Smashing The Truth In An Old London House



“When we look into a mirror we think the image that confronts us is accurate. But move a millimetre and the image changes. We are actually looking at a never-ending range of reflections. But sometimes a writer has to smash the mirror — for it is on the other side of that mirror that the truth stares at us.”
— from “Art, Truth & Politics”, Harold Pinter’s Nobel Prize Lecture delivered on December 7, 2005

From its 1965 premiere at the Aldwych Theatre, performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company, Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming tore the roof off of one among a long row of old houses lining a dimly lit street in North London and exposed for its audience’s discomforted view the horrifying but recognizable dynamics of an all-male family. Like the wide open space we stare at for the next hour and fifty-four minutes, from which the living room wall has been sledgehammered through after the death of the family matriarch some years before, the tensions, hostilities, and naked abuse that thuds through its narrowing social confines play with the undisguised, raw emotion of a six-person, psychological battle zone.

From father Max, brutal and physically deteriorating, and uncle Sam, prudish and hypocritical, to brothers Lenny, streetwise and cruel, and Joey, sluggish and slovenly, the title return of the prodigal son with the remote, reserved Teddy introduces the element of the underlying unknown with his ten-year bride, wife, and mother of three children in the cool, cryptic Ruth. More than being bracketed by inadequate adjectives and insufficient descriptors, however, this unnamed family’s unholy reunion smashes any cozy preconceptions we may have over plays holding a mirror up to our better natures.

A quiet evening of reading the racing papers is loudly interrupted by a querulous old man accusing his son of wanton scissors-theft, from which son Lenny (Ian Holm) calmly turns the rhetorical tables on father Max (Paul Rogers) by comparing the latter’s (lack of) cooking ability to that more fit for a family of dogs. Setting the tone for a similar, only slightly reconfigured exchange denigrating the chosen profession and personal inadequacies of chauffeur uncle Sam (Cyril Cusack), the arrival home after a long day of building demolition and boxing training of younger brother Joey (Terence Rigby) fails to materialize any hope for dinner on the table that evening. All retire to their separate rooms insulted and angry.

The ruddy light of the streetlamps dulls to a husky orange glow as oldest brother Teddy (Michael Jayston), a philosophy professor living the past ten years in the northeastern United States, returns to the family hearth with his wife and mother of three children, Ruth (Vivien Merchant), whom the family has not met and, indeed, know nothing about. As Teddy checks on his old room upstairs, the rest of the family asleep, Lenny — emerging soundlessly from his ground-floor lair between the kitchen and stairs — introduces himself to his yet unacknowledged sister-in-law with a series of menacing anecdotes about his normal treatment of women — all seeming to end with a swift, savage sucker-punch to the gut — while Ruth calmly drinks a glass of water; which she in fact finishes despite Lenny’s firm warning not to.

The meeting between the rest of the family progresses equally well from early next morning to late evening with the father’s initial mistaking of his long-absent eldest son’s wife for a prostitute, and then, through indigestible meals, a physical altercation in the front parlor, unconsummated sexual play between in-laws, and the uncle dropping half-dead on the carpet, dramatically resolves with the unruffled Ruth staying on with the family while Teddy resignedly returns alone to America. Whether its rather untoward conclusion may variously indicate a future period of sexual slavery, a cunningly conceived quadruple emasculation, or a happy return to simple family life — with a seventy-year-old father repeatedly protesting his age and demanding a kiss from his thirty-five-year-old daughter-in-law; who is content, seemingly, cradling the head of one brother-in-law in her lap while the other looks possessively on — remains to the best or worst guess of both the most and least perceptive among its audience members.

Described by one early critic as a “situation tragedy”, The Homecoming remains resistant to broader descriptions like “black comedy” or “surreal drama”, instead playing like some uncomfortable yet entirely straightforward near-parody of the period’s kitchen sink, working class dramedies — a cycle begun with John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (1956) and Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey (1958) — but with none of those plays’ reassuring social earnestness or character sympathy engendered for their proletariat protagonists. Rather, Pinter essentially removes the kitchen sink to reveal the cloaca of a twisted family dynamic and the raw sewage of power and masculinity dripping beneath.

This American Film Theatre production from 1973 reunites four members of the original 1965 staging — including Rogers, Rigby, Holm, and Merchant — along with its director, Peter Hall. Cinematographer David Watkin, whose recent interview is included as a special feature on this disc, ventures outside the house for a few establishing sequences yet mainly preserves the source material’s one-set location, finding a disconcerting expansiveness to wide-angle compositions despite the play’s crucial claustrophobia. Of the cast, Holm and Merchant as brother Lenny and wife Ruth are the most impressive, their battle of wills over, successively, an ashtray, the aforementioned glass of water, and, finally, the philosophical disposition of a dining-room table, the last as frighteningly-absurdly related to the unclear semiotic-referent of women’s underwear, leaving no clear victor.

Both terrifying and hilarious, reality and absurdity mix to a disturbing degree of familiar horror in The Homecoming, which Kino Classics bring to Blu-ray at a time when such questions are difficult to raise, much less answer, with anything approaching complexity. But for the discerning, or merely the emotionally distanced, Harold Pinter’s casual acts of everyday cruelty — two evenings, a morning and afternoon among family members — distort no hard truths in their broken shards.

The images used in this review are solely a visual reference to the film and do not reflect the image quality of Kino Classics’ Blu-ray release.