Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)

Semester of Degree Completion


Thesis Director

Walter Lazenby


The paper is an attempt to give full treatment to elements in Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party which suggest the rite of initiation practiced in primitive societies. A few critics have touched upon the subject of initiation in the play, but they fail to discuss it in detail.

Extensive comparisons are made between Charles Eckert's summary of initiation rituals and the actions and characters in the play. The initiate is isolated from society as a preliminary to the rite of initiation; Stanley is isolated in a seaside boarding house. The initiate is secluded in a dark and threatening place; Stanley sits alone during the party until forced into a game of blindman's buff. The initiate must endure ordeals or perform feats; Stanley endures the ordeal of blindman's buff. The initiate endures hazing (physical or mental harassment); Stanley endures an "Inquisition" at the hands of Goldberg and McCann. The initiate goes through a phase of instruction during the initiation rite; Stanley is instructed with a litany of the sacred cliches of his society. The initiate is marked as an adult by some sort of bodily mutilation; Stanley is clean-shaven for the first time in the play just before Goldberg and McCann take him away. The initiate undergoes the rite of investiture, in which he is dressed in adult clothing; Stanley appears in a suit, carrying a bowler hat, just before being taken away. Anthropological material is used to support these parallels between the rite of initiation and the events in the play.

The second part of the paper details the organic connections between the initiatory imagery and other levels of meaning in the play. Images of birth and death are related symbolically to the rite of initiation. Details concerning family relationships (e.g. Stan and Meg's pseudo-incest) pertain to initiation. The theme of individual vs. society is related to initiation, complicated by the fact that Pinter portrays Goldberg and McCann as representatives of a corrupt, decadent society. The theme of man's place in the universe relates to initiation, which instructs man about his place in the universe. In Pinter's universe, man is blind and faces uncertainty and hostility.

The conclusion focuses on the contributions made by the initiatory imagery in the creation of an organically whole play. The initiatory elements support, or otherwise relate to, several thematic levels of the play, thus making an effective contribution to the whole.