Homecoming | Study Guide

Cynthia Voigt

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Homecoming | Context


Genre: Realism to Absurdity

Harold Pinter is often classified with other playwrights of his time as belonging to the Theatre of the Absurd tradition. Though not a formal literary movement, playwrights writing in this genre explored themes made popular by French philosopher and novelist Albert Camus (1913–60) in his 1942 essay "The Myth of Sisyphus," in which he argues that human life has no real meaning or purpose—it is absurd. Other members of the loosely associated group of writers include Irish author Samuel Beckett (1906–89), Pinter's friend and mentor; French dramatist Eugène Ionesco (1909–94); and French writer Jean Genet (1910–86).

Theatre of the Absurd rose up in the throes of World War II (1939–45) as world events and ongoing violence and war led philosophers and writers to ask difficult questions about human existence. A major topic of consideration was whether human life had any real meaning and purpose and, if not, how to come to terms with that lack. Absurdist plays reflect these concerns. They often take place in limited spaces, such as a single room, without a larger context. They typically have little in the way of plot. Interactions between characters have a haphazard quality, and characters often seem to talk at one another rather than engage in meaningful conversation. These characteristics create the sense that human actions and interactions lead nowhere but simply occur without a larger framework that gives them meaning. The characters are isolated by their inability to communicate meaningfully and exercise control over their lives.

The Homecoming shares several characteristics with other absurdist works. It takes place in one room, its dialogue is marked by non sequiturs and disconnects, and characters often speak lines that seem to disappear into the void, without sparking reactions from other characters. Its plot becomes more absurd as the play moves forward. A husband, Teddy, watches passively as his wife, Ruth, engages in affectionate and then sexual activity with his two brothers. Three men plan to make Ruth a prostitute and substitute mother in their London household, even though she has children of her own in the United States. Strangely, she seems to agree to stay when her husband leaves to care for their children alone. In addition, events that seem as if they should have more meaning—a secret affair, for example—are greeted with indifference. The mood in general is one of deep despair as characters move through their lives without a sense of meaning or direction, and their more primitive impulses drive their interactions—without any nobler or finer sense of what it is to be human.

However, The Homecoming is also rooted firmly in realism. As a literary movement, realism grew up in the mid-1800s. It abandoned the previous and established high drama and pageantry of old-fashioned theater, with its elaborate plots and theatrical diction, in exchange for more natural spoken dialogue and gestures. Realism focused on believable plots and characters, with messy problems that did not always resolve themselves in neatly wrapped packages. Pinter thus begins The Homecoming in a realistic, working-class home in North London. The stage directions at the beginning of the play are quite specific—the play's set includes a sofa, armchairs, odds and ends of furniture, a coatrack, and a radiogram (combination radio and gramophone, or record player). As the play opens, the characters' interactions are troubling, but not unrealistic. The pauses seem awkward and hostile, but they are filled with meaning. Only as the play progresses do the absurdist elements begin to manifest themselves, as character behavior becomes strange and then shocking and dialogue loses what little coherence it seemed to have and is replaced by the menacing and the absurd.

The Pinter Pause

Pinter's unique style is one of his most distinguishing characteristics. It is so unusual, it has created its own terminology. The Oxford English Dictionary notes Pinteresque, Pinterism, Pinterian, and Pinterishness as acceptable terms to describe the playwright's characteristic style.

One of the most noticeable aspects of his work is the "Pinter pause." Frequent silences, indicated in the script with the single word "Pause," pepper the dialogue. Smaller pauses within lines are indicated by ellipses. Longer pauses between lines show the lack of external reaction from other characters to what one character is saying. Even in extended monologues, speech will be punctuated with Pinter pauses, suggesting the character's words are falling on deaf ears or challenging traditional meanings. A fundamental failure of communication takes place as it appears characters are not listening, can't be bothered to reply or acknowledge, or are deliberately ignoring each other. The smaller pauses within lines show characters speaking slowly and deliberately, or else uncomfortably and awkwardly.

Even though the lack of connection manifests itself in these frequent pauses, there is a sense that many pauses are full of meaning. Something is being ignored, something is left unsaid, some hidden meaning is understood but not acknowledged. These gaps leave the audience at a distinct disadvantage relative to the play's characters. The characters know far more than they are saying, so what the audience doesn't know fills the silence with questions and uncertainty. In The Homecoming, the amount of context the audience doesn't know continues to compound, causing the characters' actions to become increasingly unexplainable. This dynamic highlights the sense that in this dramatic universe humans know very little about one another, making true intimacy and understanding impossible.

Pinter pauses also convey a brewing, bubbling tension between characters that may or may not surface. For example, in The Homecoming, Sam repeatedly brings up his admiration for Jessie, Max's late wife, and mentions how he used to take her out driving when Max was busy with work. These comments seem to be digs at Max's relationship with his wife and, like much of Pinter's dialogue, seem to leave their true meaning understated or unstated. Max's reaction is often silence, conveying the sense that he has taken Sam's meaning and refuses to let it get to him. The characters deploy understatement and silence as weapons in the constant battle for power and higher ranking in the family hierarchy. And the true intention of the dialogue is never made perfectly clear to the audience, which is left wondering about its true meaning.

Though the term Pinter pause makes it seem as if all the pauses in a Pinter play are somehow similar, the truth is they convey a variety of different emotions and meanings. As Pinter said in an interview published in The New Yorker, "One pause is quite unlike another ... A pause can be a breath. What it has to do with is thought: what has just been said and how to respond."

Feminism and Women's Equality

The 1960s and 1970s saw enormous changes in women's roles and sexuality, both in the United States and in Britain. In the United States, women had won the right to vote in 1920, the Equal Pay Act was passed in 1963, and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, forbidding employment discrimination on the basis of sex. In 1965 women were allowed to use oral contraception legally, within certain circumstances. In Britain all women over 21 gained the right to vote in 1928, with an Equal Pay Act and Sex Discrimination Act following in the 1970s. Oral contraceptives were available for use by married women by 1961 in Britain.

When Pinter published The Homecoming in 1965, these cultural developments had begun making real changes in the everyday lives of women and in the relationships between men and women both at home and in the workplace. Women were not only housewives and mothers; they increasingly pursued ambitious careers and more powerful positions in society. As women gained access to nontraditional roles, another important change was taking place. The sexual revolution of the 1960s questioned traditional sexual morality and encouraged women to participate more freely in sexual activity both within relationships and outside of them. The growing power of women, as members of the workforce and as sexual beings with agency over their bodies, sparked backlash from those who preferred a more patriarchal society.

The Homecoming explores themes related to this cultural change. The all-male household over which Max presides is characterized and organized by the types of authority typically wielded by men. The men use physical aggression and the threat of it to assert authority, and measures of masculinity—strength, fatherhood, sexual dominance over women, violence—determine their power within the home. Ruth enters this family dynamic and asserts a different kind of control. It is not only pure sexual power over the men but also her ability to perform feminine roles (serving coffee, for example) and easily abandon them (negotiating the terms of her stay, for example). The men are taken off guard by her independence from their passions, desires, goading, and threatening. She does not react submissively, as they certainly expect. In the end, the men's inability to adjust to the assertion of female power rather shockingly causes them to capitulate, or give in to her.

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