The Birthday Party is an accomplished example
of the new genre. It is a skull-beneath-the-skin play, exposing
the horrors and fears that lurk under the calm, dull surface of
our everyday existence, behind ëthe frenzied ceremonial drumming
of the humdrumí. The playís opening sticks to the first principle
of Ionescoís dramaturgy: keep it flat.
The play is set in the sea-side boarding housekept
by a childless couple, Petey and Meg. Petey has the most mundane
of jobs ñ he is a deckchair attendant. Meg lives in terror of the
wheel-barrow in which, one day, she will be trundled away to a waiting
van. Meanwhile, she mothers their one boarder, Stanley, a comatose,
out-of-work concert-party pianist. The modus viviendi which
these three have achieved is shattered by the arrival of two other
guests, Goldberg and McCann, a Jewish business man and his Irish
yes-man, who, under the pretext of throwing a birthday party for
Stanley, break down his personality and lead him to commit a symbolic
murder. The play ends when these two lead off Stanley, dressed now
in a bowler hat and striped pants like Goldberg, to be psychologically
reconstituted by their friend Monty. and Meg is left romanticising
her memories of the weird party - 'I know I was the belle
of the ball'.
Some things are immediately clear in this
play. No character has any grip on his identity. Even Goldberg,
with his booming slogans and his sentimental Jewish family gibberish,
slides quickly into an amnesiac's imprecision and panic. Over-emphatic
in speech - 'It's more than true; it's a fact!' - his is that archetypal
figure in modern drama, the salesman (Willie Loman, Hickey), the
man who took the Dale Carnegie course, just as Stanley (like Colby
Simkins, AmÈdÈÈ or George Dillon) the failed artist. Stanley, too
is self-indulgent and lives by exploiting the mad Meg, but it is
not clear whether his fate is expiation for these sins, or a Kafka-esque
injustice. Or is he merely Peter Pan whom Goldberg forces to grow
Technically Mr. Pinter is adroit. Aside from
the humor that springs from harping on the humdrum, on verbal non
sequiturs and failures in communication, there is a nice sense
of recent idiom and some striking passages - as, for instance, the
casual conversation that intensifies into a savage interrogation.
Mr. Pinter achieves many such effects, but strictly for kicks. Ultimately
the play is nihilistic, for no rich areas of significant human experience
seem to exist between the sterile level of reality at the opening
(cornflakes, fried bread and the stock question 'Is it nice?') and
the subsequent gaping horror and claustrophobia of a neurotic's
world. Petey's opposition, the one positive action against Goldberg
and McCann, is quickly overcome, and the play abounds in deliberate
mystification and in fortuitous displays of sadism. The Birthday
Party may be, consciously or unconsciously, an agnostic reply
to certain traits in The Cocktail Party.
Hutchinson Scott has designed a seedy sea-side
conservatory for these dwellers in glass houses, and the play has
been directed with great effect by Peter Wood, who builds up to
exciting climaxes and creates a consistent atmosphere. Beatrix Lehmann
as the scrawny Meg gives a most expressive and haunting performance,
never over-fantastic, and Richard Pearson is stolid and charmless
as her monstrous child. A few years ago, when Lucky Jim appeared,
I mentally cast Mr. Pearson as Dixon; here now is Dixon, unlucky
and gone to seed. Physically McCann too, seems to have stepped form
a recent novel: John Stratton, creating the most frightening figure
in the play, was oddly like Finn from Under the Net. His
zany concentration was terrible to watch. John Slater as the hollow
Goldman acted with drive and power, putting himself rather apart
from the others.
The play was warmly received, but some ladies
in row G saw fit to boo, on the insufficient grounds, no doubt,
that there's enough misery in life without paying to see more. I
have some sympathy with the philistines. What will Wolverhampton
audiences make of the play next week?
Cambridge Review, April 195
Lyric Programme Cover
The Screw Turns Again
One of the actors in Harold Pinterís The Birthday Party
at the Lyric, Hammersmith, announces in the programme that he read
History at Oxford, and took his degree with Fourth Class Honours.
Now I am well aware that Mr Pinterís play received extremely bad
notices last Tuesday morning. At the moment I write these it is
uncertain even whether the play will still be in the bill by the
time they appear, though it is probable it will soon be seen elsewhere.
Deliberately, I am willing to risk whatever reputation I have as
a judge of plays by saying that The Birthday Party is not
a Fourth, not even a Second, but a First; and that Pinter, on the
evidence of his work, possesses the most original, disturbing and
arresting talent in theatrical London.
I am anxious, for the simple reason that the discovery and encouragement
of new dramatists of quality is the present, most important task
of the British theatre, to put this matter clearly and emphatically.
The influence of unfavourable notices on the box office is enormous:
but in lasting effect it is nothing. ëLook Back in Angerí and the
work of Beckett both received poor notices the morning after production.
But that has not prevented these two very different writers, Mr
Beckett and Mr Osborne, form being regarded throughout the world
as the most important dramatists who now use the English tongue.
The early Shaw got bad notices; Ibsen got scandalously bad notices.
Mr Pinter is not merely in good company, he is in the very best
There is only one quality that is essential to a play. It is the
Hamlet and in Simple Spymen. A play must entertain;
it must hold attention; it must give pleasure. Unless it does that,
it is useless for stage purposes. No amount of intellect, of high
moral intent, or of beautiful writing is of the slightest available
a play is not in itself theatrically interesting.
Theatrically speaking, The Birthday Party is absorbing. It
is witty. Its characters ñ the big oafish lodger in the slatternly
sea side boarding house whose lethargy is subject to such strange
burst of alarm, the plain, middle-aged woman who becomes girlishly
gay, the two visitors, one so spruce and voluble, the other so mysteriously
frightened ñ are fascinating. The plot, which consists, with all
kinds of verbal arabesques and echoing explorations of memory and
fancy, of the springing of a trap, is first rate. The whole play
has the same atmosphere of delicious, impalpable and hair-raising
terror which makes The Turn of the Screw one of the best
stories in the world.
Mr Pinter has got hold of a primary fact of existence. We live on
the verge of disaster. One sunny afternoon, whilst Peter May is
making a century at Lordís against Middlesex, and the shadows are
creeping along the grass, and the old men are dozing in the Long
Room, a hydrogen bomb may explode. That is one sort of threat. But
Mr Pinterís is of a subtler sort. It breathes in the air. It cannot
be seen, but it enters the room every time the door is opened. There
is something in your past ñ it does not matter what ñ which will
catch up with you. Though you go to the utter most parts of the
earth and hide yourself in the most obscure lodgings in the least
popular of towns one day there is a possibility that two men will
appear. They will be looking for you, and you cannot get away. And
someone will be looking for them too. There is terror everywhere.
Meanwhile, it is best to make jokes (Mr Pinterís jokes are very
good) and to play blind manís bluff, and to bang on a toy drum,
anything to forget the slow approach of doom. The Birthday Party
is a Grand Guignol of the susceptibilities.
The fact that no one can say precisely what it is about, or give
the address from which the intruding Goldberg and McCann come, or
say precisely why it is that Stanley is so frightened of them is,
of course, one of its greatest merits. It is exactly in this vagueness
that its spine-chilling quality lies. If we knew just what Miles
had done The Turn of the Screw would fade away. As it is,
Mr Pinter has learned the lesson of the Master. Henry James would
recognise him as an equal.
Peter Wood has directed the play with an absolute response to its
most delicate nuances. It has six layers; every on e of them is
superb. Beatrix Lehmann is strangely funny and macabrely touching
as the landlady. John Slater builds impeccably the faÁade of eloquence
that hides Goldbergís secret quaking. John Stratton finely points
McCannís nameless fears (his paper-tearing, with its horrible pause
at the end, is unforgettable). Richard Pearsonís Stanley, excellent
throughout, is very moving in its hurt wonder when he is given the
childís drum as a birthday present. Wendy Hutchinsonís Lulu is an
acceptable saucy young chit: this is a rarer achievement than one
might think; and Willoughby Grayís husband is solid and believable.
Mr Pinter and The Birthday Party, despite their experiences
last week, will be heard of again. Make a note of their names.
The Sunday Times May 1958
Mad Meg and Lodger
was my lot at the Lyric, Hammersmith, last night.
it chanced that The Birthday Party, by Harold Pinter, was sandwiched
between two sets of two visits to Sadlerís Wells to see the Russians,
I has looked forward to hearing some dialogue I could understand.
But it turned out to be one of those plays in which an author wallows
in symbols and revels in obscurity. Give me Russian every time.
never got down to earth long enough to explain what his play was
about, so I canít tell you. But I can give you some sort of sketch
of what happens, and to whom.
with there is Meg (Beatrix Lehmann) who lets lodgings in a seaside
town. She is mad. Thwarted maternity is (I think) her trouble and
it makes her go soppy over her unsavoury lodger, Stanley (Richard
He is mad
too. He strangles people one person too many, because a couple of
very sinister (and quite mad) characters arrive (John Slater and
John Stratton), bent on-I suppose- vengeance.
also a mad girl (Wendy Hutchinson), nymphomania being her fancy.
sane character is Megís husband (Willoughby Gray) but sanity does
him no good. He is a deeply depressed little man, a deck-chair attendant
I can give him one word of cheer. He might have been a dramatic
critic, condemned to sit through plays like this.
Daily Telegraph May 1958
with kind permission