Harold Pinter’s comedy of menace. Who are Goldberg & McCann, and why have they appeared on Stanley’s birthday?
The Birthday Party (1957) is the second full-length play by Harold Pinter and one of his best-known and most frequently performed plays. After its hostile London reception almost ended Pinter’s playwriting career, it went on to be considered ‘a classic’.
The play had its world première at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge, on 28 April 1958, where the play was ‘warmly received’; on its pre-London tour, in Oxford and Wolverhampton, it also met with a ‘positive reception’ as ‘the most enthralling experience the Grand Theatre has given [us] in many months.’ However, on 19 May 1958, the production moved to the Lyric Opera House, Hammersmith (now the Lyric Hammersmith), for its début in London, where it was a commercial and mostly critical failure, generating ‘bewildered hysteria’ and closing after only eight performances. The weekend after it had already closed, Harold Hobson’s belated rave review, ‘The Screw Turns Again’, appeared in The Sunday Times, rescuing the play’s critical reputation and enabling it to become one of the classics of the modern stage.
The play is about Stanley Webber, an erstwhile piano player in his 30s, who lives in a shabby boarding house, run by Meg and Petey Boles, in an English seaside town, ‘probably on the south coast, not too far from London’. Meg organises a birthday party for Stanley, but two sinister strangers, Goldberg and McCann, who appear to have come looking for him, turn the seemingly innocuous birthday party into a nightmare.