The Birthday Party - Premiere

Programme Cover

First presented by Michael Codron and David Hall at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge 28 April 1958, and subsequently at the Lyric Opera House, Hammersmith.

Petey - Willoughby Gray
Meg - Beatrix Lehmann
Stanley - Richard Pearson
Lulu - Wendy Hutchinson
Goldberg - John Slater
McCann - John Stratton

Director - Peter Wood
Designer - Hutchinson Scott
Scenery - E. Baggage & Co.


From the Cambridge Review
Mr. Harold Pinterís unnerving play The Birthday Party, which had its world premiere at the Arts on Monday, is certainly the best acted and best directed piece seen at that address for many months. Despite the excitement the play generates in performance, the quality of The Birthday Party seems debatable.
Mr. Pinter is a lively and assimilative new talent, and his play, originally announced under the balder title of The Party, owes much to Ionesco, whose influence on the British theatre may ultimately prove as insidious as it now seems, to those sated with West End dreariness, promising. Some distant day, I sometimes dream, everyone will be writing self-consciously avant-garde pieces (which is not, I suspect, very difficult) and Sir Charles Snow and Mr. Amis will find the ground prepared for their rehabilitation of Mr. Rattiggan as a realistic dramatist of major status. The prospect is not enticing.


The Birthday Party is an accomplished example of the new genre. It is a skull-beneath-the-skin play, exposing the horrors and fears that lurk under the calm, dull surface of our everyday existence, behind ëthe frenzied ceremonial drumming of the humdrumí. The playís opening sticks to the first principle of Ionescoís dramaturgy: keep it flat.
The play is set in the sea-side boarding housekept by a childless couple, Petey and Meg. Petey has the most mundane of jobs ñ he is a deckchair attendant. Meg lives in terror of the wheel-barrow in which, one day, she will be trundled away to a waiting van. Meanwhile, she mothers their one boarder, Stanley, a comatose, out-of-work concert-party pianist. The modus viviendi which these three have achieved is shattered by the arrival of two other guests, Goldberg and McCann, a Jewish business man and his Irish yes-man, who, under the pretext of throwing a birthday party for Stanley, break down his personality and lead him to commit a symbolic murder. The play ends when these two lead off Stanley, dressed now in a bowler hat and striped pants like Goldberg, to be psychologically reconstituted by their friend Monty. and Meg is left romanticising her memories of the weird party - 'I know I was the belle of the ball'.
Some things are immediately clear in this play. No character has any grip on his identity. Even Goldberg, with his booming slogans and his sentimental Jewish family gibberish, slides quickly into an amnesiac's imprecision and panic. Over-emphatic in speech - 'It's more than true; it's a fact!' - his is that archetypal figure in modern drama, the salesman (Willie Loman, Hickey), the man who took the Dale Carnegie course, just as Stanley (like Colby Simkins, AmÈdÈÈ or George Dillon) the failed artist. Stanley, too is self-indulgent and lives by exploiting the mad Meg, but it is not clear whether his fate is expiation for these sins, or a Kafka-esque injustice. Or is he merely Peter Pan whom Goldberg forces to grow up?
Technically Mr. Pinter is adroit. Aside from the humor that springs from harping on the humdrum, on verbal non sequiturs and failures in communication, there is a nice sense of recent idiom and some striking passages - as, for instance, the casual conversation that intensifies into a savage interrogation. Mr. Pinter achieves many such effects, but strictly for kicks. Ultimately the play is nihilistic, for no rich areas of significant human experience seem to exist between the sterile level of reality at the opening (cornflakes, fried bread and the stock question 'Is it nice?') and the subsequent gaping horror and claustrophobia of a neurotic's world. Petey's opposition, the one positive action against Goldberg and McCann, is quickly overcome, and the play abounds in deliberate mystification and in fortuitous displays of sadism. The Birthday Party may be, consciously or unconsciously, an agnostic reply to certain traits in The Cocktail Party.
Hutchinson Scott has designed a seedy sea-side conservatory for these dwellers in glass houses, and the play has been directed with great effect by Peter Wood, who builds up to exciting climaxes and creates a consistent atmosphere. Beatrix Lehmann as the scrawny Meg gives a most expressive and haunting performance, never over-fantastic, and Richard Pearson is stolid and charmless as her monstrous child. A few years ago, when Lucky Jim appeared, I mentally cast Mr. Pearson as Dixon; here now is Dixon, unlucky and gone to seed. Physically McCann too, seems to have stepped form a recent novel: John Stratton, creating the most frightening figure in the play, was oddly like Finn from Under the Net. His zany concentration was terrible to watch. John Slater as the hollow Goldman acted with drive and power, putting himself rather apart from the others.
The play was warmly received, but some ladies in row G saw fit to boo, on the insufficient grounds, no doubt, that there's enough misery in life without paying to see more. I have some sympathy with the philistines. What will Wolverhampton audiences make of the play next week?
The Cambridge Review, April 195

Lyric Programme Cover

The Screw Turns Again
Harold Hobson
One of the actors in Harold Pinterís The Birthday Party at the Lyric, Hammersmith, announces in the programme that he read History at Oxford, and took his degree with Fourth Class Honours.
Now I am well aware that Mr Pinterís play received extremely bad notices last Tuesday morning. At the moment I write these it is uncertain even whether the play will still be in the bill by the time they appear, though it is probable it will soon be seen elsewhere. Deliberately, I am willing to risk whatever reputation I have as a judge of plays by saying that The Birthday Party is not a Fourth, not even a Second, but a First; and that Pinter, on the evidence of his work, possesses the most original, disturbing and arresting talent in theatrical London.
I am anxious, for the simple reason that the discovery and encouragement of new dramatists of quality is the present, most important task of the British theatre, to put this matter clearly and emphatically. The influence of unfavourable notices on the box office is enormous: but in lasting effect it is nothing. ëLook Back in Angerí and the work of Beckett both received poor notices the morning after production. But that has not prevented these two very different writers, Mr Beckett and Mr Osborne, form being regarded throughout the world as the most important dramatists who now use the English tongue. The early Shaw got bad notices; Ibsen got scandalously bad notices. Mr Pinter is not merely in good company, he is in the very best company.
There is only one quality that is essential to a play. It is the Hamlet and in Simple Spymen. A play must entertain; it must hold attention; it must give pleasure. Unless it does that, it is useless for stage purposes. No amount of intellect, of high moral intent, or of beautiful writing is of the slightest available a play is not in itself theatrically interesting.
Theatrically speaking, The Birthday Party is absorbing. It is witty. Its characters ñ the big oafish lodger in the slatternly sea side boarding house whose lethargy is subject to such strange burst of alarm, the plain, middle-aged woman who becomes girlishly gay, the two visitors, one so spruce and voluble, the other so mysteriously frightened ñ are fascinating. The plot, which consists, with all kinds of verbal arabesques and echoing explorations of memory and fancy, of the springing of a trap, is first rate. The whole play has the same atmosphere of delicious, impalpable and hair-raising terror which makes The Turn of the Screw one of the best stories in the world.
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 Lordís 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 Pinterís 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 ñ it does not matter what ñ which will catch up with you. Though you go to the utter most parts of the earth and hide yourself in the most obscure lodgings in the least popular of towns one day there is a possibility that two men will appear. They will be looking for you, and you cannot get away. And someone will be looking for them too. There is terror everywhere. Meanwhile, it is best to make jokes (Mr Pinterís jokes are very good) and to play blind manís bluff, and to bang on a toy drum, anything to forget the slow approach of doom. The Birthday Party is a Grand Guignol of the susceptibilities.
The fact that no one can say precisely what it is about, or give the address from which the intruding Goldberg and McCann come, or say precisely why it is that Stanley is so frightened of them is, of course, one of its greatest merits. It is exactly in this vagueness that its spine-chilling quality lies. If we knew just what Miles had done The Turn of the Screw would fade away. As it is, Mr Pinter has learned the lesson of the Master. Henry James would recognise him as an equal.
Peter Wood has directed the play with an absolute response to its most delicate nuances. It has six layers; every on e of them is superb. Beatrix Lehmann is strangely funny and macabrely touching as the landlady. John Slater builds impeccably the faÁade of eloquence that hides Goldbergís secret quaking. John Stratton finely points McCannís nameless fears (his paper-tearing, with its horrible pause at the end, is unforgettable). Richard Pearsonís Stanley, excellent throughout, is very moving in its hurt wonder when he is given the childís drum as a birthday present. Wendy Hutchinsonís Lulu is an acceptable saucy young chit: this is a rarer achievement than one might think; and Willoughby Grayís husband is solid and believable. Mr Pinter and The Birthday Party, despite their experiences last week, will be heard of again. Make a note of their names.

The Sunday Times May 1958

Mad Meg and Lodger
W.A. Darlington
Disappointment was my lot at the Lyric, Hammersmith, last night.
As it chanced that The Birthday Party, by Harold Pinter, was sandwiched between two sets of two visits to Sadlerís Wells to see the Russians, I has looked forward to hearing some dialogue I could understand. But it turned out to be one of those plays in which an author wallows in symbols and revels in obscurity. Give me Russian every time.
The author never got down to earth long enough to explain what his play was about, so I canít tell you. But I can give you some sort of sketch of what happens, and to whom.
Thwarted Maternity?
To begin with there is Meg (Beatrix Lehmann) who lets lodgings in a seaside town. She is mad. Thwarted maternity is (I think) her trouble and it makes her go soppy over her unsavoury lodger, Stanley (Richard Pearson).
He is mad too. He strangles people one person too many, because a couple of very sinister (and quite mad) characters arrive (John Slater and John Stratton), bent on-I suppose- vengeance. There is also a mad girl (Wendy Hutchinson), nymphomania being her fancy.
The one sane character is Megís husband (Willoughby Gray) but sanity does him no good. He is a deeply depressed little man, a deck-chair attendant by profession.
Oh well, I can give him one word of cheer. He might have been a dramatic critic, condemned to sit through plays like this.
Daily Telegraph May 1958
with kind permission

Back to plays Main Page
Amazon   Faber & Faber   Slate   Royal National Theatre   Comedie Francaise   Samuel french
Internal Links: Plays | Films | Biography | Poetry | Politics | Acting | Directing | Publications | Calendar | Links | Forum | Archive | Home
External Links: Faber and Faber | | | National Theatre | Comedie-Francaise | Gate Theatre | Ticketmaster | | Slate | Amnesty
Other Items: The Observer | Letter to the Independent | Depleted Uranium | One For The Road | No Mans Homecoming | New World Order | Degree Speech
Harold Pinter's work is represented by Judy Daish Associates Limited - and applications for all performances and uses of Harold Pinter's work (including amateur and professional stage performances, radio broadcasts, television transmissions and readings and use of extracts) need to be addressed to them in the first instance and in advance of finalizing your plans. Judy Daish Associates will then contact the Estate of Harold Pinter (Lady Antonia Fraser Pinter) if appropriate. The Estate should not be contacted directly for permissions. Please do not assume that a licence or permission will be forthcoming as there are sometimes conflicts between permission requests.
© Harold Pinter 2000 - 2012 All Rights Reserved | Disclaimer