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The Archive: Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming – 50 years on

Pinter’s refusal to provide author’s notes to accompany his plays has enabled many different interpretations. Photo: National Theatre Pinter’s refusal to provide author’s notes to accompany his plays has enabled many different interpretations. Photo: National Theatre
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Regarded by some critics as Harold Pinter’s masterpiece, The Homecoming is celebrating its 50th birthday with an anniversary production at the Trafalgar Studios, directed by Jamie Lloyd.

The Homecoming opened at the Aldwych in June 1965, having baffled and infuriated the good burghers of Brighton and Cardiff on its pre-London tour. Happily, metropolitan theatregoers were more sympathetic. Since Pinter, as he did throughout his career, refused to supply any author’s notes by way of illumination, critics and commentators had the licence to advance any number of interpretations of his plays and The Homecoming attracted plenty of theories, often contradictory, illogical or simply batty.

Pinter’s attitude to his own work was characteristically original. A man of scrupulous manners, he seemed to regard his characters – and what they did and said – as close friends and that to talk about their inner life was tantamount to breaking a confidence. He had no interest in the relationships that audiences formed with his plays. How they were interpreted by the outside world was mostly a matter of indifference to him.

The Homecoming was the product of a particularly fecund period for Pinter, written while he and his first wife, the actress Vivien Merchant, were living in a grand Regency house in the genteel seaside resort of Worthing. He claimed that the play wrote itself.

In his biography of Pinter, the critic Michael Billington suggests that the basic plot of The Homecoming owes something to the experience of one of Pinter’s old schoolfriends, who married out of the Jewish faith and emigrated with his wife to Canada without informing his family of his marriage. In addition, the schoolfriend’s father, an amiable elderly gentlemen, liked to sport a flat cap that eventually became one of the hallmarks of Max, the ferocious patriarch of The Homecoming and a very different character from his inspiration. It’s hard to be sure if any domestic circumstances led to a work as original as The Homecoming. As Penelope Gilliatt shrewdly remarked in The Observer “…it offers the stirring spectacle of a man in total command of his talent”.

It’s often forgotten that for the first part of his writing career, Pinter was almost the house writer for the Royal Shakespeare Company and The Homecoming was produced under its auspices at the Aldwych. The ignominious flop of The Birthday Party had been followed by the commercial success of The Caretaker and Pinter was in demand both as a playwright and as a screenwriter. In Peter Hall he found a sympathetic collaborator and since Hall was the RSC’s artistic director, it was natural that Pinter’s work was regularly seen on the company’s stages.

Ironically, Hall failed to convince his colleagues on the planning committee, who included such luminaries as Peter Brook, John Barton and Trevor Nunn, that The Homecoming was a suitable play for the Aldwych. Hall ignored these reservations and The Homecoming was given what critic Ronald Bryden vividly described as a production “tuned like a Maserati, taut in every move and line”. The play was generally well received. Indeed, it was produced no fewer than 11 times around the world within a few months of the London opening.

If it had been kindly received in London, this was nothing compared with the runaway success of its Broadway production in 1967 where the show picked up four Tonys – for Paul Rogers as Max, for Ian Holm as Lenny, for Peter Hall as best director and one for the producer as best play. Despite Pinter’s insistence that the family in The Homecoming is not Jewish, it is perhaps reasonable to speculate that one reason for the play’s success in New York is its large theatre-going Jewish audience who may have found the events in the play strangely familiar.

Over the years the play has been given regular revivals in London. Pinter himself played Lenny at the Watford Palace in 1969, while Timothy West led the cast as Max with Michael Kitchen as Lenny in the West End in 1978. Part of Pinter’s 60th birthday celebrations in 1990/91 was a new production by Peter Hall with Warren Mitchell as Max. In 1997 Roger Michell was at the helm for a strongly cast National Theatre revival with David Bradley as Max, Michael Sheen as Lenny and Eddie Marsan as Joey. In 2001 Ian Holm, the original Lenny, graduated to Max in a production that transferred from Dublin to the West End.

During this time, critical attitudes to The Homecoming have shifted. At its premiere in 1965, audiences were shocked by the events in the play and the behaviour of the characters. The five men were seen as feral animals, snarling and growling at each other with talons and teeth ready to inflict pain and misery. It was about a masculine struggle for power and Ruth, the sole female character, although shocking a 1960s audience with her readiness to agree to her in-laws’ suggestions, was a victim of male brutishness and lechery.

However, the list of leading ladies who have played Ruth suggests that The Homecoming is now seen in a very different light. Gemma Jones, Lindsay Duncan, Lia Williams and Cherie Lunghi, to name but four Ruths, make a formidable quartet. Their contributions may have led to a reappraisal of the play. Far from being the passive plaything of the chest-beating men, it is perhaps Ruth who achieves the power and who by the end of the play has assumed supreme control.

Fifty years on, we may be more accustomed to the landscape Pinter created, less driven to look for explanatory meaning, readier simply to bask in language and form that is truly original. In a speech he gave in Hamburg in 1970 to mark the awarding of the German Shakespeare Prize, Pinter gave a deft analysis of the relationship he had with his work.

“I can sum up none of my plays. I can describe none of them, except to say that is what happened. That’s what they said. This is what they did”.

We shall have to be satisfied with that.

The Homecoming is at Trafalgar Studios, London until February 13, 2016

If you’d like to read more stories from the history of entertainment, The Stage Archive offers access to all back issues of the paper from 1880 to 2007 and is available from £15

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