Pinter in the TheatreDate: 18 April 2005
In the same year that Harold Pinter turns 75, his first full-length play, The Birthday Party, receives a major West End revival, starting this week. Ian Smith reviews the dramatist’s remarkable success – despite early critical failure.
A Critical Start
Harold Pinter wrote The Birthday Party largely while acting in rep. The celebrated interrogation scene was composed in a dressing-room during a run of Doctor in the House. In April to May 1958 The Birthday Party made a successful short tour, being well reviewed and received in Oxford, Cambridge and Wolverhampton. In May, Pinter recalls, it opened in London:
“The Birthday Party opened at the Lyric Hammersmith, was massacred by the critics (with the exception of Harold Hobson), and was taken off after eight performances. I decided to pop in to the Thursday matinee. I was a few minutes late and the curtain had gone up. I ran up the stairs to the dress circle. An usherette stopped me. ‘Where are you going?’ she said. ‘To the dress circle,’ I said, ‘I’m the author’. Her eyes, as I recall, misted over. ‘Oh are you?’ she said, ‘Oh, you poor chap. Listen, the dress circle's closed, but why don't you go in and sit down, darling, if you like, go on.’ I went into the empty dress circle and looked down into the stalls. Six people were watching the performance, which, I must say, didn't seem to be generating much electricity. I still have the box-office returns for the week. The Thursday matinee brought in two pounds six shillings.”
Harold Hobson's review appeared in the Sunday Times on 25 May, the day after the play closed. Hobson, the leading newspaper critic of the time, wrote that he was “willing to risk whatever reputation I have as a judge of plays by saying that The Birthday Party is not a Fourth, not even a Second, but a First; and that Mr Pinter, on the evidence of this work, possesses the most original, disturbing, and arresting talent in theatrical London.”
Though too late to save the production, the review was invaluable to Pinter. It would be wrong, however, to suggest that Pinter's career was rescued by one good notice. The failure of the Hammersmith production of The Birthday Party was not the start of Pinter’s dramatic career. It was a violent but brief disruption in a career already established on solid foundations after a decade of acting, several publications in small but respected magazines, and two plays (The Room and the touring Birthday Party) that had been successful with audiences and critics.
In 1960 Pinter's career as a major dramatist in the public eye was inaugurated by the commercial and critical triumph of the first London production of The Caretaker. This began a run of remarkable success during the 1960s, which included the revival of The Birthday Party and, in 1965, The Homecoming, which Pinter has often said he regards as his best work, and was then his first play for five years. He also wrote a number of shorter plays and television plays, and began a series of major screenplays - five major films from Pinter scripts were released between 1963 and 1971.
The triumphant success of Pinter's plays, especially with committed theatregoers and with younger audiences, was balanced by a certain amount of unease in some other quarters: several television productions, broadcast in prime time to a public with three channels to choose from, boosted Pinter's remarkable prominence in general British culture. The plays were at times enigmatic and required a high level of close attention. They dealt with 'difficult' subject matter, especially psychological and sexual problems and conflicts, and they portrayed complicated and at times unpleasant personalities. They were also difficult to categorise generically (one reason, perhaps, why the 'Pinter play' became so quickly recognised as a genre in its own right).
Exploring & Explaining
There was doubt, all in all, over what precisely audiences were taking such pleasure in witnessing: in August 1960 Pinter contributed to a discussion in the Sunday Times over whether it was appropriate that audiences for The Caretaker should be laughing so very much at a play involving so much sadness and suffering. These questions of genre and tone have remained problematic for some of the plays' audiences, critics and performers.
One further aspect of the plays has remained at the heart of discussion and treatments of Pinter, even though it is rarely stated explicitly. Pinter's dramatic work of the 1960s achieved something that had hitherto seemed impossible, by using much of the intellectual and stylistic inheritance of modernism in plays that were nevertheless well-structured, dramatically satisfying and commercially successful.
In form as well as in content, the exhilarating contemporaneity and intellectualism of Pinter's work departed abruptly from the prevailing conventions of the West End, but somehow escaped what had been seen as modernist drama's inevitable vices of the fragmentary, the impersonal and the didactic. This caused confusion not only for opponents of 'modern drama' but also for some advocates who might have assumed that a truly contemporary dramatist would have little time for such old-fashioned notions as character, emotion or plot.
Pinter's own responses in interview demonstrate an approach to 'explaining' the plays that he has retained throughout his career. He insists that he finds his material in life around him; that his characters are real, and the comedy and dramatic force of the plays comes from that reality; and that issues of communication or non-communication in the plays derive also from the characters, who are not merely put on stage to voice or depict some theory of the author's own. Beyond that, Pinter will rarely be drawn.
By the 1970s, Pinter was established as a major figure in British theatre. From 1973 to 1983 he served as associate director of the National Theatre, collaborating closely with the artistic director, Peter Hall. Despite the formidable workload demanded by this position, touching on all areas of policy and production, in addition to his work as writer and director, Pinter produced three major plays in the 1970s: Old Times (1971), No Man's Land (1975) and Betrayal (1978). The settings of the plays had shifted, in line with Pinter's own surroundings, from east London to the West and centre, and the characters were no longer derelicts, although class and social tension remain essential elements in the drama. The writing also had developed, emphasising more austere, lyrical and reflective elements of Pinter's talent. Influenced perhaps by his year of working on his Proust screenplay, based on A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, Pinter explored increasingly themes of memory and time.
Pinter's new plays of the 1970s were all directed first by Peter Hall, who has made clear that he had strong views on the development of Pinter's work; views that became something of a dominant orthodoxy at that time. Hall suggests that it is his duty to push the work (sometimes even against resistance from audiences or the writer himself) towards its proper artistic destiny: an austere, difficult, and at times almost self-reflexive modernist refinement. Elements of comedy, plot, physicality and character seem to be lesser concerns, and in retrospect, Hall's account of Pinter appears, perhaps, a little less authoritative and comprehensive than it may have seemed at the time.
When Hall comments that The Birthday Party is not entirely “free of being a rep play”, he clearly means to observe a weak or underdeveloped aspect of Pinter's work at that time, where it might alternatively be argued that the way that play engages in a dialogue and struggle with the rep play is one of its most important and vital elements. Since the 1970s, attitudes to Pinter and the playing of Pinter have definitely shifted away from Hall's approach.
The notable contrast between the approaches of Hall and Sam Mendes illustrates some of the changes in Pinter playing over the years. As a director, Mendes is indubitably one of the natural successors to Hall in combining powerful productions with an evident intellectual seriousness, but he has stressed the humour and the memorable lines in Pinter, and relishes the anarchic and comic elements of the plays; elements stressed in his own production of The Birthday Party for the National Theatre.
The above has been extracted from Pinter in the Theatre, compiled & introduced by Ian Smith & published by Nick Hern Books (priced £14.99). For more information and to order your copy now, click here.