The Birthday Party
by Harold Pinter
Memorial Hall, February 2006
Harold Pinter's plays, more than almost any other modern playwright's, have always seemed to me plays clearly written by an actor. They're in the moment. What you see is pretty much what you get. The relations between people are what counts; the reasons for them, the underlying issues or questions, the back stories -- well, if you like you can make up your own. Typically, we see an excruciatingly explicit presentation of a dynamic relationship, growing, changing, developing in one direction or another, but what's behind it is left for us to imagine. There's a kind of odd schizophrenia in his work, in that the plays leave what to others might seem the crucial questions open. As he said in 1958, "there are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false." But his own public life calls for uncompromising political commitment: commenting on that statement, he now says that that's still his position as a writer, but "as a citizen I must ask: What is true? What is false?" His plays regularly do not give us answers, though they pose the questions in powerful ways.
The Birthday Party, one of his earliest pieces, is an almost archetypal example. There's no exposition: whatever we know about the couple running the "rooming house" (if it is one) where the action takes place, whatever we know about Stanley, the boarder (if he is one), who seems to have been staying there for some undetermined length of time, whatever we know about Goldberg and McCann, the two threatening, bizarre thugs who show up, apparently looking for Stanley, and whatever we know about Lulu, the woman who appears for no particular reason, all is limited to what we can infer on the basis of scant clues from their conversation, their immediate relationships. It's those relationships that the play's about.
It's also, oddly -- and this is another reason I think of his plays as actors' scripts -- about laughs. That seems an odd thing to say, since the last thing you'd ever call a Pinter play is a comedy. Yet, as I was reminded in UNB Theatre's production of that archetypal example, the crucial moments, the turning points, the little instances of recognition and understanding, are almost always accompanied by laughter -- often nervous, or stifled, laughter (how could I laugh at that? we ask ourselves).
In the UNB production, director Chelsea Seale wisely allows the set, the lighting, the blocking and the pace to be perfectly conventional (indeed, the set is almost exactly the same layout as the motel room in last year's production of George Walker's The End of Civilization). Pinter isn't particularly interested in the world beyond his characters, and so neither was this production (I'm not sure it was designed with this in mind, but it seems appropriate that the door to the outside world from the kitchen of Meg and Petey's house, where all the action occurs, opens onto complete blackness).
What Pinter is interested in is the interactions among the characters, and in this production we get that in spades. All the actors are solid, focused, clear and extremely well-defined, in exactly the way they need to be in order to create what I think of as the quintessential Pinter effect: that stifled, uncomprehending laugh as we watch something appalling that we don't quite understand.
The redoubtable Andrew Jones, whom Fredericton audiences have seen in dozens of performances over the past decade (most notably, I think, his wonderful Lucky in last fall's Waiting for Godot), is the not-quite-hapless Petey, tolerating his dotty companion Meg with a mildly amused taciturnity and a raised eyebrow here and there -- and, by the end, coming to a recognition that something awful is happening, or has happened. As the two thugs hustle the comatose Stanley out to a waiting car, he calls after them, "Stan, don't let them tell you what to do!" (A line about which Pinter said in an interview, "I've lived that line all my damn life").
At first glance, I thought Ginny Steeves' Meg didn't belong in a Pinter play: she gives the character a stilted, mincing walk and a perky, dotty demeanor that is almost clownlike, an astonishing contrast to her imperious Hannah Jarvis in the UNB production of Arcadia. But as the action proceeds and we realize how much she doesn't understand or see, it begins to make perfect sense that she be a caricature, a stick figure of blank amazement and general enthusiasm for things she doesn't understand. Her clownish, awkward brightness -- I thought of the animated Olive Oyl -- forms a perfect contrast to the bleakness of what's actually happening. She's also extremely funny.
I've admired Scott Shannon's work in two recent Beckett plays (especially his wonderful, agonized Clov in Endgame a couple of years ago, and his Stanley strikes just the right note of aimless depression at the beginning, and traumatized incomprehension as the two thugs work their dominating magic on him. I've never quite understood the role of Lulu in the play, but Margaret Campbell gives the part a kind of large, British sexiness that plays very nicely against the lubricious Goldberg. If I still often wonder what Pinter had in mind, I never felt that during this performance.
The role of McCann can easily become a foil for the expansive, showy Goldberg, but Derek Nason, looking uncomfortably like a cross between Stephen Harper and one of the lesser mobsters from The Sopranos (or, perhaps, think of one of Monty Python's Piranha brothers), is wonderfully threatening -- and at the same time almost sympathetic in the face of the whirlwind of oratory and self-satisfied, vaguely threatening pronouncements we get from Nicholas Cole's spectacular Goldberg. Cole has been impressive in other local productions (I especially liked his Septimus in Arcadia), but his Goldberg is something else: strutting, pompous, self-absorbed, stentorian, commanding, he absolutely commands attention whenever he's on stage, partly by his ability to wait, and wait, and make us wait, for his next phrase. Oddly, perhaps, he reminded me of Thomas Goud's Pozzo in Waiting for Godot last fall: there's a similar complete obliviousness to the people around them, who become insects, vermin, to be dominated and exterminated.
It occurs to you as you watch Goldberg dominate, forcing people to listen to his self-aggrandizing, pseudo-sentimental reminiscences, that one the one hand people only listen to them because he's so powerful, so threatening; but at the same time, the reason he's so powerful is that people do listen to him. And, in the audience, we're also forced to listen; Pinter's putting us in the position of the victim, over and over, making us recognize ourselves in Stanley and Petey, and even in the ultimately subservient McCann.
Perhaps because Pinter was writing a play for actors and the theatre, there's no substitute for a solid, live performance like this one. It replaces, and renders almost silly, any amount of theorizing about what the play is "really about," or who or what Goldberg and McCann might represent, or whether Stanley is a kind of symbol of alienated mankind in the midst of the twentieth century, unable to escape or change his past, whatever it is, or whether Meg and Petey are all of us, watching the horrors unfold uncomprehendingly or helplessly.
What is true? What is false? You may well ask. You're left no choice but to ask.