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Harold Pinter

Nearly half a century after Samuel Beckett, the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to another British playwright who was as influential in his way as Becket. This was Harold Pinter, who came into prominence in 1958 with The Birthday Party, and who continued to produce interesting and important plays over the next half century, though nothing perhaps quite rivaled that powerful critique of all-controlling and pervasive authority. I saw it in the sixties, in one of those exciting British Council tours that covered a range of good British drama, in days too when well established names came on Council tours. The figure I remember was Mona Washbourne, who was brilliant as the landlady who tries to protect her strange and vulnerable lodger.

This odd young man, Stanley, had washed up in her boarding house, with no prior history that she could find out about. She is surprised to find he is of interest to two sinister men who give out gradually that they are officials, sent to check up on him. They demand papers and a history and get less and less tolerant as it transpires that Stanley has no records and no plans. She hopes to settle the tensions by having them at the birthday party she plans to give Stanley, along with a young lady she hopes will be of romantic interest to him, but the event is far from fun.

After forced joviality and heightening tension, party games turning frightening, and Stanley loses his cool. He reveals dangerous depths of violence, so that they take him away. The landlady has come close to having been killed, though whether that was Stanley acting or those who manipulated him is not quite clear. However she has no option, the next day, but to pretend that nothing untoward has happened, and to get on with her life, back now to the companionship only of her stolid and silent husband – who had however briefly come to life in urging Stanley, as he is taken away, not to allow his oppressors to tell him what to do.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

December 2010
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