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Welcome to The Birthday Party

by Steppenwolf Artistic Director Martha Lavey

Here, at the center of our season of The Reckoning, is Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party . The play exposes the anxiety we may feel about what a reckoning in our lives might mean. In a seaside town, Meg and Petey, a middle-aged couple, run a boarding house in which Stanley is a long-time denizen. And one day, two men show up in pursuit of Stanley. Coincidence: it is Stanley’s birthday (or is it?). The men, Mr. Goldberg and Mr. McCann, (are those their real names?) know Stanley (or do they?). A young woman, Lulu, appears, a friend of Meg, Petey and Stanley, and participates in what becomes Stanley’s birthday party. (Is she Stanley’s girlfriend?) Stanley was a pianist with a career that took him around the world. (Or was he?) Stanley is happy in Meg and Petey’s home. (Or is he?) And so forth: nearly everything that is asserted in the play is contradicted. We are, like the characters in the play, destabilized. We don’t know what’s true and what’s a lie. So why? What is it that Pinter is doing in presenting a world that is so slippery and strange? What is he capturing about the human experience by presenting a world in which the rules keep changing? When discussing the play with our director, Austin Pendleton, he talks about, first, the palpable vulnerability of every character in the play. As Austin says, our lives are a mystery to us and we are, all of us, waiting for that moment when we are exposed to ourselves—we are all of us waiting for the knock on the door. I think this is so: we soothe ourselves with the idea that we are in control of the narrative of our lives but underneath that confidence lives the knowledge that there’s quite a lot that comes knocking at our door, unbidden and not always welcome. Mr. Pinter is deeply interested in where power lives in any given moment, in any given room. He tends to place his characters in a closed room and he deploys the force of words and, importantly, silence, to shift the dynamic of power and authority. Truth is not the objective: power is the objective. So the rules change according to who wields the narrative. In the body of his work, Pinter examines this in the interpersonal dynamic and, increasingly throughout his career, in the body politic. He became an outspoken critic of the state’s power, of the autocratic imposition on the lives of the individual. Goldberg and McCann, the two men who show up at the door, embody that ominous presence of an unnamed “organisation” that wields its power over individuals without explanation or reason. The Birthday Party is Pinter’s first full-length play. Its initial reception was dismal. The critics didn’t understand it, they were unmoored by its contradictions and refusal to explain itself. The Sunday Times critic, Harold Hobson, and Kenneth Tynan of The Observor , saw the method in Pinter’s madness and asserted the value of the play. Harold Pinter, of course, went on to write a series of plays and The Birthday Party has come to be seen as the first of many of the playwright’s extraordinary and groundbreaking works. As Tynan describes it, “Mr. Pinter has got hold of a primary fact of existence. We live on the verge of disaster... There is terror everywhere. Meanwhile, it is best to makes jokes (Mr. Pinter’s jokes are very good), and to play blind man’s bluff, and to bang on a toy drum, anything to forget the slow approach of doom.” I think the extraordinary accomplishment in Mr. Pinter’s work is his mastery of language which is so precise and so, at the same time, ambiguous and unlikely. We are constantly being asked to interpret the truth and to be aware of how language both defines and obscures the real. I look forward to the discussions that The Birthday Party will provoke. It is very funny, very human, and theatrically gratifying. It is also the work in which a cry is uttered that Mr. Pinter has said is one of the most important lines he has written. When Stanley is taken away at the end of the play, Petey cries out, “Stan, don’t let them tell you what to do.” The playwright says, “I’ve lived that line all my damn life.” -Steppenwolf Artistic Director Martha Lavey