THEATRE / What's it all about?: Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party opened in London one day in 1958 and closed six days later, conferring cult status on a work now recognised as a classic of modern theatre. David Benedict sets the scene . . .

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Pinter is back in fashion. The Almeida has premiered both Party Time (1991) and Moonlight (1993) and even the increasingly wary West End has hosted several revivals of his early plays. Video companies are re-releasing his films - notably Joseph Losey's The Servant and Accident - and now the National Theatre is about to revive his first full-length play The Birthday Party.

Granting performance permission in 1958, the Lord Chamberlain described it as 'an insane, pointless play. Mr Pinter has jumbled all the tricks of Beckett and Ionesco with a dash from all the recently produced plays at the Royal Court Theatre, plus a fashionable flavouring of blasphemy. The result is still silly. The Emperor is wearing no clothes.' Reviews for its first production were no better, with one exception. In the Sunday Times, Harold Hobson wrote: 'I am willing to risk whatever reputation I have as a judge of plays by saying that Mr Pinter, on the evidence of this work, possesses the most original, disturbing and arresting talent in theatrical London.' The notice was far-sighted, but too late. The show had already closed. Precisely six people had attended the midweek matinee and the total takings for the run were pounds 206 8s 11d.

Rediffusion chanced their arm in 1961 and filmed it for television and by 1964, Pinter's reputation was such that a revival was mounted by the Royal Shakespeare Company. In 1966, in an interview for the Paris Review, Pinter broke silence: 'It was sparked off from a very distinct situation in digs when I was on tour. In fact, the other day a friend of mine gave me a letter I wrote him in 1950-something, Christ knows when it was. This is what it says: 'I have filthy, insane digs, a great bulging scrap of a woman with breasts rolling at her belly, an obscene household, cats, dogs, filth, tea-mess.' Now, the thing about this is, that was The Birthday Party - I was in those digs, and this woman was Meg in the play, and there was this fellow staying there in Eastbourne, on the coast.'

Those memories of boarding-house life stayed with him and three years later, while on tour in Doctor in the House, he wrote the play. In 1969, the Listener teased yet more background from him. 'I found digs in which a man had to share a room with a man in a kind of attic. . . At the end of the week I said to this fellow, who turned out to have been a concert pianist on the pier, 'Why do you stay here?' and he said, 'There's nowhere else to go.' I left with that ringing in my ears. But the play has no relation to that original thing, that situation in Eastbourne, other than that there were two people who got me on to the first page.'

(Photograph omitted)