The Birthday Party
The Birthday Party (1958) overview
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’.
Key productions of The Birthday Party
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.
- Harold Pinter
- First performed on 28 April 1958 (Cambridge, England)
- Article by:
- Andrew Dickson
- 20th-century theatre, Capturing and creating the modern, Theatre practitioners and genres, European influence
Absurdist theatre responded to the destruction and anxieties of the 20th century by questioning the nature of reality and illusion. Andrew Dickson introduces some of the most important figures in the Theatre of the Absurd, including Eugène Ionesco, Martin Esslin and Samuel Beckett.
- Article by:
- Michael Billington
- 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.
- Article by:
- William McEvoy
- 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.