Five Things to Know about The Birthday Party Playwright Harold Pinter

By A.C.T. Publications Staff

Why is Pinter significant in Western theater?

Pinter’s dramatic storytelling was like a shockwave in Western theater. In the 1950s, British and American theaters were filled with dramas that were conversational, genteel, amusing. Pinter’s forceful rhythms, menace, sexuality, sudden humor, and unanswered questions shook audiences awake.

Stanley (Firdous Bamji) watches Goldberg (Scott Wentworth) flirt with Lulu (Julie Adamo)
in A.C.T.'s production of The Birthday Party. Photo by Kevin Berne.
Why is power so important in Pinter’s work?

Pinter saw drama as a zero-sum game. In every scene, there is a winner and a loser, and the characters onstage know it. This sense of competition—between husband and wife, master and servant, or two hitmen hired to do a job—runs like a spinal cord throughout the playwright’s work. In his own life, the playwright was only too aware of the misuses of power; as a young Jewish man growing up in 1930s London, he’d witnessed fascists marching through the streets.

Who were Pinter’s influences?

As a young actor, Pinter appeared in adaptations of Agatha Christie, and the structure of those mysteries is visible in his own plays (including The Birthday Party). Other influences include dramatists (Samuel Beckett, Shakespeare), novelists (Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf), and filmmakers (Luis Buñuel). Pinter would both draw from and influence other storytellers. The Birthday Party’s Goldberg and McCann have been compared with the gangsters in Hemingway’s short story The Killers (1927) and the hitmen in Quentin Tarantino’s film Pulp Fiction (1994).

What is Pinteresque?

Pinteresque refers to aspects of Pinter’s voice: the sense of mystery and things unspoken, the atmosphere of threat and menace, the unexpected shifts between terror and comedy, the specific timing of sentences and silences.

What do I need to know before seeing The Birthday Party?

Pinter intended his plays to be entertaining. He wanted to create shock, surprise, and laughter. His plays don’t require advance knowledge. While each character in The Birthday Party is fully realized—with his or her own hopes and fears—Pinter focused only on what happens onstage in the present; he was never interested in explaining what shaped his characters. That’s partly what makes his plays so lean, immediate, and enduring.

The Birthday Party
runs through February 4 at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets. Want to learn more about Pinter from an actor’s perspective? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

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