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To Whose Homecoming Does The Play Refer?
In the play ?The Homecoming? by Harold Pinter, a family deals with the unexpected return of the eldest son and his wife, Ruth, on a visit from America. The rest of the family were unaware that Teddy had taken a wife. The arrival had a profound effect on each member of the family who are an unusual group consisting of an aging father, his two sons and his younger brother. Because of this unexpected event we see the intricacies of the relationships of the family and how these develop and change. The homecoming does not necessarily bring about change in a good way if viewed as a whole. If certain characters are looked at individually though, we see many things that happen are positive for that person.
The play would seem to centre around Teddy as he was the one returning home to his family. In fact, the attention is focused on Ruth. Max?s first reaction to her is abusive and he immediately calls Ruth a tart: ?We?ve had a stinking pox-ridden slut in my house all night.? This shows us how Max views women as he has never even set eyes on Ruth before this meeting. His words do not shock anyone and appear to be perfectly acceptable and normal. Even Teddy does not seem to surprised about this and although he does protest he is not particularly forceful. He seems to realise that there is no point in arguing with his father as he would not listen and I suspect that Teddy is used to his father?s ignorance and anti-female words. Ruth also does not try to defend herself or get upset. She is totally calm and surveys the scene silently with the same confidence she had expressed with Lenny the night before.
From the very beginning of the play we are given an idea of their attitude to women. We learn that there is no woman in the household because Max?s wife Jessie had died. It later becomes clear that Lenny is a pimp and owns flats in which to conduct his business, Sam is a chauffeur and it is easy to believe that the people he drives around are clients of Lenny?s girls. When Lenny first meets Ruth he tells her about a meeting under a bridge with a girl who offered herself to him but whom he was sure was diseased. Lenny feels he has to prove himself to Ruth and show her who is the more dominant: ?so I just gave her another belt in the nose and a couple of turns of the boot and sort of left it at that.? From this it is clear that Lenny thinks that by telling Ruth stories like this of his violence it will put her in her place as a woman and earn him some respect. It has been a while since there has been a woman in the house and he probably needs to establish to himself as well as to Ruth that women are inferior objects and that she is no different.
Ruth is not easily intimidated and listens to Lenny, only speaking in short sentences compared to Lenny?s long speeches. This shows that it is in fact Lenny who is ill at ease. At the end of their encounter Ruth and Lenny engage in a power struggle of their own. Ruth clearly wins with her cool, detached replies. She also introduces a sexual aspect into the conversation:
?LENNY. Just give me the glass.
LENNY. I?ll take it then.
RUTH. If you take the glass…I?ll take you.?
This has the desired effect on Lenny which is to disconcert him and turn the situation around so that she is in control. It is obvious that Ruth knows what she is doing and is used to using her sexuality to gain power.
Teddy has a different effect on the family, which is one of polite indifference. The family are not overjoyed to see Teddy. Instead, they are more eager to show him how well they are doing without him. There is already conflict and power struggles between the members of the household but these are intensified by the arrival of Teddy and Ruth. Max and Sam start to fight. Max picks on his weaker brother here because he is the only one that Max will not be defeated by: ?He didn?t even fight in the war. This man didn?t even fight in the bloody war!? This statement is quite vicious and suggests underlying issues between the brothers because of the tone which is one of contempt and bitter anger. These squabbles appear to happen more often in front of Ruth. Lenny is also prompted to challenge Teddy by asking him complex philosophical questions. Teddy avoids them and refuses to be drawn in. It is as if he has been there before and knows that nothing constructive will come of such a conversation with Lenny.
When Ruth starts to speak the men seem to be transfixed by her. Here we are first given an idea that Ruth is very unhappy with her life: ?it stretches…..so far…..everywhere you look. And there?s lots of insects there.? It is a desolate picture, one that suggests she dislikes America and finds it empty and barren. She does not appear to say this to anyone in particular and you can begin to pity her because of the sadness portrayed by the pauses in her speech and the melancholy tone. Throughout the play Pinter uses pauses to emphasise tensions and moods in the characters? speech.
Teddy, sensing Ruth?s mood, suddenly starts to talk about returning to America which is a change of attitude for him. We learn that Ruth was a glamour model before she married Teddy and it is easier to understand his urge to return home. Ruth has been accepted very quickly by the family and she is in a situation which is familiar to her. Their lifestyle does not shock her with it?s concept of gender roles and it is obvious she is in control of the men. It is now clear that Teddy is no longer comfortable with his family and it is also clear that Ruth is of more interest to them than Teddy is. They are not totally hostile towards Teddy but often the tone is not friendly. He is quite a strange character. When his brother is kissing his wife he makes no audible protest or exclamation of surprise. The dramatic effect of this would be very tense because the audience would be waiting for an overdue outburst of anger or violence from Teddy which is never going to happen. This gives the whole play a surreal air and is shocking to read and watch which is probably what Pinter was aiming to do. It seems Teddy is expecting something like this. It is not totally surprising really considering the line of work Lenny and possibly Sam are involved in and the attitude they have to women. I think Teddy realises that it would be useless to interfere and that he would not be able to reach Ruth.
Ruth suddenly has power. She knows how to manipulate and use her body to gain what she wants: ?I?d like something to eat. I?d like a drink. Did you get any drink?? Her tone has changed. She is confident and demanding. Her sentences are short and abrupt and the men are now answering to her. Teddy is upset by these occurrences. He does not show it very much but his tone also changes and he becomes defensive, his words revealing repressed anger: ?You?re way behind. All of you. There?s no point in my sending you my works. You?d be lost.?
In essence, ?The Homecoming? is that of Ruth?s. She is returning to the way of life which she knows and is happy with when she accepts the proposal to stay in England and become a prostitute, working to pay her keep. There is a parallel running through the play between Ruth and Jessie. We never find much out about Jessie except that she was married to Max and had three boys. Max speaks of her either very harshly or he portrays her as a perfect mother figure. This could be because she did something to hurt him or simply because this is how he treats women. Ruth appears to be taking over Jessie?s role of mother and carer and perhaps also in a sexual way, although it is never really confirmed whether Jessie was a prostitute but it is clear that Ruth is going to be one and is also expected to satisfy the men?s needs. She is going to be looking after the house but she has the men in her power. In a way she is also taking over from the men who have adopted traditionally female roles, where Max does the cooking for example. She has turned the whole situation around to her advantage.
This does in effect complete the family in England. It is reminiscent of the past and only Sam opposes it because he knows it is a bad arrangement. He can see the past repeating itself and he does not like it. The effect on him is enough to make him confess that Jessie was cheating on Max with McGregor before collapsing on the floor. Max dismisses Sam?s revelation saying he had a ?diseased imagination?. This suggests Max already knew which also explains his sudden changes in attitude towards his wife. It has also split the family from Teddy. The final departure of Teddy has an air of finality. It is not clear whether he expected what happened but confrontation enters the play. Lenny and Teddy have the argument over the cheese roll and Lenny accuses Teddy of not living up to their expectation of him. He makes out that Teddy is missed and that there is always a chair empty for him. When Teddy leaves it is an emotional farewell to watch but with little emotion expressed. I think now that he will never return and that Ruth will now take up the empty chair.
Max is also affected by the return of Teddy. He shows true weakness and begs Ruth to kiss him before falling on his knees at her chair. This humiliation of Max proves how much power Ruth has and how the roles have reversed. Pinter is trying in ?The Homecoming? to show family conflicts and attitudes and how things can change. He has an anti-women view and portrays Ruth as a manipulative creature who is not averse to using sex to get what she wants. Due to references to other women in the play this appears to be how he thinks.
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