Michael Smith’s January 12, 1967, Village Voice review of the U.S. premiere of Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming, presented by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Music Box on Broadway.
I several times wrote several pages about The Homecoming, Harold Pinter’s play at the Music Box. But they were such attenuated nonsense that I threw them away….My admiration for [Pinter’s] work is considerable but qualified. He is the leading British playwright in the “theatre of the absurd” tradition—which seems to have gone out of fashion and never really existed in the first place. Ionesco evidently inspired Pinter, who developed a style all his own—dialogue both accurate and improbable, quirky humor, intriguingly oblique action, and dense implications of menace and meaning. His unique and brilliant style is immediately recognizable, and his craftsmanship is superb. I always like seeing his plays but am always disappointed to find them somewhat mannered and hollow. Ambiguity, for Pinter, it seems, is a mask rather than a characteristic of experience. Instead of depth he offers a dazzling proliferation of invention, and his plays tend not to quite pay off. But this unfair—bitching at Pinter for not writing a major play when he has written several extraordinarily good minor ones. I should be contented that he’s funnier than Neil Simon, and more provocative than the recent Albee.
The Homecoming is the most impressive Pinter play I’ve seen. It is a Broadway event for sheer integrity of writing—Pinter never breaks stride, never cheats or cheapens: It is a Pinter event for intensity and implicit theme. The setting is an old house in London where a retired butcher, a widower, lives with his bachelor brother and two sons, one a pimp the other a demolition-worker and would-be boxer. Home on an unannounced visit comes third son Teddy, a Ph.D. who teaches in America; with him into this house of men he brings a surprise, his wife. The fierce old father instantly attacks, the girl is baited and grossly insulted, then is suddenly charmingly welcomed. One minute the play is broadly comic, the next minute grotesque, the next heavy with gloom or raucously vulgar, or drenched in nameless fears. What’s happening? It changes, changes and every ambiguity is cause for alarm. Is it about men laying traps for a woman, their hated desire? Is it driven by febrile misogyny? Will evil win, and when it does will I believe it? Yes, yes.
It is a stunning play, and yet halfway through the second act it lost me, I stopped caring. I found myself numb to surprise or shock, tired of it, dulled. Apparently Pinter’s technique is self-limiting. Once you realize that anything can happen, you’re immunized against it when it does. If anything can happen, everything is the same—and sameness is death to drama. Still I wouldn’t have missed it; and it doesn’t mean much that it lost me—I may have been lost alone. The Royal Shakespeare Company production has a detailed, controlled, ferociousness that is a lesson in itself. Peter Hall’s direction is so superbly done that it seems disrespectful to question its premises, and yet I wonder if the play couldn’t have been made more convincing as a whole. Hall’s staging, in a vast, sullen set by John Bury, emphasizes the patterns and groupings in space, isolates the meaningful gestures and stark vulgar threats where the play is dangerously mannered to begin with and seems to want an anchor in the ordinary. Who knows? Hall’s extraordinarily ability is not to be doubted. And the actors: Paul Rogers as the father, Ian Holm as the pimp, John Normington as the brother, Vivien Merchant as the woman, Michael Craig as the professor—they are beyond criticism or certainly beyond my desire to criticize. Their performances individually and as an ensemble looked definitive to me.