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The Birthday Party, Harold Pinter’s second full-length play, was written in 1957. Stanley Webber’s life at a rundown seaside boarding house is disrupted by the unexpected arrival of two mysterious and sinister strangers called Goldberg and McCann, who terrorise him and eventually take him away.
Stanley is the only guest at Meg and Petey’s guesthouse. He becomes perturbed when he is told that new people are coming to stay. A young woman, Lulu, arrives with a package for Stanley.
When the two visitors Goldberg and McCann turn up, they claim to have a job to finish. Goldberg suggests that they throw a party for Stanley as it’s his birthday. They corner and interrogate Stanley, their questions becoming ever more aggressive and absurd. They talk about a mysterious ‘organisation’ and are generally threatening in their demeanour. Pinter uses drumming and hysterical laughter to intensify the situation. A game of blind man’s bluff is played. The lights go out. Lulu faints, and it looks as if Stanley may have been about to assault her.
The men’s strange menacing behaviour continues the following morning. They claim that Stanley has suffered a nervous breakdown, and the play ends with them taking him away. Petey makes an attempt to stop them, but they threaten him too.
Irving Wardle famously described the play as ‘a comedy of menace’, while Pinter’s biographer, Michael Billington, calls the play ‘a cry of protest’.
When The Birthday Party was first staged at the Lyric Hammersmith in 1958, most of the reviews were spectacularly negative and the play closed early. The exception was Harold Hobson in the Sunday Times, who believed in the play and championed Pinter. Fifty years later, the play’s anniversary production was staged at the Lyric Hammersmith.
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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.
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