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The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even

Speaking of plays where all relationships are a struggle for dominance, the week before last we went for the second time to see the current, extraordinary Stratford production of Pinter’s The Homecoming. Now, my knowledge of Pinter is exceedingly limited. The only Pinter I’d seen prior to this production were the two one-acts staged in New York this past fall – The Collection and A Kind of Alaska, and I’ve read nothing of his work. For no reason I can now justify, I had classified him early on as somebody I probably wouldn’t like. But I was very impressed with the one-acts – particularly The Collection – and absolutely floored by The Homecoming. I don’t know how much is the shock of the new (to me), and I recognize that he is not to all tastes. But for my money, this is the most interesting and powerful production on the Stratford stage this season – and this is, overall, a very strong season indeed.

The play is superficially quite simple. We are introduced to a North London working-class family: Max, a retired butcher, aging patriarch of the clan; his brother, Sam, a chauffeur, whom Max abuses mercilessly; Max’s son, Lenny, a sleazy, fast-talking character who postures as a pimp; and another, younger son, Joey, a dim-witted boxer. Missing are Max’s wife, Jessie, dead for many years but still the object of Max’s fond (and also bitter) reminiscences; and, we discover after a blackout, Teddy, Max’s eldest son, who returns from America in the middle of the night with his wife, Ruth, whom the clan back in Hackney not only have never met but don’t even know exists. The story, from then on, is of Teddy and Ruth’s reception by the clan, Ruth ultimately being absorbed (and taking a leadership position), and Teddy being expelled again.

Superficially simple, but complex enough that I had to see the show twice to follow its many threads – and I’m sure there was still much that I missed. On opening night, the first lines of the play – Max (played with ferocity by Brian Dennehy) looking for a scissors, berating his son, Lenny, about them until Lenny finally deigns to reply with “why don’t you shut up you daft prat” – grabbed me immediately by the throat and the production simply never let go. I saw a whole story there, Max the aging dictator whose thymos could never be satisfied by recognition from the likes of Lenny or Sam, but could certainly never tolerate to admit to an equality with them; but now he’s getting old, can’t figure out where the scissors are (perhaps I’d been seeing too much Shakespeare, but that immediately registered to me as a sexual pun in addition to being an intimation of violence); and his son, Lenny, coolly watching, waiting for his turn to stick in his own knife.

A whole play, as I say, which is precisely what any play’s opening lines ought to be. And aided immensely by perfect comic timing, particularly on the part of Aaron Krohn as Lenny. Once again, the tone for the evening was set: you couldn’t not laugh at Lenny’s first tension-breaking insult, and once that laugh was out the audience knew: this may be brutal, but it’ll be brutally funny.

Precisely because that introduction was so riveting, I wound up spending most of the evening watching a particular trio of characters: Max, Lenny and Sam. Their relations were almost painfully familiar to me. It is probably not a good sign that I recognized myself in Max, his mix of cruelty and sentimentality, the way he attacks everyone first, and then fairly begs for affection. I almost collapsed with painful laughter in the comic coup-de-grace of one of his tirades of abuse, when he tells Sam, gently, that he, Sam, if he wants to have a better time of it, really has to get rid of his feelings of resentment towards Max. (I call it his coup-de-grace, but the real coup was on Sam’s face, or rather Stephen Ouimette’s, simply taking all of this and holding it in with whatever dignity he can muster in his frilly apron, dishrag in hand.)

But focused as I was on this trio, I took too long to realize: this isn’t their play.

I forget who said that there are only two kinds of stories: a man goes on a journey, and a stranger comes to town. And, of course, these are the same story told two different ways. But, though framed differently, in each case it’s the traveler’s story – and the traveler, the stranger who comes to town in The Homecoming is Ruth, Max’s unknown daughter-in-law. This is her play, and I didn’t realize that until most of the way through the first time around. And so the second time I saw it, I spent as much of the play as I could watching her.

Ruth is a bit of an enigma, but she is not, I would argue, a cypher. She’s the object on which all the men are projecting their desires, but she is not merely an object – there is, clearly, a person in there, aware of these projections and using them, responding to them. A great deal of credit for my view on this goes to Cara Ricketts, who plays Ruth in this production. A beautiful and finely poised actress, this is unquestionably the finest work I’ve seen her do at Stratford. I’ve liked her in a number of classical roles, but never loved her, in large part because I was often too aware that she was speaking verse, as opposed to speaking naturally, and just happening to be a creature whose language often consists of verse. But Pinter’s exceptionally difficult language – with all its pauses and ambiguities – felt as natural to her as her beige herringbone coat and her gorgeous mid-60s hairdo. She was riveting the first time around, but I stayed on the surface – I wasn’t watching her. The second time, I began to plumb the depths.

I had assumed, when Ruth and her husband appeared after the first blackout, that the Homecoming of the title referred to the husband, Teddy – this is his childhood home, and he’s the one who left. But Ruth is from the same neighborhood. When she steps out for a walk immediately upon arrival, this is only partly to get away from her nervous and overprotective husband – it’s also just to take a stroll around the old neighborhood. At the end of the play, when she has taken Jessie’s old chair (an important decision by director Jennifer Tarver – usually she takes Max’s chair, dethroning the patriarch; in this production, she’s taking the role reserved for the feminine, a chair that has been empty), she is the one who has come home. Teddy is left out, to return to America without her. Indeed, I began to wonder about what happens before the play. Whose idea was it to visit the old homestead in the first place? I can’t think of a reason why Teddy would want to come back. He’s certainly not eager to show Ruth off. He has no discernable affection for his family – the line, “I’m ready for the cuddle” makes that abundantly clear. And as soon as he sees what’s happening, he’s eager to get out of there and get back home – with Ruth in tow. But she doesn’t want to leave. It makes much more sense to me that she was the one who wanted to stop off and finally meet her husband’s father and brothers on the way home from vacation in Italy. That this homecoming was her idea in the first place, something Teddy agreed to with trepidation rather than as a strategy to reclaim his inheritance or some such.

That would be consistent with Teddy’s own description of his approach to life. Pinter uses language primarily as a weapon in combat rather than a means of communication or connection. And that is certainly evident in this play. But each person uses language in a distinct manner, constituting a personal style of combat. Max is the man for the frontal assault – attack, attack again, never give quarter. Sam is a turtle, huddled in his shell, taking blows and hoping they don’t land anywhere vital. (When he finally does strike back, at the end of the play, letting out the wounding information he’s kept hidden the whole time, he immediately collapses with a stroke.) Lenny’s strategy is to throw his opponent off-balance so he has an opening for a counter-thrust. He does this over and over again with his father – the most interesting instance being when his father, raging at him for waking him up in the middle of the night, demands to know who he was shouting at (he’d been talking with Ruth, who Max doesn’t yet know about), and Lenny answers by asking Max about the night he, Lenny, was conceived. He’s very pointedly insinuating that he’s not Max’s son, and Max, thrown off-balance, is reduced to spitting at Lenny’s feet. And Joey, the professional fighter? As his father says:

What you’ve got to do is you’ve got to learn how to defend yourself, and you’ve got to learn how to attack. That’s your only trouble as a boxer. You don’t know how to defend yourself and you don’t know how to attack.

Pause

Once you’ve mastered those arts you can go straight to the top.

Joey (played expertly by Ian Lake – you have to be pretty clever to play dim this humorously, and this touchingly) may think he has a “pretty good idea … of how to do that,” but his father is right.

But Teddy doesn’t engage in this kind of combat. Mike Shara has his finest moment in the role when his family is quizzing him about his “critical works” (Teddy is a PhD philosopher). Teddy coldly informs them that they wouldn’t understand them – not because they aren’t smart enough, but because they have no critical distance from themselves.

You’re just objects. You just … move about. I can observe it. I can see what you do. It’s the same as I do. But you’re lost in it.

When Teddy does engage, it’s almost because he’s curious what the outcome will be. He takes Lenny’s cheese roll and asks, “what are you going to do about it?” As it turns out, what he’s going to do – whether it’s about the cheese roll or not – is proposition Ruth to become a prostitute in his employ. But by this point, Teddy has developed sang-froid on the subject of his wife as well. He is curious whether she’ll come home with him, or stay at his childhood home with his father and brothers. But he’s no longer anxious about it. No longer lost in it.

So, if this is how he plays the game, why would he ever have planned this homecoming?

He wouldn’t. It’s not his homecoming. And it’s not his play, either.

As I learned the second time through this production, the play is happening in Ruth’s eyes. In the sweet eyes she makes at Joey. The frustration in her eyes as she turns away from Teddy. The sharp eyes she uses on Lenny. The complicated politeness she shows Max. The haunted look as she described her America, a barren, arid wasteland crawling with insects. Ruth is the one who decided to come to Max’s house. When she and Teddy get there, it’s she, not Teddy, who must enter the lists of combat, first with Lenny, against whom she deftly turns the tables, then with Max, whose vicious verbal assaults she weathers, responding with a disarming grace. And she’s the one who makes the key decision of the play: the decision to stay. It’s her play.

That decision – to stay – has engendered a great deal of debate. The play shifts in the last twenty minutes or so, veering off from a kind of heightened reality to true absurdism, when Ruth makes out with Joey in full view of her husband and father-in-law. From here, it’s not a long trip to the point where Lenny and Max hatch the idea of Ruth paying her own way as a new member of the family by becoming one of Lenny’s prostitutes, a proposition she appears to accept (though she doesn’t actually clinch the deal – she’s still a bit of a tease). It’s this stuff more than anything that has led to feminist distaste for the play. But I think it’s worth taking a closer look at what is happening.

Ruth’s relations with the men recapitulate the relations that Jessie, the boys’ mother, had with three men in her life: Max, Sam and MacGregor, Max’s old friend from the neighborhood. In a variety of subtle and not-so-subtle ways, it’s insinuated that Jessie was unfaithful to Max, and that not all of his sons are his own, biologically speaking. Given the special bond between Sam and Teddy, as well as Sam’s coyness about his lingering affection for Jessie’s memory, I’m inclined to see a suggestion that Teddy is actually Sam’s son, Lenny MacGregor’s son – who we know slept with Jessie in the back of Sam’s cab; that’s his stroke-inducing revelation – and only Joey, the youngest, the product of Max’s loins. But it doesn’t matter if this is literally true in the world of the play or only metaphorically true – in a prior generation, there was a trio of brothers (MacGregor isn’t literally a brother, but Max treats him as such) who shared the affections of a woman who was both wife and mother to them all. Now she’s gone, and the boys have been on their own all this time – all except for Teddy, who has actually done what Max taunts Sam and Joey about: found himself a wife and mother. (Ruth is repeatedly referred to as a mother, but though she has three children they don’t seem to be very important to this characterization; they are more the _proof_ that she is a mother than the _reason_ she is a mother, if that’s not too obscure.) Was Teddy’s betrayal that he left the family home? Or was his betrayal that he kept this woman, Ruth, to himself?

By the end of the second time around, I’d come to the conclusion that it’s the latter. It’s his husbanding of Ruth that is the betrayal, the most important expression of his abandonment of the family. Joey may not want to share her either, but sharing is what families do.

What Ruth is presented with is a choice between two different families, one in which she gets to play a variety of female roles opposite a variety of different men – with Lenny she gets a certain level of economic independence at the price of relations operating on a purely economic level; with Joey she gets to be both wife and mother to a sweet simpleton she can easily dominate; with Max … well, it’s not clear Max is going to live to be a part of this new family, much as he might wish to jump down to the next generation and take his own eldest son’s place in the triumvirate. In the other model, she is Teddy’s wife. She is defined, fixed, placed. And placed under and beside a patriarch who sees what everybody is doing as they move about, but doesn’t understand that the _fact that they move_ is more important than what they are saying (or doing).

It’s kind of a brutal choice, because this is a brutal world we’re presented with, but I understand why Ruth would choose it. I don’t think it’s a suggestion that women want to be whores or treated badly, but that living among people who _move_ is better than living among insects with a man who knows nothing about what she wants.

As such, it’s a prophecy about what happened to the ’50s family. But it’s also a living story for now, because the boundaries between the roles we play with each other are inevitably more fluid than we might tell ourselves they are, and these archetypes still walk among us, even if they are less supported by law or common prejudice than they once were, because they are a part of our essential character, our species inheritance. They move through us. And the great challenge is to see what we are doing, not get lost in it, but also see that the fact that we are moving is what is most important.

One final word. Cara Ricketts, who plays Ruth so superbly in this production, is a black Canadian actress. The difference in race makes Ruth’s outsider status obvious from the first, gives us an instant understanding of why Teddy might be nervous about introducing her, why Max might talk of Teddy marrying “beneath” him (remember, this is the mid-60s). But, if I understand correctly, in Pinter’s original conception, this is a working class Jewish family that Teddy returns to, and Ruth’s outsider status (her name notwithstanding) derives in part from her being a non-Jew. Having now seen this production twice, I am eager to see a production in which this original concept is brought out, where the family is Jewish and Ruth is a local English (or I suppose Irish) girl from the neighborhood.

The reason is that I think this play wants us to be maximally discomfited. And we are all very comfortable feeling superior to Max for assuming Ruth is a prostitute when he first meets her. Casting a black actress as Ruth works wonders for helping us understand part of what is going on – but at a price of making us, the theatre-going audience, too comfortable in thinking this is not a story about us. But it is about us, and I’d like to see that brought home in as many ways as possible.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.