Censored script of The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter

Description

This is the typescript of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party which was sent to the Lord Chamberlain’s Office in April 1958. It is the version used for the play’s premiere at the Cambridge Arts Theatre, though it was subsequently revised for later productions and for the final published text.

The extract digitised here includes the interrogation scene (pp. 58–65).

What happens in The Birthday Party?

The Birthday Party is set in a shabby seaside boarding house run by witless landlady, Meg, who dotes on her only guest, Stanley, a shambling recluse. Two strangers turn up (Goldberg and McCann), a birthday party put on for Stanley turns into a nightmare, and, at the end of the play, he is carted off by the two men in a near-catatonic state. Though funny on the surface, The Birthday Party is loaded with ambiguity which creates an unnerving atmosphere of doubt and fear. We never find out what ‘crimes’ Stanley has committed or who sent his accusers. Details of the characters’ past lives are hazy. Stanley even denies it is his birthday.

What was the censors’ reaction to The Birthday Party?

Until 1968 every new play in Britain required a licence from the Lord Chamberlain's Office before it could be publicly performed. Few plays were banned outright, but censorship was severe, with arbitrary and inconsistent limits imposed on plays.

The Lord Chamberlain’s report on The Birthday Party refers to the play as ‘insane and pointless’, with ‘a fashionable flavouring of blasphemy’. Two sections in the famous interrogation scene are marked by the censor’s blue pencil for removal on the basis that they are blasphemous. On page 61 the following lines are marked:

Stanley The Lord’s Prayer.

Goldberg How does it go?

Stanley Thy Kingston come, thy Wimbledon …

McCann An atheist!

The ‘Lord’s Prayer’ section was not reinstated in the final published text of the play.

On page 65 of the typescript another section is marked by the censor, including the lines ‘You pierced the holes … You hammered the nails’. This section was changed to:

McCann You betrayed our land.

Goldberg You betray our breed.

McCann Who are you, Webber?

Goldberg What makes you think you exist?

Religion and The Birthday Party

Given that Harold Pinter detested organised religion, it is significant that the censor focussed on the play’s religious references. Commenting in an interview in 1988, Pinter said that The Birthday Party showed ‘how religious forces ruin our lives’.[1] Pinter renounced his Jewish faith at the age of 13, and the strict Catholic morality he encountered while in Ireland in the early 1950s made a great impression on him.

As Michael Billington points out, the interrogation scene in The Birthday Party (see pp. 58–65 in this script) reflects Pinter’s rejection of the moral pressures of orthodox religion.[2] Webber is accused by Goldberg of betraying his background, his wife and his religion, while McCann calls him a traitor to Catholic morality and Irish nationalism.

Footnotes:

[1] Mel Gussow, Conversations with Pinter (New York: Proscenium Publishers Inc., 1994), p. 71.

[2] Michael Billington, Harold Pinter (London: Faber and Faber, 2007), p. 79.

Full title:
Lord Chamberlain's Plays: The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter (1958)
Created:
c. 1958, London
Format:
Manuscript / Typescript / Playscript
Creator:
Harold Pinter , Lord Chamberlains Office
Held by:
British Library
Shelfmark:
LCP 1958 No. 20

Related articles

An introduction to The Birthday Party

Article by:
Michael Billington
Theme:
20th-century theatre

Michael Billington recounts the strong reactions that critics had to early performances of The Birthday Party, and examines the way that Pinter's play engages with ideas about menace, memory and political resistance.

An introduction to Betrayal

Article by:
William McEvoy
Themes:
Gender and sexuality, 20th-century theatre

In Harold Pinter's Betrayal, an affair and its revelation are portrayed in reverse chronological order. William McEvoy explores how this reversal focuses our attention on the ways in which meaning and knowledge are constructed, and on the ability of language to hide as much as it reveals.

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