The Homecoming – Footnotes
The Footnotes to our episode on Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming include notes about Vivien Merchant as the original Ruth, Ruth and Lenny not visiting Venice, the sibling rivalries on display, and Pinter’s “comedy of menace”.
Not listened to the episode yet? You’ll find it here.
The original Ruth
Harold Pinter married the actress Vivien Merchant in 1956, and in the early 1960s she played many of the major roles in his plays, including Ruth in The Homecoming in the original London production, on Broadway and in the film version. It is interesting to think about how the writer comes to imagine his wife in the character that Ruth becomes. Pinter claimed that he wasn’t consciously writing the part for her, “but I suppose I was doing a good deal of that nevertheless, consciously or not”, he said, “she seemed to walk into the roles. It was always on the cards that she would play them. It was unquestioned. But – it’s curious this – I never thought of her when I was writing the plays. I am convinced this is true. At the time they were produced, they seemed to have been written for her, but while I was writing the plays I never thought of her. The character of Ruth was not Vivien. It was Ruth.”
It is perhaps difficult to fully credit Pinter’s claim, albeit the connection may have been more subconscious as he suggests. Joan Bakewell suggested that the characters Vivien played may have been an embodiment of Pinter’s own sexual fantasies – there is certainly an element of male fantasy in the plot of The Homecoming. Bakewell said “Vivien always played the parts …as Harold wanted them to be. Which was very 60s sexiness…but covered in a veneer of gentility.” Of course Bakewell had a very personal interest and insight into Pinter’s creative instincts as she was actually having an affair with him while he was married to Merchant, including during his writing of The Homecoming.
Vivien Merchant and Ian Holm in the Broadway production of The Homecoming
The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1967
Ruth and Lenny
Ruth and Lenny are paired off as combatants from their very first meeting. She stands up to his initial intimidation – as Matthew rightly pointed out in the podcast, she has had previous experience in dealing with this type of man. There is a lovely detail that Pinter includes almost in passing that signals their connection as the play unfolds. During their first meeting when Ruth tells Lenny that they have been to Venice, Lenny replies: “You know, I’ve always had a feeling that if I’d been a soldier in the last war – say in the Italian campaign – I’d probably have found myself in Venice.” It is a piece of targeted bravado on Lenny’s part at that point. Later in Act 2 when Teddy tries somewhat pathetically to appeal to Ruth to leave to go home, he says “You liked Venice, didn’t you? It was lovely, wasn’t it? You had a good week. I mean…I took you there”, to which she replies, “But if I’d been a nurse in the Italian campaign I would have been there before.” It is certainly a statement of independence on Ruth’s part – she could have led another life and made her own way there without him – and the echo of Lenny’s imaginary war visit also deftly aligns them, suggesting they may have been, or could still be, together in an alternative life.
The tensions and teasing that characterise the relationships between the men are often expressions of nothing more than common sibling rivalry. Max and Sam ‘s petty squabbles have likely been going on for a lifetime, as have the boys. Lenny particularly enjoys winding Teddy up, no doubt fuelled partly by rivalry over Ruth, but one suspects that Lenny would have a go at him in any case. Although Lenny tells Ruth that Teddy has “always been my favourite brother”, and that the family are proud of Teddy’s academic achievements, he is more likely jealous and resentful of his success and escape to America. He describes Teddy to Ruth as a “very sensitive man”, and goes on to say that he himself is also sensitive, but he tends “to get desensitised”, and to back up his point relates his story of punching the woman who asked him to help move the mangle. He’s certainly signalling to Ruth that he’s a different kind of man to Teddy.
Lenny later delights in picking an ironic fight with Teddy on his own ground – over philosophical ideas:“what do you make of all that business of being and not-being?”- he prods him. Teddy does not rise to the bait at that moment, but later he fights back by deliberately stealing and eating Lenny’s cheese roll. It’s an obvious regression to childhood spats, the pretence of politeness punctured. As Lenny says: “Well, Ted, I would say this is something approaching the naked truth, isn’t it? It’s a real cards on the table stunt. I mean, we’re in the land of no holds barred now.” It’s simultaneously very funny, and loaded with threat between them.
When finally they suggest the idea that Ruth could stay, they pile in on Teddy, ratcheting up the attack with increasingly insulting details. Max asking Teddy to contribute to the kitty to support Ruth, Lenny proposing that they put her on the game, and worse, suggesting that Teddy could help promote Ruth to his academic acquaintances in America. It’s a vicious, “no-holds barred”, to use Lenny’s phrase, assault; the family pack devouring one of their own.
Comedy of Menace
A few years before The Homecoming, the theatre critic Irving Wardle coined the phrase “comedy of menace” to describe Pinter’s play, The Birthday Party. It is an artful description of the unique mix of humour and threat that characterises Pinter’s dialogue. The sense of menace is obviously rooted in the men’s frequent references to violence, but it is also there just in the dynamic of the dialogue between all of them. The director of the first production of The Homecoming, Peter Hall, said that Pinter’s writing ‘allows him to explore the instinctive hostilities between human beings. They fight duels not with swords, but with words and silences’. There’s menace in what they say and in the subtext of what they are saying, or not saying in the loaded silences. Pinter is of course famous for his frequent use of pauses in his stage directions, and Peter Hall recounted how in the rehearsal process for this play he reviewed with the cast every “dot and pause” in the text to assess the exact import or effect that was intended. He said, for example, there is a difference between “Silence” and “Pause” – the former marking a more substantial change for the character, the pause signalling some moment of crisis in their thinking. One can see from this how precisely the rhythm of the language is calibrated to create the tensions between the characters.
The other half of Wardle’s phrase, the unlikely comedy, comes partly from some simple universal tropes, such as the pettiness of the squabble between Lenny and Teddy over the cheese roll, or as Matthew perceptively pointed out in the podcast, our watching Max being enraged by his predicament, in the same way that we respond to Basil Fawlty’s furious frustration.
The deflective use of language, and the incongruity of its beauty and articulacy are also sources of the humour. Sam and Lenny’s exchange about Sam’s day driving to London airport, for example, is funny for its ordinariness, and the strange formality of the rhythm of the exchange.
We also commented in the podcast on the comedy that comes at times from the surprising, exaggerated eloquence of Lenny’s language, the best example being when he duels with Teddy over philosophical concepts, which is not only very funny, but also an attack on Teddy – comedy and menace.
The diction in his telling of the story of his meeting the sex worker under an arch is also unusual, where there is a contrast between the style of his language and the sordidness of what he’s describing. He uses oddly formal phrases such as “Well, this proposal wasn’t entirely out of order and normally I would have subscribed to it”, or “this lady was very insistent and started taking liberties with me down under this arch, liberties which by any criterion I couldn’t be expected to tolerate”, while then saying “so I clumped her one”. As Wardle suggests, we both enjoy the language and recoil at its meaning.
Shakespeare’s devastating exploration of race, reputation and jealousy, The Tragedy of Othello, The Moor of Venice was a popular success when it was first performed during Shakespeare’s lifetime, but in the centuries since it has provoked a wide range of responses as successive generations have grappled with the racial identity of the eponymous character. As we record this episode a new production of Othello at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre in London views the play’s treatment of race through a contemporary lens, setting the play within the London Metropolitan police force, a topical environment for racial inspection.
I am privileged to welcome as my guest someone especially qualified to help us navigate the tricky waters of Shakespeare’s play, Farah Karim-Cooper, Director of Education at Shakespeare’s Globe, Professor of Shakespeare Studies at Kings College London, and the author of The Great White Bard – Shakespeare, Race and the Future.
Ken Nwosu as Othello and Ralph Davies as Iago
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
Photo by Johan Persson
Harold Pinter’s disturbing exploration of toxic masculinity and sexual maneuvering, The Homecoming premiered in 1965. The play’s portrait of misogyny, and even more disturbing, the apparent female complicity, was shocking at the time it was written. Nearly 60 years on the sexual politics is if anything even more difficult to watch. So what was Pinter’s purpose in presenting such a provocative piece, and how do we process it in the post Me-Too age?
I am joined by Matthew Dunster, the director of a scintillating new production of the play at the Young Vic in London, who can help us answer those questions about Pinter’s challenging classic.
Lisa Diveney as Ruth at the Young Vic – photo by Dean Chalkley.
Henrik Ibsen’s dark family drama Ghosts provoked outrage when it was published in 1881, its treatment of sexual disease, incest and euthanasia too much for the critics. More than 140 years later its portrait of repressed truths and social hypocrisy remains as powerful as ever.
Professor Kirsten Shepherd-Barr of St Catherine’s College, Oxford, helps us review Ibsen’s unflinching drama.
Hattie Morahan as Helene Alving at the Sam Wanamaker Theatre, London, December 2023. Photo by Marc Brenner.