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The Birthday Party – Andy’s thinking “Wha’ happen?”

May 11, 2011

Well. Obviously I know what happened. I could recount the events depicted in The Birthday Party, demonstrating that I do indeed know what happened. But that doesn’t change the fact that at the play’s end the reader – and no doubt the audience, if you were to see it on stage – is left with a profoundly unsettling sense of bewilderment. Because the events depicted in The Birthday Party aren’t actually explained to the reader – or the audience. Or, as that unbelievably annoying character in A Mighty Wind put it, “Wha’ happen?”

The Birthday Party was a West End flop, initially. It was revived and was a hit and now it’s generally regarded as a seminal work of 20th century literature. I’d never encountered the term “comedy of menace” before hitting the net to do a bit of reading about Pinter but it perfectly describes The Birthday Party (as well as the two one-act plays of Pinter’s I read in this volume, The Room and The Dumb Waiter). It also absurdist – although not necessarily absurdist in a comedic way (that said, the play has a fair whack of humour). Pinter’s absurdism is more akin to Kafka’s, a writer to whom he’s sometimes compared. The Birthday Party (and The Room, and The Dumb Waiter) reminded me more than once of The Trial – in which a man is accused of and punished for something he is supposed to have done that is never explained to him in any way.

The parallel to Pinter’s work is not exact – in The Birthday Party the reader/audience never really knows what the “accused”, Stanley, or his “accusers”, Goldberg and McCann, really know. Do they know each other, despite the fact that they seem to be pretending that they don’t know each other, even though the story itself seems to suggest that they at least might know each other? Does Stanley know why they’re after him? He certainly seems to know there’s reason for people to be after him. He doesn’t want other guests in the guest house – which might not even be a guest house, not really, even though, as co-owner Meg tells us two or three times, it’s “on the list”. What are Goldberg and McCann’s real first names? McCann has at least two, Goldberg at least three. Is it Stanley’s birthday or isn’t it? Why does Meg’s husband Petey seem to know, the morning after the party, which Petey wasn’t at, that Goldberg and McCann mean Stanley no good? And what do Goldberg and McCann do with Stanley? Kidnap him? Kill him? Take him to a loony bin (which is where he needs to be by the time they’ve finished with him)?

The Room and The Dumb Waiter throw up similar questions. At the end of all three plays the reader/audience has almost no clue wha’ happen. The hitmen of The Dumb Waiter could be Goldberg and McCann on another assignment, although in The Dumb Waiter they are explicitly killers; that’s not the case in The Birthday Party. All three are absurd and menacing, often funny but deeply unsettling.

The questions The Birthday Party throws up are fascinating but they’re only one element of its greatness. The writing – stripped to the bone for the most part – is superb. Pinter produces realistic, sometimes drab dialogue in realistic, sometimes drab settings and the result, somehow, is surreal and frightening – yes, menacing, and yes, absurd. I wonder if Pinter knew what was really going on in his plays; my gut feeling is no, and I don’t really care. I don’t think what’s really going on is the point – or at least it is, in the sense that we can never know.

Apparently in the ’50s (when The Birthday Party was first performed) and ’60s (when it was successfully revived) some critics attempted to interpret it through some weird sort of Cold War prism; apparently Pinter (presumably mischievously) encouraged this. I don’t buy that. Pinter was a product of his times, but not in a strictly political sense. And it’s significant that among his many screenplays is an adaptation of The French Lieutenant’s Woman (also The Trial, incidentally). John Fowles’ metafictive novel doesn’t share all the ideas Pinter explores in these three early plays but it is an exploration of existentialism. And I think one of Pinter’s concerns in The Birthday Party is the inexplicableness of existence (for him, and for Fowles too probably, and for a lot of intellectuals/academics/wankers of their generation). Even if Stanley has some vague idea of what’s going on he doesn’t seem to understand it and he certainly feels powerless to exert any control over it. The same can be said about the characters in the two one-act plays. Fowles at least tried to be marginally more benign on these questions; Pinter is utterly black. There’s even a bit of a metafictive element brought into The Birthday Party here too, I suppose (in theatre I think it’s the fourth wall), because even if we as readers/the audience are led to believe that maybe – maybe – one of the characters knows what’s going on, we’re not let in on the secret. This is not the sort of clever-clever “look at meeeee” bollocks that supposedly post-modernist writers churn out these days. This is seriously impressive, profoundly substantial stuff. This is awesome.

And yes, I know inexplicableness isn’t a word. Fuck off.

Actually I just looked it up in the Macquarie. It is a word. Along with inexplicability, which was the word I also didn’t think existed that I toyed with as an alternative. So double fuck off.

So should you read Pinter? Yes you should. Better yet see him on stage. I’d love to.

PS My apologies to the two of you (Netty included) that read this blog regularly. A), this is more than a week late. B), it’s a bit shit. My mind is elsewhere at the moment. Rest assured I’ll be back on the game (hang on, that’s not right) for Vonnegut later this month, and Miller a week or two later.

PPS Yes I am a wanker.

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