Flashback: The Birthday Party

Harold Pinter’s play The Birthday Party had its London premiere – on this day in 1958 – at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith. The critics didn’t take to it and shot it down in flames – it was taken off after not even a week’s run. What made the play so controversial, and why is it still met with a mixed bag of emotions today? You’re about to find out.

Written during a prolific phase in 1957 that also saw two of his other plays set in claustrophobic rooms come to life – The Room and The Dumb Waiter – all of these rooms experience an invasion by unwanted intruders. This is about as much of a theme as we get; any approach to interpreting the play is an attempt as volatile as trying to penetrate a sealed and impervious surface with a toothpick.  Pinter himself never gave any explanation either, thereby evoking James Joyce’s concept of the artist “like the God of the creation, [who] remains […] above his handiwork […] paring his fingernails.”

British society at the time experienced massive changes. The NHS came to live,  social-housing schemes introduced and a solid education available to everyone in British society. Plays that merely depicted the lives of middle-class people ceased in popularity, seeing a new wave of plays such as Osborne’s Look Back in Anger and Beckett’s Waiting for Godot sweep the stages of the country. Against this backdrop of changes in politics, society and education, the theatre of the absurd became a loose movement where events and actions remain unexplained and illogical, not pursuing any kind of particular theme.

What was new and to a certain degree outrageous about The Birthday Party was what fellow playwright David Campton described as the ‘Comedy of Menace’. With Pinter, elements of intertextuality and an interplay of meta-stories, myths, archetypes and what’s today called lampshading proved too much for his contemporaries to stomach. Audiences were left bewildered by a play that was told in a very conventional way, but then let the action drift off and play with the audience’s perception of how a play was supposed to evolve. This posed too big a challenge to the audience and critics in the late 1950s, a circumstance that wasn’t helped by the use of language that was markedly poetic and laced with metaphors. To sum it up, an appreciation of the absurd had not yet found its way into people’s minds and is exactly what makes The Birthday Party so mysteriously nubile today.

I like the play as it keeps you in suspense throughout, conveying a world without any outside authority or governing moral values. The protagonists are the ‘bad guys’ who define arbitrary values. However, the absurd element of the play prevents the plot from following up on deeds in a way logical to human conduct in a way you’d expect it from conventional storytelling. There are stark allusions to death and violent revenge that, albeit never come to fruition, keep lingering on like a subtle charm of malediction. The two intruders are the harbingers of spiritual and psychological destruction, and none of the other characters have the guts to confront or even question them. And yes, some of the dialogue – especially the scenes involving Goldberg – is razor-sharp and witty in a way only Pinter could write it.

Photo by In Defense of the Artist shared under the CC-BY-2.5 license

Flashback: Marketplace 76

Wednesday, November 20th 2013, Marketplace 76 by Jan Lauwers & Needcompany at the Théâtre Molière de Sète.

During my first year of theater studies in Montpellier, I was told by a teacher to go see the show Marketplace 76. A few of my fellow students and I went there together, very excited to discover something new. My seat was in the back on the left, I sat and waited for the show to begin. The show was about a gas explosion happening in a village. They talked about how the survivors deal with each other despite grief, incest, pedophilia, suicide, and kidnapping.

While watching this show I couldn’t think of anything else, no time to check my watch, no time to remember when the last tram runs. I was fully absorbed by the singing, the dancing, the acting, and the scene coming to life in front of me. They were talking French and English, there was snow falling from the ceilling, dance metaphors that said things that would have been too hard to watch. I laughed, I cried, I squeezed my fists, I cried again, and at the end I was left empty.

I knew that theatre was what I needed in my life, but at the time, I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted. This show made me understand which “kind” of theatre I wanted to do. So a few years later, I decided to pack my things and move to Germany. My goal was to get to act in different languages and to go on stage to make the audience feel the same way that I was feeling on that night of the 20th of November 2013.

Thank you, Jan Lauwers & Needcompany.