Image – Yvonne Arnaud theare
We seem to have entered a dark and dirty period in the #theatre101 run, with each disturbing performance leaving me want to shower in bleach to wash off the sleaze. After Damian Lewis acting the goat, and indulging in some light incest, today’s play was Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming.
Pinter’s work is invariably disorienting. So much is left half-said or hinted at, but there is permanent sense of dread, of being carried inescapably toward a dark ending.
The Homecoming is no exception. As with so much of Pinter’s work, the setting is small and oppressive in its banality; the front room of a typical 1960s working class family. Yet such a familiar scene is the setting for a strange adventure beyond social and sexual boundaries.
The house is occupied by four related men (a father, his brother, and two grown-up sons) who are locked in a pattern of resentful competitiveness and stale grudge matches. Yet from the off, this familiar scene of men locking horns is queered. The father, Max, implies he himself gave birth to his children, while constantly putting them down because he fears being made into “the bitch”.
The pattern is disrupted by the arrival of the third son and his wife. Teddy is an academic, living in America, and writing papers which, he explains with open disdain, his relatives would not understand.
The son is welcomed back, but it is Ruth who becomes the centre of attention. The ‘homecoming’ journey is hers, rather than her husband’s.
In the way of men who are starved of female attention and / or emotionally stunted, Max and his sons variously see Ruth in crudely sexual terms – “She’s wide open!” – or as a symbol of ladylike purity. They seem incapable of dealing with her as person of the opposite gender, rather than as a whore or the embodiment of the Virgin Mary.
Ruth responds by seducing the younger brother and, while they make love upstairs, the other family members develop a plan to put her to work as a prostitute. Returning to the front room, Ruth seems far from put out by the proposal, and makes only certain demands before acceding. Teddy returns to America and their two children.
There is a feminist interpretation of The Homecoming, which places Ruth in charge of the action, the manipulator of these pathetic men. Even her decision to start work as a prostitute can be seen as an escape from the tedium of suburban domesticity, a form of homecoming to a version of herself that is openly sexual and alive to new adventures.
While Ruth is certainly the strongest character on display, it is wrong to think she or any other character emerges from The Homecoming having learned and improved. This would be insufficiently Pinteresque.
Before her arrival, Max and his family are locked in a cycle of abuse. The combination of imaginative impotence and the threat of punishment, even murder, keeps them all in tortured stasis. Ruth does not exploit this situation; she simply accommodates it. Her emotional fragility and heavily implied sexual frustration means she is just as (un)happy to be manipulate and be manipulated.
As the walls of the front-room seemed to close in, I found myself hoping the next play would be a little lighter and airier than this masterpiece of bleakness.