The Birthday Party

by Harold Pinter

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Critical Context

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In Pinter’s first produced play, The Room (pr. 1957), a woman treats her husband like a passive child, entreating him to remain in their flat since only murder awaits outside. She is obsessed with the blind man living in the basement of her building, and after lusting for him, she becomes blind as well. The Birthday Party, Pinter’s second produced play, considered a more mature work, expands upon his use of confinement, childishness, insecurity, paranoia, guilt, sexual appetite, and metaphorical blindness and muteness. All of his other early plays, such as The Dumb Waiter (pr. 1960), The Caretaker (pr. 1960), A Slight Ache (pr. 1961), and The Homecoming (pr. 1965), deal with similar characters and situations: confused, perhaps insane people leading insulated lives and being enormously threatened by the outside world—represented in each play by visitors. The Birthday Party represents an important stage in the development of the verbal, theatrical, and philosophical qualities that have become known as “Pinteresque.”

The Birthday Party appeared at the time such playwrights as Pinter, John Osborne, and Arnold Wesker were revolutionizing the British theater with both realistic and existential portrayals of the emptiness of contemporary life, especially as it is practiced in class-conscious Britain. The Birthday Party displays the possible influences of Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (pr. 1956); the works of Samuel Beckett; the theories of Sigmund Freud, particularly the Oedipus complex; English music-hall comedians; American crime films; Ernest Hemingway’s “The Killers” (1927), whose joking gangsters closely resemble Goldberg and McCann; existential thought in general; and even Cold War tensions. The play’s style and humor are typical of Pinter’s best work, which has in turn influenced at least one generation of playwrights.

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Critical Evaluation