The Birthday Party - May 1964

Programme Cover

The Birthday Party, The Royal Shakespeare Company, Aldwych Theatre, 18th June 1964

Petey - Newton Blick
Meg - Doris Hare
Stanley - Bryan Pringle
Lulu - Janet Suzman
Goldberg - Brewster Mason
McCann - Patrick Magee

Directed by Harold Pinter
Designer - Ralph Koltai

Trial by Laughter

At the Aldwych Theatre last Thursday night the Royal Shakespeare Company banished babel. After the excitements and the disappointments - of the World Theatre season, it resumed occupation of its London home wiht Harold Pinter's relatively early play The Birthday Party; the first of six productions, all but one of which are unremittingly up to the minute in temper. English is spoken once again; but the theatrical languages deployed are alikely to remain womthing of a challenge.
The march of progress, or the wheel of fashion, all it what you will, has greatly changed Harold Pinter's position since The Birthday Party was first seen in London, and curtly rejected in 1958.; The audience which assembled for this production of The Birthday Party did so in a spirit very different from that of its predecessor six years ago. Its response was measurable in terms of its laughter; of which three distinct varieties could be distinguished on the opening night.
First, inevitable, the Laughter of Sycophancy, to be endured everywhere from the Royal Court to Stratford East by way of the Whitehall and the Establishemnt; a sharp, brittle, patchy laughter, automatic reflex of fashion's yesmen.
Second, the Laughter of Unease, produced by people of established tastes and tentative goodwill towards womthing strange. Feeling their defences against themselves being undermined by palpable absurdity, they hopefully go along with their destroyer, and laugh with docile apprehension at the salutary of bizarre image of their own failings.
Third, and of course rarest, the Laughter of Acceptance-the easy response of thos for whom the dramatist and his players perfectly embody their own implicit assumptions about humanity.
The measure of a dramatist's stature is the degree in which his work succeeds in transforming laughters of the second class into laughters of the third class; and perhaps even more important, the degree in which he turns out to have been prophetic, to have written plays which future generations will find easily acceptable and richly satisfying.

Janet Suzmann. Brewster Mason, Brian Pringle, Patrick Magee and Doris Hare

The Caretaker alone would, I am certain ensure Mr Pinter's success in the second of these achievements. The return of the Birthday Party besides offering an evening of crepitant low-jinks is reassuring, too; it makes plain the immense development in depth and resonance which took place between the writing of these two plays.
Already in The Birthday Party, Mr Pinter displayed an exhilarating mastery of dramatic tension; but on the strength of this play and most of the one-act pieces it would be possible to feel that he was concerned only to turn over, with ominous relish, the grubbier stones in the endless ditch of human experience.
In the scruffy seaside house the elderly deck-chair attendant potters numbly, only once to be shaken for a moment out of his zombielike progress through time. His bat-witted sluttish wife chatters incompetently dosn her tiny domestic groove, stirred only by an ambigusou fondness for their lodger, Stanley. And Stanley, who once played the piano for a concert-party, drifts through a dream of persecution, his only amusment mildly terrifying his landlady.
But then it is his turn to be terrified, when Goldberg the expansive Jew and McCann the knotted Irishman appear. It is only at this point that the play begins too. His own producer, Mr Pinter takes us through his scene-setting at his customary smail’s pace. With the arrival of emigmatic evil, fermentation begins. The exchanges between Goldberg the man of power and McCann the man of violence jar the nerves; and their alliance against Stanley, forcing him to stay when he wants to leace, forcing him to go when he wants leave, forcing him to sit, their frightful looming threat, their sudden demonstration of brutality, even Stanley’s feeble resistance, are worked out in terms of movement, speech and silence with a thrilling balance.

Brewster Mason and Janet Suzmann

Stanley's retreat into the childlike is horribly counterpointed by their sentimental nostalgia at the dreadful party itself, whiere the foolish old woman and a vapid girl drift, in idiot gaiety and flattered sexual triviality, all unaware through the mounting hysteria of the three men-which breaks in darkness and wild laughter, leacing Stanley literally struck dumb, and even the other two adrift in savage misery.
Those who don't know the play or Pinter's work as a whole, may well be wondering how in the world laughter is conceivable in this shabby and sadistic context. It is conceivable, indeed it is irresistible, because into each of these crapulous puppets Mr Pinter injects an essence of the everyday; and because he plucks from human behaviour precisely this elemts of blind stupidity, wilful self-deception and instinctive cruelty which make life at once endurable and impossible; and by their sublte juxtapositions salutes the totally absurd. This is the strength, but also the limitation, of The Birthday Party; those who at first recoiled form the piece were wrong in supposing that it was merely a bad and silly play, right in sensing and dismissing its youthfully negative and destructive core.
But in the end of course it sis a play's theatrical qualities which will give it life; and these are aunmistakable. Taking an ill-time holiday which it make its first brief appearance in London, I missed the chance of being the only other dramatic critic to discern its merits; nor can I offer odious comparisons between that performance and this. I wish however that Doris Hare's foolish housewife, and Newton Blick' insulated old husband, had moved bwyond their undoubted technical address; and I cannotfeel, tought I suppose Pointer does, that Janet Suzmann quite embraces the helpless vacuity of what might be called a Sheila Hancock part.
As Stanley, the lost man, Bryan Pringle seens to me to pitch his performance a touch low in the social scale; but there is a strange authority in his confusion, and a world of cruel comedy in his useless protest as he lumbers from side to side of the scene, strathcing out his neck, like an aggrieved cockeney turtle bereft of its shell. Brewster Mason need only a slightly more consistently chick tongue to project the full essence of Goldberg's hideous power, larded with cheap charm; and in his delivery of the birthday speech throws off the finest piece of vocal colorata currently to be heard in the West End.
And Patrick Magee, unrecognisably shipshape in an auburn wig and a collar and tie, makes the killer McCann into a superbly demonic creature. He (at home in Beckett who is to Pinter as Shakespeare is to Webster) gets with a flick of the eyes and a hunch of the shoulders right to the heart of the play. Bland savagery and agonised boredom visibly eat his heart out; and when, amid the whisky-sodden junketings, he sings, in a voice unbelievably far removed from the gravely obsessions of Krapp's Last Tape', come one, Paddy Reilly, to me' Mr Pinter's terrifying blend of pathos and hatred fuses unforgettably into the stuff of art.
The Sunday Times 21 June 1964

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