The Homecoming is one of Nobel laureate Harold Pinter’s most compelling and critically acclaimed plays. Disturbing, enigmatic, and darkly comic, it has been staged continually since its 1965 debut. Pinter’s own words in 1970 when accepting the German Shakespeare Prize in Hamburg point to the play’s mix of simple language and plot with utterly inscrutable characters: “I can sum up none of my plays. I can describe none of them, except to say: That is what happened. That is what they said. That is what they did.”
On the surface, the plot—if it could even be called that—is simplistic; the eldest son of a family living in North London returns to his home country for a visit while touring Europe, having moved to America some years earlier to pursue his education and his career. He brings with him his wife, who sparks old tensions among the family concerning the behavior of the now-deceased matriarch. The stage is thus set for the characters to play out their fantasies and reenact their memories, all in a style that becomes increasingly sexual, blatant, and confrontational.
It is no accident that Harold Pinter is often hailed as one of the masters of the style called the Theater of the Absurd, and The Homecoming fits neatly into such a category. With Pinter, it is not so much the premises of the play (there are no animal transformations going on) that are absurd as it is the characters' dialogue and their behavior; it is more the human reaction that ventures into the absurd rather than the external action itself. In The Homecoming, the premise of a father, his two sons, and his brother living together is completely natural, as is the return of his second son to see his family as part of his trip to Europe. However, the sexually charged nature of the stories that the characters relate, and the visiting wife's open advances towards the other sons and her renunciation of her family in favor of a life as a prostitute, are anything but commonplace.
The Homecoming is also cited as one of the later plays that fall under the umbrella of Pinter's style dubbed "Comedy of Menace." A pun on the classic style Comedy of Manners, the term Comedy of Menace refers to plays that create humor through insult, vulgarity, and a complete lack of propriety. Whereas in the Comedy of Manners the customs and manners of the day are parodied or create humorous messes that the main characters must sort out, in the Comedy of Menace all notion of following social norms is thrown out of the window. This can be seen in the open way in which the characters in The Homecoming discuss sex and violence, with family members outlining a prostitution contract for the visiting son's wife in his presence.
When asked what his plays were about, Pinter once declared that they were about "the weasel under the cocktail cabinet." This statement helps us understand Pinter's often absurdist style, but it also suggests that the actual plots of many of his early plays are secondary in importance to the themes that they display. His plays The Homecoming and The Birthday Party are two works that focus on the nature of the family, zeroing in on the duplicity inherent in many of the relationships between parents and their children, between siblings, or between husband and wife. While many American playwrights of the 20th century, such as Tennessee Williams, used realism as a tool to portrays explosive themes, Pinter instead gains focus through an absurdist lens. While this sacrifices some of the believability of the play, it allows him to convey his message to the audience more directly and poignantly.
Pinter composed the play in 1964, taking only six weeks to complete it in the Sussex coastal town of Worthing. The Homecoming premiered in London’s Aldwych Theatre on June 3rd, 1965, staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Peter Hall directed it and Pinter’s wife Vivien Merchant played Ruth; Ian Holm played Lenny.
London reviews of the play, barring a few that viciously complained about its putative lack of plot, were mixed. One English critic took up an audience member’s claim that the characters “behaved like animals” while Ronald Bryden commended the style but said there was only flavor and entertainment. On the other hand, in 1972 Merrick Garland wrote for the Harvard Crimson, “The Homecoming is dedicated to curing those play-goers who play ‘What's your interpretation?’ after every performance they see. Within its two acts, Harold Pinter has laid a series of booby-traps and land mines designed to destroy the categorizers, rationalizers and explainers in every audience. The Homecoming is Pinter's declaration of war on our tendency to assume that we know what is real and what is unreal, and on our smug assurance that we can analyze why people act as they do.” In 1973 the Los Angeles Times critic called it “by any interpretation a scintillating piece of work.” Notable Pinter critic John Lahr lauded the play thusly: “The Homecoming’s territorial free-for-all is waged with a rhetorical panache that is almost Jacobean in its richness and its ferocity. Its vulgar verbal impasto created a stage sound that was entirely new. Pinter, according to David Hare, ‘cleaned the gutters of the English language.’ ‘He kicked the whole thing down,’ David Mamet said.”
The original Broadway staging took place in 1967 at the Music Box and won four Tony Awards, including Best Play. Despite these wins, it also had mostly lukewarm or negative feedback in America when it debuted. A film version was released in 1973, and included most of the original 1965 Royal Shakespeare Company cast.
Over time, Pinter and his plays have indisputably entered the canon. They are critically acclaimed, frequently performed, and revered amongst academics, playgoers, and students.
There have been many revivals of the play, the most notable being 2008’s 40th Anniversary Broadway revival. Ian McShane starred as Max, garnering many accolades. The revival was nominated for a Tony Award.