The Birthday Party, Pinter’s first full-length play, opened in 1958 to terrible reviews at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith. One performance reportedly played to exactly six people. Most critics found the play confusing, obscure, and unconvincing. The general theatergoing public, conditioned by the popular media, were equally dismissive, and the play closed after only a week. It seems that neither the public nor the critics were aesthetically or culturally prepared for Pinter’s style, accustomed as they were to the established genres of the day, which, aside from musicals, consisted of strict realism or drawing-room comedies—the one an act of forceful social engagement, the other a clever, farcical escapism.
The play did, however, attract the attention of Harold Hobson, theater critic of the London Sunday Times, who had championed Pinter’s first play, The Room, when it was produced at Bristol University in 1957. Following the critical and commercial success of Pinter’s next full-length play, The Caretaker, The Birthday Party finally proved itself worthy of Hobson’s accolades (and prescience) with a successful 1960 revival in London. Later that same year, it was televised by the British Broadcasting Corporation, and in 1968 it opened on Broadway. Along with The Caretaker and The Homecoming, The Birthday Party is generally considered to be one of Pinter’s most significant plays, perhaps one of the most important plays of the mid-twentieth century.
The play, in three acts, centers around Stanley Webber, a retired musician in his late thirties, who is living at a boardinghouse in a resort town on the coast of England. Apparently, he is hiding from some unspecified event in his past that has forced him into exile, isolated from the world outside the confines of his room. Living in the house with Stanley are the proprietors, Petey and Meg Boles, both in their sixties. Petey works at a beachside hotel, while Meg manages the house. Aside from an occasional visit from a young woman named Lulu, their lives are dull and ordinary, punctuated only by habit.
The uneventful, monotonous life at the house, however, seems to be exactly what Stanley needs to maintain his isolation. The order of his routine provides him with a measure of security against the contingent forces that he fears outside. In fact, Petey and Meg form a sort of family unit: Petey is the father, absent at work and play, Meg is the fussy, doting mother, and Lulu completes the illusions of middle-class normality as “the girl next door.”
If Stanley’s withdrawal from the world represents a retreat back into childhood, however, his dream of infantile security turns to nightmare when two men, McCann and Goldberg, arrive to “do a job.” It is the night of Stanley’s birthday, and Meg has planned a party—hence the title of the play. She believes the occasion is merely an innocent celebration, which reinforces her surrogate sense of motherhood; for Stanley, the birthday party becomes a grim ritual of psychological terror. This contrast between Meg and Stanley’s understanding of the party is eerily illustrated at the end of act 1, when Meg gives Stanley a drum for his birthday. Stanley hangs his present around his neck and plays it, at first rhythmically, then erratically, his face “savage and possessed.”
Act 2 begins with Stanley’s initial encounter with McCann and Goldberg. Stanley tries to persuade them that they have come for the wrong man. The situation becomes increasingly violent as the men begin accusing Stanley of a series of offenses. Charged with “crimes” ranging from betraying some unnamed organization to “driving that old lady off her cork,” the accusations at first seem trivial, but soon it is clear that what Stanley has committed are existential transgressions. In his refusal to act, in his withdrawing from the world, he is not, as he hoped, free: He is still a man with a past, which he must acknowledge. Just because he is no longer active, no...
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