The Play

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1016

Family Voices is a radio play which interweaves the voice of a young man with that of a woman who seems to be his mother. The young man makes fourteen speeches; the mother, twelve. Near the end of the play, a third voice, that of a man who seems to be the young man’s father, enters and makes two speeches.

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The young man’s opening monologue appears to be a letter written to his mother. (It ends: “And so I shall end this letter to you, my dear mother, with my love.”) The audience learns that he is enjoying being alone in an “enormous city”; indeed, twice he states, “I am having a very nice time.” He reports that his room is “extremely pleasant” and attributes this pleasant atmosphere to his seventy-year-old landlady, Mrs. Withers, “an utterly charming person, of impeccable credentials,” with whom he regularly drinks.

In the mother’s opening monologue, the playgoers realize that she has not received the young man’s letter—nor any communication from him. “Where are you?” she inquires. “Why do you never write? . . . Have you changed your address?” After inquiring if the young man has met any nice boys or girls and cautioning him against mixing with “the other sort,” the mother imagines living “happily ever after” with the young man and his future “young wife.” She indicates that she wrote him three months before, telling of his father’s death, and asks if he received this letter.

The young man’s tone has changed in his second monologue. “I’m not at all sure that I like the people in this house, apart from Mrs. Withers and her daughter, Jane,” he begins. The young man is wary of an old, bald man who retires early, a woman in a red dress, and a big man with black hair on the backs of his hands. He reports hearing whispers from the other rooms and steps on the stairs, but he dares not investigate these sounds.

In his next four speeches (monologues 3-6), the young man reports his discoveries regarding the three people he has feared. The old, bald man who retires early is Benjamin Withers, probably Mrs. Withers’s husband. The woman in the red dress is Lady Withers. She asks to be called Lally and invites the young man to take tea in an immense room with dark blue walls. During tea, fifteen-year-old Jane Withers sits with her feet in the young man’s lap. As buns begin to be consumed rapidly by Lady Withers and languidly by Jane, the young man finds that his bun is “rock solid.” When he bites into it, it jumps out of his mouth, and into his lap, where it is caught and expertly juggled by Jane’s feet.

He next describes two actions of the big man with the black hair, whose name is Riley. He reports that while he is lying in his bath, Riley enters and says that he has chastised and dismissed two women who knocked at the front door seeking the young man. The young man’s response is to wonder why his father did not bother to make the trip with his mother and sister. Riley then comments approvingly on the young man’s “well-knit yet slender frame.” This encounter is followed by a poignant monologue from the mother, in which she indicates that she knew she would ultimately be left alone, even in her closest moments with her son, when he was a baby.

The young man’s seventh monologue, coming halfway through the play, echoes the happiness of the first. He finds the three Withers women seated in a room, smiling at him. He takes a seat and states: “I will never leave it. Oh mother, I have found my home, my family. Little did I ever dream I could know such happiness.” In the speech that follows, the mother proposes forgetting all about the son. She thinks of cursing him and spitting on his letters should they ever come.

Again echoing the pattern of the opening, the young man follows his speech of happiness with a monologue expressing fear and anxiety and asks for his mother’s advice. He recounts the fantastic words of old Mr. Withers, who calls him into his room and warns him that he is in a “disease ridden land.” When the young man looks into the old man’s eyes, he says, “It was like looking into a pit of molten lava.”

The third voice, presumably that of the young man’s father, finally enters, stating that he is not dead, as the mother had written. Then he admits that that is a lie, that he is “as dead as a doornail” and is writing from the grave. After first haranguing the son for wishing him dead, he calls the young man a loving son and tells him to “keep up the good work.”

The young man then speaks, reporting that he has been renamed Bobo and is called that by everyone in the house except the old man, who “will die soon.” The mother then states that the police are looking for the young man, that she believes he is in the hands of underworld figures who are using him as a male prostitute. She insists that he will be found and will be shown no mercy. This threat is followed by the young man’s voice saying that he is coming back, coming to hold his mother in his arms and to clasp his father’s shoulder.

In her final speech, the mother says: “I’ve given you up as a very bad job. Tell me one last thing. Do you think the word love means anything?” In his final speech, the young man says: “I am on my way back to you. . . . What will you say to me?” It is the father, however, who has the last words in the play: “I have so much to say to you. But I am quite dead. What I have to say will never be said.”

Dramatic Devices

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Harold Pinter is a master of all four dramatic media: plays for the stage, screen, television, and radio. In one interview, he spoke of the purity he finds in writing for the radio: “It reduces drama to its elemental parts and enforces the sort of restraint, simplicity and economy I strive for anyway.” Family Voices draws on radio’s ability to present sound unencumbered by visual distraction. If these family voices exist only in the young man’s mind, they come to exist in the listener’s mind as well. Inescapably they resonate with, or evoke, each listener’s own “family voices”; thus the radio form itself enhances the voices’ movement toward the archetypal.

Pinter’s characteristic refusal to offer verifiable facts or to issue simple truths further enhances this movement. In Family Voices, the characters are not even called son, mother, and father—although they seem to have this relationship. Instead, Pinter calls them the more indefinite “a young man,” “a woman,” “a man.” The effect of this imprecision, as in all Pinter’s plays, is twofold: It simultaneously increases anxiety and dramatic tension (for even the most fundamental relationships are not known) and allows space for listeners to fill in the gaps with their own truths or interpretations. (The original “platform performance” of Family Voices achieved this imprecision by placing the three actors in cane chairs before a bleak no-background and lighting them so minimally that they appeared to be near-silhouettes on a screen.)

Besides being a medium particularly suited to direct soundings of the subconscious, the radio play, as Martin Esslin has noted, is the form of drama that comes closest to music and thus serves as a showcase for Pinter’s poetic gifts, his acute awareness of the rhythms of words, sounds, and silences. Family Voices represents a particularly rich mix of the feints, lies, circumlocutions, bombast, banality, and beauty which Pinter weaves into a verbal fabric at once comic and menacing, poignant and unforgettable.

The language of Family Voices can be steeped in sexual nuance, as when the young man speaks of his wish to tutor Jane: “When she turns her eyes upon you you see within her eyes, raw, untutored, unexercised but willing, a deep love of learning.” Stilted or clichéd rhetoric often betrays the young man’s precarious emotional state, as in his unconvincing “Little did I ever dream I could know such happiness.” The language can shift, however, to hint at depths of feeling, as in Riley’s progressively qualifying “I could crush a slip of a lad such as you to death, I mean the death that is love, the death I understand love to be.” Perhaps more than any other contemporary playwright, Pinter makes his audience aware of the many variations and rhetorical purposes (often hidden and hostile) of human speech.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 212

Sources for Further Study

Burkman, Katherine H. “Family Voices and the Voice of the Family in Pinter’s Plays.” In Harold Pinter: Critical Approaches, edited by Steven H. Gale. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1986.

Diamond, Elin. Pinter’s Comic Play. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1985.

Dobrez, L. A. C., ed. The Existential and Its Exits: Literary and Philosophical Perspectives on the Works of Beckett, Ionesco, Genet, and Pinter. London: Athlone, 1986.

Esslin, Martin. “Harold Pinter’s Work for Radio.” In Harold Pinter: Critical Approaches, edited by Steven H. Gale. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1986.

Gordon, Lois. Harold Pinter: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1990.

Jenkins, Alan. “No Man’s Homecoming.” Times Literary Supplement, March 27, 1981, p. 336.

Merritt, Susan Hollis. Pinter in Play: Critical Strategies and the Plays of Harold Pinter. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1990.

Morrison, Kristin. “I’ll Probably Call It a Day After This Canter.” In Canters and Chronicles: The Use of Narrative in the Plays of Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.

Nightingale, Benedict. “Pinter’s New Play Evokes The Homecoming.” New York Times, March 1, 1981, p. D8.

Peacock, D. Keith. Harold Pinter and the New British Theatre. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997.

Zeifman, Hersh. “Ghost Trio: Pinter’s Family Voices.” Modern Drama 27 (December, 1984): 486-493.

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