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