Why Goldberg and McCann are not welcome at Netty’s birthday party …

May 15, 2011

It’s my birthday soon – next month, in fact – and I have, as is my wont, started to think about and plan for my week of festivities (common folk have one birthday a year; the Queen has two; I have a week’s worth. It’s all relative, peoples). And while birthday festivities are all well and good, a birthday party? After reading Harold Pinter’s play of the same name, I’m more inclined to think, umm, perhaps not …

The late, renowned English playwright’s second sortie on to the stage – as its title suggests – does indeed hinge on a birthday party, but trust me: it is not the sort of party you would ever wish to attend, much less be the guest of honour. The three-act play debuted in Cambridge in April 1958; it was commercially and critically pilloried at its London opening a month later, but has since gone on to become one of Pinter’s best-known and most revered works. Which just goes to show …

To wit. Act one opens in a boarding house in an English seaside town, where its 60-something proprietor, Meg Boles, is preparing breakfast in the kitchen for her husband Petey and talking about their long-term guest, pianist Stanley Webber. After Petey leaves, Meg converses in an oddly flirtatious manner with Stanley, who is half her age. She also reveals she is expecting “two gentlemen visitors” later that day. The news appears to agitate Stanley, who disappears as soon as the two visitors in question – Goldberg and McCann – arrive. During the course of initial greetings and pleasantries with the pair, Meg talks about Stanley and reveals that it is his birthday, to which Goldberg immediately suggests holding a party in Stanley’s honour that night. After Goldberg and McCann settle in, Stanley returns and is presented with an idiosyncratic present from Meg – a toy drum and a pair of sticks.

Stanley makes the acquaintance of McCann, then Goldberg, as act two kicks off. Petey – having returned home from his day job as a deckchair attendant – excuses himself for the evening, saying he has a prior chess engagement. Stanley, who feverently denies it is his birthday, has an uneasy exchange with Goldberg and McCann that culminates in a bizarre interrogation which is broken by the arrival of Meg, decked out in her finest party garb, followed by her young neighbour Lulu.  Much alcohol is consumed by all the guests, except for Stanley, while the party engages in conversation, reveries, singing, dancing and finally some parlour games, pivotally a particularly menacing bout of blind man’s bluff.

Act three commences in a similar fashion to the opening gambit, with Meg and Petey reprising their conversation in the kitchen. Meg wonders about Stanley’s whereabouts; Petey convinces her to go and do some shopping. Meanwhile, Goldberg appears, opining that Stanley has suffered a nervous breakdown, possibly brought about by his birthday celebrations. Lulu turns up and has terse words with Goldberg over their one-night stand.  Finally – and despite Petey’s meek protestations – Goldberg and McCann leave the boarding house with Stanley, who has somehow in the previous hours become a broken shell of a man who can no longer speak. Meg returns to the house, still focused on Stanley; Petey acknowledges that Goldberg and McCann have gone, but lets Meg believe Stanley is still upstairs, still sleeping.

As Andy noted, The Birthday Party has been labelled a “comedy of menace” and “theatre of the absurd” by critics – and there is no doubt it is both of these things, encompassing all of these elements. In his blog, Andy made comparisons with the work of Franz Kafka; for me, there were shades of Albert Camus, often considered an existentialist, but actually more closely aligned with absurdism. I can imagine this play giving young literature students myriad headaches, and am pleased in retrospect that I didn’t have to grapple with it back in the day (I got saddled with the likes of Peter Schaffer and Tennessee Williams instead).

Indeed, after considerable thought, the only conclusion I can adequately muster is that the reader needs to basically abandon any hope of actually understanding The Birthday Party, because Pinter simply does not furnish us with enough information to do so. (Apologies in advance for recapping ground that Andy has already covered in his blog, but just as it was pertinent there, so is it here.) The text simply throws up far more questions than it answers, primarily: why is Stanley staying at the Boles’ residence, which may or may not be a boarding house? What is the history between Stanley, and Goldberg and McCann? What do they want from him? Where are they taking him? You can hypothesise all you like, but at the end of the day you are still none the wiser.

It is worth noting that this play was written in the late 1950s, after McCarthyism had been running rampant in the United States, while the shadowy forces of the M16 and the like were underpinning the British political structure; Pinter was a well-known political activist, so undoubtedly there are elements of such at play here.

Instead, The Birthday Party will give the reader far fewer headaches if it is approached simply as a treasure trove of language. Certainly there are abundant passages in which to revel – act two’s interrogation scene in particular, but also the wordplay between Goldberg and McCann, and to a lesser extent the dialogue between Meg and Petey, is both breathtaking and masterfully executed. On the evidence here, Pinter’s heady literary reputation is far from unwarranted. The version Andy and I read is part of an eight-play collection of Pinter’s earliest plays; I am intending to get around to the other seven sooner rather than later.

In addition to being a writer, Pinter was also an actor and a director. He directed a 1964 revival of The Birthday Party; he played Goldberg in a 1987 broadcast version (which would certainly have been something to see). Personally, I am sorry I did not make an effort to check out the Melbourne Theatre Company’s version a couple of years ago, which, interestingly enough, featured an all-indigenous cast – all, that is, except for the role of Goldberg. There is also a 1968 film version floating around; I have watched a couple of excerpted clips on YouTube. But there is no doubt the theatre would be the place to be the next time this party rolls into town.

Memo to self …

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