Often considered to be a highly ambiguous, an enigmatic, and for some even a cryptic play, The Homecoming has been the subject of extensive critical debate for over forty years. According to many critics, it exposes issues of sex and power in a realistic yet aesthetically stylised manner.
Surveying Pinter's career on the occasion of the 40-anniversary Broadway production of the play at the Cort Theatre in The New Yorker, the critic John Lahr describes the impact of experiencing it: "'The Homecoming' changed my life. Before the play, I thought words were just vessels of meaning; after it, I saw them as weapons of defence. Before, I thought theatre was about the spoken; after, I understood the eloquence of the unspoken. The position of a chair, the length of a pause, the choice of a gesture, I realised, could convey volumes."
Like other contemporary critics familiar with The Homecoming, Ben Brantley praises the play's two-act plot structure, referring to its "nigh-perfect form." In the 1960s, when first encountering the play, its earliest critics complained that, like Pinter's other plays as perceived then, The Homecoming seemed, in their words, "plotless," "meaningless," and "emotionless" (lacking character motivation), and they found the play "puzzling" (their word); later critics argue that the play evokes a multiplicity of potential meanings, leading to multiple interpretations.
In "Demolition Man", Lahr considers The Homecoming to be
the last and best play of Pinter's fecund early period (1957–65). It is a culmination of the poetic ambiguities, the minimalism, and the linguistic tropes of his earlier major plays: "The Birthday Party" (1958), whose first production lasted only a week in London, though the play was seen by eleven million people when it was broadcast on TV in 1960, and "The Caretaker" (1960), an immediate international hit. "The Homecoming" is both a family romance and a turf war.
The Homecoming directly challenges the place of morals in family life and puts their social value "under erasure" (in Derridean terminology). Teddy's profession as an academic philosopher, which, he claims, enables him to "maintain . . . intellectual equilibrium"—
I'm the one who can see. That's why I write my critical works. [...] I can see what you do. It's the same as I do. But you're lost in it. You won't get me being . . . I won't be lost in it. (77–78)—
ironically raises basic philosophical questions about the nature of so-called family values and the "meaning" of "love" among family members.
Occasionally, one finds critics of the play, aware of Pinter's reputation for ambiguity, questioning even Teddy's and Ruth's references to the fact of their "being married"; e.g., Sir Harold Hobson, as cited by Merritt: "Hobson's interpretation of Teddy as merely pretending to be Ruth's husband and a professor of philosophy enables him to rationalize the man's behavior toward his wife." Basing her viewpoint on a personal interview with Hobson, Merritt considers Hobson's review of the first production of the play, entitled "Pinter Minus the Moral", concluding: "although Hobson still describes The Homecoming as Pinter's 'cleverest play,' his judgment against the play's 'moral vacuum,' like his denial of Teddy and Ruth's marriage, suggests his personal distress at the portrayal of marriage and what Pinter has called the characters' misdirected 'love.' " To deny that Teddy and Ruth are really married is a common refrain in responses to the play. Aside from their behaviour in the play and that of Teddy's father and brothers towards them, nothing else in the text contradicts Teddy's and Ruth's claims that they are married and that they have three sons. The more outrageous Ruth's and his family's actions, the more Teddy protests that they are married, leading some critics to believe that the man doth protest too much, though perhaps they may do so too.
Continuing denial of the facts of Teddy's and Ruth's marriage and family may serve critics as a means of expressing their own rejection of what occurs in the play. Alluding indirectly to this critical pattern, Brantley observes, however, that, in time, the play may appear more realistic and more relevant to the lives of theatre audiences than it may have seemed when they themselves were younger or more naive about the nature of marriage and family life. To those with strong religious values, like Hobson, the play appears immoral. Yet, to others, its moral value resides in its very questioning of commonly accepted shibboleths about marriage and the family: "People who were originally put off by 'The Homecoming' may now find it too close to home. It's a bit like Picasso's shockingly severe painting of Gertrude Stein from 1906, the one he predicted in time would resemble its subject. We may not have thought we saw ourselves in 'The Homecoming' four decades ago. Now it feels like a mirror." Other critics, like Lahr in "Demolition Man", remind their readers of the strong element of comedy in this play, as in many of Pinter's other plays.