Lord Chamberlain's report and correspondence about The Birthday Party


This is the Lord Chamberlain’s reader’s report on Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party (1958), with accompanying correspondence.

Until 1968 every new play in Britain required a licence from the Lord Chamberlain's Office before it could be publicly performed. For playwrights the 1950s was a decade of breaking boundaries and challenging taboos. The Lord Chamberlain’s Office imposed arbitrary and often inconsistent limits on plays, objecting to everything from blasphemy and swearing to representations of homosexuality and the honest portrayal of working-class characters.

What was the reader’s opinion of The Birthday Party?

Often, the Lord Chamberlain’s readers would give their opinion of the artistic merits of a play while displaying what they knew about the drama of the time. This reader, C D Heriot, clearly hated The Birthday Party, calling it: 

An insane, pointless play. Mr Pinter has jumbled all the tricks of Beckett and Ionesco with a dash from all the recently produced plays at the Royal Court theatre, plus a fashionable flavouring of blasphemy. The result is still silly. The Emperor is wearing no clothes. (f. 1r)

All the subtleties and ambiguities of the play are lost on C D Heriot, such as the unnerving atmosphere of doubt and uncertainty; the menace that lurks both outside the confines of the house and inside the minds of the protagonists; and the rhythms of Pinter’s dialogue:

Throughout the play everyone speaks in the same rhythm, in short Beckett-Ionesco sentences. There is never a motive implied or an explanation given for anyone’s actions. Meg, by the way, is literally imbecile. (f. 1r)

What changes had to be made to The Birthday Party before it was publicly performed?

The censor required two sections to be cut from The Birthday Party, referring to them in his report as ‘pointless pieces of blasphemy’ (f. 1r). These are outlined with the censor’s blue pencil in the typescript of the play that was sent to the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, and are quoted in the Assistant Comptroller’s letter to Michael Codron, the producer of the play:

Page 61, “The Lord’s Prayer”.
“How does it go?”
“Thy Kingston come, thy Wimbledon-”
“An atheist!”

Page 65, “You pierced the holes”.
“Who are you Webber?”
“You hammered the nails!” (f. 7r)

While the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ section on p. 61 was removed from the final version of the play, an alternative piece of dialogue was suggested – and accepted – as a replacement for the section on p. 65:

“You betrayed our land”
“You betray our breed”
“Who are you Webber”
“What makes you think you exist?” (f. 6r)

Religion and The Birthday Party

Given that Pinter had rejected organised religion from a young age, 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] As Michael Billington has pointed out,[2] Pinter identifies with Stanley and Petey’s resistance to the ‘religious forces’ of Judaism and Catholicism which are represented by Goldberg and McCann.

[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: Reader's Report on The Birthday Party, 1958
1958, Lord Chamberlain's Office, St James's Palace, London
Manuscript / Report
Lord Chamberlain's Office
Usage terms

Lord Chamberlain's Office: © Crown Copyright. This material has been published under an Open Government Licence.

Richard Eastham, on behalf of Michael Codron Ltd.: © From the archive of Michael Codron, producer of 'The Birthday Party'. Published under a Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence.

Held by
British Library
LCP Corr 1958 No. 969

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