Posted: March 30th, 2022
Theater Review: The Homecoming by Harold Pinter
Although Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming has a very modernist tone because of its spare language and hidden sexual tension, the play actually follows the classical plot structure of exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, followed by resolution. While the play may seem to be plotless, the central conflict is the class and sexual conflict in the all-male household when one of the sons returns home with his wife, Ruth. Teddy is the lone educated member of the family and his other brothers clearly resent this fact, particularly Lenny, a thuggish man who immediately makes sexual overtones to Ruth. The central question of the play is how the brothers and Ruth will resolve the question of their relationship. Ultimately, Ruth chooses to leave her stultifying relationship with Teddy and remain in the home because of the greater sexual freedom she seems to enjoy there. The play manages to be both feminist and anti-feminist at the same time. On one hand, the only way for Ruth to articulate her identity is through her sexuality. On the other hand, despite the fact that she is clearly sexually oppressed she still manages to exercise some sense of control over her surroundings.
The exposition of The Homecoming takes place in the same drawing room. The title refers to Teddy’s return to the family home from his work as a professor in America. Teddy has three children and has clearly tried to separate himself from his family until now; his father did not even know about Ruth and Teddy has clearly taken pains to conceal everything about his life from his family, for reasons which are immediately clear in the hostile attitude all of the men take towards Ruth and himself. The plot immediately thickens with Teddy’s arrival and the fact that the family was unaware of Ruth’s existence. At the beginning of the play, Ruth functions as a kind of pawn in the men’s relationship. Teddy clearly uses her as a status symbol to demonstrate how much he has changed to his poorer, frustrated brothers.
Teddy’s brothers seem very different from him to the point that it is difficult to believe that all of them come from the same family: they are largely working class in their occupations and attitudes and Teddy has clearly tried to overcome and escape his background. For example, Teddy’s brother Lenny speaks of shoveling snow as a way of picking up extra cash versus Teddy’s life in academia. Father Max was a butcher and Teddy’s uncle Sam is a chauffeur. But the play suggests that a true escape from one’s origins and society is impossible since Teddy cannot resist coming home to show how he has changed.
As the action begins to rise, the viewer begins to realize the tensions of existing in a very hyper-masculine environment in which there is a great deal of resentment that the men must engage in cooking and cleaning for themselves. Ruth injects a feminine presence into the household and the men essentially fight over her role over the course of the play. Max, the father, initially mistakes her for a prostitute before it is revealed she is Teddy’s wife. Throughout the play, the men project their images of what a woman should be on Ruth — mother, wife, and prostitute. Gradually, the other men attempt to show their dominance over Teddy by flirting with and/or bullying Ruth in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. In one exchange Lenny attempts to take away Ruth’s water glass even after she assures him that she is finished and the argument becomes symbolically laden with tension. Over the course of the rising action, the stakes begin to escalate as the men tease Ruth about turning her into a whore to satisfy their desires and bring in additional income. This teasing suggests the subliminal tension about Teddy’s superior social status is being vented upon Ruth.
Gradually, the sexualizing of Ruth becomes more and more serious and the climax of the play occurs when Ruth is afforded a choice by Teddy to either return with him to America to her old domestic life or to remain in the context of the new all-male family. Ruth seems to gain a sense of power and control rather than be reduced in status. She seems to enjoy the ability to play a cat-and-mouse game with the other men and views the fact that she is a woman in an all-male household as a source of power although the other men use her female status against her. Although the brothers try to take advantage of her sexually and exploit her, she seems to enjoy the fact that her sexuality gives her a power that she seems to lack with her husband. On her husband’s terms she cannot argue philosophy with him any more than his working class brothers and father but by using her sexuality she can dominate him.
When Ruth decides to stay, she does so on her terms, demanding a three-room apartment, a personal wardrobe, and a maid. Max, once so confident, has been reduced to tears when his brother Sam mentions how Max’s late wife Jessie (the boys’ mother) cheated on him. As the dramatic action begins to dissipate during the falling action of the play, the play ends with Max begging for a kiss from Ruth which she refuses to give. This is a symbolic statement of her power and the fact that she has left her former life as a wife and mother with Teddy. Ruth has embraced a new role, yet another traditional role for women, but Pinter seems to suggest that because she has freely chosen it, it is empowering.
The resolution of the play is ambiguous. Ruth appears to have embraced a role in which she will be serving men but the men clearly resent what they see as her power over them and Ruth seems to feel that the option she has selected is better than the one she had previously with Teddy. Society offers few opportunities for women beyond the roles of mother, wife, and prostitute in the world created by Pinter. But because Ruth has the ability to withhold or to give herself sexually, unlike when she was married to Teddy, this seems, in Pinter’s view, to give her additional strength. Effectively, Ruth breaks down the tension between Teddy and his brothers and makes the play her story, rather than a story about the all-male setting.
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