Articles: Harold Pinter & Studio Theatre Ltd (1958)This unpublished article was written by Alan Ayckbourn Archivist, Simon Murgatroyd, in 2006.
In early 1959, Stephen Joseph's Studio Theatre company began its annual winter tour. Having completed a short winter season at its home at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, the in-the-round company took a mixture of work already seen in Scarborough and new pieces.
Amongst the new work is an extraordinary footnote in the career of one of the most important British playwrights of the 20th century, Harold Pinter. For he played a significant part in the tour as he licked his wounds from the critical mauling his first West End play, The Birthday Party, had received.
It is something not widely discussed that the man and company who launched Alan Ayckbourn's playwriting career was also responsible in no small part for also launching the career of Harold Pinter.
“One of the plays we first presented there [the Theatre Centre at Birmingham] had an interesting background. Written by a young man I had known when he was a student at the Central School, it had been performed at the Lyric Theatre, in Hammersmith, and, though provoking interesting notices, it had been withdrawn after five days. The play baffled me, but it also attracted me strongly and I asked the author to produce it for us. He agreed. And the company embarked on a fascinating production of The Birthday Party, directed by Harold Pinter. The actors enjoyed working with him. He knew precisely how they felt about the play, and precisely how to help them. He seldom tried to explain “obscurities”, but instead showed the actors how to do the action, thus giving even the most baffling parts of the play a conviction and organic logic of their own. It played to very thin houses in Birmingham, aroused some protest in Leicester and was instrumental in getting television companies interested in the author. The opening scene was later presented at a charity midnight performance in Scarborough, where, sandwiched between variety acts it was completely successful.”
Stephen Joseph’s connection with Harold Pinter goes back to 1951. Harold Pinter, aged 20, was a student at the Central School of Speech And Drama. Pinter, at this point largely a poet and jobbing actor, had already been to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts for a year but had hated the experience.
His experience at Central was more positive, but he only stayed for two terms, from January to July. However he met a number of influential figures during that period including Stephen Joseph. The Central had played an important part in Stephen’s life; he had been accepted as the youngest student yet to attend the college entering in 1937, graduating with a First Class certificate. After serving in the Navy during World War II and a short spell in professional theatre - during which he saw his first ever production of theatre-in-the-round - Stephen returned to Central, but as a tutor in 1949.
Stephen taught Pinter and also directed him in scenes from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the end of term. Pinter took on the role of Bottom and was very much inspired by the director. Pinter’s friend and fellow-student Barry Foster shared the experience:
“He [Harold] plunged into that wholeheartedly, but that was very much to do with the inspirational direction of Stephen who was a highly intelligent, gifted man.”
Indeed, in his biography of Pinter, the critic Michael Billington argues that Stephen became “one of those influential father-figures who crop up throughout Pinter’s early life.”
The student also had an effect on the teacher as Pinter recalled Stephen Joseph's warm words of encouragement after one particular essay on Jacobean drama he had written.
“’You write then, do you?’ said Joseph. ‘Yes,’ said Pinter. ‘Well, hope you go with that,’ said Joseph in a tone of warm encouragement that Pinter still remembers.”
Something had obviously struck a chord with Stephen as he contacted Pinter in 1958 with an offer. In April of that year, the world premiere of Pinter’s second play The Birthday Party had been given. It was produced by Michael Codron - who would become a major producer of Alan Ayckbourn amongst many other writers - and initially opened at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge, on 28 April. It went on to Wolverhampton and Oxford for a week each - generating largely positive reviews - before transferring to the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith. The play was directed by Peter Wood, who was often at loggerheads with Pinter over the play, and opened on 19 May, 1958. It closed five days later following some appalling critical notices from the London critics, such as W.A. Darlington of the Daily Telegraph:
“Disappointment was my lot at the Lyric, Hammersmith, last night.
As it chanced that The Birthday Party, by Harold Pinter, was sandwiched between two sets of two visits to Sadler’s Wells to see the Russians, I had looked forward to hearing some dialogue I could understand. But it turned out to be one of those plays in which an author wallows in symbols and revels in obscurity. Give me Russian every time.
The author never got down to earth long enough to explain what his play was about, so I can’t tell you. But I can give you some sort of sketch of what happens, and to whom.
To begin with there is Meg (Beatrix Lehmann) who lets lodgings in a seaside town. She is mad. Thwarted maternity is (I think) her trouble and it makes her go soppy over her unsavoury lodger, Stanley (Richard Pearson).
He is mad too. He strangles people one person too many, because a couple of very sinister (and quite mad) characters arrive (John Slater and John Stratton), bent on - I suppose - vengeance. There is also a mad girl (Wendy Hutchinson), nymphomania being her fancy.
The one sane character is Meg’s husband (Willoughby Gray) but sanity does him no good. He is a deeply depressed little man, a deck-chair attendant by profession.
Oh well, I can give him one word of cheer. He might have been a dramatic critic, condemned to sit through plays like this.”
Ironically, the critic who perhaps had the most influence at the time was probably Harold Hobson, who was not able to see the play until the Thursday. His review was both positive and perceptive, but came too late to save the production.
“One of the actors in Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party at the Lyric, Hammersmith, announces in the programme that he read History at Oxford, and took his degree with Fourth Class Honours.
Now I am well aware that Mr Pinter’s play received extremely bad notices last Tuesday morning. At the moment I write these it is uncertain even whether the play will still be in the bill by the time they appear, though it is probable it will soon be seen elsewhere. Deliberately, I am willing to risk whatever reputation I have as a judge of plays by saying that The Birthday Party is not a Fourth, not even a Second, but a First; and that Pinter, on the evidence of his work, possesses the most original, disturbing and arresting talent in theatrical London.
I am anxious, for the simple reason that the discovery and encouragement of new dramatists of quality is the present, most important task of the British theatre, to put this matter clearly and emphatically. The influence of unfavourable notices on the box office is enormous: but in lasting effect it is nothing. ‘Look Back in Anger’ and the work of Beckett both received poor notices the morning after production. But that has not prevented these two very different writers, Mr Beckett and Mr Osborne, form being regarded throughout the world as the most important dramatists who now use the English tongue. The early Shaw got bad notices; Ibsen got scandalously bad notices. Mr Pinter is not merely in good company, he is in the very best company.
There is only one quality that is essential to a play. It is the Hamlet and in Simple Spymen. A play must entertain; it must hold attention; it must give pleasure. Unless it does that, it is useless for stage purposes. No amount of intellect, of high moral intent, or of beautiful writing is of the slightest available a play is not in itself theatrically interesting.
Theatrically speaking, The Birthday Party is absorbing. It is witty. Its characters - the big oafish lodger in the slatternly sea side boarding house whose lethargy is subject to such strange burst of alarm, the plain, middle-aged woman who becomes girlishly gay, the two visitors, one so spruce and voluble, the other so mysteriously frightened - are fascinating. The plot, which consists, with all kinds of verbal arabesques and echoing explorations of memory and fancy, of the springing of a trap, is first rate. The whole play has the same atmosphere of delicious, impalpable and hair-raising terror which makes The Turn of the Screw one of the best stories in the world.
Mr Pinter has got hold of a primary fact of existence. We live on the verge of disaster. One sunny afternoon, whilst Peter May is making a century at Lord’s against Middlesex, and the shadows are creeping along the grass, and the old men are dozing in the Long Room, a hydrogen bomb may explode. That is one sort of threat. But Mr Pinter’s is of a subtler sort. It breathes in the air. It cannot be seen, but it enters the room every time the door is opened. There is something in your past - it does not matter what - which will catch up with you. Though you go to the utter most parts of the earth and hide yourself in the most obscure lodgings in the least popular of towns one day there is a possibility that two men will appear. They will be looking for you, and you cannot get away. And someone will be looking for them too. There is terror everywhere. Meanwhile, it is best to make jokes (Mr Pinter’s jokes are very good) and to play blind man’s bluff, and to bang on a toy drum, anything to forget the slow approach of doom. The Birthday Party is a Grand Guignol of the susceptibilities.
The fact that no one can say precisely what it is about, or give the address from which the intruding Goldberg and McCann come, or say precisely why it is that Stanley is so frightened of them is, of course, one of its greatest merits. It is exactly in this vagueness that its spine-chilling quality lies. If we knew just what Miles had done The Turn of the Screw would fade away. As it is, Mr Pinter has learned the lesson of the Master. Henry James would recognise him as an equal.
Peter Wood has directed the play with an absolute response to its most delicate nuances. It has six layers; every one of them is superb. Beatrix Lehmann is strangely funny and macabrely touching as the landlady. John Slater builds impeccably the façade of eloquence that hides Goldberg’s secret quaking. John Stratton finely points McCannís nameless fears (his paper-tearing, with its horrible pause at the end, is unforgettable). Richard Pearson’s Stanley, excellent throughout, is very moving in its hurt wonder when he is given the child’s drum as a birthday present. Wendy Hutchinson’s Lulu is an acceptable saucy young chit: this is a rarer achievement than one might think; and Willoughby Gray’s husband is solid and believable. Mr Pinter and The Birthday Party, despite their experiences last week, will be heard of again. Make a note of their names.”
The reviews were not devastating to the young writer, who as an actor had had his own share of unfavourable reviews, but cannot have been the most positive influence on a playwright looking to make a mark on the theatrical world. As a result of the reviews, people did begin to notice the play and the critic Irving Wardle championed it in a copy of the September 1958 edition of the magazine Encore, grouping Pinter alongside several writers - including David Campton who was already established with Studio Theatre Ltd. - as some of the country’s most promising writers.
Stephen Joseph saw this article and contacted Pinter, inviting him to produce the play on his terms with the Studio Theatre Company: the proviso being there was not much in the way of financial resources and the playwright would have to work with the company’s set of existing actors. Pinter was promised a three-week rehearsal period before the play would be performed as part of the company’s winter touring season at the Theatre Centre, Birmingham, and at Vaughan College, Leicester. Pinter has said he was grateful for the opportunity Stephen presented him and made the most of it.
The playwright apparently met the company for the first time in a pub in Brewer Street, Soho. The company for the winter season at Scarborough and the subsequent tour was a new one with few of the company from the summer season carried over to the forthcoming season. The actors were less than impressed with what was presented to them, as noted by a young member of the acting company, who was also a stage manager and about to take his own first steps into the writing world: Alan Ayckbourn.
“It was absolute gobbldegook to me.”
Pinter cast his play with Ayckbourn as Stanley, another up-and-coming writer David Campton as Petey, David Sutton as Goldberg, Dona Martyn as Meg, Faynia Jeffery as Lulu and Rodney Wood as McCann. The play was rehearsed in Scarborough for three weeks, presumably during the three-week winter season at the Library Theatre and although dubious at first, Pinter had a profound effect on the young Ayckbourn.
“When he [Pinter] arrived in Scarborough he was in a very defensive, not to say depressed state. We had probably three weeks to rehearse. I remember asking Pinter about my character. Where does he come from? Where is he going to? What can you tell me about him that will give me more understanding? And Harold just said, ‘Mind your own fucking business. Concentrate on what’s there.’”
As Michael Billington clarifies in his biography of Pinter, this was not rudeness on Pinter’s part and that Ayckbourn got on well with the young playwright. This was merely a reflection of Pinter’s intense belief that all the actor needed to know was in the text. Alan Ayckbourn has said many times since how much influence Pinter had on him and this is perhaps one of the things that carried weight with the actor. Ayckbourn is notorious for not providing back-story or motivation for his characters outside of the text. Like Pinter, he believes in the text - what he has created - and that all the relevant answers are to be found in the text. Perhaps the response is not as brusque, but compare Pinter’s reaction to Ayckbourn’s question about The Birthday Party to the actress’s Janie Dee’s enquiry during rehearsals regarding what his play Comic Potential was about.
“It’s about a lot of things really.”
Ayckbourn, like Pinter, does not discuss the characters. He guides and offers suggestions through anecdotes and stories, but like Pinter, he believes the answers lie in the text. Dig deep enough into the text and all the motivations and necessary answers about the character are waiting to be found.
The rehearsals for The Birthday Party took place in Scarborough and went well; from an initial mistrust of the writer, there developed a respect for what Pinter was attempting to achieve through the play, as Ayckbourn has noted.
“One got, first of all, extremely suspicious of him, because we thought he was a complete charlatan, and then as we begahn to proceed there was a passion behind his eyes… in his eyes anyway his play had been completely misdirected before and the fact that it had got a severe roasting merely justified his self-belief, which seemed quite strong. So we were swept along by him. When we opened in Birmingham he proved gobsmackingly right. I think by that time we were convinced, although we didn’t know what the audience would make of it.”
"We all thought it was completely mad, new and weird, but his passion and certainty drove us through, and when it opened it was electrifying.”
“The play made no sense and we didn't understand it until we went on stage and we just electrified the audience. We just came off stage and stared at him!”
“However, for those of us fortunate enough to work in collaboration with Pinter, it was very apparent that here was a new and very arresting talent.”
The play was presented as part of the Studio Theatre’s Company winter tour which was establishing itself on a circuit that generally involved visiting towns which had no civic theatre provision. Stephen’s ulterior motive was in persuading a town council that his theatre-in-the-round project was an elegant and cheap solution to providing theatre provision in these towns. The play was performed at Birmingham and Leicester and did not do terribly well for audiences as Stephen Joseph noted: “It played to very thin houses in Birmingham, aroused some protest in Leicester.” The reviews were promising though and certainly more palatable than the ones which had met the London production.
There is a strong argument that this production of The Birthday Party restored much of Pinter’s faith in the play, that it generated positive attention for the playwright - particularly with regard to television companies showing interest in the writer’s work - and that Stephen Joseph believed there was the makings of a fine writer and director in Pinter as he noted in 1960:
“The winter tour included productions of… The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter (which was particularly well produced by the author).”
To all intents and purposes that ended Pinter’s association with Studio Theatre Ltd, although he came to visit Scarborough when Ayckbourn directed The Caretaker at the Library Theatre in 1962. However it was not quite the end of The Birthday Party’s association with Studio Theatre Company. The Birthday Party was unusual in being a Studio Theatre production that did not receive a performance in Scarborough, yet as Stephen Joseph noted in his book Theatre In The Round, Scarborough audiences did get an early taste of Harold Pinter’s first defining work.
“The opening scene was later presented at a charity midnight performance in Scarborough, where, sandwiched between variety acts it was completely successful.”
The scene was actually performed at Scarborough’s Futurist Theatre at midnight on Wednesday 2 September, 1959, in a charity performance in aid of World Refugee Year. Alan Ayckbourn, David Campton and Dona Martyn represented the Library Theatre with the opening scene from Pinter’s play. It was performed alongside variety acts from Scarborough’s other theatres: the Arcadia, the Open-Air Theatre, the Opera House, the Floral Hall, the Futurist and the Spa Theatre. In perhaps a scene that might have appeared in an Ayckbourn play, it was performed between acts by the likes of Frankie Howerd, Molly Sugden, Bill Maynard and Martin Granger’s Puppets.
While Pinter did not direct work again with Studio Theatre Ltd, the playwright and his play did have a long-lasting effect. They both deeply impressed a fledgling talent that Stephen Joseph was about to nurture and launch on a career that would prove to be just as successful and long-lived as Pinter’s own. Alan Ayckbourn had been impressed by Pinter’s writing and it is something that has stayed with the author over the years.
“I understood him a lot more after that [The Birthday Party] and what I liked about him was his use of language, almost poetry, highly stylised- mine isn't nor is mine naturalistic. Actors know when they've got a line wrong with me because the rhythm is wrong. The text conveys more of a feeling than a meaning. The meaning underlies it, little things that one subconsciously recognises because of the way it's written.”
“I've been very influenced by Pinter, his patterns of repeated words, missing words. Often there's a sort of blandness on the page which conceals a tension when it's acted."
“The sentences of my characters tail off - something I learnt from Pinter. Let the dots do the talking.”
Stephen Joseph’s true protégé, eventual heir apparent and torch-bearer is Alan Ayckbourn. Much as Ayckbourn has always admired and appreciated Harold Pinter’s work, Pinter reciprocated over the years and was an early convert to Ayckbourn’s plays, noting ahead of his time that he believed Ayckbourn was going to achieve much in his writing career.
In 1963, Pinter attended a series of playwright platforms, organized by Peter Cheeseman. During the event, he told the audience there was a playwright who was going to be heard more of in the future: “his name is Alan Ayckbourn,” announced Pinter much to Ayckbourn’s embarrassment.
There was a mutual respect and who can say how much influence that second production of The Birthday Party has on both Pinter and Ayckbourn; on one hand revitalising the confidence of a playwright whose confidence had been knocked and on the other, a young actor about to embark on his first play and exposed to one of the defining plays of the period directed by Pinter himself.
Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce this article without the permission of the copyright holder.