Moments from The Homecoming

Here’s a video of the scene in “The Homecoming” with Lenny and Ruth and the glass of water. Lenny tries to intimidate Ruth with his stories and by trying to take the ashtray and her glass but she manages to intimidate and confuse him. This video also shows how in the next scene Lenny tries to gain power over Max by questioning him about what he knows about the night he was conceived, suggesting that maybe Max is not his real father. This video is a good demonstration of the power struggles that go on in the play, and how these fairly simple conversations are actually menacing.

Ruth in “The Homecoming”

“She’s in a kind of despair that gives her a kind of freedom. Certain facts, like marriage and family have clearly ceased to have meaning” – Harold Pinter on Ruth (Prentice, 463)

One of the most confusing things about The Homecoming is the character Ruth, so I wanted to spend one post discussing possible interpretations of her motivations and actions. Ruth is a character who is hard to understand, because of both her silence and her ability to dominate the rest. When Ruth is first introduced she is very still and quiet and she only responds in short phrases. But then she switches abruptly into a much more aggressive role and shows how she is able to dominate the family (Free, 3). This makes her a very confusing character for audiences to understand. Her choices can be shocking and seemingly inexplicable, particularly her choice at the end to stay in England and not return to her family.

Even the other characters in the play seem to find it difficult to understand her (Prentice, 500). Her husband Teddy demonstrates this in their first scene together when Ruth says she is not cold he offers to make her a hot drink, and when Ruth says she is not tired he tells her to go to bed. When Ruth meets Lenny, she has to tell him twice that she is married to Teddy, when he says “you must be connected to my brother in some way”, she responds with “I am his wife” (743), then again when he asks “What, you sort of live with him over there?” she has to say “We’re married” (744). Lenny then tries to dominate her by telling stories about women he has beaten as a kind of disguised threat and he tries to take away her glass, but she defends herself: “If you take the glass…I’ll take you” (746), leaving him confused.

Ruth is the only female character who appears on stage, but there are obvious parallels made between Ruth and Jessie, Max’s wife and the mother of Teddy, Lenny and Joey, who is dead.  Max says to Ruth “Listen, I’ll tell you something. Since poor Jessie died, eh, Sam? We haven’t had a woman in the house. Not one. Inside this house. And I’ll tell you why. Because their mother’s image was so dear any other woman would have…tarnished it. But you…Ruth…you’re not only lovely and beautiful, but you’re kin. You’re kith. You belong here” (761), which suggests how Ruth is being seen as the replacement for Jessie.

Jessie is described in contradictory ways which place her in the roles of wife, mother and prostitute.  One moment she is described as “not such a bad woman” (736), a “charming woman” (739), who “taught the boys everything they know…taught them all the morality they know” (750) and who was “the backbone of the family” (750) with “ a will of iron, a heart of gold and a mind” (750). Then the next moment:  “it made me sick just to look at her face”(736) and she is called a “slutbitch of a wife”. It appears that Ruth is meant to replace Jessie for these men, as they see her in the roles of mother, wife and prostitute.

Ruth begins the play confined in the roles of  mother and wife in her life with Teddy in America (Ganz, 185). Teddy says “She’s a great help to me over there. She’s a wonderful wife and mother”(752) and “It’s a very good life. We’ve got lot a lovely house…we’ve got it all…we’ve got everything we want” (752) but when Ruth speaks about America her experience seems to be very different. She says “…six years ago I went to America. (Pause.) It’s all rock. And sand. It stretches…so far…everywhere you look. And there’s lots of insects there (Pause.) And there’s lots of insects there” (753). Ruth describes America as though she was living in some kind of desert or wasteland surrounded by insects and not people, a view which contrasts from the perfect image her husband presented (Free, 3). This helps to set up her decision to stay in England at the end of the play because she does seem to be unhappy (Ganz, 185). Also in Ruth’s scene with Lenny earlier where she asserts her dominance over him with the glass, she says “Oh, I was thirsty” which again suggests her unhappiness and lack of fulfillment with her life in America with her husband, and how she is now feeling much more fulfilled in England, giving into the physical, violent, sexual impulses that seem to drive this family (Ganz, 186). Her most confusing actions are her kiss and dance with Lenny, when she embraces and rolls off the couch with Joey, and the two hours she spends with Joey upstairs, as well as her decision to not go back with her husband.

However, some rationalize this behavior by pointing to evidence in the play that Ruth was a prostitute in England before she married Teddy and moved to America with him. Ruth does say “I was …different…when I met Teddy…first.”(752) and speaks with nostalgia about before she had her children when she was “a model for the body” (754), about how she was “born quite near here” (755), and the slow way she tends to speak is interpreted as being because she has a secret (Prentice, 462). If we accept this reading then the play is actually representing her homecoming, not Teddy’s, because of her choice at the end which is her “coming home to her former self” (Prentice, 458) and letting go of the old one. When Ruth says goodbye to her husband, she calls him Eddie suggesting how she is already willing to forget him and move on (Ganz, 187).

There is also some ambiguity in the ending as to whether or not Ruth will actually stay with the family and fill the role of mother and prostitute (Prentice, 459). In her negotiations she gives no real commitments, she says things like “I would want”, “I would need” and  “you would have to” and the closest she comes to actually agreeing is when she says “It might be a workable arrangement”(762) and “it sounds like an attractive idea” (763). Ruth also chooses not to shake on it then, but to “leave it till later” (763). At the end of the play Pinter says “she is in possession of a kind of freedom” (Prentice, 458).

Ruth is an ambiguous character, who is able to silently wait and then assert her dominance and power over this family, and escape a life where she was unhappy for one where she was more in control and possesses agency. The men in the play try to possess her and place her into roles, but they all fail (Coe, 493). Lenny can’t intimidate her, Joey can’t go “whole hog” with her, Teddy can’t make her leave, Max is left begging her for a kiss at the end of the play, and while they may think they have convinced her to do what they want, it certainly appears as though she has the upper hand.

Works Cited

Black, Joseph. The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: The Twentieth Century and Beyond. Toronto: Broadview, 2006. Print.

Coe, Richard M. “Logic, Paradox, and Pinter’s “Homecoming”” The Johns Hopkins University Press 27.4 (Dec. 1975): 488-97. JSTOR. Web. 25 Mar. 2013.

Free, William J. “Treatment of Character in Harold Pinter’s “The Homecoming”” South Atlantic Bulletin 34.4 (Nov. 1969): 1-5. JSTOR. Web. 25 Mar. 2013.

Ganz, Arthur. “A Clue to the Pinter Puzzle: The Triple Self in “The Homecoming”” The Johns Hopkins University Press 21.2 (May 1969): 180-87. JSTOR. Web. 25 Mar. 2013.

Prentice, Penelope. “Ruth: Pinter’s The Homecoming Revisited.” Twentieth Century Literature 26.4 (Winter 1980): 458-78. JSTOR. Web. 25 Mar. 2013.

Harold Pinter

“TRUTH IN DRAMA IS FOREVER ELUSIVE” – Harold Pinter, 2005 Nobel Lecture.

Harold Pinter was a British playwright, who was considered to be one of the leaders of the Theatre of the Absurd. His plays formed their own sub-category called “comedy of menace” (Roudane), and I will be analyzing his play The Homecoming next. First I wanted to generally outline some characteristics of a Pinter play.

“A picture of the absurdity of the human condition in our world, and the plays are comic. But beneath the laughter and overpowering the  laughter, there is a cry of despair from a well of human hopelessness.” – Bernard Dukore, The Theatre of Harold Pinter.

  • Generally takes place in an enclosed space (Dukore, 43).

  • Minimum plot (Dukore, 43).

  • Power struggles between characters (Dukore, 43).

  • Obscure meaning (Dukore, 43).

  • Unpredictable and interesting, authentic dialogue (Dukore, 43) that reflects actual speech and emphasizes how absurd everyday language is (Free, 1).

  • Both funny and frightening (Dukore, 43).

  • Pauses, silences, tableaux (Rayner, 482).

  • The characters are realistic in the way they react and behave but they are still very mysterious (Dukore, 43).

  • The audience is never sure of where the characters are from or what their motives are (Dukore, 43).

  • The “annihilation of an individual” (Cohn, 55), portrays the “modern man beaten down by the world around him” (Dukore, 47).

  • Symbolic characters – the defenseless victim, or the villain sent by a mysterious organization (Cohn, 57). The audience is never sure of quite what the symbolism means (Dukore, 44).

  • Reflects the “tensions and attitudes” of the time period (Dukore, 46).

  • Reflects the failure of communication by showing characters who do not communicate (Dukore, 47).

  • Isolated characters (Dukore, 47).

  • Characters who are afraid to lose their individuality, or who are afraid to show their individuality (Dukore, 47).

 

“The real truth is that there never is any such thing as one truth to be found in dramatic art. There are many. These truths challenge each other, recoil from each other, reflect each other, ignore each other, tease each other, are blind to each other. Sometimes you feel you have the truth of a moment in your hands, then it slips through your fingers and is lost.” – Harold Pinter, 2005 Nobel Lecture

Works Cited

Cohn, Ruby. “The World of Harold Pinter.” The Tulane Drama Review 6.3 (1962): 55-68. JSTOR. Web. 22 Mar. 2013.

Dukore, Bernard. “The Theatre of Harold Pinter.” The Tulane Drama Review 6.3 (1962): 43-54. JSTOR. Web. 22 Mar. 2013.

Free, William J. “Treatment of Character in Harold Pinter’s “The Homecoming”” South Atlantic Bulletin 34.4 (Nov. 1969): 1-5. JSTOR. Web. 25 Mar. 2013.

Pinter, Harold. “Art Truth & Politics: Excerpts from the 2005 Nobel Lecture.” World Literature Today 80.3 (2006): 21-27. JSTOR. Web. 22 Mar. 2013.

Roudané, Matthew. Drama Essentials: An Anthology of Plays. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 2009. Print.

Samuel Beckett and Waiting for Godot

“Nothing is certain when you are about”

– Vladimir to Estragon (Beckett, 11)

 Waiting for Godot is an irrational play that is at times random, inexplicable, absurd and it can be difficult to assign meanings to a play that seems that it does not want to be figured out, and purposefully avoids clear meaning. Most people see the play Waiting for Godot as confusing because it is a very different play, and not something which is easily recognizable to audiences. It is a play where nothing is certain, and a play that seems to enjoy confusing its audience, made up of a lot of waiting, talking, not much action or plot. A critic for the New York Times said about the play: “Waiting for Godot is all feeling. Perhaps that is why it is so puzzling and convincing at the same time”. Another critic, Vivien Mercier, said the Waiting for Godot is a play where “Nothing happens. Twice” (Baetz).

Speaking generally, in a Beckett play there is a retreat from the physical world to a more inner world of the mind. Beckett’s characters are burdened by their own consciousness, and feel weighed down by responsibilities that they impose and want to escape from but can’t. They are usually on a quest for anonymity and the loss of their consciousness, and struggle with the desire to escape through committing suicide which they can’t do because of their fear of dying. Life is viewed as being meaningless and full of nothing, so the question is constantly being asked: Why go on living? But it is never answered (Cornwell, 41).

In Waiting for Godot, this is all the case. The physical world is desolate and mostly empty, the characters impose the responsibility of waiting for Godot on themselves but have trouble remembering why and at different points want to leave but cannot. The characters have trouble remembering and understanding what has happened, they doubt their own existence, where they are, why they are there, and they contemplate suicide but never go through with it. They try to distract themselves from the nothingness and talk over one another, play verbal games, and seem to have problems understanding one another. The audience knows little about the characters’ motivations, personalities, or their differences. There is an inability to know anything for sure and both the characters and the audience are confronted by questions that cannot be answered and both are confused. Here is a short list of some of the things that Vladimir, Estragon and the audience don’t know:

  • Why can’t they leave?
  • Why they are waiting for Godot?
  • Who is Godot?
  • How long have they been waiting?
  • What did they do yesterday?
  • What day is it?
  • What season is it?
  • What time is it?
  • Is this the day that they are supposed to wait?
  • What if Godot doesn’t come?

Though the play may seem to ask more questions than it ever answers and be without meaning, there are two possible readings: one which is historical and one which is ideological. To begin with the historical, Waiting for Godot was written in 1947-48 following the Second World War. Even though Beckett never explicitly wrote about the war, there were many allusions made to it in his work (Perloff, 77).  In “Waiting for Godot” there is a ravaged, desolate landscape, a strange environment that is new to the characters, a world that is now pointless but which used to have meaning, mysterious beatings, anxiety over being seen by others, anxiety over waiting, and displaced individuals. All of which resembles what Beckett and others would have experienced during the war (Perloff, 84).

Despite this, critics in France were unwilling to acknowledge this when they wrote about his work, because the war had been painful but also embarrassing for France because of the Vichy government’s collaboration. Critics preferred to focus on Beckett’s work in term of its more universal themes and focused on his portrayal of alienation of man, the absurdity, the incomprehensible, and meaninglessness of the world and the human condition (Perloff, 77) and only one critic mentioned that it was possible that the “waiting” in the play was meant to represent the waiting of prisoners in concentration camps (Perloff, 77). There are a lot of things in Beckett’s work which do not go with the majority of critic interpretations however, for instance his focus on the body and its functions. In his works characters smell, they have no teeth, they are aging, they have swollen feet, lice, they are homeless and without friends or love, they eat only to survive and not for any kind of pleasure, and going to the washroom is difficult. However despite all this, it is made clear that they have memories of better times which contrast with their current situation and that they are intelligent and can quote poetry, the Bible and Shakespeare (Perloff, 79). The critic Hugh Kenner wrote in the Reader’s Guide to Samuel Beckett: “It is curious how reader and audiences do not think to observe the most obvious thing about the world of the play, that it resembles France occupied by Germans, in which its author spent the war years” (Perloff, 84).

Beckett had spent the war years in France. He joined the resistance in France in 1941 where he was part of a group that translated documents about Axis troop movements, until that group was revealed by a double agent (Perloff, 80). Beckett had to escape Paris in secret for the unoccupied south of France in a dangerous 700 km journey, hiding in barns, ditches, haystacks, sheds on his way.  It took him 6 weeks to reach Roussilon, a village 40 m from Avignon, where he lived for 3 years in boredom in the long periods of waiting when there was nothing to do and danger when a Nazi patrol came through the village and he had to hide in the fields or woods, sometimes for days, because his Irish accent would have given him away (Perloff, 81). First he lived in a hotel with bed bugs and mice, then in a house which was cold and gloomy, and he worked for a farmer named Aude and picked grapes for a farmer named Bonnelly who is mentioned by name in the French version of Waiting for Godot (Perloff, 82). After the war, he volunteered with the Irish Red Cross building a hospital in Normandy in Saint-Lo which he described as being all rubble and mud, and full of people who were desperate for food and clothes and clinging to life (Perloff, 82). Following these experiences, Beckett returned to Paris in January 1946 and began to write his most famous works (Perloff, 83).

ESTRAGON: In the meantime let us try and converse calmly, since we are incapable of keeping silent.

VLADIMIR: You’re right, we’re inexhaustible.

ESTRAGON: It’s so we won’t think.

VLADIMIR: We have that excuse.

ESTRAGON: It’s so we won’t hear.

VLADIMIR: We have our reasons.

ESTRAGON: All the dead voices.

VLADIMIR: They make a noise like wings.

ESTRAGON: Like leaves.

VLADIMIR: Like sand.

ESTRAGON: Like leaves.

Silence.

VLADIMIR: They all speak at once.

ESTRAGON: Each one to itself.

Silence.

VLADIMIR: Rather they whisper.

ESTRAGON: They rustle.

VLADIMIR: They murmur.

ESTRAGON: They rustle.

Silence.

VLADIMIR: What do they say?

ESTRAGON: They talk about their lives.

VLADIMIR: To have lived is not enough for them.

ESTRAGON: They have to talk about it.

VLADIMIR: To be dead is not enough for them.

ESTRAGON: It is not sufficient.

Silence.

VLADIMIR: They make a noise like feathers.

ESTRAGON: Like leaves.

VLADIMIR: Like ashes.

ESTRAGON: Like leaves.

Long silence.

VLADIMIR: Say something!

ESTRAGON: I’m trying.

Long silence.

VLADIMIR: (in anguish). Say anything at all!

ESTRAGON: What do we do now?

VLADIMIR: Wait for Godot.

(Beckett, 57-8)

VLADIMIR: Where are all these corpses from?

ESTRAGON: These skeletons.

VLADIMIR: Tell me that.

ESTRAGON: True.

VLADIMIR: We must have thought a little.

ESTRAGON: At the very beginning.

VLADIMIR: A charnel-house! A charnel-house!

ESTRAGON: You don’t have to look.

VLADIMIR: You can’t help looking.

ESTRAGON: True.

VLADIMIR: Try as one may.

(Beckett, 59-60)

In moments like this in the play, it is clear that this play is a post-World War II play. Estragon and Vladimir here talk about how they are trying to distract themselves from hearing the “dead voices” and talk about “skeletons” and “charnel houses” that they can’t ignore, this represents the effect the overwhelming amount of people who died in the war had on society. Estragon and Vladimir are left in a kind of paralysis, waiting and unable to leave, with the characters saying multiple times “Let’s go” to which the response is always “We can’t”. The play seems to be dealing with the aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust and questioning how the world can ever move on after such trauma. In discussing the play Kenner said: “There existed throughout a whole country for five years , a literal situation that corresponded point for point  with the situation in the play, and so far from special that millions of lives were saturated in its deepest reagents, and no spectator ever thinks of it. Instead the play is attributed to one man’s gloomy view of life, which is like crediting him with having invented a good deal of modern history” (Perloff, 84-85).

The play can also be thought about in terms of existentialism, which roughly can be defined as a philosophical movement in the 20th century that emphasized the freedom of the individual to create their own values and meanings because the world itself is meaningless. Existentialism says there is no God or system which can explain our significance or the universe.  We simply exist and it is our job to define who we are and chose our own path. In this play, it is proposed that the universe is meaningless and the characters long for a system to explain the world and provide them with answers which never happens (Baetz). For instance they talk about turning towards nature:

ESTRAGON: We should turn resolutely towards Nature.

VLADIMIR: We’ve tried that.

ESTRAGON: True.

(pg 60)

So they wait for Godot to arrive (who may represent God) who never comes to save them. They long for explanations and meanings and they are instead constantly forced to face the inexplicable, and this demonstrates that existentialism is not a freeing concept, but something which leaves the character being more bound (Baetz).

Works Cited

  • Baetz, Joel. “ Week 6 – Beckett, Waiting for Godot” Trent Oshawa, Oshawa. 16 Oct. 2012. Lecture.
  • Beckett, Samuel. Waiting for Godot. London: Faber and Faber, 2010. Print.
  • Cornwell, Ethel F. “Samuel Beckett: The Flight from Self.” Modern Language Association 88.1 (Jan. 1973): 41-51. JSTOR. Web. 25 Mar. 2013.
  • Perloff, Marjorie. “”In Love with Hiding”: Samuel Beckett’s War.” The Iowa Review 35.1 (Spring 2005): 76-103. JSTOR. Web. 25 Mar. 2013.

A Brief Introduction to the Theatre of the Absurd

ABSURD  ab·surd

Definition: Wildly unreasonable, illogical, or inappropriate. Foolish; unreasonable. Opposed to reason. Ridiculous, silly. An unreasonable thing, act, or statement.

Synonyms: preposterous – ridiculous – nonsensical – ludicrous

THEATER of the ABSURD

  • The Theatre of the Absurd became a prominent movement in the 20th century(Roudane, 499).

  • Martin Esslin first used the term to describe the work of a group of playwrights in the 1950s and 60s.

  • Defined as theater that seeks to represent the absurdity of human existence in a meaningless universe by bizarre or fantastic means.

  • Absurd plays questioned the nature of human existence by presenting a world without logic or morals, and without the using conventional dramatic language, plot and narrative (Roudane, 499).

“What, they ask in fact, is reality? What is verifiable? What is the meaning of our existance? Can language itself still be used to communicate between human beings? Is there such a thing as  character, personality, individuality?” (Esslin, 673)

First Known Use of THEATER OF THE ABSURD: 1961

Previously, theatre reflected “an accepted moral order” (Esslin, 6) with a clear view of right and wrong, and a belief in “evolution and progress” (Esslin, 6) which existed in society.. Plays fit within a framework, and a “rational view of life”. (Esslin, 14). The play had actions which lead to a definable end.

CONTEXT  for THEATRE OF THE ABSURD

  • The decline of religion (Esslin, 6)

  • Discoveries about the human psyche (Esslin, 6)

  • Weapons of mass destruction, totalitarianism (Esslin, 6)

  • The sense of a loss of control over “rational human development” and the lack of a belief in “automatic progress” of society (Esslin, 6)

  • The lack of a “generally accepted and completely integrated world picture” (Esslin, 6)

  • Basically, the accepted framework of values and beliefs that previously existed no longer existed so playwrights didn’t feel the need to fit into dramatic conventions (Esslin, 6).

“Absurd is that which is devoid of purpose…Cut off from his religious,metaphysical and transcendental roots, man is lost; all his actions becomes senseless, absurd, useless…” – Ionesco (Esslin, 671)

CHARACTERISTICS  

“The Theatre of the Absurd is the true theatre of our time.” – Martin Esslin, 1960. (Esslin, 6)

  • Influenced by philosophy and psychology (Esslin, 11)

  • A “bewildering experience, a veritable barrage of wildly irrational, often nonsensical goings-on that seem to go counter to all accepted standards of stage convention” (Esslin, 3)

  • No clear framework or logical motivations (Esslin, 4)

  • The action does not proceed logically. There are contradictions, and the end is not conclusive (Esslin, 14)

  • Shows the world as an incomprehensible place (Esslin, 5).

  • The audience is unable to ever understand the full meaning of the events, or understand the characters (Esslin, 5).

  • It is more difficult for the audience to emotionally identity with the characters they do not understand (Esslin, 5).

  • The time or the place of the play is not usually made clear (Esslin, 3).

  • Events occur without normal motivations,  random, or by “the demented caprice of an unaccountable idiot fate” (Esslin, 3).

  • The dialogue can sometimes appear to counter what is happening onstage, for example characters can start reciting lists, or repeating themselves over and over, using stereotypes and clichés over and over (Esslin, 3).

  • Can include farce, and cabaret elements (Esslin, 3)

  • Gives expression to some issues of our time period, “meet some of the deepest needs and unexpected yearnings of the audience” (Esslin, 4).

  • Confronts the audience with a “grotesquely heightened picture of their own world: without faith, meaning and genuine freedom of will”(Esslin, 6) and “the senselessness of the human condition” (Esslin, 673).

  • Attempts to “externalize” what is happening inside the mind, the subconcious.  (8)

  • A “revolutionary attitude” towards language. Attempts to break the limitations of conventional language, and show how ineffective language can be. (Esslin, 10) The “dissolution, devaluation, and relativisation of language”. (Esslin, 11) A rejection of language. (Esslin, 12)

  • A more complex version of reality, with no conclusive answers but not totally without meaning. ( Esslin 13, 14).

  • Includes allegories, and symbolic representations (Esslin, 15).

  • The audience is confronted with an “intellectual problem, a philosophical paradox” that they will try to solve even though there may be no solution (Esslin, 14).

“The Theatre of the Absurd is the most demanding, the most intellectual theatre” (Esslin, 14)

Notable contributors: Alfred Jarry, Guillame Apollinari,Antonin Artaud, Jean-Louis Barrault, Samuel Beckett, Arthur Adamov, Eugene Ionesco, Harold Pinter.

“The dramatic riddles of our time present no clear cut solutions. All they can show is that while the solutions have evaporated the riddle of our existence remains – complex, unfathomable, and paradoxical.” – Martin Esslin (Esslin, 15)

________________________________________________________________

Works Cited

Esslin, Martin. “The Theatre of the Absurd.” The Tulane Drama Review 4.4 (1960): 3-15. JSTOR. Web. 21 Mar. 2013.

Esslin, Martin. “The Absurdity of the Absurd.” The Kenyon Review 22.4.(1960): 670-673. JSTOR. Web. 21 Mar. 2013.

Roudané, Matthew. Drama Essentials: An Anthology of Plays. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 2009. Print.