The setting is an old London house. There is a main room, a hall beyond, and a staircase leading upstairs.
It is evening and Lenny, wearing a dark suit, marks on a newspaper. His father Max comes in, demanding the scissors. Lenny, annoyed, tells him to shut up. Max tells him not to speak to his father like that and sits in his armchair. He finds a crumpled cigarette in his pocket and says he was a once strong man (Uncle Sam knew it) but has a kind heart. He comments that he used to knock around with MacGregor, a tough man. The two of them were hated but had fun together. Mac liked Lenny’s mother Jessie and they got along well. She wasn’t so bad, Max muses. He did feel sick looking at her face, but overall she was not such a “bad bitch” (9).
Lenny, irritated, tells his father to stop talking because he is reading. He does ask his father what he thinks of Second Wind, a horse. Max says it doesn’t have a chance, but Lenny scoffs. Max reminisces how he loved the course and actually touched the horses; he had “an instinctive understanding of animals” (10). It was quite an experience to watch those animals. He always knew the smell of a good horse; it was a gift.
Lenny asks if he can change the subject, and asks why Max doesn’t buy a dog because clearly he is just cooking for dogs. Max tells him he can get out if he doesn’t like it. The two squabble and Max threatens to use a stick on him.
Sam, Max’s brother, enters. He is wearing his chauffeur’s uniform and announces that he just came from London Airport. He and Lenny commiserate about the distance, which annoys Max.
Sam explains he took a Yankee to the airport and the man gave him a box of cigars. He and Max light two of them. Sam boasts that the man said he was the best chauffeur he’d ever had. Max asks from what point of view. Lenny replies that it's from the point of view of his driving. Sam says all his customers tell him that and the other drivers get jealous. Max needles him on this. Sam believes his specialness is due to the fact that he doesn’t pressure the passengers to talk but can pass the time with them when needed. Sam continues, saying he told the man he fought in the second World War and so did he. Lenny guesses that he was a colonel or navigator, and that he knows that kind of man.
Sam brags of his experience and Max asks rudely why he is not married, if he has so many gifts. Sam replies there is still time and Max asks if he is having “a good bang on the back seat” (15) of his car. Sam is indignant and denies it. He does not do things like that, unlike other people. Max sneers that when he finds a girl he ought to bring her here so they can all give her a proper sendoff.
Sam takes an apple. He remembers aloud how much he liked Jessie, Max’s wife, and how he used to drive her around. They were delightful evenings. Max closes his eyes and curses.
Joey, Lenny’s brother and Max’s other son, enters. He has returned from the gym where he was boxing. When he says he is hungry, Lenny tells Max that they all want that special type of dad’s cooking. Max is cross and tells his son to stop calling him dad. Lenny retorts that he is their father and used to tuck them in. Max glowers that he will tuck him up someday soon.
Joey talks about his training and Max tells him he needs to learn how to defend himself and to attack, and that he knows neither. Joey declares he knows what to do, and goes upstairs.
Max asks Sam why he doesn’t leave as well. Sam states that he used to take care of Jessie for him when he was busy. Max wouldn’t have trusted MacGregor. He inquires if Mac is dead, then calls him a “lousy stinking rotten loudmouth” and a “bastard uncouth sodding runt” (18).
Max grumbles that he doesn’t want to support Sam here anymore and he ought to leave. Sam replies that this is his house as well, since it belonged to their parents. Max bitterly remembers his father.
The scene shifts to later that evening. Teddy, Max’s eldest son, and his wife Ruth stand in the room with their suitcases. Teddy smiles that the key worked. Everyone is sleeping. Ruth says that she is tired.
She asks if Teddy ought to wake someone up and Teddy says it is too late. He proceeds stealthily up the stairs and returns, explaining that his room is empty and the bed is still there. There are no sheets, though, and he decides to look for some. He asks if Ruth is cold and she says no. He says he will make a hot drink but she does not want anything.
Teddy looks around the house and asks what she thinks of it. Ruth sits. Teddy asks if she is tired and when she says a little, he says they can go to bed.
Ruth asks if he really does want to stay, and that perhaps the children will be missing them. Teddy tells her not to be silly. He continues to look around and comments that nothing has changed. The old man will be surprised; he thinks Ruth will like him even though he’s getting old now.
Teddy tells Ruth to go up to bed but she says she is not tired. He wants to walk around a bit. He asks if he can show her the room but she says she is fine. He replies that she does not have to go to bed and can stay with him, but they can’t make noise. She answers that she isn't making noise.
He tells her not to be nervous and she replies that she is not. Finally he says they should just go to bed. Ruth responds that she wants to have a breath of air. Teddy is confused and stammers that they just got there and they have to go to bed. She just wants air, she explains. Teddy says he is going to bed and she says okay. He asks what he is supposed to do, then why she wants to go out. She won’t go far, she assures him. He will wait up for her, but she tells him not to. He kisses her and she smiles.
Though the truly depraved and shocking events of the play take place in the second act, there are already glimmerings of the problems and fractures that plague this family. Max is an irascible and irritable old man who takes turns badgering his son, criticizing his brother, and sneering about his dead wife. Max isn’t shy about cursing at his son or threatening physical violence, though he does not carry any of it out. Lenny maintains a cerebral coolness as he needles his father about his cooking or simply ignores him. Sam is likable enough at this point, albeit a bit retiring and weakly defensive. Joey is not as outwardly malevolent as his brother and father, but seems unintelligent and boorish.
Before delving further into the characters, it behooves us to ask whether or not Pinter intended his characters to be fleshed-out human beings, or if he saw them as devices intended to provoke an emotional reaction. Critic Normand Berlin believes “character analysis seems useless because [Pinter] does not allow us to be sure of anything we hear. We witness what is in front of us, and that’s all there is.” Critic William J. Free agrees, pondering this in his article on character and concluding that Pinter pushes that idea into the realm of confusion as much as he can. Characters “talk and act in unexpected and unexplained contradictions” and “we sense their destructive hostility toward one another, but never understand the motives for their actions and words.” These individuals talk in ways that exclude the audience, keeping them in outsider status as they realize “the presence of a communication among the characters which is stronger than can be accounted for by the information which the play gives the spectator.” It is possible to discuss the characters and their traits, but Pinter defies our desire for truth and recognition.
Beginning with Max, one of his noticeable behaviors is that he is very much moored in the past; critic Thomas Postlewait sums it up thusly: “by means of [the past] he defines and defends himself. He also would like to escape it, to live in the present, without memories, but he cannot. So he tries to remake the past in his memories, tries to gain power over the history of desire.” He often reminisces about his father (“Our father? I remember him. Don’t worry” ), his late wife, and his friend MacGregor, as well as his time spent on the racetrack with horses. He waxes poetic (while Lenny blatantly ignores him) about his time there, saying “I used to live on the course. One of the loves of my life…I had a…I had an instinctive understanding of animals. I should have been a trainer” (9-10). Max frequently expresses regret that his family obligations took him away from the things he enjoyed, excoriating his brother, wife, children, and parents as people who held him back from realizing his “gift.” He forces upon the others his view that he is beleaguered and encumbered by his family, memorably complaining “Look what I’m lumbered with. One cast-iron bunch of crap after another. One flow of stinking pus after another” (19).
In terms of Jessie, while she is deceased and thus never seen onstage, she looms large over the family. While Sam remembers her fondly and seems to have some secret about her (revealed at the end of the play), Max and Lenny squabble about her, with Max vacillating between hatred and respect: “Mind you, she wasn’t such a bad woman. Even though it made me sick just to look at her rotten stinking face, she wasn’t such a bad bitch” (9). Berlin suggests that “the Oedipus myth hangs rather heavily over the play” and that Lenny may have issues with his father due to his relationship with his mother. Later in the play it becomes clear that the family’s desire to have Ruth remain is a way of keeping Jessie alive or replacing her.
Speaking of Ruth, she and Teddy arrive at the end of this section. While they do not seem to have the same heated, simmering animosity of Teddy’s family members, there are many disconcerting and mysterious aspects of them as a couple and as individuals. To begin, Teddy claims to be excited to see his family and shows no desire to return to America quickly, but does not even wake anyone up to announce his presence. He is both indifferent to Ruth and somewhat suffocating. He tries to direct her to do what he wants and is surprised when she asks for the key to the house so she can go outside to have a bit of fresh air. It is as if this small act of autonomy is deeply unsettling to him. He nervously asks, “What do you mean?” (23), “At this time of night?” “But what am I going to do?” (24).
Ruth is quiet and inscrutable in her introductory scene, and her elliptical communication with her husband is puzzling. Indeed, communication in this play seems simple, but is much more complex than the succinct and/or coarse language the characters use. While their statements are straightforward, the meaning behind them is not. Critic Richard M. Coe explains, “the play accurately represents a world in which context-free statements do not exist and are not even imagined by most of humanity.” This is the essence of the “Pinteresque” (see “Other” in this study guide).