The Birthday Party

The Birthday Party
by Harold Pinter

Westminster College | October 21 – 24, 2021

A little birthday party at a rundown, seaside boarding house takes a dark turn with the arrival of two menacing strangers.

STANLEY | Tyler King
MCCANN | Jacob Harrison
GOLDBERG | Sean Sweeney 
MEG | Willow Rosenberg
PETEY | Truman Madsen
LULU | Sophia Van Nederveen

DIRECTOR | Mark Fossen
SCENIC DESIGN | Spencer Brown
LIGHTING DESIGN | Hanna Bartniki
SOUND DESIGN | Charles Bird
PROPS | Parker Thompson

“The inhabitants, finally freed, would never forget the difficult period that made them face the absurdness of their existence and the precariousness of the human condition.”

—Albert Camus

In the early days of the pandemic one novel became a worldwide bestseller, its publisher having difficulty keeping up with the demand. It was sold out on Amazon and saw sales triple in a matter of weeks. While many of us were fixating on Tiger King, a seventy-three-year-old novel by a French philosopher was seeing a resurgence driven by current events. Albert Camus’ 1947 novel The Plague describes a city trying to survive a deadly pandemic, and the choices made by its citizens. How does one confront a world of uncertainty and meaninglessness? While some believe suicide will be their only escape, others look to make a profit, and still others turn to a faith that does not stop the deaths of the helpless. The true heroes of Camus’ novel are the doctors who face their fate head-on: knowing they will die from the plague themselves, they fight to save as many others as they can. The only meaning in their life is the meaning they provide.

This is the Absurd.

In the aftermath of World War II, in the wake of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Auschwitz, Camus was one of the leaders in a new wave of philosophical thought which tried to confront a world that was no longer comforted by many of its old ways of finding life’s purpose. The world was suddenly emptier and more meaningless than it was a decade before.

A world that can be explained even with bad reasons is a familiar world. But, on the other hand, in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of Absurdity.

Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus

In Camus’ seminal The Myth of Sisyphus, he finds hope in the myth of the man doomed to roll a boulder uphill only to see it roll back down again. The work itself has no meaning, so Sisyphus must embrace that very lack of meaning and find joy and purpose within himself. As one of the doctors in The Plague says: “I have no idea what’s awaiting me, or what will happen when this all ends. For the moment I know this: there are sick people and they need curing.” Instead of being cowed by the absurdity of life, one embraces it and creates a meaningful life,

Camus’ thoughts directly or indirectly influenced a generation of thinkers and writers, including playwrights such as Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet, and the author of The Birthday Party Harold Pinter. In 1961, critic Martin Esslin identified a common aesthetic in these playwrights and others who created work that did not talk about the Absurd, but demonstrated it:

The Theatre of the Absurd strives to express its sense of the senselessness of the human condition and the inadequacy of the rational approach by the open abandonment of rational devices and discursive thought. While Sartre or Camus express the new content in the old convention, the Theatre of the Absurd goes a step further in trying to achieve a unity between its basic assumptions and the form in which these are expressed. […] The Theatre of the Absurd has renounced arguing about the absurdity of the human condition; it merely presents it in being — that is, in terms of concrete stage images.

Martin Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd

Though none of these writers consciously were writing as part of a movement, Esslin’s taxonomy stuck: these writers and their works would forever be part of “The Theatre of the Absurd.”

Modern scholarship is taking another look at these playwrights and coming to some different conclusions. The playwrights that Esslin includes in The Theatre of the Absurd are universally white men. Scholar Celeste Derksen points out that “Absurdist drama presents a vision of people caught in arbitrary patterns of behaviour which affect but do not appear to have meaning. Such patterns of domination or submission seem random.” She notes that while the culturally centered white male may find this philosophy revolutionary, it has always been the lived experience of most.

  • You have traveled from another place to this one. You are taken in by people whose ways are strange. You have difficulty finding work in the field you specialize in. Two men in suits show up speaking nonsense. You don’t understand exactly where they come from or why they have arrived. They intimidate and threaten and coerce. They seem all powerful and to know things you do not.
  • While you attempt to navigate the complexity of life, the rules suddenly change. You do not know why they changed, and you have no say in the new rules. In fact, those rule makers may as well not even exist for all the influence you have. Suddenly you find your life and rights circumscribed, your options lessened, and your basic humanity called into doubt. Even your own body is not yours anymore.

While these may seem like philosophical absurdities to the centered white male, they are neither philosophical nor absurd to undocumented immigrants or Texans with uteruses.

To bracket works like The Birthday Party in a category of “absurdism” is perhaps a disservice to Camus’ goal: We have made the determination that dramaturgy which promises explanation and cohesiveness and clear answers is standard, and any suggestion that life is without meaning and order is a small subcategory, labeled and put in place.

As we approach the beginning of the end of our own “difficult period that made them face the absurdness of their existence”, is The Theatre of the Absurd still absurd? Not everything in The Birthday Party will make sense on a first viewing (or a hundredth), but in holding a mirror up to a world which is unpredictable and capricious itself, could it be any other way?

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