The Roundabout Theatre Company’s new mounting of Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming opened in New York last October just a few days after the tragicomic, hothouse confrontation between Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill. Suddenly, this once enigmatic play (routinely referred to in the late ’60s as “Pinter’s puzzle”) seemed all too clear, almost didactically so. Ruth, the lone woman in the Homecoming, is involuntarily dragged into an all-male household, where three predatory members of the clan proceed to project upon her various male fantasies of womanhood: madonna and whore, earth mother and bitch goddess. In Anita Hill’s version of this story, only the fantasies were changed: spurned-woman-out-for-revenge, innocent dupe of Thomas’s political opponents, nut-case whose delusions were so powerful she could successfully negotiate a polygraph test. But the most compelling parallel between life and art was the role played in both by a nerdish character named “Teddy”: Pinter’s (as well as the Senate Judiciary Committee’s) embodiment of detachment, ineffectuality and moral cowardice.
It was as if The Homecoming had transformed before our eyes into one of those disease-of-the-week docudramas culled from the pages of People magazine. Of course, at the same time, it also felt as if Thomas’s confirmation hearings had been secretly scripted by Harold Pinter. As in: “Who put the pubic hair on my Coke can?” Is there a more Pinteresque moment anywhere in Pinter? All of the playwright’s classic stategies were in evidence: the defamiliarizing of the commonplace, the sexualizing of objects, the verbal power plays, the territorial imperatives. Pinter, we’ve all been taught, is supposed to be about “the weasel under the cocktail cabinet.” But here, on the Senate committee, the weasels were very much out in the open: a Hatchetman named Orrin, the smarmy Specter of Arlen, and a Simpson considerably less benign than Bart.
The Homecoming had never seemed timelier. And that was precisely the problem. Timeliness and relevance are ultimately impovershing to all great plays (and I believe that The Homecoming will prove to be the most enduring–if not endearing–of Pinter’s works). Such plays (we used to call them “classics”) always by definition transcend the period in which they were created. But that’s because they simultaneously speak to and transcend every period, including the one in which they’re revived. Without an aura of strangeness and distance, great plays shrink in stature. They deliver only a quick fix that fades as fast as the headlines they momentarily, if powerfully, evoke. (“Literature,” as Ezra Pound once reminded us, “is news that stays news.”) So in approaching Pinter’s play we might bear in mind Andre Gide’s famous admonition to his eager admirers: “Please, do not understand me too quickly.”
Where then does the problem lie? With the Roundabout’s production? The Zeitgeist? The headlines? The play itself? Arguably, all of the above. But rather than assigning blame, I’d prefer to raise a few questions that may help to clarify the nature of my complaint. Is the only problem that the Roundabout’s production makes the play seem “paaraphrasable,” that it enables us all too easily to say what Pinter’s Puzzle is about (e.g., “the objectification of women” or something that sounds similarly fashionable)? Put differently: Should an ideal production of The Homecoming be infinitely more ambigous than this one?
Not necessarily. For despite all the talk about puzzles and puzzlement, the most distinctive quality of the legendary Peter Hall/Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Homecoming that came to Broadway in 1967 was not its opaqueness or ambiguity, but rather its clarity, its concreteness and specificity. Not specificity of meaning, mind you — but of sound and gesture, a palpable physicality which strongly suggested that any search for meaning would ultimately lead one back to the clean, sensuous surface of the production. For me, this was the theatre experience that best illustrated the wisdom of Susan Sontag’s then immensely influential essay, “Against Interpretation.” “Transparence,” wrote Sontag, “is the highest, most liberating value in art. . . .Transparence means experiencing the luminousness of the thing in itself, of things being what they are.” And in her oft-quoted, aphoristic conclusion to the essay, she maintained, “In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.”
But Sontag’s essay and Pinter’s play were written in the mid-1960s. Clearly, times have changed. Is it possible to ever again view this play the way we did then? The answer to that question is yes…you can go Homecoming again. That at least, was what I concluded after seeing Peter Hall’s 25th anniversay staging of Pinter’s play in London last spring. Perhaps the earth didn’t move beneath my feet as it seemed to in 1967 when I saw the RSC production of the play in New York. But it convinced me that I hadn’t been merely imagining, misremembering or embellishing things all these years. What I remembered deserved to be remebered as one of the three or four most formative experiences of a theatregoing life.
In 1967, I was a precocious (maybe precious is the more accurate word) 18-year-old, determined to appear More Sophisticated Than Thou. My principal enthusiasms of the period included Alain Robbe-Grillet’s and Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad, Bergman’s Persona, Antonioni’s Blownup, Andy Warhol’s silkscreens of Marilyn Monroe, the music of the Velvet Underground, the dances of Merce Cunningham and, of course, the essays of Sontag. Was there a place for the theatre in this celestial pantheon? Hall’s production of The Homecoming went a long way toward persuading me that the theatre might, on occasion, be able to hold its own alongside this cool, brainy, elegant company.
The heart of Hall’s and Pinter’s strategy seemed to me to lie in Ruth’s response to the pseudo-philosophical bantering of Lenny and Teddy (e.g., “Take a table. Philosophically speaking, what is it?”). Lenny prattles on about “this business of being and non-being,” but Ruth emphasizes the palpability of the here and now. She may or may not “speak” for Pinter at this moment; but it seems to me that she affirmed (by physically embodying through speech and gesture) the very same values that distinguished this glacially elegant production as a whole:
You’ve forgotten something. Look at me. I. . .move my leg. That’s all it is. But I wear. . .underwear. . .which moves with me. . .it. . .captures your attention. Perhaps you misinterpret. The action is simple. It’s a leg. . . moving. My lips move. Why don’t you restrict. . .your observations to that? Perhaps the fact that they move is more significant. . .than the words which come through them. You must bear that. . .possibility. . .in mind.”
In order to understand how liberating this sequence felt in the context of the late ’60s, we need to temporarily suspend our fears that Ruth had been “objectified,” that she’s the victim of the predatory “male gaze,” or of other current ideological concerns. (Alas, today, on the outer fringes of political correctness, to be a “lookist” is a bad as–or worse than–being a racist.) Back then, it was a radical (not a reactionary) gesture to create characters who possess the hardness, stillness and sensuous surface veneer of glistening objects.
Similarly, silence was not necessarily a metaphor for powerlessness. Ruth rarely speaks in The Homecoming, but her “silence” does not imply that she’s been “robbed” of her voice. In the late ’60s, silence was often the ulimate variety of chic, maybe even the ultimate tool of power. One thinks of the essentially silent character that Liv Ullmann played in Persona (the actress who “falls silent” in the midst of a performance) or of David Hemmings’s photographer in Blowup. And in real life, there was the example of Warhol, whose aura of silent voyeurism became a powerful magnet to the self-styled “superstars” who orbited around him.
Hall’s production–last year’s mounting as well as the original–was as notable for its stillnes as for its silences, those famous Pinter pauses that Hall orchestrated with such exquisite musical precision. Although nothing was overtly stylized or dancelike, the paring-down to physical essentials was so extreme that the performers often seemed preternaturally still. It often looked as if one were viewing a succession of three-dimensionalized family photographs. This was not one of those fussy, busy productions in which actors continually light cigarettes and pour drinks in order to provide themselves with something to do. When characters sat, stood, walked or gestured, they did so with such precision and economy that they often seemed to be moving in slow-motion. The result was a physical clarity and palpability that I’ve never before or since experienced on a stage. When the painter Larry Rivers said of The Homecoming, “Mr. Pinter has created an object,” he was, I believe, paying the ultimate compliment to both the play and the production.
It’s especially revealing to compare Hall’s production with Last Year at Marienbad. In Marienbad, it was often impossible to tell whether one was looking at a living actor frozen in object-like immobility or at a genuinely inanimate object, a manequin. Here again, to treat people like object was not to “objectify” them in a pejorative sense, but to liberate them from the limitations of strictly psychological modes of explanation. And at the same time, to “objectify” people was also to reinvest them with what Robbe-Grillet liked to call “etre-la,” a sense of sheer thereness. In his great essay, “For a New Novel,” Robbe-Grillet complained about the process by which physical realities are transformed into symbols and metaphors, thereby forsaking their concreteness: “We remember a landscape as austere or calm without being able to evoke a single outline, a single determining element.” Robbe-Grillet too was arguing against interpretation.
Of course, in one sense, Marienbad–to an even greater extent than Pinter’s play–is the ultimate puzzle. It constructs a series of unanswerable riddles that ultimately leave us with nothing but surface. This is a film that sets out to exhaust the interpretive impulse. “Surfaces without mystery” is the phrase Robbe-Grillet’s narrator uses in the final moments of the film.
But viewed today, Marienbad feels almost flesh-crawlingly rarified. It veers so far from cinematic naturalism that it quickly becomes stuffy and airless. Hall’s approach to The Homecoming, by contrast, was rooted in naturalistic behavior; but by ruthlessly stripping away the inessentials, a remarkable balance was achieved between realism and stylization. “One of the achievements of the production,” Hall once said in an interview, “is that it sailed dangerously near to a puppetlike production without being one.” Precisely right.
This intensely concentrated physicality was nowhere more evident than in the battle between Ruth and Lenny over one of the production’s privileged objects: the glass of water. Here’s the way Pinter wrote the scene:
Lenny: Excuse me, shall I take the ashtray out of your way?
Ruth: It’s not in my way.
Lenny: It seems to be in the way of your glass. The glass was about to fall. Or the ashtray. I’m rather worried about the carpet. It’s not me, it’s my father. He’s obsessed with order and clarity. He doesn’t like mess. So, as I don’t believe you’re smoking at the moment, I’m sure you won’t object if I move the ashtray.
(He does so.)
Lenny gets a laugh when he suggests that his father is obsessed with order and clarity: but the obsession he describes is evident nonetheless throughout the production. Given the fact that John Bury’s setting for the Hall production was so uncluttered to begin with, the ashtray and glass assumed an eerie prominence and intensity–rather like the remaining pieces in the final moments of a championships chess match. Lenny continues the match as follows:
Lenny: And now perhaps I’ll relieve you of your glass.
Ruth: I haven’t quite finished.
Lenny: You’ve consumed quite enough, in my opinion.
Ruth: No, I haven’t.
Lenny: quite sufficient, in my own opinion. And then a few lines later:
Lenny: Just give me the glass.
Lenny: I’ll take it, then.
Ruth: If you take the glass. . .I’ll take you.
Whether it was the moment when Lenny first invades Ruth’s private space by searching across her body for the ashtray, or the moment when Ruth decides to retaliate by pressing her hand firmly down on top of the glass, the blocking was wo cleanly chiseled that the results were positively sculptural. This was equally true of many other moments in Hall’s production: the stunning physical tableau at the end (Ruth sitting in the displaced patriarch’s chair as he pathetically grovels on the floor, begging her for a kiss) or the scene in which Teddy, Ruth’s husband, is left holding her empty coat while she slow-dances with one of his brothers and then rolls on and off of the couch with another brother, or the precisely choreographed way in which the elderly uncle Sam collapses, presumably of a heart attack, toward the end of the play. These sequences were always “realistic” and yet strangely ritualized, as physically palpable as that glass of water, yet mysteriously reverberent, evoking distant echos of Lear, Oedipus and Greek tragedy.
Ironically, Hall’s original production arrived at the very moment the American experimental theatre was becoming increasingly committed to a theatre of the body. (And as coincidence will have it, playing concurrently with Roundabout’s revival of The Homecoming was a reconstruction at nearby La Mama ETC of Tom O’Horgan’s production of Rochelle Owens’s Futz, which also originally played in New York in 1967.) But the physical concreteness of The Homecoming was very different from the sort of physicality that informed the work of O’Horgan, the Living Theater, the Open Theater or the Performance Group. The overtly choreographic stylization in a production like Futz was “bodily” with a vengeance, but it often bordered on group mine. And as a result, one’s attention was ultimately deflected away from the body itself and onto what the body represented. In addition, much of this work was so determined to advertise the new freedom presumably offered by the “liberated” life of the body that it lacked the exacting physical discipline of Hall’s production. That sort of discipline was presumably at odds with the orgiastic and egalitarian ethos at the heart of so much of the company-created work of the period. So, paradoxically, at least for me, the most palpable and sensual “theatre of the body” was not to be found in the perpetual motion machines of Tom O’Horgan (or for that matter, even in the work of Jerzy Crotowski) but in the unmistakably British collaboration of Harold Pinter, Peter Hall and the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Critic Roger Copeland teaches at Oberlin College.