The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter (1957)
Theatre | Absurdist | Black Comedy
“Stanley Webber is visited in his boarding-house by two strangers, Goldberg and McCann. An innocent-seeming birthday party for Stanley turns into a nightmare.”
pooled ink Review:
This is a convoluted, twisted, eerie, hilarious, chilling play. Like all plays it was written to be seen not read and with Pinter’s plays this is rather necessary as just reading his work can make little sense as you miss out on all the rhythms and nuances built into the performance. Reading it can be just as interesting but it may take a bit more effort to understand. Many of my peers found this play to be nonsensical, weird, and confusing. It is. But after sitting down and reading it a few times and really digging into it it began to open up. Probably watching it would have made sense the first time around but as it was I only own the script.
So yeah, The Birthday Party is nonsensical, weird, and pretty confusing (it is theatre of the absurd after all) but it’s also symbolic, brilliant, and telling.
an excerpt from my college essay (2012):
The Birthday Party: An Experience that Surpasses its Words
There are not hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.
–Harold Pinter, 1958
Although not the first work produced by Harold Pinter, The Birthday Party is indeed his first full-length play. As such it is also one of Pinter’s best-known and most studied works. Debates occur on its meaning and its origins. Is this play political? It is possible as his interest in politics was quite public (Harold Pinter). But it seems that for its initial creation a stranger in a boarding house inspired this story. Pinter once stayed in a dirty lodging home with an odd man who used to be a concert pianist and when Pinter inquired of him, “Why do you stay here?” the man replied, “There’s nowhere else to go.” This small moment in time proved enough to create what some may praise as a masterpiece to be written by British playwright Harold Pinter. …
British humor, Black Comedy, Comedy of Menace, Theatre of the Absurd – all of these terms can and have been attributed to The Birthday Party. If emotion is prominent in this work – so much so that it surpasses its words – then perhaps outlining what this journey of mood exactly is marks an excellent start. The audience (which from now on will also include readers) approaches this play with an array of different expectancies however it is generally viewed as a comedy whence the performance begins however it is pricked with oddities which at first add to this humor. As time and characters move on these pin pricks widen and suddenly provoke a feeling of unease and even confusion; for whatever notions the audience may have entered with they are altered by the opening Act and now find themselves altering and even becoming contradicted. The play evolves and the audience ends the show at a completely different place from whence they started. Laughter is perhaps not eliminated but is most certainly weighed down by the burden of the plot and actions that have unfolded before them and from the absence of any real answers, solutions, or conclusions. This correlates finely with The Birthday Party as a comedy of menace for in the course of the play laughter is provoked by what is ultimately frightening. This continues and widens throughout the play until the elements that at first created comedy no longer causes any laughter. The comedy becomes increasingly subliminal which leads to a sense of guilt. But this analysis requires a linear look at the play and therefore the very first scene stands the best place to begin. …
The dialogue between Goldberg and McCann is quite humorous on a surface level and therefore allows the feeling of comedy to continue while simultaneously progressing the feeling of unease and sinister possibilities. While these two mysterious men toss out silly lines and words the audience can chuckle pleasantly in their seats, however, it is this precise mysteriousness, which has been profusely discussed previously, that initiates the shift in mood. Everything in relation to these men is kept vague including Stanley’s connection to them. Not even their names are trustworthy facts which at least permits laughter at Goldberg’s contradictory tales and McCann’s blunt confusion but also begins to waken the audience to start truly questioning who exactly these three men are. This silence, this information that is withheld is precisely what begins to make the audience feel uneasy. While initially the audience could overlook such small missing details and continue smiling, their laughter begins to falter as they quickly become aware of their missing presence and feel confused, uncomfortable, and desperate to unearth. …
The audience reaches a climax and conflict in emotions between happy humor and uncomfortable distrust during Goldberg and McCann’s interrogation of Stanley in Act II. While the audience may remain inclined to laugh at their silly questions and quirky behavior, the manner in which these lines are shot at Stanley are enough not only to make Stanley go mad but enough to leak its way into the audience and elevate their own heart rates as well.
Dialogue that contains long pauses and is dawn out with gaps of silences may create confusion, tension, and apprehension (i.e. “Where’s the dog? (Long pause. Stares unblinking.) Did – he – go – outside? (long pause) What – happened?”). Dialogue that moves at a natural rhythm feels more comfortable, familiar, and acceptable. (i.e. “Where’s the dog? (looks around) Did he go outside? (glances out the window) What happened?”). However, dialogue that moves at a quick 3/8 tempo and leaves no space for breath, thought or silence quickly creates a feeling of stress, confusion and panic (i.e. “Where’s the dog? Did he go outside? What happened?”). This does not only occur in text but in spoken language as well. This scene is literally terrorism of the mind. The audience is actually sitting witnessing Stanley be tortured and it is the slow realization of this that seeps into the audience’s hearts and cuts their laughter short. …
To the generations that have toiled with the meaning behind Stanley’s torture and the lack of explanations, Pinter elaborates: “Meaning begins in the words, in the action, continues in your head and ends nowhere. There is no end to meaning. Meaning which is resolved, parceled, labeled, and ready for export is dead, impertinent – and meaningless.” The audience leaves with questions because they are forced to create their own meaning. If Pinter provided all the answers then all would be understood and all would be lost. By maintaining obscurity the play not only created emotions that surpassed its words but ensured that the play shall live on ever revolving in one’s head.
Harold Pinter’s play The Birthday Party, while seemingly simple and humorous based on words alone, is in fact a complex creation that relies on the silences and rhythms more than the words itself to create emotion that overflows from the play and courses through the audience. None whom enter return quite the same. All who come transition through each scene and shift with each Act of the play.
Purchase here: The Birthday Party
Meet Harold Pinter!
Harold Pinter, CH, CBE, was an English playwright, screenwriter, actor, director, political activist and poet. He was one of the most influential playwrights of modern times. In 2005 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.