Harold Pinter, the British playwright who just won the Nobel Prize for Literature, was savaged as an idiot and a fashionable phony when the play that made him famous, The Birthday Party, opened in London in 1958.
It was one of those famously bad opening nights, though it didn’t cause a riot like Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring. The play is an existentialist tableau, a British nod to the then-fashionable European absurdism of Alfred Jarry, Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco and Jean-Paul Sartre. We open in a dowdy seaside bed-and-breakfast, where a slightly giddy but charming old lady named Meg is prattling to her bored husband, who works as a deck-chair attendant on the nearby beaches.
The home is designed to take in visitors, but there is only one guest, a bitter, cranky young failed concert pianist named Stanley, in a role that would undoubtedly be played by Steve Buscemi if it were cast today. He’s rude and opinionated, but Meg adores him and Meg’s husband puts up with him. The sitcom scenario is interrupted when two new boarders arrive. It’s one of the play’s comic touches that the boarding home is so run down all present are stunned when guests actually arrive and choose to stay there.
In fact, the guests turn out to have motives. They’re a couple of lugs, classic gangster-movie bad guys, who have arrived to punish Stanley for some past crime or indiscretion (the plot exactly mirrors that of Hemingway’s short story The Killers, in which a downbeat ex-boxing champ sits in a hotel room waiting for two tough guys to find and kill him). We never find out what Stanley’s crime was, other than being a cranky concert pianist — all we know is that these guys are here to do Stanley harm, and he knows it and can’t escape.
But first Stanley must endure a birthday party, which Meg insists on throwing for him. Meg likes the two visitors just fine, and seems to miss all the clues that something is suddenly wrong in her pathetic home. Meg is a key character in the tableau, a classic dingbat (Jean Stapleton gets the part) whose constant flirtatious mothering creates another form of imprisonment for Stanley.
We’re never completely sure if we’re supposed to like her or hate her, and we never find out if the two lugs are supposed to represent fascist government, or conformity, or the id, or anything else. We’re also not sure if we’re supposed to identify with or despise the besieged main character. It’s a paint-by-numbers existential statement, and you can fill in the metaphors yourself.
Pinter writes with a bold postmodern touch, and his literary tricks are intentionally exposed for the audience to glare at. At Stanley’s birthday party, it’s no surprise when a game of blind-man’s bluff is followed by a blackout, putting the whole theater in ominous darkness. The drama is suspenseful from the start, and I imagine it would be quite entertaining in a theater.
I don’t know why the play got such famously bad reviews when it opened, but Pinter’s reputation gradually improved, and he had a great influence on future playwrights such as Tom Stoppard and David Mamet. His chilly sense of menace may have also informed the work of Don DeLillo, with which there is a clear resemblance.
Pinter’s classic plays don’t get revived very often, and he’s more of a playwright’s playwright than some of his successors. He’s been a productive writer in many formats, though, and has also spoken out strongly about political issues such as the War in Iraq. He produced this near-haiku in 2003:
There’s no escape.
The big pricks are out.
They’ll fuck everything in sight.
Watch your back.
Pinter’s emphasis on menace and human culpability make his work resonate strongly today. Here’s a quote from a British theater critic, Harold Hobson, who was one of the only critics to champion the playwright after The Birthday Party‘s debut:
“Mr Pinter has got hold of a primary fact of existence. We live on the verge of disaster. One sunny afternoon, whilst Peter May is making a century at Lord’s against Middlesex, and the shadows are creeping along the grass, and the old men are dozing in the Long Room, a hydrogen bomb may explode. That is one sort of threat. But Mr Pinter’s is of a subtler sort. It breathes in the air. It cannot be seen, but it enters the room every time the door is opened. There is something in your past — it does not matter what — which will catch up with you.”