Critical Overview

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 769

The nearly unanimous negative reviews that assaulted the 1958 London premier of Pinter's The Birthday Party baffled the young playwright but never dampened his spirits. Those early reviewers, with the exception of Harold Hobson, found Pinter's play unfunny, obscure, and derivative. In the Evening Standard, Milton Shulman, scoffed that the work would "be best enjoyed by those who believe that obscurity is its own reward'' and further complained that the play was not very funny, in part because "the fun to be derived out of the futility of language’’ was becoming a ‘‘cliche of its own.’’ Meanwhile, M. M. W., the reviewer in the Manchester Guardian, wrote that Pinter simply obfuscated both character and action with "non-sequiturs, half-gibberish, and lunatic ravings,’’ and suggested that the playwright might do much better if he would forget ‘‘Beckett, Ionesco, and Simpson.’’ For the anonymous reviewer in the Times, the play stacked up to a discordant and opaque conundrum. Act I ‘‘sounds an offbeat note of madness;’’ Act II rises to "a sort of delirium;’’ but Act III gives "not the slightest hint of what the other two may have been about.’’

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Even though many of the early reviewers recognized Pinter's kinship with Beckett, Ionesco, and other new wave, anti-realist dramatists, they seemed to expect his play to develop an idea in the manner of the thesis-play. Critics were unable adjust to the playwright's ‘‘shifts in aesthetic key,’’ those lurches back and forth between psychological realism and symbolic surrealism that create a sense of dislocation and menace, Pinter's signature moods. What bothered early critics most was the play's maddening failure to authenticate experience or verify facts. As Arthur Ganz noted in Pinter: A Collection of Critical Essays, however, "it is the threat of meaning rather than the threat of violence that lies at the root of Pinter's menace.'' The disclosure of verifiable information, such as the identify of Goldberg and McCann's organization, would only help relieve the angst that arises from an inner fear of its disclosure and thereby rob the play of its forceful intensity. Only Harold Hobson, writing in the Times seemed to recognize this fact, noting that the play's evasiveness gives it its power, and that it is precisely in its ‘‘vagueness that its spine-chilling quality lies.’’

In 1960, with the London staging of The Caretaker, critical assessments of Pinter markedly improved. There were still nay-sayers, but many important critics began amending their initial judgments of Pinter. For example, one of England's dramatic gurus, Kenneth Tynan, wrote in the Observer that in The Caretaker Pinter had ‘‘begun to fulfill the promise’’ that Tynan had ‘‘signally failed to see in The Birthday Party'' two years earlier. By that time, too, reviewers had begun adjusting their critical radar to the new theater, aided by the much publicized ‘‘London controversy’’ in which Ionesco intellectually squared off with Tynan over Ionesco's supposed lack of doctrinal convictions and his assault on language. The debate, if it did not create sympathy for the new drama, at least prompted a better understanding. Furthermore, The Birthday Party, presented on television in 1960, impressed millions of viewers, whose influence certainly helped Pinter's growing reputation by revealing that his play could communicate with ordinary folk if not with critics.

In 1961, when Martin Esslin first published The Theatre of the Absurd, his important seminal study of the movement, he placed Pinter among its "Parallels and Proselytes’’ along with such important writers as Fernando Arrabal, Max Frisch Edward Albee Arthur Kopit, Slawomir Mrozek, and Vaclav Havel. Just three years after the premier of The Birthday Party, Esslin, recognizing the playwright's genius, concluded that Pinter had ‘‘already won himself an important place among the playwrights of this century.'' It was an assessment that stuck and has certainly not abated.

In 1964, when The Birthday Party was revived at the Aldwych Theatre in London under Pinter's direction, the work garnered greater respect among the city's drama critics. There were still those who remained belligerent, like W. A. Darlington of the Daily Telegraph, who, although he found the play more compelling than the first time around, still felt that The Birthday Party should have disclosed what it was Stanley had done. By then, of course, new assessments about what Pinter was about were slowly making such questions both unanswerable and ultimately irrelevant. It had become clear that Pinter, like Ionesco, had created his unique brand of ‘‘pure theater,’’ one deliberately cut adrift from specific current events and doctrinal adherence in its questing through human fear and anxiety. The Birthday Party was well on its way to being recognized as one of the greatest examples of absurdist drama.

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