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King’s College London
Pinter, the Political and the International
Harold Pinter politicises the personal and personalises the political. Political theorists rarely look to the arts for understanding the subject of politics, and the reason is that doing so would problematize a subject conceived in terms of instrumentality and calculative reason. Pinter’s political and international imaginary allows us to start with what constitutes subjectivity and the subject’s formation in contingencies of power and violence. Of particular interest is Pinter’s evocation of untrammelled power and its permeation into the everyday and the routine. He shows us that power is at its most dangerous when it is rendered banal.
Rice University, USA
Unteaching Pinter and the Aesthetics of Ambiguity
Harold Pinter’s works thwart currents in contemporary United States teaching strategies, especially at the secondary school level. The decline of Pinter on syllabi over the last decades marks the ascent of desire for stable and singular meaning. During the 1990s, reading The Dumb Waiter (1957) (one of Pinter’s most widely taught works) resonated with adolescents’ impulse to resist conformity and the pedagogical impetus toward open interpretation. In 2001, however, George W. Bush’s ‘No Child Left Behind’ policy constrained education to nation-wide standards enforced through uniform testing. Pinter’s works cannot fit into multiple-choice questions with discrete and singular ‘correct’ answers. The concurrent rise in popularity of advanced placement tests, which require uncontroversial five-paragraph essays, has urged teachers to promote consensus on themes and meaning in literature. Unfortunately, many higher education institutions accept strong scores on these tests as introductory course credit, so that bright students enter mid-level literature classes with no tolerance for creative ambiguity. Because Pinter’s works center on the unsaid, the unsayable, and the traces of memory, readings of them for a definitive meaning reduce their multiple insinuations, potential universality, and uncomfortable absences to a specific singularity. Interpreting Ashes to Ashes (1996) as an account of only the Holocaust, for example, erases its resonances with the traumas of slavery, contemporary refugee crises, and women’s political and psychoanalytic oppression. As works of literature outside time and place with manifold layers of meaning, Pinter’s oeuvre cannot conform to contemporary U.S. testing, yet their educational value opens possibilities for aesthetic discomfort, pleasure, and playfulness.
University of Reading, UK
True and False at the Same Time: Pinter and the Sixties Spy Cycle
This paper will place Harold Pinter’s screenplay for The Quiller Memorandum (1965) back into the historical circumstances of 1966, when James Bond, Harry Palmer and other spy characters represented aspects of a fictional espionage world on-screen. Set among the spies of a divided Berlin in the Cold War, Quiller was adapted by Pinter from Elleston Trevor’s 1965 novel (written under the alias Adam Hall). One of the ways viewers have responded to the film is to credit it with being truthful in a way that Fleming’s Bond, for example, was not. The claim for Quiller’s verisimilitude is based on its representation of place, milieu and the quotidian business of spying. But that claim also adduces Pinter’s elliptical script, which follows his dictum expressed in 1958 in an article discussing his own drama, that something is ‘not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false’. In as much as an adaptation is a repetition of its source, in the sense that it goes back to an original and works through it to make something different from it, adaptation is always both faithful and deceptive. This perspective, which is interested in the differences inherent in repetitions and returns, looks at how strategies of respect and disrespect in adaptation underlie the question of truth and falsity. One way to make adaptation truthful might be to thematise deceit, and the paper will think this through in relation to the spy thriller, a genre preoccupied with deception and the revelation of hidden truths. In Quiller, Pinter uses the characters’ silence, subtexts, evasion and intention to deceive as means to establish a dangerous and ambiguous reality, also expressed in director Michael Anderson’s sparse visual style.The paper includes results of archival research into Pinter’s working relationship with Anderson and the film’s production process.
John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin, Poland
Harold Pinter To-do List: Gaps and Discoveries
As the “Histories & Legacies” project officially draws to a close I consider it promising to take the opportunity and use the last conference to look towards the future in terms of what still remains to be done with regard to Pinter’s presence/absence in my home country. I would like to divide my presentation into two sections listed in the title. In the part called “Gaps” I intend to focus on the missing translations of Pinter into Polish as well as the fact of some already translated plays being overlooked by Polish theatres. Secondly, the “Discoveries” section brings to the foreground the so-far unacknowledged anonymous translation of Pinter’s “One for the Road” published in an underground periodical from the Communist period. As I hope to show, Pinter has trodden many paths in Poland, but some of them have not made their full appearance yet.
University of Leeds, UK
The Case of Vanilla: New History and Unexpected Influence
While Harold Pinter tended to collaborate with other men on the occasions he left his playwriting chair to work in other media, several highlights of his career were the result of collaborations with women. A few notable examples are his four screenplay adaptations of novels written by women and his more literal collaborations with the likes of Di Trevis on Remembrance of Things Past (2000) and Eileen Diss on productions of many of his own plays, as well as his partnership for over two decades with his agent, the lawyer Judy Daish. Pinter’s most conspicuous collaboration with a woman, however, might be with Jane Stanton Hitchcock when he directed her play Vanilla for a tour that went from Brighton to Bath to London in the summer of 1990. This was the only occasion Pinter worked on a play authored by a woman. Unfortunately, the history of this collaboration remains quite vague, two reasons being the critical failure of the production and the fact that Vanilla was never published. Working from interviews and correspondence with Stanton Hitchcock and her play script and production diary, this presentation makes a first attempt at constructing a history for what is arguably one of the more significant blind spots for scholars in Pinter’s career. In addition to constructing a new history for Vanilla, the presentation will consider briefly how both Pinter’s work on this play and his encounter with its author seems to have informed two of the five plays he would go on to write during the 1990s: Party Time (1991) and Celebration (1999).
University of Birmingham, UK
‘drama by means of radio’: Staging Absence in Harold Pinter’s A Slight Ache
Since Martin Esslin’s seminal essay ‘The Mind as a Stage’ in 1971, much of the critical discourses on radio drama has centred on notions of invisibility, emphasising listeners’ minds as key to unlocking the form’s unique qualities. But how are these notions of the seen and unseen changed when a work first written for an exclusively aural medium like radio is transposed into the predominantly visual medium of the stage? Moreover, what happens when the work in question already frustrates the conventions of radio by featuring an entirely silent character, who then fails to appear on stage?
This paper explores the intersections and distinctions between radio and drama in Jamie Lloyd’s 2019 production of Harold Pinter’s A Slight Ache (1958), part of the recent Pinter at the Pinter season in London’s West End. Rather than simply transposing Pinter’s original work onto the stage in a setting analogous to what is described in the play, Lloyd’s production was explicitly framed as a ‘radio play’ with two performers appearing in a radio studio to voice the characters, Edward and Flora. However, as the piece progressed, the boundaries between the conventions of radio and live theatre began to erode, calling the identities and motivations of these figures into question; were we watching the psychological fragmentation of Edward and Flora, or John Heffernan and Gemma Whelan playing Edward and Flora?
As this paper will argue, by literalising and leveraging the aesthetics of radio this staging offered fresh insights into the psyches of both Pinter’s characters and what the play asks of its audience, both live in the theatre and listening on air. In so doing, it prompts further reflection on the interconnectedness of Pinter’s praxis across different media, pointing to how intermediality might define a new era of Pinter in performance.
Tel-Aviv University and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel
The Trivial and its (In)Significance: On Pinter’s No Man’s Land and the Dramaturgy of the Ineffectual
The trivial is a redundant element in dramatic writing, the unnecessary ingredient. Dramaturgically, the trivial is considered worthless, a waste of the audience’s time, a background noise, a superfluous and sidelined element. Dramatic writing, we are taught, aims towards a well-defined goal – the fulfilment of the character’s desire and the obstacles that stand in the way of this specific goal. The trivial is unwanted because it leaves the audience helpless in front of the dramatic act, sometimes bewildered, frequently bored. The trivial, in that sense, is a digression which signals stagnation, the enemy of the dramatic conflict, or the purposeful act, the immediate victim of theater dramaturgies and artistic directors (the first things playwrights are required to cut out from the play, for example).
My presentation will explore the trivial as a recurring and crucial theme in Pinter’s entire repertoire of plays – from his first play, The Room (1957) to his last one, Celebration (1999). More specifically, I will discuss his arguably most “trivial” play, No Man’s Land (1974), and attempt to offer an alternative dramaturgical approach to the act of dramatic writing which celebrates the insignificant, seemingly neutral, elements in a staged universe. By undermining the traditional distinction between the things that matter on stage and those that don’t, I will use No Man’s Land as an example which deconstructs theoretical and practical perceptions of traditional drama. Pinter’s play, I will argue, offers a new approach to dramaturgy which reconsiders dramatic concepts such as conflict, event, desire and character.
Ann C. Hall
University of Louisville, USA
Containers and Containment: The Pinter Trade in the United States
Containers and containment illustrate the current trends in global trade. There are those who advocate for free trade, the natural progression of unfettered trade and immigration, the containers. And then there are those who prefer to manipulate trade and immigrations by trade policies, by containment. Given the recent, current, and highly publicized moves on the part of the United States and Great Britain to limit trade, immigration, and free trade, to contain, it seems appropriate to discuss one of the most important exports and imports of our world—art, in this case, theatre, and more specifically still, the work of Harold Pinter. How goes the Pinter trade in the U.S.? Are there implicit or unspoken embargoes and boycotts? What is the effect of Pinter in the United States? Should their be a Pinterexit? This paper will examine the reception of Pinter’s plays in the United States, particularly those productions beyond the great White Way, productions in schools, universities, LORT and community theatres. But more importantly, the paper will also examine the ways the Pinter represents containers and containment, free trade versus embargo.
Open University, UK
Pinter and Poetry
This paper considers the poetry of Harold Pinter in relation to the playwright’s reputation, political praxis, journalism and drama.
When Pinter was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2005, there was a general consensus among critics that the award was richly deserved for his contribution to European theatre. Pinter’s biographer Michael Billington was typical in seeing ‘the news that he is this year’s Nobel winner…as confirmation of his international status’ (The Guardian, 14/10/2005).
Yet there were dissenting voices, and these focussed on Pinter’s poetry. Johann Hari, for instance, cast aspersions on the standard of Pinter’s poetry and the ‘rage-induced incoherence’ of Pinter’s political pronouncements. Poetry and politics were connected, since Pinter regularly published his poems in newspapers to make political points. Hari cited a not-untypical example of Pinter’s political verse, ‘American Football: A Reflection upon the Gulf War’ (1991): ‘We blew the shit right back up their own ass/ And out their fucking ears./ It works. / We blew the shit out of them./ They suffocated in their own shit!’ (Independent, 6/12/2005). According to Hari, this was definitely not literature. Adam Newey, poetry editor of the New Statesman, agreed. He dismissed Pinter’s poetry pamphlet War (2003) for its ‘simplicity’ and opined that ‘American Football’ ‘wasn’t very good’ (New Statesman, 14/7/2003).
While Pinter’s poetry was summarily dismissed, his plays continued to be compared with the finest poetry; for example, Richard Allen Cave claimed that ‘Ashes to Ashes [was] theatre poetry of the highest order’ (in Raby, 2013, p.135); while Peter Hall opined that ‘Beckett and Pinter are poetic dramatists, in the proper sense of the word’ (in Smith, 2005, p.138), better indeed than ‘Eliot and Auden’ (in Raby, 2013, p.162).
In response to this generic conundrum, my paper will argue that Pinter’s poetry demands to be read as political praxis, journalism and drama. Further, the poetry can constructively be approached as anti-drama, laying bare the truth of power in the world; and meta-drama, aiming at universal truth beyond particular perspectives. Antisemitism and the Holocaust will also be considered as key shapers of Pinter’s politics and poetry.
Susan Hollis Merritt
Independent Scholar, USA
[“Pinter Still in Play: The Global Cultural Impact of Harold Pinter”: A Preview]
Romantic is under erasure (sous rature [Jacques Derrida]), as I continue to interrogate Pinter’s artistic presentations of “romantic love,” vis-à-vis his own documented personal life experiences. Rigorously anti-sentimental, Pinter dramatizes power relations among men and women, exploring dimensions of friendship, love, and marriage and the consequences of betrayals of fidelity and trust. His odd romantic couplings expose power imbalances, gender inequities, and sexual politics. The dynamics of these dramatic relationships across multiple genres and media are illuminated by personal and intellectual contexts of Pinter’s life and work revealed in updated editions of Various Voices (Faber, 2005) and Michael Billington’s authorized biography Harold Pinter (Faber, 2007); Antonia Fraser’s memoir Must You Go? My Life With Harold Pinter (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2010); archival resources; Pinter’s interviews; my own and others’ experiences of Pinter at the Pinter productions, documented via reviews and social media (2018-19); and other recently published memoirs, criticism, and scholarship. I cite my own and others’ research in the Pinter Archive at the British Library and its supplemental Additional Manuscripts collections, most notably Pinter’s correspondence with Henry Woolf, Michael (Mick) Goldstein, and Joan Bakewell, alongside a typescript of Mick Goldstein’s play “Spider Love” (arranged by Mick’s son Jeremy; courtesy of Henry Woolf) and the recorded panel discussion before its presentation at the British Library (2017), in which Woolf participated, and Woolf’s memoir Barcelona is in Trouble (Greville, 2016/Comet, 2017). Various contexts of Pinter’s life and work (his “histories”) and evolving theoretical bases for criticism (his “legacies”) are illuminated by “Lessons from Harold Pinter” (ST&P, 2010), by Vicky Angelaki; Harold Pinter on International Stages, ed. Tomaž Onič (Peter Lang, 2014); The Late Harold Pinter (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), by Basil Chiasson; Eroding the Language of Freedom (Routledge, 2018), by Farah Ali; and Pinter’s World, by William Baker (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018).
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA
Uncovering the Precipice
In his Nobel Address, entitled Art, Truth and Politics (2005), Harold Pinter stated that while the artistic exploration of reality produces results that are both true and false, it is the responsibility of the citizen to account for what is true and what is false in order to guard against the implementation of oppressive political regimes. It is therefore striking that so many of Pinter’s later, more politically oriented plays specifically concern language. For instance, Mountain Language (1988) details how an oppressive military regime outlaws the language of a community that it subjugates, whereas Ashes to Ashes (1996) concludes as the main character ultimately disavows knowledge of the traumatic event that her testimony represented throughout the play. While Pinter scholars frequently read each of these plays as commentaries on specific instances of politically motivated violence—the Kurdish-Turkish conflict frequently functions as the frame of reference for interpreting Mountain Language, whereas the Shoah constantly serves as the event that determines readings of Ashes to Ashes—I will argue that Pinter abstracts something more universal from such particular historical atrocities as these plays investigate trauma’s impact on language itself. I therefore suggest that the problem that Pinter’s later plays pose is extremely pressing: if traumatic violence can deprive one of the words to define or identify truth, then how can one speak of those truly violent actions that strip life of its dignity. To address this issue, I propose an alternative approach to reading Pinter’s political plays, which focuses on how these plays facilitate the capacity to listen to and for affect in the survivor’s testimony. In this regard, Pinter’s later plays provide resources for the type of attention that is necessary to embody a political vision that restores dignity to human life.
Rice University, USA
American Receptions of Pinter’s Plays
There is always some problem of cultural transliteration, even among English-speaking countries. Given the United States’ romanticizing of organized crime and its media’s mode of representing political power as a perpetual reproduction of cold war Russia, American imaginaries tend to discern references to covert sites of power as some version of either the mafia or the Soviet Union. In the United States, both theatre audiences and students in classrooms generally (though, of course, not uniformly) interpret the absent powers that lurk in such plays as One for the Road (1984), The Birthday Party (1957), and The Dumb Waiter (1957) as being some version of a popular culture imaginary from either The Godfather (1969/72) or the cold war. (Even though most younger Americans don’t recall the cold war, the specific covertness imagined as Soviet lingers). Behind-the-scenes criminals bound by omerta or political devotion operate via threats, extortions, and offings. When Pinter’s plays hint at these obscure bosses, henchmen, and/or some lurking but unspecified background power (as in One for the Road and TheNew World Order (1991)), American consumers interpret this unseen force as a mafia, urging such plays as The Dumb Waiter and The Birthday Party towards a set of Scorsese-like connotations that elicit a plethora of American popular-cultural associations to animate the plays’ off-stage mysteries. When the plays evince an absent but powerful political force, as in Mountain Language, the unseen force connotes Russia, again focusing the plays’ dynamics inadvertently on a specific historical imaginary. Although Pinter’s plays may offer similar power dynamics as these differing points of cultural reference, having some imaginary notion of the power operating behind the scenes, as American consumers tend to do, alters the plays’ feelings of trepidation, generalized terror, and fearsome uncanniness. This literalization reduces the plays’ more dislocated angst that points not to a specific force, but to a power disparity that unsettles everyone everywhere. Does this generally unacknowledged transliteration have a material effect on critical interpretations of Pinter’s plays? Does it influence the choice of texts for classroom curricula? What does it mean when the referent is always backstage?
University of Birmingham, UK
‘A Shop Window for Outrage’: Harold Pinter’s Ashes to Ashes, In-Yer Face Theatre & the Royal Court’s 1996 West End Season
Drawing on archival materials from the Royal Court and the Harold Pinter collections at the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Library, this chapter will look at Pinter’s 1996 play Ashes to Ashes and its place as the inaugural event for the English Stage Company’s (ESC) lease of two theatres in the West End while its Sloane Square home underwent major renovation. The residency, lasting from September 1996 until February 2000, coincided with the high water mark of both ‘Cool Britannia’ and In-Yer-Face Theatre in which work including Mark Ravenhill’s Shopping and Fucking (1996), Sarah Kane’s Cleansed (1998) and Crave (1998) and Martin McDonagh’s The Leenane Trilogy (1996-97) shared close associations with the ESC.
Pinter’s Ashes to Ashes played in repertoire with Ravenhill’s Shopping and Fucking and this relationship becomes the basis for the paper’s interest in looking at how the ESC saw itself as a rebellious presence, proclaiming ‘there goes the neighbourhood’ in its publicity and marketing materials. However, the ESC’s relationship with the West End, marked in this instance through the sometimes fractious relationship between the company and Pinter, challenged some of the ESC’s cherished principles, and compromises some of the founding myths of In-Yer-Face theatre itself.
The paper will also seek to reassess and further explore Pinter’s relationship to the dramatists associated with In-Yer-Face drama, especially Kane. Drawing on correspondence between the pair, in particular Kane’s own responses to Ashes to Ashes, sheds new light on how we might understand some of Aleks Sierz’s early definitions of the term he coined.
University of Reading, UK
Next of Kin: Harold Pinter, John Hopkins, Theatre and Television
This paper presents a relational study of Harold Pinter and John Hopkins, two dramatists of the 1960s and 1970s, and the mediums of stage and television drama. Both Pinter and Hopkins were hailed as great dramatic originiators of their time, with Hopkins holding equivalent status within the field of British television drama to Pinter’s theatrical standing, particularly for his 1966 BBC serial Talking to a Stranger, acclaimed as “the first authentic masterpiece written directly for television”. There are many parallels between the two writers’ plays, with both preoccupied with mental illness and family trauma, and working in a register that is simultaneously demotic and opaque. Both worked beyond their primary disciplines, with Pinter writing two plays (Tea Party, 1965, and The Basement, 1967) as ‘pure’ television dramas, wholly intended for the medium, while Hopkins had plays produced theatrically, starting with This Story of Yours at the Royal Court (1968).
This paper will concentrate on the one occasion when both men worked together, Hopkins’ 1974 National Theatre play, Next of Kin, directed by Pinter. One of only four plays produced by the National never to have had its script published, Next of Kin is a forgotten moment in histories of both Pinter and the National Theatre. Through research into contemporary reception, Pinter’s correspondence with Hopkins, the National Theatre prompt copy and the British Library sound recording of the play in performance, the paper will attempt to learn new understanding into Pinter’s own dramatic practice through tracing his interpretation of Next of Kin.
University of Leeds, UK
‘Didn’t He Ramble?’ – The Drafting of Ashes to Ashes
It is commonly accepted that the composition of Pinter penultimate play Ashes to Ashes (1996) is in part the result of an extended period of research and focus on narratives of or connected to the Holocaust: TheRemains of the Day (1989), Reunion (1971), An Interrupted Life: The Diaries of Etty Hillesum 1941-1943 (English trans. 2002), Ronald Harwood’s Taking Sides (1995), Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth (1995). The sequence of drafts of the manuscript, from early hand-written scenes to final annotated typescripts, are all available for viewing in the British Library archive of Pinter’s work. In this paper, I intend to consider the process of drafting the play against our broader understanding of Pinter’s writing process, starting with a point of inspiration, or an image, and ‘creating characters who up to that moment have had no existence’, unwelcome by the characters, resisted by them, and following where they dictate. I aim to try to understand where the characters were leading Pinter as he became acquainted with them, and to distinguish between that pursuit of a narrative via seemingly autonomous characters and the clear decisions and interventions of a writer, the points of starting and stopping, the compilation of earlier-drafted segments, the selection and rejection. In doing so, I seek to understand Ashes to Ashes as a play that struggles to avoid a Holocaust narrative while being irresistibly permeated with that history and the obligation to express it.
University of Antwerp, Belgium
From ‘Fragments’ to Family Voices: The Genesis of Pinter’s Radio Play
While much of Harold Pinter’s work from the 1950s and 1960s is driven by transmedial strategies, allowing a particular text to function, through minimal adjustments, on the stage and the radio as well as on television, his work from the late 60s onwards maintains a stricter sense of genre division. For example, when the Head of BBC Drama in 1968, Martin Esslin, read the script of Landscape to explore the possibility of broadcast in light of the Lord Chamberlain’s refusal to grant the play a licence for theatre performance, he felt it would make ‘splendid radio’ due to its foregrounding of voice. Pinter, by contrast, was not convinced, insisting that the visual element was of prime importance for him and that he had written the play specifically for the stage, wanting to see how the physical stillness of the actors would go together with the words. This is an aesthetic that Pinter went on to explore in plays that would follow, most notably Silence (1968), Old Times (1970) and No Man’s Land (1974). (No Man’s Land would never be done on radio, Old Times not until 1990 and Silence only once, in 1969). So, when in 1977 BBC Script Editor Richard Imison asked Pinter if radio still had something to offer him that other media could not, Pinter set out to explore that question in what became known as Family Voices (1981). In addition to building on material at the BBC WAC, this paper traces the genetic history of Pinter’s radio play, from its earliest notes and typescripts to its production script and related correspondence preserved at the British Library. The main question that it seeks to answer is how Pinter gradually cohered his loose ‘Fragments’ – the working title of the script – into Family Voices and how his medium-specific thinking evolved in the successive versions.
University of Reading, UK
The Style and the Impact of Joan Kemp-Welch’s Four Productions of Pinter Plays (Associated-Rediffusion for ITV, 1960-63)
Joan Kemp-Welch, one of the first women television producers, developed her practice from 1955 by taking responsibility for the live transmission on ITV’s first night, producing scores of editions of a women’s magazine-style programme, devising the pop-music-focused Cool for Cats (1956-61), for which she received a BAFTA Television Light Entertainment award, and directing outside broadcasts from the Hammersmith Palais. By 1959, she had earned sufficient industry respect to be permitted to work on drama, drawing on her three prior decades of work as an actor and director in theatre and film.
The plays she produced for Associated-Rediffusion included work written especially for television and new and established pieces from the theatrical repertoire. Her drama productions were held in high esteem: in 1961, her Laudes Evangelii received a prize at the Monte Carlo television festival; her 1963 production of Pinter’s The Lover (1962) won the Prix Italia; and she was awarded the Desmond Davis Award for the most outstanding creative work in television in 1964 (the first woman and ITV person to receive it).
Before The Lover, she had produced three other Pinter plays for Associated-Rediffusion—namely, the landmark television realisation of The Birthday Party (1960), plus Night School (1960) and The Collection (1961). Drawing on extant recordings and the Associated-Rediffusion and Joan Kemp-Welch papers held in the BFI’s collections, this paper will analyse the distinctive characteristics of Kemp-Welch’s approach to putting Pinter on screen—such as her innovative visual sense, frequent use of extended shots and attention to significant detail. The paper will also examine evidence for how domestic viewers and television critics engaged with her four Pinter productions in order to evaluate her contribution to Pinter’s growing reputation in the 1960s and his onward, creative legacy.
Tel-Aviv University, Israel
Theatre Reviewers as Compromised Historians: Revivals of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party
This paper engages with the London press reviews of six revivals of Harold Pinter’s play The Birthday Party (1957) from 1975 to 2018. It focuses in particular on the critics’ reactions to these revivals, and the narrative that emerges from their reviews.
Of particular relevance in the present context of critics reacting to a revival of a play, is that they might temporarily assume the role of (quasi-)historians, not only responding to the production at hand but also relating to past productions of the play and accounting for possible changes in its reception. The case of The Birthday Party is especially useful here, having provided several revivals whose reviews reflect the gradual consolidation over time of an apparent historical narrative of the play’s trajectory in the context of Pinter’s career. This narrative revolves around a change – the transformation in the critical reception of The Birthday Party from initial rejection to later acceptance, as reflected too in the change in the playwright’s career from failure to success.
In their historical narrative, the critics provide explanations for the transformed perception of the play. This narrative, I argue, raises a number of irresolvable questions, making the critics’ historical account puzzling and unsatisfactory. Most striking in their historical account is that almost all of them disregard the 1964 production – the first revival of the play – which received highly favourable notices, and therefore could have been perceived as establishing the grounds for the transformed critical perception of the play. Thus, in ignoring this favourably received (first) revival, the critics also overlook a major and distinctive phase in Pinter’s process of critical acceptance.
Examining the critics’ responses to the play’s revivals, I shall demonstrate the consolidation over time of the narrative emergent of their reviews, while also showing its deficiencies as an historical account of both the play’s trajectory and Pinter’s evolving career.