Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming: Absurdist or Mystery?

Harold Pinter

Harold Pinter

I have had the privilege of reading several plays by Harold Pinter.  His work is enigmatic and mysterious and, at times, hilarious.  It is referred to by some as absurdist, which, in this sense, speaks to humanity’s inability find meaning life and does not imply that the subject is logically impossible.  Pinter’s work does more than simply suggest that it is not possible to find meaning though, so I think to refer to it as strictly absurdist is unfair to the work, though there are elements in his early works that can certainly be seen as absurdist.  The most recent work by Pinter I’ve read is The Homecoming, and I must say it is easily my favorite of the works of his which I know (which is sadly too few).  I don’t see it as absurdist though, but rather as a mystery, as I see many of his works.  One comes away from the reading with more questions than answers, though where in some of his other works I find the questions unanswerable, in this one I feel as if there are a great many clues present in the text for the reader to dig through.


Poster for "The Homecoming", by Harold Pinter.

Poster for “The Homecoming”, by Harold Pinter.

The narrative is simple enough, though outlandish.  Four men, a patriarch, Max, his two sons, Lenny and Joey, and his brother Sam all live under the same roof.  Max’s third son, Teddy, comes to visit and brings along a woman, Ruth, whom claims to be his wife.  The rest of the family, save Sam, who may or may not be homosexual (if we are to believe the emasculating rhetoric of his brother and read at all into his abstinence from sex), proceed to flirt with Ruth, culminating in a degree of physical intimacy shared between Ruth and Teddy’s brothers in front of Teddy.  The play ends with the fraternal household offering Ruth a place to stay (unbeknownst to her she will be expected to work as a prostitute), a proposition to which she tentatively agrees, while Teddy, who claims to be a doctor of philosophy, goes back to America where he apparently teaches.


There is an oedipal element to the narrative as son and father dispute each other, and much territorial pissings going on and as is the case with much of Pinter’s work, there is a great deal of ambiguity in the play, perhaps most of all surrounding Teddy’s and Ruth’s marriage.  It is claimed that they are married, but there is no confirmation.  Teddy also claims to be a doctor of philosophy, but when his brother the pimp puts some common philosophy to him, he cannot answer, suggesting that he does not have an understanding of philosophy.  There is also the question of his critical works, which none in the family have seen, so there existence is not confirmed.  It is noted that Ruth has three children, but when asked if they are Teddy’s, there is no answer provided by either Teddy or Ruth.  Earlier in the play, Ruth mentions the children to Teddy, but she says “the children” and not “our children”, though neither does she say “my children”.  The use of “the” here may have been unintentional, or simple a common turn of phrase, but it creates an ambiguity.  The children may not even be either of theirs.  There is no possessive pronouns used to describe them, and because the other claims made by Teddy are unreliable, everything he says becomes unreliable.



Vivien Merchant who played Ruth in the original production of "The Homecoming".

Vivien Merchant who played Ruth in the original production of “The Homecoming”.

There are elements of existentialist readings here as well, which often go hand in hand with absurdist readings.  There is a scene where Ruth says she was “different… when [she] met Teddy”.  Teddy claims though that she is “the same”.  Max concludes by asking “Who can afford to live in the past?”  This is interesting because Max alludes to the fact that Ruth is a whore.  Ruth suggests she is different than what she was, but Teddy, her husband, denies her the ability to change and claims she is the same.  The paternal figure allows her define herself in the moment, and this is manifest as well when Max compliments her as a good woman after having called her a whore, but her husband seems to suggest that she has not changed, meaning, if she was a sex worker, Teddy aligns marriage with prostitution.


Nicole Kidman: I believe Kidman may be the ideal woman to play Ruth should the play be brought to the film in the near future.

Nicole Kidman: I believe Kidman may be the ideal woman to play Ruth should the play be brought to the film in the near future.

Lenny, the philosophising pimp, serves to be Teddy’s foil in the play.  He asks his brother:  “Do you detect a certain logical incoherence in the central affirmations of Christian theism?”  The “doctor of philosophy” has no response other than to assert that such a topic is not within his “province”.  Lenny shifts gears and asks what merit there is in the unknown or the known, and ask his brother what there is other than the two realms of the known and the unknown.  His brother, the “doctor of philosophy” says that he is afraid that he is “the wrong person to ask”.  Lenny then asks about “being and not-being” and poses the question as to what the table is.  When Teddy claims it is a table, Lenny says: “some people would envy your certainty”.  Teddy seems completely unpracticed in handling issues of philosophy, or even recognizing certain threads of thought in the field, suggesting that he is far from a doctor of philosophy.  If his brother the pimp can so easily run circles around him on matters of philosophies, then how could be doctor in the field.  And if he is not, then what is he?  What is the purpose of this charade?


Did I mention that I think Nicole Kidman would make a great Ruth?

Did I mention that I think Nicole Kidman would make a great Ruth?

There are interesting feminist elements as well.  Max, the patriarch of the family, seems to be bipolar on the issue of women.  Upon first seeing Ruth he explodes, saying “I never had a whore under this roof… since your mother died”.  Here he calls his wife and mother of his children a whore, but then later states that she “was the backbone to this family.”  This seems to be made moot again later when Max states that he had “three bastard sons, a slutbitch of a wife”.  This is odd, because if his sons were bastards, then she wouldn’t have been his wife as well, which suggest that either they are not his sons, or there is again a question as to the authenticity of marriage in the play.  The hyper-masculine realm, being filled with so many flaws, seems to suggest that without woman to balance them out, men are incapable of making moral decisions.  Does this suggest that men need women for a strictly maternal role?  Perhaps, but this seems to be more the interpretation of the men of the play, though they equate the maternal role with a sexual role as well, suggesting that the woman of the house has an obligation to satisfy the men sexually.  It seems the men, without the influence of a woman, have devolved into bestial beings incapable of reason.


Penelope Prentice, not to be confused with Penelope Cruz of Prentice from Criminal Minds.

Penelope Prentice, not to be confused with Penelope Cruz of Prentiss from Criminal Minds.

In her essay “Ruth, Pinter’s The Homecoming Revisited” Penelope Prentice does a great job of analyzing Ruth, who for me is the most interesting character in the play.  Prentice notes that Ruth, in the final scene, does not agree to anything, but remains vague in her responses, noting that Ruth uses “conditional, or contrafactual , tense throughout” (Prentice, 459).  She make no agreement with the men who are seeking to prostitute her without telling her, and makes demands of them and expects them to be met.  She seems to be able to navigate the conversation better than the men around her.  While Ruth may come away as the most intelligent of the group though, she ma remain, for some at least, a morally problematic character.  Prentice suggest that Ruth neither was, nor does she become a “harlot” by the end of the play.  For me, whether she was or wasn’t a “harlot” is inconsequential, because I do not see it as a moral issue.  The problematic aspects  with her character rests on issues of loyalty for me.  She makes passes at her ‘husbands’ brother Lenny, and then engages in intimate acts with both Lenny and Joey.  If there is no marriage, then this is not an issue, if there is, then it may be, though it appears, from Teddy’s response that there is no concern about the behaviour on the part of her husband.  Perhaps this is because they have an open relationship, in which case such behaviour is acceptable, or he simply does not care about Ruth, in which case the behaviour is understandable.  Teddy, for his part, seems to be completely out of tune with the desires of his ‘wife’.  When she is tired, he insists she stay up, when she wishes to stay up, he insists that she sleeps, when she says she is not cold, he gets her something warm to drink.  At the plays end, there are few answers, but most potential scenarios seem to absolve Ruth or any morally reprehensible actions.  There is also the expression that “it is a woman’s prerogative to change her mind”, and if Ruth and Teddy are genuinely married, then it seems by this point in their marriage Ruth has changed her mind.  There is something commendable in that Ruth is willing to express herself and her desires for other men in front of Teddy.  There is an honesty to that, and honesty that is utterly lacking in the other men in the play.  Teddy for example, knows that his family intends on pimping her out but does not tell her, and the men of the family try to delude her.  Infidelities, for the most part, occur without the knowledge of the person being cheated on, but Ruth makes her feelings clear.  What more can one ask for?  It seems though that ultimately these scenes are not meant to be taken literally, but rather seen as metaphors; metaphors which I cannot completely deduce.



I think Monica Bellucci would make a great Ruth as well.

I think Monica Bellucci would make a great Ruth as well.

There is an interesting exchange between Lenny and Ruth in their first meeting where Lenny tells Ruth of a woman he speaks of in third person, saying that he beat her and that she was diseased.  As we learn later, Lenny is a pimp, and so it is likely that the woman he is speaking of was a prostitute, but there are interesting aspects to this dialogue.  Admitting to such morally reprehensible actions to somebody you do not know seems out of place, most certainly if this person is your brother’s wife.  This narrative could simply be a fabrication, or a truth, meant to shock her, but after he tells the story, Ruth makes a pass at Lenny.  Is Lenny talking in subtleties?  Is there something more to this?  Is the woman of the story actually Ruth?  Is it a story Lenny had heard about Ruth?  Are the two former lovers?  Is her pass meant to serve as a bribe?  There does seem to be the potential that Ruth was at one time a sex worker as when Max first sees Ruth he takes her for a prostitute.  So many questions, so few answers.


Monica Bellucci: Did I mention I think Monica Bellucci would make for a great Ruth?

Monica Bellucci: Did I mention I think Monica Bellucci would make for a great Ruth?

The play is a Rubik cube, or a riddle.  It is a mystery meant to be solved, but the author may not have an answer, or may not have given the reader all the clues, though Pinter has been quoted as saying that Ruth does not become a “harlot”, but he does that say that she wasn’t one.  To phrase is that that “she does not become harlot” doesn’t mean she isn’t one, simply that she may have already been one.  Ruth obtains a certain amount of freedom at the end of the play.  Does this imply that motherhood is a form of slavery, or that marriage is?  Are marriage and prostitution aligned as being one in the same here?  Is there a difference between a ‘whore’ and a wife?  The matriarch of the family that passed is referred to as both a wife and a whore by her husband; does this equate the two?  There are so many interesting observations in this play, and the beautiful thing about it is that Pinter does not lecture you.  He does not wrap things up in a pretty bow and articulate the moral lesson that is meant to be extracted upon watching or reading the play.  You sit at the end, like a man who has just finished masturbating in an adult theater, still in his own mess, mouth gaped open and wondering what the meaning or the purpose of it all is, but unable to discern the answer or move forward as he is trapped in meditative contemplation.


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Works Cited:

Ruth: Pinter’s The Homecoming Revisited
Penelope Prentice
Twentieth Century Literature , Vol. 26, No. 4 (Winter, 1980), pp. 458-478
Published by: Hofstra University
Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/441456

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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