The Play

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The Birthday Party is set in an unnamed English seaside town where Meg Boles, in her sixties, runs a failing boardinghouse and her husband, Petey, is a deck-chair attendant. Their only boarder is Stanley Webber, an unemployed pianist in his late thirties, whom the apparently childless Meg treats as if he were her little boy. She feeds Petey and Stanley what she considers to be a “nice” breakfast: cornflakes and fried bread. When Meg tells Stanley that two men are going to be staying there, he becomes alarmed and refuses to believe that they will come. He talks about leaving, saying he has been offered a job on a world tour, and tells Meg about the one concert he gave years earlier. Lulu, a young neighbor, arrives with a package. She asks Stanley why he never washes or leaves the house. She tries to get him to go outside and eat her sandwiches. When the two men, middle-aged Nat Goldberg and thirtyish Dermot McCann, appear, Stanley slips out the back door.

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The visitors are there for some unspecified purpose, and McCann is nervous over whether they are in the right house. After Meg says it is Stanley’s birthday, Goldberg insists they have a party. Stanley returns after the strangers have gone upstairs, to learn from Meg that he is to celebrate his birthday. She gives him his present, the package delivered by Lulu. Stanley unwraps the child’s drum Meg has given him (because he does not have a piano), kisses her, and begins playing it, at first regularly, then erratically, finally uncontrollably.

As act 2 opens, Stanley meets McCann and says he is not in the mood for a party. McCann is busy tearing paper into strips, and when Stanley picks up a piece, the visitor is angered. Stanley suggests that they have met before, probably in Maidenhead, but McCann insists that he has never been there. Stanley claims that he plans to return to his home and explains why he is living in this town: “I started a little private business, in a small way, and it compelled me to come down here— kept me longer than I expected.” Although McCann expresses no suspicions or threats, Stanley starts defending himself, asserting he is not “the sort of bloke to— to cause any trouble.” McCann denies knowing what Stanley is talking about. Stanley adds that it is not his birthday and that Meg is insane. He tries to flatter McCann with his admiration of the Irish.

Because it is his chess night, Petey cannot stay for the party. After he leaves, Stanley maintains that he is the manager of the boardinghouse and that McCann and Goldberg must leave. Goldberg finds Stanley’s insistent behavior irritating and accuses him of driving Meg crazy and mistreating Lulu, while McCann says he has betrayed “the organization.” They bombard Stanley with questions, claiming he has both murdered his wife and left his fiancee at the church. They eventually challenge his right to exist, and Stanley hits Goldberg.

As the party begins, the strangers turn out the lights and shine a flashlight in Stanley’s face. Meg offers a toast, saying that there is nothing she would not do for “my Stanley.” She cries, and Goldberg comforts her. Later, Goldberg flirts with Lulu. After Meg decides they should play a game, McCann breaks Stanley’s eyeglasses during blindman’s buff, and the blindfolded Stanley gets his foot caught in the drum. Dragging it, he finds Meg and starts strangling her. The lights go out again and everyone panics. When McCann locates his flashlight, he shines it on Lulu, who is lying spread-eagled on a table with Stanley bent over her. Stanley giggles madly as McCann and Goldberg move toward him and pin him against a wall.

In act 3, the next morning, Meg is unable to prepare Petey’s breakfast since Goldberg and McCann have eaten the last of the fried bread and they are out of cornflakes. She wants Stanley to come downstairs, but Petey tells her to let him sleep. Meg has seen Goldberg’s fancy car outside and is impressed. After she leaves, Goldberg comes down from Stanley’s room to say that Stanley has had a nervous breakdown. McCann arrives to report, “He’s quiet now. He stopped all that . . . talking a while ago.” McCann has returned Stanley’s eyeglasses, even though the frames are broken, and left Stanley trying to fit them on his face.

Goldberg has several times referred to his mother and his wife calling him Simey, but when McCann uses this name, Goldberg grabs him by the throat. Goldberg later refers to his father calling him Benny—and calls McCann Seamus. Lulu charges Goldberg with using her sexually and then abandoning her. McCann, who Goldberg says was defrocked as a priest six months earlier, demands that Lulu confess her sins to him—as Stanley has apparently done.

Clean and dressed, Stanley finally comes down but is unable to speak. Goldberg and McCann list all the things they are going to do for him. They want Stanley to discuss his prospects, but he can only babble incoherently. They are taking him to someone named Monty, and when Petey demands that they leave Stanley alone, Goldberg threatens, “Why don’t you come with us, Mr. Boles?” The frightened Petey can only retort, “Stan, don’t let them tell you what to do!” After they leave, Meg returns, and Petey tells her that Stanley is still asleep. Meg talks about how “lovely” the party was and how she was “the belle of the ball.”

Dramatic Devices

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The Birthday Party is full of the ominous pauses for which Pinter is famous, the breaks emphasizing the banality of the conversations and the uncertainty of the speakers. Pinter’s dialogue moves rapidly; the characters usually speak only one sentence (or sentence fragment) at a time, especially when Goldberg and McCann team up against Stanley. They perform these routines as if they were a pair of music-hall comedians, which makes their words all the more absurdly threatening. In the party scene, Goldberg demands (quite seriously) that Stanley answer the question “Why did the chicken cross the road?” Pinter uses humor not to alleviate tension but to emphasize the unreality of the situations:

MEG: That boy should be up. He’s late forhis breakfast.PETEY: There isn’t any breakfast.MEG: Yes, but he doesn’t know that.

Just as nothing in The Birthday Party is as it seems, much of the dialogue carries more than one meaning. Goldberg says that with Stanley’s party, “We’ll bring him out of himself.” Instead, they drive him within himself. Lulu refers to Goldberg’s drink: “You’re empty. Let me fill you up.” She tells him, “You’re the dead image of the first man I ever loved”; morally, he is empty and dead.

Pinter provides frequent visual clues to the significance of the action. McCann’s nervous tearing of paper indicates his instability. The drum not only helps explain Stanley’s relationship with Meg but also underscores how helpless he is; his eyeglasses further suggest that he cannot cope with the world without assistance. When McCann breaks them it foreshadows Stanley’s mental breakdown. Switching the lights off not only shows how lost he is, but also indicates that all the characters are stumbling in darkness; shining the light in his face illustrates his possible guilt. The game of blindman’s buff, played with a man attempting to bluff his way out of his predicament, is a metaphor for Stanley’s situation and the randomness of the modern world.

Places Discussed

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Seaside town

Seaside town. Unnamed coastal English town. Long popular with English vacationers, many English coastal towns featured amusement parks and other entertainments, along with public beaches. Some of the smaller coastal towns gained reputations for seedy raffishness as their old seafront hotels and tourist accommodations lost much of their former grandeur due to neglect and the ravages of time. They have been satirized in a number of literary works, including The Birthday Party, which is apparently set in one of them.

Boles boardinghouse

Boles boardinghouse. Dilapidated seaside establishment run by Meg and Petey Boles. For some time, it has had only one tenant, Stanley Webber. The play’s primary set is the Boleses’ living room, which has a table and chairs at its center and a square porthole in the wall separating it from the kitchen. That the home is cheaply run is apparent from the meager breakfast that Meg serves. Although she boasts of the house’s cleanliness and says it is on an approved list of such accommodations, her claims are probably exaggerated. Petey supplements their income by collecting paltry fees from people who use seaside deck chairs. The arrival of oddly menacing strangers, Goldberg and McCann, suggests the presence of something sinister beyond the household, but neither the name, the nature, nor the purpose of this menace is ever disclosed. As in the fiction of Franz Kafka, the lives of seemingly ordinary characters are intruded upon by inexplicable, sinister happenstance.

Historical Context

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In the late-1950s, when Pinter wrote The Birthday Party, the developed nations of the world were deeply mired in a cold war that pitted the communist powers of the Soviet Union and Red China against the free-world nations, including both the United States and the United Kingdom. Fears of a third world war, one fought with atomic weapons, were widespread. At the beginning of the decade, war had broken out in Korea, pitting communist North Korea and its ally, Red China, against South Korea and a United Nations "police force'' comprised largely of American troops. Further outbreaks of open warfare were threatened throughout the 1950s, as in 1956, when Hungarian rebels, pleading for help from the West, were crushed by Soviet troops and tanks.

In the same period, the United States and the Soviet Union began the ‘‘Space Race,’’ an undeclared competition in which each country sought to prove itself the most technologically advanced. The Soviets launched Sputnik I in 1957, the first artificial satellite to be put into orbit, and in the following year, the United States sent up its counterpart, Explorer 1. Meanwhile, other events were setting the stage for further armed hostilities. The 1954 Geneva Accords divided Vietnam into North and South Vietnam, a division that would lead to war and the increasing involvement of the United States, while in Cuba, Fidel Castro began the rebellion that would bring down the Cuban dictator, Fulgencio Batista, and lead to a communist takeover of the country. Abroad, other nations formed important alliances, not just for political but for economic reasons. Of major importance to Great Britain, in 1957 the democratic countries of western Europe formed the Common Market, from which, initially, England was excluded, its membership vigorously opposed by France. Also, in the next year Egypt Syria, and Yemen formed the United Arab States, partly in response to Israel's defeat and invasion of Egypt in 1956.

In these same years, Great Britain continued its decline as a major world power. Its influence in Africa and Asia was quickly eroding. In 1952 India the jewel of the British Empire, gained its independence and elected its first prime minister, Jawaharial Nehru. In 1956, Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal and forced the British to surrender control of the canal and withdraw. Meanwhile, at home, the British continued to suffer from the domestic bombings and mayhem carried out by the outlawed Irish Republican Army (IRA), whose primary goal was to liberate Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom and incorporate it into the Republic of Ireland.

The decline of England's world's prestige, if not directly evident in the British plays of the late-1950s, certainly contributed to the anger and detachment that dominated the mood of many of them. For many artists, in a period of doubt, pessimism, and insecurity, rage seemed the only genuine response.

John Osborne's Look Back in Anger (1956) is frequently named as the seminal play in this "Angry Theater.'' Its protagonist, Jimmy Porter, furious at having to live in a "pusillanimous'' world that he cannot change, tunes it out. However, Osborne's method, like that of most of the "Angries," is basically conventional, despite his use of contemporary speech and anti-heroic characters. However, the sense of alienation and helplessness that characterizes some of the angry plays was also conveyed in the new, unconventional drama of the absurdist playwrights, led by Beckett and Ionesco, whose works, imported from Paris, evidenced both revolutionary dramatic methods and the existential conditions of nausea and ennui. London audiences encountered this very controversial drama in 1956, when English-language versions of both Beckett's Waiting for Godot and Ionesco's The Bald Soprano were staged. To Pinter belongs some of the credit of synthesizing these new strains, for it is in his earliest plays, including The Birthday Party, that absurdist elements are for the first time welded to the angry mood and detachment then dominating the new wave in British theater.

Literary Style

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Setting
The Birthday Party uses a single setting, the living-dining room of a seaside boarding house somewhere on the coast of England. Its anonymity contributes to a sense of place as symbol, especially in allegorical interpretations of the play.

Although doors permit characters to enter and exit the room, there are features suggesting that the room is isolated from the world outside. The wall separating the room from the kitchen has a hatch allowing characters in the kitchen to peer into the room, like jailors peering into a prison cell. There are also windows that permit characters to see into the room but give no real glimpse of what lies beyond them.

References to the outside world beyond the room offer virtually no clues to time or place. Petey reads a newspaper (which McCann later destroys), but the information he relates from it is trivial. Names and places alluded to are either of little help or simply misleading. In his fantasy concert tour, Stanley mentions Constantinople, which had become Istanbul in the fifteenth century when it fell to the Turks, and in their interrogation of Stanley, Goldberg and McCann ask him about the Blessed Oliver Plunket, an Irish Catholic martyr executed in England in 1681, and about the medieval, Albigensian heresy. Such puzzling references help create the impression that the setting is either a microcosmic symbol or an existential, timeless vacuum.

Symbolism and Allegory
Justified or not, The Birthday Party has been read as a kind of modern allegory. That interpretation is partly based on the fact that there is little to anchor the play's setting in a world beyond its limits. Pinter's deliberate vagueness and use of fragmented information tend to confirm that he has a symbolic purpose. Some elements seem particularly conducive to interpretation. Among other things, the toy drum, the birthday party itself, McCann's seemingly gratuitous act of breaking Stanley's glasses, and the outfitting of Stanley in respectable clothes before he is led off.

Yet, to fit the diverse elements into some sort of consistent allegory has proven more difficult. Is Stanley the embodiment of the modern artist who has reneged on his obligations to both his craft and society and turned to living in an inert, totally irresponsible state? Critics have remarked that the play's setting is womb-like, offering Stanley a place of comfort and security and isolating him from the world beyond. Still, while it provides a refuge, the place is dingy and depressing, and Stanley is hardly happy living in it. He obviously shoulders some sort of guilt. Goldberg and McCann tap into that, and they intimate that there will be retribution for Stanley's alleged transgressions, possibly death. However, part of what they say in the last act suggests that they are not so much his inquisitors and potential executioners as exorcists and healers who have come to make Stanley whole again. Such uncertainties make a consistent allegorical interpretation of the play difficult.

Structure
Despite its absurdist elements, The Birthday Party has a conventional, three-act structure and follows a straightforward chronology. The play begins the morning of Stanley's alleged birthday and concludes the following morning, after Goldberg and McCann cart him off. The first and second acts both end with strong, even manic moments: the frantic beating of the drum in Act I and the near-rape of Lulu in Act II. However, the last act, like the opening of the first, is understated in its emotional force, returning as it does to the shallow conversation of Meg and Petey. Meg, not even aware that Stanley has been removed, makes small talk about the party while Petey tries to read.

Working through some sort of causal necessity, such a structure traditionally imposes predictable patterns of behavior on character, but Pinter breaks through such strictures, at times letting his characters go amok. For example, at the birthday party in the second act, for no discernable reason, Stanley becomes very violent. There are also strange bits of stage business that border on the bizarre, as when, for example, in the last act Goldberg has McCann blow in his mouth. Such odd behavior offers a very unsettling contrast to the more predictable events that usually evolve within such a traditional structure.

Foreshadowing
In his teasing of Meg, Stanley claims that the two strangers who plan to show up at the boarding house will come in a van carrying a wheelbarrow, which they use to cart somebody off. Meg, a gullible target for Stanley, grows very nervous, fearful that she will be their victim.

Although Stanley's purpose is to frighten Meg, his description foreshadows his own fate. He is the one to be taken off. His teasing story predicts the sinister arrival of Goldberg and McCann and is an important bit of foreshadowing.

Irony
The Birthday Party has some ironic elements. There are, for example, ironic discrepancies in character, especially in Goldberg's case. On the surface, he is amiable and pleasant, a spokesman for old world values and familial loyalties, but he is also sexually abusive, even depraved. McCann, his associate, possibly a killer, is a rather taciturn, finicky sort of fellow. He sits quietly, methodically tearing newspaper into strips, an ironic bit of activity given the fact that he has a brutal purpose. Like Ben and Gus in Pinter's The Dumbwaiter or the hit men in Hemingway's short story ‘‘The Killers,’’ the pair seem to be civilized and calm, not vicious or nervous. It is the ironic contrast between their normal exterior and their undisclosed but violent purpose that makes them so sinister and menacing.

Nonsense
Nonsense in Pinter's The Birthday Party is not as obvious as it is in Ionesco' s dramas. Still, nonsensical elements are present, a fact which prompted some critics to note the influence of Ionesco on Pinter's play.

In the play, which avoids farce, the nonsense is mostly verbal. In the last act, it takes the form of Stanley's choking, unintelligible sounds. But it is also present in Act II, when Goldberg and McCann, alone with Stanley, put their victim through an incongruous and chaotic interrogation. The two henchmen ask a series of unrelated and often unanswerable questions, some of which are patently ludicrous. It is their barrage that gives hints but no firm indication of the two men's real purpose.

Compare and Contrast

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1950s: Britain's decline as a world power continues and challenges to its remaining global influence persist for decades, reaching armed conflict in 1982 in the war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands.

Today: Although the United Kingdom still holds some far flung territories, including the Falklands, in 1998 it ceded Hong Kong, its last important Crown Colony in the Far East, to the Republic of China. The breakup of what was once the Great British Empire is now virtually complete.

1950s: Popular culture is on the verge of explosion with the impact of both television and rock music, though old institutions like the English dance hall are still popular. These halls feature sentimental ballads, swing dance music, and vaudeville comedians.

Today: Television and rock music dominate western culture. The dance-hall is long gone, having given way to large scale, arena concerts.

1950s: The Irish Republican Army (IRA) tries to achieve its primary objective, an end to British rule in Northern Ireland. Its activities, although sporadic and of varying severity, constitute a continual threat. The organization employs terrorist methods, murdering British soldiers and bombing government and commercial buildings. Although inconclusive, there are hints in Pinter's The Birthday Party that it is the IRA that Stanley is supposed to have betrayed.

Today: Although the radical offshoots of the IRA continue to use violence, serious efforts have been made by the British government and the political wing of the IRA to negotiate a settlement of the Irish "question." It remains difficult, partly because Protestants have a large and powerful presence in Northern Ireland. However, there is promise. Negotiators have arranged truces that both sides have tried to honor, and representatives of the IRA and British government continue to talk, something unthinkable in the 1950s.

Media Adaptations

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On March 22, 1960, two years after its first staging, The Birthday Party was televised by ARD (Associated Rediffusion-TV). The work was directed by Joan Kemp-Welch and featured Richard Pearson as Stanley and Margery Withers as Meg. There has been no release of the video.

The Birthday Party was adapted to film in Britain in 1968. It was produced by Max Rosenberg, Edgar J. Scherick, and Milton Subotsky, directed by William Friedkin, and adapted by Pinter. The film features Robert Shaw as Stanley, Patrick Magee as Shamus McCann, Dandy Nichols as Meg Bowles, Sidney Tafler as Nat Goldberg, Moultrie Kelsall as Pete Bowles, and Helen Fraser as Lulu. The film has not yet been released on video in the United States.

In 1986, The Birthday Party was again produced for British television by Rosemary Hill. It was directed by Kenneth Ives and featured Colin Blakely as McCann, Kenneth Cranham as Stanley, Robert Lang as Petey Harold Pinter as Goldberg, Joan Plowright as Meg, and Julie Walters as Lulu. The video has not been released in the United States.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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SOURCES
Brustein, Robert. ‘‘A Naturalism of the Grotesque’’ in the New Republic, Volume CXLV, 1961, p. 21.

Darlington, W. A. ‘‘Enjoyable Pinter’’ in the Daily Telegraph, June 21, 1964, p. 18.

Esslin, Martin. The Theatre of the Absurd, revised and enlarged edition, Penguin Books, 1976.

Ganz, Arthur, editor, Introduction to Pinter: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, 1972.

Hobson, Harold. ‘‘The Screw Turns Again’’ in the Times, May 25, 1958, p. 11.

Hollis, James, Harold Pinter: The Poetics of Silence, Southern Illinois University Press, 1970, p. 15.

M. M. W., "The Birthday Party'' in the Manchester Guardian, May 21, 1958, p. 5.

"Puzzling Surrealism of The Birthday Party'' in the Times, May 20, 1958, p. 3.

Shulman, Milton, ‘‘Sorry, Mr. Pinter, You're Just Not Funny Enough’’ in the Evening Standard, May 20, 1958, p. 6.

Tynan, Kenneth, ‘‘A Verbal Wizard in the Suburbs’’ in the Observer, June 5, 1960, p. 17.

FURTHER READING
Burkman, Katherine H., The Dramatic World of Harold Pinter: Its Basis in Ritual, University of Ohio Press, 1971.
This study treats Pinter's early plays not as comedies but rather as recreations of ancient fertility myths and rituals.

Dukore, Bernard F., Where Laughter Stops: Pinter's Tragicomedy, University of Missouri Press, 1976.
This brief study argues that Pinter's technique is to move from what is funny to what is unfunny and threatening, even though the source for what was comic remains the same for what has been transmuted into the tragic.

Esslin, Martin, Pinter: A Study of His Plays, expanded edition, W. W. Norton, 1976.
Esslin, who authored The Theatre of the Absurd, approaches Pinter in the fashion of that seminal work, attempting to explain the puzzling aspects of the playwright's work by examining and analyzing, among other things, influences, sources, and techniques underlying "Pinterese." The work includes a useful chronology extending from 1930 through 1975.

Gabbard, Lucina Paquet, The Dream Structure of Pinter's Plays: A Psychoanalytic Approach, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1976.
As Gabbard's title indicates, her approach is Freudian, and she relates various dramatic motifs in Pinter's early plays to the Oedipal and other subconscious wishes. For Gabbard, The Birthday Party is treated as ‘‘a punishment dream’’ incorporating, symbolically, ‘‘the wish to kill.’’

Gale, Steven H., Butter's Going Up: A Critical Analysis of Harold Pinter's Work, Duke University Press, 1977.
A stylistically direct study of Pinter's work written up to 1976, this text offers terse interpretations of each piece and several valuable aids to further study, including some chronologies and an annotated bibliography. It treats The Birthday Party as the thematic companion to two other "comedies of menace:'' The Room and The Dumbwaiter.

Hinchliffe, Arnold P., Harold Pinter, revised edition, Twayne, 1981.
This study in is a useful bio-critical study of Pinter that provides useful aids and a good overview of the playwright's early work. Three important chapters for the study of Pinter's The Birthday Party are 1. ("The Pinter Problem’’), 2. (‘‘Language and Silence’’) and 3. ("Comedies of Menace’’). Includes a chronology and bibliography.

Kerr, Walter, Harold Pinter, Columbia University Press, 1967.
An important critic of British theater, Kerr approaches Pinter as an Existentialist and interprets his early plays in light of that philosophy's perception of the fundamental absurdity of the human condition and its attendant feelings of nausea and dread.

Killinger, John, World in Collapse: The Vision of Absurd Drama, Dell, 1961.
An important aid to understanding absurdist plays, this work identifies and discusses the origins and purpose of various motifs and techniques used by Beckett, Ionesco, and other writers, including Pinter.

Knowles, Ronald, Understanding Harold Pinter, University of South Carolina Press, 1995.
A succinct monograph in the "Understanding Contemporary British Literature’’ series, Knowles's study offers an overview of Pinter's achievements in theater, radio, television, and film and the various influences on his craft. Knowles discusses The Birthday Party as an "amalgam" of diverse cultural undercurrents.

Taylor, John Russell, Anger and After: A Guide to New British Drama, revised edition, Methuen, 1969.
Appearing under the alternate title The Angry Theatre, this valuable study offers a critical survey of British drama from 1956 through the 1960s. It includes an important chapter on Pinter, who is identified as the most poetic writer among the new wave dramatists. He notes that Pinter deliberately employs contrary assertions by characters to thwart facile and superficial interpretation.

Bibliography

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Baker, William, and Stephen Ely Tabachnick. Harold Pinter, 1973.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Views: Harold Pinter. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. An eclectic collection of essays by various critics. Comprehensive analysis of general themes as well as selected specific texts.

Bold, Alan, ed. Harold Pinter: You Never Heard Such Silence, 1984.

Burkman, Katherine H. The Dramatic World of Harold Pinter: Its Basis in Ritual. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1971. An analysis of Pinter’s work viewed through Freudian, Marxist, and myth analysis. Heavy on theory with solid literary analysis of individual plays.

Esslin, Martin. Theatre of the Absurd. New York: Viking Penguin, 1987. Overview of the avant-garde and how the term relates to selected dramatic works. Includes an excellent discussion of Pinter’s early work.

Esslin, Martin. Pinter: The Playwright, 1984.

Gale, Steven H. Butter’s Going Up: A Critical Analysis of Harold Pinter’s Plays, 1977.

Gale, Stephen H., ed. Harold Pinter: Critical Approaches. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1986. A collection of essays by various critics on a wide range of Pinter’s work. Places the material in the context of contemporary critical theories.

Ganz, Arthur, ed. Pinter: A Collection of Critical Essays, 1972.

Hayman, Ronald. Harold Pinter, 1973.

Hinchliffe, Arnold P. Harold Pinter, 1967.

Merritt, Susan H. Pinter in Play: Critical Strategies and the Plays of Harold Pinter. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1990. Excellent discussion of current and past debates on critical theory as it relates to Pinter’s work. Provides scrupulous textual examination.

Taylor, John Russell. Harold Pinter, 1969.

Thompson, David T. Pinter: The Player’s Playwright, 1985.

Trussler, Simon. The Plays of Harold Pinter: An Assessment, 1969

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