The changing response of many reviewers, spectators, and readers to Harold Pinter’s plays recalls the familiar phrase ‘Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny’ — that is, the development of the individual repeats the principal stages of the development of the group. Early in his career, audiences were mystified. When The Birthday Party opened in London, the unsigned reviewer of The Manchester Guardian, in a typical notice, dismissed Pinter as a writer of ‘half-gibberish’, whose characters ‘are unable to explain their actions, thoughts, or feelings’; Milton Shulman of the Evening Standard, also typically, complained that witnessing this play resembled an attempt ‘to solve a crossword puzzle where every vertical clue is designed to put you off the horizontal’, and he predicted, ‘It will be best enjoyed by those who believe that obscurity is its own reward.’1 When The Birthday Party opened in the United States, a friend who attended the theatre with me raised similar objections and was annoyed that she, who had studied drama, could make no sense of the play; she was upset with her husband, who lacking the dubious benefits of a university education decided, when he could not understand actions and speeches, that he would simply relax and enjoy the production; and she was irritated by me because, while I could not explain the play either to her or to myself, it created so riveting a world of its own, with a distinctive theatrical idiom, that I resolved to return to the theatre at the earliest opportunity — which I did, twice. Since this play twenty-eight years ago, the lady has seen other plays by Pinter, finds no reason for incomprehension, and laughs at her initial response to The Birthday Party. Now, critical consensus on both sides of the Atlantic ranks Pinter among the best dramatists of our time. Between 1958 in London, or 1960 in San Francisco, and today, reviewers, spectators, and readers who have ‘grown up with Pinter’, as it were, have become accustomed to his dramatic strategems. While some remain baffled by each new play, the difference between now and twenty years ago seems to be that mystification no longer matters. Other dramatic and theatrical factors occupy and absorb their attention. However, the experience of such middle-aged theatregoers and playreaders offers little comfort to those who come upon Pinter for the first time. Often they experience the same responses that people did in 1958 and 1960. Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.
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