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.