Stanley away. Meg returns. Petey sits with holes in his newspaper (cut out by McGann) and when Meg asks about Stanley, Petey is unable to tell her the truth about his disappearance. He convinces her that he is still in bed upstairs. The visitors are reflections of a mature past buried under an attempt to hide in childish unrealistic fantasies. Meg sees Stanley as a child (she has none), and mothers him. Petey seethe news as something happening to others, the cut away paper exposes him to reality. Stanley may be being tortured and assassinated – nothing is explicit. The play is genuinely terrifying though little happens in it.