The Birthday Party

by Harold Pinter

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The Birthday Party as a Work of Anti-Text

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If, as the poet Wallace Stevens maintained, there are thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird, there ought to be at least as many ways of looking at a play. There are really, however, only two essential perspectives: one which views the play as a literary text, and the other which views the play as a script to be performed. Judged strictly from the first perspective, Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party remains an impassable mote to trouble the critical eye, while, from the second perspective, it seems a powerful stage vehicle, capable, metaphorically speaking, of slicing through an eyeball like the razor in Salvador Dali's surrealistic film, Un Chien d'Anlou.

Yes, astute directors will try to interpret a play for production through synthesizing the two approaches, yet they must ultimately evaluate the text as a vehicle for performance, concerned not with its literary merits but with its theatricality, which, arguably, Pinter's play offers in abundance. The problem for him and other writers identified with the theater of the absurd is that most literary critics and scholars concentrate on the text, which, of course, is their proper job. Unfortunately, though, they are the guardians of anthologies, the gate keepers who decide what passes into classical posterity. They cannot make their judgments on the basis of how well a play is realized, for its articulation on stage is ever-changing, subject to the individuals responsible for each production of the work. They must look almost exclusively to its printed text, which, if not just less, is certainly other than the staged play.

The texts of absurdist playwrights, like Pinter's early ‘‘comedies of menace,’’ present such critics with a special problem. Distrusting language as an adequate or sufficient tool of communication, many of these playwrights deliberately strip their dialogue of logic or sense. This is the opposite of the realists, for example, who, while using commonplace language, advance their plots in the manner of Ibsen, in traditional, action-reaction models that rely both on rational discourse and known or verifiable events. In addition to rejecting logic, the absurdist writer frequently descends into ludicrous parodies of common speech, even, finally, into incomprehensible babble. As Pinter himself claimed, his characters often use ‘‘a torrent of language’’ as a kind of silence, as speech that "is speaking of a language locked beneath it.’’ It is like so much verbal clothing, covering an emptiness that real silence might leave exposed and vulnerable.

Such an unconscious evasion of an inner fear— perhaps the fear of nothingness—is seen at the very beginning of The Birthday Party , in the opening dialogue of Meg and Petey Boles. Both characters confirm what is entirely self-evident, such as the fact that Petey has indeed come back and that, yes, he has his newspaper and is eating his cornflakes. What is not said in this silence of words is that their marriage is as passionless as a wet rag. They are not a very complex pair, to be sure. They are basically free of the sort of angst that afflicts their more intriguing tenant, Stanley Webber. The inner, frustrated longings of Meg are exposed quickly because her words become transparent clues as she speaks of Stanley as if he were both the male child she never had and the lover for whom she still pines. In fact, the two characters seem disarmingly realistic, for their conversation barely exaggerates the idle breakfast banter of many average people. They even offer evidence that Pinter is at least as faithful to actual human behavior as the many "realistic'' plays that artificially imposed order on behavior to a...

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suit some moralizing purpose.

The opening scene of The Birthday Party also has a conventional resonance, for it seems like a wry variation on the old "feather duster'' of drawing-room comedy, the type of scene in which maids and butlers or cooks prep an audience for its encounter with the major characters. In fact, The Birthday Party starts much like a working-class burlesque of one of those sparkling depression-era comedies, such as Noel Coward's Private Lives, in which, dressed and groomed to the nines, the wealthy, well-heeled society gent first appears for a late breakfast and witty repartee. Instead, in Pinter's play, the proverbial cat drags in Stanley, slovenly, half-dressed, and grunting in monosyllables.

Of course, Stanley and his persecutors, Goldberg and McCann, will soon take the audience into strange and unfamiliar territory, lurching in and out of a dreamscape in which nothing is transparent and all realistic bets are off. No key events revealed can be confirmed or verified, even the assertion that Stanley is a down-on-his-luck pianist could be a fabrication—no on stage proof is offered that he can even play the piano. Even the most elementary questions go unanswered, whether, for example, it is actually Stanley's birthday or whether Meg has merely said it is as an excuse to give Stanley his present, the toy drum. Nothing important is decisively disclosed, for just as soon as a fact appears solidly established it is contradicted.

What is certain is that Goldberg and McCann somehow reach into Stanley's insides and set his fear racing violently. They menace because they threaten to expose the real Stanley to the other characters. Yet, paradoxically, they are also like confessors or exorcists, attempting to cure Stanley by finding the fear's source, that which has led to his withdrawal, hermit-like, from life. The final, devastating revelation of the play is that without his fear, Stanley is pitifully anemic. It has been that inner fear that somehow both defined and sustained him. In the last act, following the ritual release of this dread in the form of violence, he is reduced to an inarticulate automaton, outfitted with respectable dress but seemingly inert in his passivity and all but brain dead. It is as if, indeed, he has become nothing.

It is in his evasiveness that Pinter has been critically maligned. His text deliberately misdirects readers and audiences, leading to the charge that his earliest work is difficult at best, opaque at worst. If we know more than we need to know about Meg and Petey, we know far less than we think we want to know about Stanley and his relationship to the two intruders. Most perplexing, the source of Stanley's fear, although hinted at, is never revealed. As indicated, it is aroused and transmuted into violence during the birthday party, but it is never simply identified or explained. This fact has frustrated many critics, even those within theater. According to Robert Brustein, writing in the New Republic, Pinter in his ‘‘grotesque naturalism’’ fails to communicate at all, because although he uses "authentic colloquial speech,'' he has ‘‘stripped it bare it of reflective or conceptual thought.’’ But Pinter is, after all, a poet, and one who understands that a play, like a poem, as Archibald MacLeish insisted, '' should not mean but be." Furthermore, as an actor and director, he knows that it can only truly "be'' in performance.

Stanley's fear also simply is a monster within, evident from the start by his erratic and sometimes violent behavior. It does not first appear with the intrusion of Goldberg and McCann. It is latent, almost dormant, but it rises in his emotional gorge even before he learns about the two strangers. It breaks through his civil conversation with Meg, when he suddenly recoils from her in disgust and verbally assaults her for her lousy tea and poor housekeeping. When she tells him about the strangers, he is obviously shaken, and he cruelly teases her about two men in the van with a wheelbarrow who will come to the door. It is an ironic moment, for Goldberg and McCann come not to wheel Meg away but to draw out Stanley's fear and force him to confront it—though who they are and why they seek out Stanley remains an utter mystery. The result is that Stanley and the two intruders seem more symbolic than real.

That fact has led to interpretations of The Birthday Party as a modern "allegory on the pressures of conformity’’ as well as ‘‘an allegory of death,’’ as Martin Esslin noted in Pinter: A Study of His Plays. But, as Esslin argued, such interpretations miss the mark, for Pinter's play, like Beckett's Waiting for Godot, ‘‘simply explores a situation which, in itself, is a valid poetic image that is immediately seen as relevant and true.’’ Like the Black Death, discussed by Antinon Artaud in The Theatre and Its Double as a sort of ultimate theatrical and awful presence, Stanley's gnawing fear is just there, a presence that is perhaps more devastating because its origins are unknown. Arguably, Pinter's verbal misdirections were designed to increase the nerve-wracking impact of The Birthday Party, deliberately obscuring the root cause of Stanley' s fear and thereby making it even more devastating, just as the ignorance of the great plague's origin profoundly increased the terror of its potential victims.

Much of the play's power is released precisely at times when no words are spoken, when they utterly fail to communicate, or when what they communicate lies beyond their literal sense. For example, the first act ends with Stanley marching around the room, frantically and violently beating on the toy drum. Nothing is said, but as Stanley's beating grows more terrible, Meg's smiling pleasure gives way to an alarmed expression. Despite all the noise, it is a silence in Pinter's sense, an intense moment of exposure.

Even more violent moments of exposure occur in the second act, during the party games. Blindfolded, Stanley stumbles around the room, falls over the drum, gets up, finds Meg and savagely begins to choke her, just before the lights fail. Similarly, the act ends with another violent sequence in which Stanley, who appears on the verge of raping Lulu, is exposed by McCann's flashlight and forced to back away. As he moves off, Stanley begins giggling with a mounting, nearly insane intensity as the other characters move towards him, like lions circling their intended kill.

Memorable text-bound moments, when words are plentiful, are often moments when language fails, for the simple fact is that nothing that contributes to the indelible sense of Stanley's repressed fear can be expressed in words. It emerges in Stanley's cacophonous gagging on word fragments in the last act, for example, but perhaps is even more memorable wedged into the two word-rich litanies of Goldberg and McCann, used when they are alone with Stanley in the second and final acts. In their chant-like rhythm and responsive structure, these are like dreadful incantations. They are also verbal puzzles, a mumbo-jumbo melange of nonsense and serious but unsubstantiated accusations and inactivated threats. The words are powerful, not because of what they literally mean but because of the intimidating way in which they are delivered. They seem as physical as punches delivered with violent force to the abdomen or head, and, like such brutal attacks, Stanley cringes before them.

These moments are moments of pure theater, vivid and powerful. They erupt in text-empty places or tear through the text with an intense fury that contrasts with the disquieting deliberation of Goldberg and McCann; they are memorably caught in McCann's slow and methodical tearing of strips from Petey's newspaper. And they are, of course, moments to experience, to view. They lose their power when the text is simply read; stage directions describing Stanley's maniacal beating of the drum are no match for the realization of such a disturbing scene. Therein, however, lies the critical rub, for unlike much of the time-honored, poetic drama of Western culture, to an important degree valued for its language, an anti-text play like Pinter's The Birthday Party must be judged on more appropriate grounds, not just as ritual, myth, game, or symbol, but as viable theater. As well as any other modern dramatists, in The Birthday Party Pinter shows us why we must constantly rethink exactly what a classic work of drama should be. Until we do, we will not be at peace with the theater of the absurd or give it its proper regard.

Source: John W. Fiero, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1999. Fiero is a Ph. D., now retired, who formerly taught drama and play writing at the University of Southwestern Louisiana.

Overview of The Birthday Party

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The Birthday Party, Pinter's first full-length play, takes place at the home of Meg and Petey Boles and concerns their lodger, Stanley, whose past is obscure, though he fantasises about having been a concert pianist. Meg gives Stanley a drum for his birthday, which he plays as though possessed as the first act closes. In Act II Stanley tries to get rid of some new lodgers, Goldberg and McCann, but they respond by subjecting Stanley to rapid-fire interrogation, until he is reduced to speechlessness. The act culminates in Stanley's birthday party, in which McCann breaks Stanley's glasses during a game of blind man's buff, the lights go out and, in a sinister climax, Stanley (encumbered by the drum, into which he has stumbled) begins to strangle Meg and is bent giggling over a young girl, Lulu, when the curtain falls. Act III comes full circle with Meg and Petey at breakfast, as at the opening of the play. Stanley is brought down a changed man, still speechless (‘‘Uhgug-ug-gug-eeehhh-gag’’). Goldberg and McCann leave, taking Stanley ‘‘to Monty’’ and threaten Petey when he tries to stop them. Meg at the end of the play has understood nothing and fails to register Stanley has gone.

The initial lack of success of The Birthday Party in the late 1950's is not surprising. Pinter had yet to create a market for the particular brand of menace that is the signature of his early plays, such as The Room and The Dumb Waiter (also 1957), where, like Stanley, the protoganists are sequestered in a room and are threatened by intruders into their womb-like privacy. Critics, such as Milton Shulman, were puzzled: "The world of Harold Pinter is shadowy, obsessed, guilt-ridden, claustrophobic and, above all, private. You are expected to find your way through it without signposts, clues or milestones."

Pinter is even said to have received the following enquiry from an audience member:

I would be obliged if you would kindly explain to me the meaning of your play The Birthday Party. These are the points which I do not understand. 1) Who are the two men? 2) Where did Stanley come from? 3) Were they all supposed to be normal? You will appreciate that without the answers to my questions I cannot fully understand your play.

Pinter's reputed response (" 1) Who are you? 2) Where do you come from?'', etc.) naturally ignored such strictures—and audiences gradually became increasingly fascinated, hooked into the plays by their ambiguities, a technique Pinter had learned from Samuel Beckett. (Pinter warmly acknowledges a debt to Beckett since first discovering his writing in 1949.)

One of the major pleasures of Pinter's drama is his use of language, ranging from jargon used as a protective shield to prevent intruders seeing what is underneath, to a characteristic use of pauses of varying lengths, so that a work is virtually orchestrated by silence, and meaning accrues in the subtext—in what is not said. At the opening of The Birthday Party it is as though Pinter had produced a tape recording of the inanities we actually speak, as opposed to the shapely sentences often given to stage figures by earlier dramatists. In using such dialogue onstage, Pinter not only introduces a rich vein of humour, but allows an audience to recognise the realism of stating the obvious. Many a breakfast-time conversation is based on similar emptiness:

Meg: Is that you Petey? (Pause) Petey, is that you?
Petey: What?
Meg: Is that you?
Petey: Yes, it's me.
Meg: What? (She opens the hatch and looks through.) Are you back?
Petey: Yes.

The Birthday Party also demonstrates a use of language as a weapon, as Goldberg and McCann, by their quick-fire questioning of Stanley (a known technique in brainwashing, designed to fluster and confuse) reduce him to inarticulacy:

Goldberg: Which came first?
McCann: Chicken? Egg? Which came first?
Goldberg: Which came first? Which came first? Which came first? (Stanley screams).

Stanley's subsequent silence marks the disintegration of his personality. Following Goldberg and McCann's ministrations he does indeed ‘‘need special treatment’’—for which the two men are ‘‘taking him to Monty’’ as Goldberg ominously informs Petey. Goldberg and McCann seem in a sense to be projections or manifestations of Stanley's strongly-developed sense of guilt and fear of pursuit—of which we are made aware before he encounters the two men. At the same time Goldberg and McCann are frighteningly real. The barrage of words with which they crush Stanley, their vitality and comic vulgarity, the swagger and aggression, and the rhythms of their language have a richness that comes straight out of the Jewish idiom of Pinter's family background as well as the regional influence of London's East End. For audiences unused to the Jewish idiom, the disturbing power of Pinter's writing owes a good deal to the strangeness of this mixture of the unfamiliar with the familiar.

The ambiguities in The Birthday Party are integral to the play's impact. We never know precisely who Goldberg and McCann are, or what (if anything) Stanley has done, that they seem to be pursuing him. We are left with a sense of genuine unease, as though indescribable evil really were stalking outside the door of even the most ordinary of homes, awaiting its chance to enter.

Source: Rosemary Pountney, ‘‘The Birthday Party’’ in The International Dictionary of Theatre, Volume 1: Plays, edited by Mark Hawkins-Dady, St. James Press, 1992 , pp. 67-68.

Review of The Birthday Party

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Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party is appearing through May 22 at the C.S.C. Theatre on East Thirteenth Street. I regret being so tardy in my recommendation, for Carey Perloff' s production is vivid and well marshaled. More than most plays, The Birthday Party depends on a director who can mold clear dramatic action from a text that is a puzzle-box of ambiguities. It was Pinter's specific inspiration to create a plot that is all event and atmosphere, where the warring tonalities of hard-boiled thriller and Beckettesque farce alternate and finally fuse. Any effort to account for the action on the basis of the characters' histories and motivations is wasted effort, nor is there any simple one-to-one symbolic schema by which the action can be interpreted. But that's not to say Pinter has evaded writing about anything. The Birthday Party is very cogently and accessibly about the ways in which people tease and terrorize each other, about the kinds of intelligence specific to prey and predator, and much else that, rendered as a maxim of psychology, might seem dull or doubtful but that plays very well. By unmooring his story from a basis in strict narrative logic, Pinter gives his audience the distanced perspective of an alienist who listens for the meaning of what a patient says in the inflections and cadences of his speech. All good dramatists rediscover the primacy of body English, gesture and phatic utterance, each in his own way. In this, his first full-length play, Pinter made the discovery with unusually clarifying effect, an effect that is still invigorating thirty years later.

Georgine Hall and Robert Gerringer as Meg and Petey are the incarnate spirit of English lumpen gentility. David Strathairn as Stanley, the cookie that all the play's machineries have been designed to crumble, is just smarmy enough that it is very hard not to identify with his gleeful tormenters, Goldberg and McCann, when they mysteriously appear and set to work on Stanley's nerves and sanity. In the latter roles, Peter Riegert and Richard Riehle steal the show, as is intended.

The only exception I take to the production is Loy Arcenas's set. More than most plays, The Birthday Party requires one invisible wall, not three. When the action hinges on Stanley being repeatedly prevented from exiting through an invisible door in an invisible wall, the suspense is theoretical at best.

Source: Thomas M. Disch, review of The Birthday Party in the Nation, May 21, 1988, p. 727.


Critical Overview