Monday, 27 July 2009

Birthday Party

Did a rare thing last and watched TV for a couple of hours, an old production of Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party to be exact, with Pinter himself as Goldberg and a grand cast of Joan Plowright (Meg), Kenneth Cranham (Stanley), Colin Blakely (McCann), Julie Walters (Lulu) and Robert Lang (Petey).

Pinter's genius, as everyone knows, was for comedy of a faintly threatening kind, not for overt violence, heavy didactic symbolism or outright surrealism. The writing in The Birthday Party is a blend of Ionesco, Stan Barstow and the Goons. The dialogue is brilliant when banal, but when Goldberg and McCann turn the heat on Stanley it begins to feel a bit schoolboyish, or at least period, as if the author were trying too hard to arrive at some Francis Bacon moment complete with squirming torso and torn flesh. It might be better getting there by implication rather than by grimacing and automatic writing. Maybe it is just too close to a willed sort of poetry:

GOLDBERG. We'll watch over you.
MCCANN. Advise you.
GOLDBERG. Give you proper care and treatment.
MCCANN. Let you use the club bar.
GOLDBERG. Keep a table reserved.
MCCANN. Help you acknowledge the fast days.
GOLDBERG. Bake you cakes.
MCCANN. Help you kneel on kneeling days.
GOLDBERG. Give you a free pass.
MCCANN. Take you for constitutionals.
GOLDBERG. Give you hot tips... etc

If I were Stanley I'd be tempted to retort: Come off it you pretentious gits! rather than turn catatonic. Stanley, my boy, I want to say in faintly Goldbergian tones (my own Goldberg variation), you are too impressionable.

And yes, we get the idea that Goldberg and McCann are sadistic gangsters looking to catch up with Stanley; we also get the idea that this is not merely a one-off story but a representation of something behind British society, a kind of alien or foreign violence in which language itself turns violent. The violence is overtly foreign since Goldberg is clearly a caricature East End Jew (in other words a second generation immigrant) and McCann a homicidal Fenian (an immigrant Irishman): stereotypes we might think of today as faintly racist. Granted Pinter was Jewish himself but Goldberg is potential food for fascists. Interestingly, I think Goldberg would be an acceptable stereotype in today's climate (try Seven Children of Goldberg?) while McCann would not.

The play holds attention throughout. The banal shreds remain compulsive and darkly funny. It is genius, even if a little laboured. All it lacks is humanity. On TV Pinter was performing Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape straight after. But that's the difference: Beckett was a humane genius, a great writer, a proper noun, a world. Pinter is not a world. Pinteresque remains an adjective.

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