Harold Pinter was working as an actor in England when he stayed briefly at a dilapidated boardinghouse that would serve as his inspiration for both The Birthday Party and The Room. As he has explained in many published works, he wrote more from intuition than from intellect, exploring his characters without pre-decided narratives in mind, and this one encounter was inspirational not because of people he met there, but because of a certain visceral feeling it gave him.
Pinter wrote The Birthday Party in 1957, after his one act play The Room attracted the attention of Michael Codron, a producer who saw much promise in the quirky playwright. The Birthday Party is Pinter’s first full length play, and the first of three plays considered his “comedy of menace” pieces. The other two are The Caretaker and The Homecoming.
"Comedy of menace," a term coined by critic Irving Wardle, describes a play which paints a realistic picture while creating a subtext of intrigue and confusion, as if the playwright were employing a sleight-of-hand trick. Pinter once said, “What I write has no obligation to anything other than to itself,” which both belies the designation Wardle gave his plays, and acknowledges the originality that inspired such a designation in the first place. Inspired by other unconventional playwrights such as Samuel Beckett, Pinter transcended traditional theater by staging a familiar setting (the English home) and then throwing it into a state of confusion with lies, deceit, and chaos. These juxtapositions would be further explored by Martin Esslin in his seminal study Theatre of the Absurd.
The Birthday Party premiered in Cambridge's Arts Theater on April 28, 1958, with Willoughby Gray as Petey and Richard Pearson as Stanley. Pinter directed the initial productions himself, but Peter Wood took his place as director once the play hit the pre-London stage. Though the play was received well in Cambridge, it was a resounding failure during its run at the Lyric Opera House in Hammersmith. The avant-garde writing and the confusing subtext sat poorly with critics and audiences alike.
Despite its initial commercial failure, The Birthday Party has since proven to be one Pinter’s most reproduced plays. It was revived by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Aldwych Theater in London in 1964, to critical success. Pinter directed this rendition of the show and later wrote, directed, and appeared in subsequent productions, including the 1968 film version which starred Robert Shaw as Stanley. The Lyric Opera House celebrated the play’s 50th anniversary in May 2008, just months before Pinter’s death.