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,...
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