The Play

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The Homecoming begins in the evening of an apparently normal working day. Max and Lenny are sitting in the large, slumlike living room in North London, which is the realistic setting for the entire action of the play; they are arguing. Sam returns from work, and Max verbally attacks him. Then Joey returns from his boxing gym, and Max also verbally abuses him. Later that night, after all three have gone to bed, Teddy and Ruth arrive from the United States, unannounced, and while Ruth goes out for a breath of air, Lenny enters and converses nonchalantly with Teddy. Teddy retires to his old bedroom upstairs, and Ruth returns, to be greeted by Lenny, who engages in provocative banter and storytelling. This leads to an incident with a glass of water that Ruth offers to Lenny with clear sexual implications. When Lenny recoils, she laughs, drinks the water, and retires upstairs to bed. Max, awakened by the conversations, comes down and abuses Lenny. The next morning, when Teddy and Ruth come downstairs, Max reacts violently, particularly against Ruth, and orders Joey to throw both of them out. Joey is unwilling, and Max hits him. Max then changes his mind; the act ends with Max about to embrace Teddy.

Act 2 begins sometime later, with all the characters around the lunch table, their meal completed. Max reminisces about his dead wife Jessie and his children’s childhood years but soon reviles them; Sam leaves to do a taxi pickup, and Teddy talks in positive terms about his academic life in America as a professor and doctor of philosophy; Ruth, though, comments negatively on the life she leads in the United States. Teddy tries to persuade Ruth to return with him to America and their three children. Teddy goes upstairs to pack; Lenny puts on a slow jazz record and dances with Ruth. Teddy comes downstairs with the suitcases, and Joey and Max enter. Ruth allows Joey to lie on her but pushes him away and asks for whiskey, which Lenny brings to her. Teddy, prompted by Ruth, refuses to discuss his work as a philosopher.

The scene blacks out, and it is now evening. Max is talking to Teddy. Lenny enters, looking for a cheese roll he had prepared, but Teddy says that he has eaten it “deliberately.” Lenny lectures him about his (Teddy’s) role as a member of the family. Joey comes downstairs; he has been alone with Ruth in a bedroom but has not been “the whole hog”—one of a series of animal images used in the play. Lenny prompts Joey to tell Teddy a story about how they forced two women to have sex on a bomb site. Max and Sam return, and, with Teddy apparently passive, Max decides that Ruth shall stay with them in London. Lenny proposes to take her up to Greek Street to earn money to support herself, clearly suggesting that she become a prostitute, and they fantasize about the future income she will generate. Teddy warns them that she will “get old . . . very quickly.” Ruth enters, and Teddy tells her that “the family have invited you to stay . . . as a kind of guest.” Ruth discusses the offer, including the details of her proposed apartment, in practical business terms and appears to accept the proposal. Sam suddenly collapses while blurting out that the mysterious MacGregor “had” Jessie, Max’s former wife, “in the back of my cab.” Teddy leaves for the airport, and the play closes with Ruth sitting in the set’s only chair, Joey’s head in her lap. Max...

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crawls around Sam (who has apparently suffered a heart attack and lies unconscious on the floor), begging her: “Kiss me.” She makes no reply and while Lenny stands watching, the curtain falls.

Dramatic Devices

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The characters in The Homecoming are similar to those in Pinter’s earlier plays—men (and, for the first time in a Pinter play, a powerful woman) of a common sort who live out their stage lives within the confines of a single room. The author creates an air of menace through threats conveyed both with language and silence, and acts of violence which suddenly erupt. The language Pinter uses for his characters seems to be that of everyday, colloquial speech typical of a London lower-middle-class family, but it is a crafted rhetoric which carefully, elaborately avoids the use of four-letter words. Regarding the play’s silences, Peter Hall, the director of the original London and New York productions, commented that Pinter wrote in silences as much as he did in words, and the text of the play is specific about the length of time an actor should give to pauses in the language, depending on whether Pinter used either three ellipses, the word “pause,” or the word “silence.”

Another dramatic device is the use of everyday domestic objects as sites for verbal battles. The play opens with Lenny choosing horses from the newspaper and then asking and rejecting Max’s advice over the likely winners. The glass of water used by Ruth in act 1 to tease Lenny sexually is used again when she orders whiskey from Lenny after teasing Joey. When Teddy “deliberately” eats Lenny’s cheese roll, the scene demonstrates Teddy’s ludicrous response to Lenny’s appropriation of Ruth. The threatened violence becomes real when Max strikes Joey in the stomach at the end of act 1, and when Sam collapses of an apparent heart attack at the end of act 2.

Historical Context

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While The Homecoming is grounded in the specifics of setting and family relationships, there is very little reference to the world at large. Nevertheless, the strife within the play's family reflects a turbulent time in the world in the year of its debut, 1965. The United States was being sucked deeper and deeper into the war in Vietnam. U.S. bombers pounded North Vietnam in February of 1965, and on March 8, U.S. Marines landed at Da Nang in the first deployment of U S. combat troops in Vietnam. On June 28 the first full-scale combat offensive by U.S. troops began.

America in 1965 reflected the turmoil of the military escalation. Anti-war rallies were held in four American cities and the term ' 'flower power'' was introduced by poet Allen Ginsberg to describe nonviolent protest. The Hell's Angels motorcycle gang attacked marchers calling them "un-American." University enrollments swelled as young Americans took advantage of draft deferrals for college students to escape the expanding war in Vietnam and campuses were tense with unrest. Still more young men evaded the draft outright, fleeing to Canada to escape combat duty.

Civil rights activist Malcolm X was assassinated on February 21,1965, in the Harlem area of New York City. The Voting Rights Act became law on August 10, and federal examiners began registering black voters in Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi. In Alabama, civil rights marchers were attacked by Alabama state police using tear gas, whips, nightsticks, and dogs. President Lyndon Johnson sent three thousand National Guardsman and military police to protect the civil rights marchers. In Chicago, police arrested 526 anti-segregation demonstrators in June. The Watts section of Los Angeles had violent race riots beginning August 12. Over ten thousand blacks burned and looted an area of five hundred square blocks and destroyed an estimated forty million dollars worth of property. Fifteen thousand police and National Guardsmen were called in, thirty-four people were killed and nearly four thousand arrested. More than two hundred businesses were totally destroyed.

In other parts of the world, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) unilaterally declared independence from Britain. London called the declaration illegal and treasonable and declared economic sanctions against the country. There were demonstrations outside Rhodesia House in London. Despot Nicolae Ceausescu succeeded as head of state in Romania, where he would rule until 1989. There was a coup in the Independent Congo Republic and General Joseph Mobuto made himself president and proceeded to rule as dictator.

Despite such strife (and perhaps because of it), the United States was in a period of economic growth and prosperity during the mid-1960s. In his State of the Union speech, President Johnson outlined programs for a "Great Society'' that he hoped would eliminate poverty in America. Across the Atlantic things were less rosy, as Britain froze wages, salaries, and prices in an effort to check inflation in that country.

The Federal Aid to the Arts Act was signed by President Johnson in September, 1965. This established the National Endowment for the Arts and the Humanities. The United States was the last of the industrialized societies to provide direct aid to the arts. In New York City, the Vivian Beaumont Theatre opened in Lincoln Center. Pop Art, as exemplified by Andy Warhol's Campbell's Tomato Soup Can painting, and "Op" art became fashionable. The Rolling Stones gained huge success with their song "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction." The Grateful Dead had its beginnings with "acid-rock" in San Francisco. The mini-skirt appeared in London. The English Stage Company at the Royal Court Theatre declared itself a "club theatre" in order to evade preproduction censorship for the production of playwright Edward Bond's Saved, which deals with moral malaise and violence in working-class London. Off- off-Broadway theatres, founded as an alternative to commercial theatre, were growing in number and showing themselves willing to fight for freedom of speech and artistic expression.

In Hackney, a working-class neighborhood in North London just beyond the boundaries of the Cockney area of the East End, life continued much as it had for generations. In an unpublished autobiographical memoir quoted by Michael Billington in The Life and Work of Harold Pinter, Pinter vividly describes the Hackney of his youth: "It brimmed over with milk bars, Italian cafes, Fifty Shilling tailors and barber shops. Prams and busy ramshackle stalls clogged up the main street—street violinists, trumpeters, and match sellers. Many Jews lived in the district, noisy but candid; mostly taxi drivers and pressers, machinists and cutters who steamed all day in their workshop ovens. Up the hill lived the richer, the "better-class" Jews, strutting with their mink-coats and American suits and ties. Bookmakers, jewelers and furriers with gowns hops in Great Portland Street."

Literary Style

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Setting The setting of The Homecoming is realistic. It consists of a large room with a window, an archway upstage where a wall has been removed, stairs up to a second floor, a door leading to outside and a hallway leading to interior rooms. The furnishings, too, are realistic: two armchairs, a large sofa, sideboard with a mirror above it, and various other chairs and small tables. The set stays the same throughout.

Plot The play takes place over a period of approximately twenty hours and there is one basic plot with no subplots. Here are all the requisite unities of time, place, and action that Aristotle put forth as the ideals for constructing a tight, powerful drama. Why, then, were audiences, including many critics, disturbed not only by the content but also by the form of the play? Part of the answer is in the audience's expectation that they will somehow be told about the characters in clear-cut exposition. In the realistic tradition—still overwhelmingly predominant in 1965—audiences expected to be informed of character background which would lead them to accept as ultimately logical and reasonable the responses of the characters at the point of climax and the falling action.

Viewers also expect the play to advance to its resolution in a logical cause-and-effect progression In The Homecoming the exposition is slight and not always reliable because characters frequently constructs fictitious pasts in order to gain advantage in the present, as Lenny does when telling stories about brutalizing women when seeking to dominate Ruth at their first meeting. And, at first glance, most audiences are shocked and stunned when Ruth decides to abandon her husband and three sons to work as a prostitute and' 'service'' the rest of the family. The denouement consists of Teddy departing for the airport and Ruth sitting in a chair with Joey at her feet, Max crawling and begging for a kiss, and Lenny in the background looking on. There is no further explanation for the action The logical progression is there, but it is not blatantly put forth and explained as it would be in a realistic play such as Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House. The audience is left to sift the action for clues as to how this outcome could possibly make sense.

Language Another of the disturbing elements of Pinter's plays is his use of language Pinter's characters speak with the all the hesitations, evasions, and non sequiturs of everyday speech. Moreover, the characters do not respond to questions with obviously logical answers, as would happen in a "realistic" play. Pinter's characters do not use language to communicate directly and logically; they use language to attack, defend, and stall while seeking out the motive rather than die direct meaning of the question

Language for Pinter is never divorced from tactical maneuvering. He very carefully catches the rhythms of thought and language, and he structures these rhythms partly through his use of pauses and silences written into the script. These rhythms are also integral to the situation and relationships. While a great deal has been written about the use of these devices, they are not really mysterious to the astute actor: they are part of the thought processes. Pinter put it very succinctly in his conversation with Gussow when he said, "The pause is a pause because of what has just happened in the minds and guts of the characters. They spring out of the text. They're not formal conveniences or stresses but part of the body of the action.... And a silence equally means that something has happened to create the impossibility of anyone speaking for a certain amount of time—until they can recover from whatever happened before the silence." Nevertheless, to an audience used to hearing rationally logical conversations in plays of the realistic style, the more elusive—and more "real"—dialogue of Pinter's plays caused confusion.

Action The answer to the problem of dramatic irony is that the audience must tune in to the action that is taking place on the subtextual level. Pinter's characters may seem to know more about what is going on than the audience because those characters are constantly involved in a battle for dominance or at the very least survival in the savage world in which they live. Even though on the surface the dialogue may seem to be about a sandwich or an ashtray or a glass of water, the characters are fully aware that the real action is about leverage, a battle which they can ill afford to lose For Pinter, the shifting of an ashtray or the drinking of a glass of water is a large theatrical gesture. The characters know that, and the audience comes to recognize it as well.

Compare and Contrast

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1965: The feminist movement is getting underway, making demands for positive, concrete steps towards social equality and equality in the work-place for women.

Today: While there is greater consciousness about women's issues and many advances have been made, there is still inequality for women in many facets of contemporary society. There has been some backlash to the more radical and strident of feminists.

1965: The Sexual Revolution has begun, with sexual freedom being exhorted for both men and women. Concepts such as "Free Love" are advocated to free both mind and body.

Today: Society is more open regarding issues of sex. Sexual freedom in society is prevalent. Sexual issues are talked about and displayed in popular media that were unmentionable in 1965.

1965: Sexual promiscuity is prevalent, with many people having multiple sex partners. Sexually-transmitted diseases, such as syphilis, are easily treatable.

Today: There is broad recognition that promiscuity and casual sex can lead to incurable ailments such as herpes. The outbreak of AIDS in the 1980s brings the realization that sex can Mil.

1965: The United States, which has never lost a war, is one of two superpowers and is engaged in a "cold war'' with the Soviet Union. The United States is also being drawn deeper and deeper into the war in Vietnam.

Today: The United States went through a major trauma because of wide-spread opposition to the war in Vietnam, a war which the country lost. Nevertheless, the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late-1980s has left the United States as the only superpower in the world.

Media Adaptations

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The Homecoming was made into a film in 1973 for the American Film Theatre production series. It was directed by Sir Peter Hall and featured the original Royal Shakespeare Company cast: Vivian Merchant as Ruth, Michael Jayston as Teddy, Paul Rogers as Max, Cynl Cusack as Sam, Ian Holm as Lenny, and Terrence Rigby as Joey.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Elsom, John Postwar British Theatre Criticism,Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981, pp 155-60.

Gottfried, Martin Review of The Homecoming in Women's Wear Daily, January 6,1967.

Grecco, Stephen "Harold Pinter" in Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, Volume 8 Contemporary Writers, 1960 to the Present, Gale (Detroit), 1992, pp. 315-36.

Kerr, Walter "The Theatre: Pinter's Homecoming" in the New York Times, January 6,1967.

Nadel, Norman "Homecoming Unfathomable" in World Journal Tribune, January 6,1967.

Salem, Darnel "The Impact of Pinter's Work" in Ariel A Review of International English Literature, Vol. 17, no. 1, January, 1986, pp 71-83.

Taylor, John Russell Review of The Homecoming in Plays and Players, 1953-1968, edited by Peter Roberts, Methuen, 1988, p 196.

Watts, Richard "Hospitality of a London Family" in the New York Post, January 6,1967.

Further Reading Billington, Michael The Life and Work of Harold Pinter, Faber&Faber, 1996. This is by far the best and most complete biography of Pinter The commentary on the plays is extremely useful Billington has been the theatre critic for the Guardian newspaper since 1971.

Burkmann, Kathenne H and John L KundertGibbs, editors. Pinter at Sixty, Indiana University Press, 1963. This is a collection of essays by scholars and critics and gives a variety of views on Pinter's work as a whole.

Esshn, Martin Pinter. The Playwright, Methuen, 1982. First published in England under the title The Peopled Wound, Esslm's book covers all of Pinter's plays through Victoria Station (1982), and includes a short section on the screenplays Esshn provides great insight and a thoroughness of knowledge about European theatre that is matched by none.

Gussow.Mel .Conversations with Pinter, Grove Press, 1994. This short book gives valuable insights into Pinter's working methods and his views on playwriting and life in general through a series of conversations with Gussow of the New York Times from 1971 to 1993.

Knowles, Ronald. Understanding Harold Pinter, University of South Carolina Press, 1995 Part of the "Understanding Contemporary Literature" series, this book offers criticism and interpretation and includes biographical references


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Sources for Further Study

Billington, Michael. The Life and Work of Harold Pinter. London: Faber, 1996.

Dukore, Bernard F. Harold Pinter. 2d ed. London: Macmillan, 1982.

Esslin, Martin. Pinter: A Study of His Plays. 3d ed. London: Methuen, 1977.

Gale, Steven H. “Character and Motivation in Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming.” Journal of Evolutionary Psychology 8 (1987): 278-288.

Gale, Steven H. Harold Pinter: An Annotated Bibliography. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1978.

Lahr, John, ed. A Casebook on Harold Pinter’s “The Homecoming.” New York: Grove Press, 1971.

Lahr, John. “Harold Pinter Retrospective.” The New Yorker 34 (August 6, 2001): 76-77.

Quigley, Austin E. The Pinter Problem. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1975.

Scott, Michael, ed. Harold Pinter—“The Birthday Party,” “The Caretaker,” and “The Homecoming”: A Casebook. London: Macmillan, 1986.

Silverstein, Marc. Harold Pinter and the Language of Cultural Power. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1993.


Critical Essays


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