The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter

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The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter. Dir. Charles Lefeaux. Perf. Lee Montague, Norman Rodway, Sylvia Coleridge. BBC Radio 4 (1970). Download

This was the play which almost ended Pinter's career before it begun. Opening at the Lyric Hammersmith in 1958, it closed after only eight performances with most reviewers at the time expressing mystification as to what the play was about.

Such misfortunes are now the stuff of legend, but at the same time reveal the desire on most reviewers' part to discover "the message" of any text they encounter so that they can communicate it to their audiences. A play, or a book, or even a film, is viewed as a form of artistic code requiring explanation and/ or elaboration.

Listening to this archival production from Radio 4, I understood that the subject is crystal clear; it's about a birthday party for Stanley (John Hollis) organized by Meg (Sylvia Coleridge) and attended by Petey (Cyril Shaps) and two mysterious guests Goldberg (Lee Montague) and McCann (Norman Rodway). The occasion proves more savage than anyone expects, and Stanley is reduced to a catatonic vegetable, unable to communicate.

In Charles Lefeaux's radio revival, two distinct themes emerged; first, that words were used as instruments of obfuscation rather than communication, as the characters used them to establish dominance over one another. This was especially true of Goldberg and McCann who formed a savage double-act, using cross-talk reminiscent of old-style variety artistes to prevent anyone from replying to them. Secondly, the words themselves were deprived of meaning; what became more important was the emotion behind them. In a radio revival, which depends on words for its overall effect, this was particularly disconcerting; we could no longer rely on anything the characters said. It was left to the Narrator (John Gabriel) to describe each scene for us, and what the characters were doing, a task which he performed in tones so sinister that we felt as if we were in an interrogation-room rather than a seaside boarding-house in late Fifties Britain.

Although the production was forty-five years old, it had an immediacy so powerful that it kept my attention throughout, reminding me of just what a master Pinter was of the spoken word as well as the pauses in between.