Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 782
By the time that The Homecoming opened in London in 1965, Pinter’s career as a major playwright had been firmly established. His name was synonymous with contemporary theater, and the public had grown accustomed to his style. In addition, by this time The Caretaker had been filmed, his screenplay of The Servant was in production, and his early plays were being revived at major theaters in England and abroad. The Homecoming would open in New York in 1967.
The play, in two acts, is deceptively realistic. Its themes of emotional blackmail and manipulation, of seduction and jealousy, are delivered in bizarre deadpan. The situation—an estranged son comes home to introduce his wife to his family—is cliché, and the painfully ordinary, middle-class set—with “a sideboard . . . a mirror . . . a radiogram”—appears to be nothing more than standard fare for a family drama. Yet Pinter’s version of this “homecoming” is anything but traditional, and what appears realistic quickly shifts into parody.
The father, Max, is an embittered old man, fawning when he seeks advantage, striking out when cornered, soured by the world. His brother Sam is an ineffectual hanger-on and a latent homosexual. Son Lenny is a vicious pimp; son Joey, a hopeless, fledgling boxer. Indeed, their ineffectiveness fuels their aggression.
Into this acrimonious, all-male household (Max’s wife died years before), Max’s eldest son, Teddy, introduces his wife, Ruth. Teddy is bookish, objective, a “specialist” uneasy outside his field. Ruth is more intuitive, cagey, hungry to restore sexual vitality to her life. Yet like her husband, she too can be coolly detached, calculating—a game player. Teddy, emotionally and intellectually isolated from the others, has lost touch with the basic needs of marriage—even with human relations—and finds himself literally “outside” the family. Ironically, however, Pinter suggests that emotional detachment is, at least, a strategy to maintain some sense of control in one’s life, a sense of order that would otherwise be threatened by passion. Both Ruth and Teddy can remove themselves from their emotions, and this disaffection becomes a source of strength for them as the rest of the family’s emotional fits underscore their weaknesses and reveal their vulnerabilities.
Eventually, after an abrasive reception, the men attempt to seduce Ruth, each man (except Sam) measuring her by his need. The men are motherless, wifeless, consumed by love-hate relationships with women. Lenny claims to have beaten the women who annoy him. Joey simply rapes them. Max is as quick to whine about his wife as he is to berate her. Their obsession is to restore harmony to the family, the male-female balance that is missing in their lives, so that they both fear and crave Ruth’s attention. Like Ruth in the Old Testament legend, who by her strength and resolve restores order to a broken family, Pinter’s Ruth in The Homecoming achieves her power and status by exploiting male desires.
By the end of the play, the pimps, boxers, and braggarts (Lenny, Joey, and Max) have been reduced to groveling at Ruth’s feet. Lenny gets a dance and a kiss; Joey gets two hours of “love play.” Max suggests that they call her “Spanish Jacky” and “put her on the game.” The plan that they devise is preposterous: Ruth will stay in England and work as a prostitute, while ministering to the sexual needs of the family as well. The scheme is possible, but not probable, yet the irony is in how matter-of-factly the men propose the idea—as if it were not unusual in the least—and in how casually Ruth and Teddy accept it. The effect is both comic and disturbing, and in one of the most hauntingly funny scenes in all of Pinter’s plays, Ruth agrees to the plan (strictly on her own terms), and Sam falls unconscious on stage, while the others ignore him and continue their negotiations.
The incongruity between the outrageous plan that the family concocts and Teddy and Ruth’s equally outrageous reaction to it establishes The Homecoming as one of Pinter’s most absurd plays; yet, on another level, the discrepancy between the audience’s expectation and the jarring behavior of the characters provides Pinter with a perfect vehicle through which he comments on the irony inherent in human relationships. In The Homecoming, to be disconnected is an act of supreme virtue; to act without involvement or emotion a laudable goal. That Ruth can be so callous and Teddy so indifferent suggests that their marriage—and their relationship with their families—is nothing but a game of savage logic, where stability is purchased at the expense of humanity and where the intellect triumphs over feeling.