The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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.

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...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

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(Great Characters in Literature)

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.