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« In Which We Keep The Fire High And The Wolves Away »

"We're Losing You, Darling"


The Broadway season really got exciting with the October 3rd opening of Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party. Pinter, born in London in 1930, has been called "the best and most important young playwright now alive." The Birthday Party, his first full-length play, was done in London in 1958, where it died within the week, leaving Pinter just another out of work actor for awhile.

As everyone knows, Bench changed all that. Bench, written for BBC television, proved his first overwhelming success. Many people feel that Kenneth Tynan's lengthy essay on Bench in The Observer did as much for Pinter as Tynan's review of Look Back In Anger had done four years previously for John Osborne.

Bench, of course, is a 50-minute play, all of it taking place, as the title suggests, on a lonely seaside bench in an (unnamed) English resort town. The play, a series of seemingly disconnected encounters between men occupying the bench, comes to a climax in the famous scene reprinted below.

on the set of "The Go-Between"

(The two characters in the scene have, if anyone has forgotten, appeared in the play once before, but not together; this is the only time in the play that anyone returns to the bench for a second visit.) It might be advisable here to give the scene a glance again, along with some of what Mr. Tynan wrote about it, to see what light it sheds on Pinter in general, and The Birthday Party in particular.





What'd you say - what'd you say?







The roses...


What'd you say — what'd you say?


I said the roses.


The roses what? Get on with it - the roses what?


(pause, then rises, stands over the bigger man)

You know what.


I do, do I?



You know and Frankie knows.

(long pause)

Frankie knows better than you know.


But you know.


All I did was say hello.


You denied the roses!


Keep your damn roses.


(longest pause)

I intend to, mate. Tell that to Frankie. Tell him the roses are ... are ...


Are what?



Bloody well mine...



The following is excerpted from Tynan's Observer article of November 27, 1960. "...as good as the play is, and certainly for a television play it has been extraordinary, it is not until the terminal confrontation between Teddy and Stan that one realizes that one is not only in the presence of an artist, but incredibly (the man has just turned thirty) an artist already at the peaks of his powers.

"I know of no other modern dramaturgy as compressed as this: 16 speeches, 85 words, and (most significantly) 8 pauses. At first, when the two men are seated 'knee to knee,' it seems we are to witness the most wearisome of modern theatrical clichés, the 'deviate pickup scene.' But very soon it is clear that what we are watching is, for Pinter, the ultimate violence: the announcement of a future murder. (A lesser artist would never be content with the indication of violence; he would have to show the crime.) Pinter hints at it, conveys it, then leaves it, and at the same time leaves us sick with frustration. For surely Stan is going to die. And surely we cannot save him.

"What is Stan's crime? Clearly he is not the least ashamed of it; no man ashamed would hurl a charge the way Stan hurls 'You denied the roses!' at Teddy. And that of course is Stan's crime: he is not ashamed. For he is Man and not ashamed of it, and for that he must die; for that, Teddy, tremendous Teddy, must kill him. Stan is Man. (Is the rhyme a hint? Probably. Pinter need not have done that.) Man: virile, proud of his red blood. Teddy is, of course, homosexual, which is why Stan sits knee to knee to him - a taunt. Stan is man unafraid, no matter how great the odds or how tremendous the enemy.

"Frankie, referred to twice — some think mysteriously — is not mysterious at all. He is, of course, St. Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan order, all this clearly indicated by the fact that the Franciscans have split into three orders, just as the human race is split into thirds: men, women and homosexuals such as Teddy.

"What Bench is then, finally, is a heterosexual outcry against the modern world. Telling, moving, painful in its honesty, brilliant in its conception, it is pure Pinter. One finale note: some critics have wondered why, since Bench is concerned with the world being in thirds — men, women and deviates — there are no women characters. The obvious Freudian reply would be that Woman is indeed present: the Great Woman herself; the Sea.

"But Pinter is far past Freud, and the final answer is his alone, for his art is not really menace or fear. It is the God-given ability to infuse universal meaning through the use of secrets. And if you tell what your secrets mean, well, they would hardly be secrets any more, now would they?"

With Tynan's analysis in mind, let us proceed to The Birthday Party. American critics had a terrible time with it. John Chapman of the New York Daily News called it a "whatzit." Clive Barnes of the Times thought it was incomporably one of the two most interesting plays to appear on Broadway in some seasons, the other being Pinter's Tony-award winner from the previous year, The Homecoming. Richard Watts of the Post was in between, finding it both cryptic and dramatically artful.

The television critics were similarly in disarray; one of them felt that it started slowly but really picked up speed as it went along, while another thought it had a terrific beginning but bogged down toward the end. Pinter, of course, is famous for leaving certain things unsaid, and this annoyed The New Yorker critic, who felt it would have been all right had Pinter been forced "to be mysterious because of political pressure or the like," while Time felt his "unwillingness to communicate is his central theme" and therefore crucial to his work. The Newsweek man felt....there's really no telling what the Newsweek man felt, because he kept putting these strange words down one after the other. The following strange words occur after a plot synopsis: "Into this orchestration of rock-bottom behavior and starkly pungent language, Pinter builds a polyphony of hints, insinuations, metaphysical tips and touts that add up, not to 'meaning', but to a visitation of portentous activity."

Never mind what The Birthday Party's about, what's Newsweek about?

Alan Schneider, who directed the production, has a notion what The Birthday Party is about: "Somebody is after somebody else and gets 'em." Schneider, a Tony-award winner for his work on Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, is probably the busiest drama director on Broadway. Schneider is fifty, looks a lot less, and is enormously articulate, which is interesting only insofar as most of his best known work has been with playwrights who tend to defy articulation — Albee, Samuel Beckett and Pinter. "I've done a lot of plays that seem to have no meaning — The Trial is my favorite novel — I have a drive toward the thing that isn't defined. I'm Russian, maybe that's why."

Schneider had been with The Birthday Party a long time. "Since 1958. I arrived in England the week it closed and happened to see the Sunday reviews. I thought it sounded interesting, but I couldn't find the play. I was casting understudies, and somebody said, 'Please take a look at this actor friend of mine; he desperately needs the work.' And this guy and his wife came in, and it was Pinter, using his actor's name, I think. Later, when we got know each other, he said, 'I've got this play I wish you'd look at,' and it was The Birthday Party.

"It's gone through three stages since then. I wanted to do it and I brought it home with me, but it was impossible for anyone to read it at that time — Beckett and the rest of them hadn't happened yet. Yale said no to it; the Actors' Studio said no to it; I just put it aside. Then Harold became respectable with The Caretaker, and there were lots of offers to do it off-Broadway, using The Caretaker as an example of why it shouldn't be done on Broadway, since The Caretaker failed financially. But Harold said 'No.' Finally, with The Homecoming. Harold is now commercial. So, after — what is it? — almost ten years, it's being done."

To understand just what was so difficult about The Birthday Party, a summary of the plot might be in order. A piano player is living as the lone boarder with an elderly couple in a house at the English seaside. Two men, a Jew and an Irishman, come to take rooms, and the piano player is upset. The landlady tells the two men that it is the piano player's birthday, and a party is arranged, a neighboring girl being among those invited. Before the party, the two men savagely interrogate the piano player, accuse him of leaving the "organization." At this point violence would probably erupt if the landlady didn't appear dressed for the party. The party begins, and during a game of blindman's bluff, the lights go out. In the darkness there is confusion, and as the Jew and the Irishman advance with flashlights toward the piano players, he retreats, giggling wildly. In the third act, the piano player, now nearly catatonic, is taken away by the strangers to face someone named Monty.

To repeat director Schneider's words: "Somebody is after somebody else and gets 'em." Nothing is particularly difficult about the skeletal plot. It's really a 1930s gangster movie: John Garfield is hiding out, having left the Mafia, and Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet come and drag him back to face Edward G. Robinson.

Except there are a lot of things that Pinter doesn't ever say. For example, it isn't the Mafia — oh, it might be, or it might be the American Dental Association. He never specifies. The reference is only to the "organization." And the big boss, Monty: that's all we ever know about him, his name. We don't really know that he's the big boss; we only know that the piano player is being taken to see Monty. We don't even know if the piano player is a piano player; he tells us about a concert he played, but the circumstances are so strange, and so is he, that it all might be a figment. And, of course, it isn't his birthday. His landlady says it is, but he tells us it isn't.

The New York Times has called Pinterism "maximum tension through minimum information," and it was just this frustrating lack of facts that infuriated the Wednesday matinee ladies at The Birthday Party. Now these were good women, doing their damnedest to keep up. Before the first act curtain, two of them were talking about the problems with their teenage sons.


I put on the Lovin' Spoonful; Simon and Garfunkel I tried.


Good for you.


"Explain it to me," I said to him. "I would like to know."


What did he say?


Nothing. Nothing. I practically begged. "Help me," I said. "I don't understand. Does my needle need changing?"

Clearly, they were trying, these two. At the first act intermission, they walked silently up the aisles. Finally, one of them spoke.


It's about the terrors of everyday life.


I don't get that too much.

The second act of the play contains the birthday party itself, which ends in semidarkness. One of the final moments before the curtain has the piano player on top of the neighbor girl, who is spread-eagled and motionless. The whole theatre was buzzing as the ladies moved to smoke. "It's always like this," an usher said. "This jabbering. Always." In the lobby, half a dozen women were inhaling angrily.


Why? That's all I wanna know - just why?


Why what?


Why does he do this? If I were an artist, I would want to communicate. That's my job. I'm an artist. I'm supposed to communicate. Something. It shouldn't just have form — form's not enough — gotta be content — anything to communicate. What's with this Pinter? Why?

I talked to Pinter about it. He said, "It's a bloody big bore when they can't accept a thing for what happens on stage. On the whole, the what's-it-all-about business is more pronounced over here. It's about what the people do on the stage. Otherwise you could just put a poster up on stage, couldn't you? 'This scene is about...the next scene is about...' I'm not a sociologist; I'm just a writer. And I don't conceptualize very much. Never before and never after.

"The original idea was the domestic situation: someone upstairs sleeping in a house, a boarder. The lodger eventually comes down. The domestic situation by the seaside, that was the start of it. The other characters didn't arrive till later. One day, about 20 pages in, Goldberg and McCann turned up. I didn't know anything about them until they appeared.

"This what's-it-about business - one regrets it. I'm doing a play now; it's my first in three years, and it means a great deal to me. I've done less and less writing for the stage. Writing becomes more difficult the older you get, at least it does for me. I found some 1950 poems of mine recently; I was astonished by the freedom I had, the energy, a complete uncaringness about form. I can't write that way anymore. I'm thirty-seven now. I feel as if I'm eighty."

He sounded very tired as he spoke. He was in America for a few days, and there were at least 50 requests for interviews. Every radio station wanted him, most of the TV, many of the newspapers, the magazines. Everybody wondering what it was all about.


It's got a lot to do with menace, that much I can tell you.


Oh, yes, very much. Menace and terror, yes.

They moved down the aisles, and the third act started. Halfway through, a "buzz-buzz-buzz" of wonder burst across the theatre: Lulu, the neighbor girl who had been motionless and spread-eagled at the second act curtain, made her entrance, and the ladies had to get it straight.


What is this? I thought she was dead.


She was dead.


Don't tell me dead, she's standing there.


She's a symbol.

The street was stuffed with children. December: 60 degrees, 11:15 in the morning, and it's raining. They stand there, waiting. Above them, teachers hold umbrellas as they hem the children in toward the building line, doing their best to keep the sidewalk at least partially clear.

11:20, and the children are quiet, but now they are beginning to hop up and down in place, hop, hop, staring toward the front of the line which begins at the entrance to Loew's Eighty-sixth Street movie theatre on Third Avenue.

Inside the theatre lobby the ushers are getting ready for the onslaught. There are 3,000 kids already seated in the theatre, jamming it, but the special Christmas play is ending, and they have to be cleared before the 3,000 kids outside can come in for the second show.

11:25, and it's as if some giant vacuum cleaner is sucking the first-show audience toward the exit doors. Ffffft, and they're going, going, and in the lobby the ushers are looking at each other, getting ready, making last-minute checks with the teachers standing outside in the rain.

11:30, and in they come! Not slowly, no trickle, just whoosh! and then the flood —

— this way —

— no no no this way —

— follow Irving everybody —

Out of the rain they come, silent, and maybe four feet tall on average, all colors, shapes, you name it, and gloriously wet and —

— up the stairs —

— hit it kids —

now don't move — (This from a tough Italian teacher to part of his group, who froze on the word move, while he went off after some others. An usher came up to them and said, "Go in, children," but they weren't budging, so the usher said, "Please, children, you're blocking things." But they had been given the word, and the word was don't move. So finally, one of them raised an arm and pointed to the Italian, and the usher ran over to him and explained, and the Italian nodded, that's all, just as quick nod, but his boys knew an order when it was given and now, alive again, they filed down into the theatre and sat.)

— quiet now —

— patience, Sandra —

— hold hands and here we go and —

— the balcony? — (This last from a Negro teacher with Negro children in reply to an usher who was pointing up, and suddenly you could see it on the Negro teacher's face as she looked around to see if any white children were being sent upstairs, too. "Really," the usher told her, "you'll see better, and the main floor's full." And now the Negro teacher saw it was the truth, that the main floor was pretty full and that all colors were heading up the stairs, so still just least suspiciously she gestured for her flock to follow, and up she trudged, dragging her tails behind her.)

— quickly now —

— shhhhh —

And most of them were in before the first great thing happened (this is all going to make sense in time). As these lines of children charged across the lobby of Loew's Eighty-sixth to get in for the free Christmas show, in this wild confusion, one little kid accidentally splintered off from her group and didn't know it because everybody was running one way or another, and instead of running with one group she was running with another. Her teacher caught sight of her as she was about to disappear, and although the teacher had enough to do shepherding the rest of her babes, she set off across the lobby like Gale Sayers, and at the far entrance managed to grab hold of the girl.

As she spun the kid around, what do you think she said? "I told you to watch where you're going!" No. "Can't you ever listen, what's the matter with you?" Never. Not even close. What she said to the small startled eyes was this, "We're losing you, darling."

...we're losing you, darling... (Remember, this will all make sense in time.)

Inside, the 3,000 were seated, and a Negro group sang, "I Believe," and after the clapping, out went the lights. Then a spot hit him jogging down the aisle, red suit and beard and ho-ho-ho, and when he got to the mike, he said, "Merry Christmas, ho-ho-ho, and stay in your seats 'cause I've got my helpers checking on you, and no eating lunches during the show." Then Santa said, "Now let's all sing 'Jingle Bells' together," and he took a breath and started to sing.

But he was already behind them!

That was the second great thing. Because the minute he suggested "Jingle Bells," they were off, all 3,000; they didn't wait for his word "together," and they didn't need any deep breath. The man said sing, "Jingle Bells," so they sang. Then he said he'd back after the show, and the curtain began to open, and as it did, there was that sound again, the "buzz-buzz-buzz" of wonder.

on the set of the caretakerAnd I couldn't help thinking of the ladies at Pinter and how angry they were because they didn't understand what it was all about; so they resisted. And they wouldn't have sung "Jingle Bells" either. They probably would have had to know who the bells belonged to, and what did the one-horse open sleigh really represent, symbolically speaking.

Now this is very dangerous. Let's take the worst possibility: let's say that you think the Pinter play is all about apples, and it turns out it's about oranges. If you liked the apples, what possible difference does it make? You want to know about Harold Pinter? He is an English stylist, talented as hell, and right now he is cresting for one, and only one, reason: he is appropriately obscure; he allows intellectuals to theorize.

And The Birthday Party, if you really want to know what it's about, is about this: there is no hiding place. Does that make it a better play? Does that make the two hours any more pleasant while you're sitting there? Pinter is also saying, "There is no God." Or maybe he isn't. But in either case, it's pretty cornball, right? Examine any art work done down to bone and you find cliché. That's one of the things that's so painful about graduate school. You take some pretty poem, some poem that really moves you, and you examine it and pore over its imagery and decipher the philosophy, and what do you come up with? Keats is saying, "Love thy neighbor."

So what? That's for us intellectuals. We can argue about it. What you have to worry about is just this: You like the poem? Say so. You don't? Say it's spinach, and say to hell with it. Looking at it logically, what conceivable message could Harold Pinter possibly have that the rest of us don't know or couldn't figure out?

pinter with joseph losey

We intellectuals will lead you down the garden path every goddamned time. Want to know whom we named in the eighteenth century as the three greatest writers of all time? Catch this: Homer, Sophocles and Richardson. Richardson. You know, that great, great writer none of us could live without, Richardson. Richardson we were selling then; today we're pushing Pinter. But no one really knows what's worthy. Oh, we pretend; we make believe there are certain definable academic standards that must be met in order for an artist to be considered valuable, but that's our bag. Telling the masses who is good and who isn't is just our way of keeping the fire high and the wolves away.

But because we pretend to know, everybody gets upset if they don't completely understand something. There is nothing, nothing, you should like because some intellectual tells you to. Did you like the scene from Bench any more because Kenneth Tynan said you should? Did that make it better for you? Would it bother you to know that I wrote them both, the play and the essay? Well, I did, so think about that for a second.

Did you actually believe the part where "Tynan" said the scene was about how Teddy was going to kill Stan and we were helpless to stop it? And what about that St. Francis of Assisi business? Did you believe that? Look at it again now:  "Frankie, referred to twice - some think mysteriously - is not mysterious at all. He is, of course, St. Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan order, all this clearly indicated by the fact that the Franciscans have split into three orders, just as the human race is split into thirds: men, women and homosexuals such as Teddy."

This is the kind of bilge you have to look out for. This is how the intellectuals of this world, the bad ones, make their living. And Pinter is their boy now because, being so obscure, he gives them one and all the opportunity to write reams for their little learned journals, and there's enough for everybody. Pinter's like a minor-league James Joyce, and as long as there's a PhD candidate alive, James Joyce will never die.

But even if Pinter had written Bench and Tynan had done the essay, and more than that, even if Tynan were right about Francis, that still wouldn't make it good. Pinter may be a major dramatist some day, but forget about some day, think about now, and what goes on up there on stage and whether it moves you.

The intellectual wants you to take the trip from the Christmas show to the Pinter play; he needs you to take it, because he has you then. The artist wants to keep you at Christmas, ready to sing "Jingle Bells." It's a bone-dry journey that the intellectual wants you to set out on, and don't you do it. But you are, and that's what so crippling to Broadway. You're taking that trip, and it's sad. Because, in the words of that sweet teacher, "We're losing you, darling."

Or are you already lost?

William Goldman is a legendary screenwriter and novelist born in 1931. "We're Losing You, Darling" is from his yearlong chronicle of Broadway, The Season, which you can buy here. You can read an interview with Harold Pinter here.

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Reader Comments (1)

I sense the loss of God in these comments. Pinter lives!

January 31, 2011 | Unregistered Commentercugat

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