‘A jolly jumble of theatrical cliches’: 1958 ‘Cherwell’ review of ‘The Birthday Party’
Elkan Presman’s 1958 review of the original production of The Birthday Party in the Oxford University student newspaper Cherwell is one of the very earliest Pinter reviews to have been published, and has not been reproduced in its entirity since. A striking aspect of the review is the impression that it gives the reader of how (some of) its original audience might have registered the play – functioning through “a jolly jumble of theatrical clichés”, recognisable idioms of thriller and comedy, while simultaneously confounding expectations. Presman’s conflicted response (torn between being mystified and enlightened) establishes a dichotomy that has been repeated many times sunsequently in discussions of Pinter’s play over the lat six decades. It will be interesting to see if the same reaction can still be recognised in reviews of next year’s prestige 60th anniversary West End revival.
Dressed Cliches: Skilful Pinter
“Throughout The Birthday Party, this week’s Playhouse production, one has the strong impression of another play. The weekly wash waiting for ironing, the early appearance of an embittered failure in a dirty sweater and flannels, and the entrance of two mysterious strangers into a seaside boarding-house, all seem to indicate a jolly jumble of theatrical clichés.
But the author, Harold Pinter, is no fool. He has dressed his clichés in superb creations of theatrical ‘haute couture’, and the result is both funny and exciting. His sweatered failure, Stan, an out-of-work concert party pianist, is an interesting picture of a breathing corpse in whom twitches of life only appear when he is bullying his landlady.
The latter, Meg, and her husband, Petey, the deckchair attendant, are good and honest in an obvious way, and their deliberately drab conversation is successful, not only in making us laugh but particularly in placing them before us as objects of our sympathy. Their pitiable devotion to this lump of revolting, decaying flesh is produced as a study in opposites and Mr. Pinter seems to have done a thoroughly competent job of cliché-dressing.
But the appearance of the two strangers, Goldberg and McCann, introduces an element of fantasy into this setting of dull earthiness. Where are they from? Why have they come here? What is the meaning of the spiritual assault they make on Stan? Why all these spurious reminiscences from Goldberg?
The play is a why-did-they-dun-it of tremendous skill. But no solutions are given and very few clues. In the end nothing has been achieved; Stan has undergone a superficial change but he is spiritually deader than ever; Meg and Petey seem far from satisfied; and a perfectly harmless girl has been seduced by dubious methods. Perhaps it is just a study in levels of disillusionment.
We are left not knowing on what level to judge the play. Is it just a collection of tricks or do the symbols that chase each other through the play mean something? It might have been easier to decide in favour of the former explanation if the production and acting had been of a lower standard. Peter Woods’ inventive direction must have added a great deal to Mr. Pinter’s script, and John Slater, John Stratton and Beatrix Lehmann, have squeezed the last drop of meaning and humour out of the play.”
Elkan Presman (Cherwell, 17 May 1958, p. 8)
(With thanks to Ian Greaves)