Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 876
The Birthday Party, which opened in 1958 to terrible reviews, was Harold Pinter’s first full-length play. Neither the public nor the critics were aesthetically or culturally prepared for Pinter’s style. Pinter’s willful obscurity was often viewed as a breach of contract between the playwright and his audience, leaving many theatergoers feeling dissatisfied, cheated, or fooled, as if they missed something, while critics and scholars attacked Pinter for his frustrating dismissiveness regarding the meaning of his plays. Later, however, after the success of The Caretaker (1960), The Birthday Party was revived in London and became a commercial success. Subsequently, it was televised by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and, in 1968, it opened on Broadway. Along with The Caretaker and The Homecoming (1965), The Birthday Party is generally considered one of Pinter’s most significant plays.
A lyrical dramatist, Pinter was impatient with epic plays involving multiple scene changes and large casts, preferring instead to use one set with a small cast. Pinter was also skeptical of “message” plays, which he believed were aesthetically compromised by social didacticism. Pinter explored the formal, structural properties of theater, developing meaning more by design than by plot or by characterization. Misunderstood by the general public and professional critics alike, Pinter was accused of intentionally teasing viewers into expecting revelations that were never delivered. Much of the confusion surrounding early public reaction to his work stems from the fact that his plays are neither clearly absurd nor clearly realistic; his style derives its distinctiveness from its quirky combination of elements from both schools. Pinter blends the authentic, mimetic behavior usually associated with realism, evoking a world the audience recognizes as the everyday world they inhabit, with the absurdist vision of a senseless, purposeless world to create, out of seemingly ordinary situations, symbolic overtones that both invite and frustrate interpretation. Frequently labeled an absurdist, Pinter distanced himself from any school of theater. He did, however, acknowledge the influence of Irish novelist and playwright Samuel Beckett. The lyrical dialogue, the meaningful silences, the intentional obscurity, the mordant humor, and the cryptic plots are all Beckettian techniques that Pinter assimilated into his own style.
The Birthday Party represented a turning point in Pinter’s career. Not only did he prove he could sustain a full-length work but also he demonstrated an uncanny control of suspense, a sense of horror that is sustained throughout the play. The Birthday Party also marks a change in Pinter’s approach to his material, from his cerebral, often abstract, early plays to plays that were less about ideas than they were about people. It was this shift in focus, from the philosophical concerns of the playwright to the human concerns of the characters, that assured Pinter his later critical and commercial success.
In the play, Stanley Webber is hiding from some unspecified event in his past that forced him into exile, isolated from the world outside the confines of his room. The uneventful, monotonous life at the house seems to be exactly what Stanley needs to maintain his isolation. The order of his routine provides him a measure of security against the contingent outside forces that he fears, while Petey and Meg Boles are like surrogate parents and Lulu is the girl next door.
Stanley’s dream of infantile security turns to nightmare when McCann and Goldberg arrive to “do a job.” The job, it appears, is to break down Stanley’s defenses, both the tactical strategies he devises to hide from his past and the psychological barriers he erects against his own sense of guilt, until finally Stanley is unable to answer even the childish riddle of why the chicken crosses the road. A broken man, compliant, no longer able to speak, he is forced to accept his role as a sacrificial victim caught up in a fate he can no longer deny. In his refusal to act and in his withdrawal from the world, Stanley is not, as he hopes, free; he is still a man with a past that must be acknowledged. He is not excused from responsibility for this past simply because he is no longer either active or vital.
While the play is designed to suggest an open-ended set of possible allegorical interpretations—the forced socialization of a reclusive personality, a demand for conformity from a nonconformist, the abstract visiting of justice upon a man guilty of unnamed crimes, the persecution of an artist hounded and ruined by his critics—the significance of the play as drama is in the action itself. Dramatic tension is created and sustained during the play by Pinter’s masterful handling of menacing surface details that defy simplistic symbolic interpretations. Of all the suggested meanings, the immediate situation is the most compelling: A man is discovered in hiding; hoodlums brutally reduce him through psychological techniques from a pianist to a babbling wreck, changing him from a man once capable of language and logic to a pliable creature capable of only nonsensical utterances. The inevitability of his dilemma, the hapless and innocent ineffectiveness of Petey and Meg, and the methodical brutality of Goldberg and McCann suggest a disturbing commentary on life concerning the existential suffering of a man desperately searching for certainty and comfort in the face of inexplicable destructive forces.
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