A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions
The Birthday Party

As is true of works by his friend Samuel Beckett, also poorly received at first,  Pinter's plays are marked by spare dialogue, silences, and a sense of menace lurking  just beyond.  And like Beckett, Pinter refuses to discuss the meaning of his plays.  When John Wood was directing the initial production of "The Birthday Party," Pinter did explain how he began to write the play:  He saw the image of a kitchen and characters in it, he said.  "They sounded in my ears. . . My task was not to damage their consistency." "Meaning begins in the words, the actions, and continues in your head and ends nowhere.  There is no end to meaning,." he wrote Wood on 30 March 1958.  "Meaning which is resolved, parceled, labeled and ready for export is dead, impertinent and meaningless," Pinter observed. Asked by Wood to give the actor of Stanley (the lodger whose birthday is celebrated) an indication of who he was, Pinter refused: "Stanley cannot perceive what he is -- he knows only to attempt to justify himself by dream, by pretense, and by bluff, through fright."

The most recent revival of "The Birthday Party" in London, with Prunella Scales as Meg and her husband Timothy West as Goldberg, was the best production I have seen of this oft-produced work. At a run-down seaside bed-and-breakfast house owned by a couple, Meg and Petey, arrive two men, Goldberg and McCann, respectively the brain and the brawn, who ask for Stanley, the only boarder.  Meg is planning a birthday party for Stan, for whom she has a maternal (and probably sexual) fondness.  At the party, the lights go out, guest Lulu is seduced by Goldberg, and Stanley is menaced.  The following day a roughed-up and inarticulate Stanley is hustled away by the two men. As Meg, Ms. Scales combined the character's dim-wittedness  and unconscious humor ("nice" is her one adjective) with yearning and insecurity (she fears  being carried off in a wheelbarrow), together with a wistful concern for Stanley whom she persists in misrepresenting  As Goldberg, Mr. West maintained the menace of the character, whether blustering on his arrival, vicious at the party and the morning after, yet  wavering and self-pitying in between.