HAROLD PINTER'S THE HOMECOMING IS MUCH MORE than a searing critique of interpersonal social reality. It reveals, as well, a deeper, essentially metaphysical foundation for the seemingly casual, albeit brutal antagonisms and confrontations that lace human interaction, at once familial and otherwise.
The current, exceptional revival of Pinter’s masterwork on Broadway at the Court Theatre with Ian McShane as Max, Raul Esparza as Lenny and Eve Best as Ruth, conveys the full potential power of the drama and has received outstanding reviews by Brantley of the New York Times (12/17/07) and others. The sheer menace that is always so embedded in even the most seemingly casual Pinteresque conversation is fully plumbed and revealed and Pinter’s ominous pauses are fittingly lethal and penetrating.
What one sees on stage is a savage struggle between relatives to assert their egos at the expense of the others, to gain small advantages and to jar the others into recognizing each other’s existence with verbal, and sometimes physical, violence. All the characters have needs, needs they have to express in order to get what they want from their relatives. But they do not really listen and either do not say enough in their clipped, staccato sentences to have any chance of really communicating or they speak in a torrent of misdirection, similarly failing to connect. Lenny, for example, makes a long statement about ticking clocks keeping him awake at night just after being surprised at seeing Ruth, his sister-in-law, in his house, a person he had not seen in years. He never really engages with her in conversation as to why she has suddenly appeared in his living room.
Hobbes argues in Leviathan that because of our very imaginations, our desires and needs are limitless and because “every man has a right to every thing, even to one another’s body . . . there can be no security to any man.”
Pinter, in his 2005 Nobel lecture, speaks of the elusiveness of truth in art, how “You never quite find it, but the search for it is impulsive,” how, in drama, “You stumble upon the truth in the dark,” how “There never is any such thing as one truth to be found in dramatic art. There are many.”
One of the truths evident in The Homecoming is a deep, underlying Hobbesian substructure. It was the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), one of the founders of modern, atomistic individualism, who argued that we are self-interested, egoistic selves by nature, unable to really empathize with or understand each other and, hence, involved in an endless war of “war of all against all.” Hobbes argues in Leviathan that because of our very imaginations, our desires and needs are limitless and because “every man has a right to every thing, even to one another’s body . . . there can be no security to any man.” And since we are social beings and since self-esteem is a subset of self-interest, “everyman looketh that his companion should value him at the same rate he sets upon himself.”
Hobbes referred to this condition as the “state of nature” which makes life “nasty, brutish and short” for everyone until the warring selves realize that enough is enough and they contract with each other to create an authority to rule over them and put a lid on the constant collisions. They need “a common power set over them . . . with right and force sufficient to compel performance.”
In The Homecoming, Max, the father, his three sons, Lenny, Joey and Teddy and his brother Sam all engage in active and passive aggression with each other, sometimes even engaging in physical violence. Here in this family unit, which should supposedly be all about affectionate, supportive consanguinity, these people assail, strike, steal from and curse at each other. Yet they stay together (although always threatening not to do so) and keep trying to attain self-validation from the others.
Ruth’s arrival at the family house in London, ostensibly for a visit, with her husband, Max’s son, triggers a tripwire of sexual and financial lust on the part of Max, Lenny and Joey, with, evidently, Teddy’s acquiescence. The men suggest that Teddy go back to America, where he has been living with his wife, and that Ruth remain to live with them to service them sexually in addition to earning her keep as a pert-time prostitute in a separate flat.
If a Hobbesian analysis of Pinter’s work is correct and a war of all against all of self interested egos is at the root of Western, democratic individualism, then we should be exceptionally careful about our self confident, cultural and socio-political superiority and our penchant to export our Western democracy and impose order in places deemed less enlightened.
But, by the end of the play, it is clear that Ruth has reversed the tables, that it is she who is in charge. She orders Lenny about (even though he is the professional pimp), negotiates favorable terms for her presumed contractual debauchery and, at the end of the drama, sits in a chair with Max and Lenny at her feet, as supplicants. In effect, they submit to her. She will become the contractual Hobbesian sovereign, bringing at least some desired order out of intra-familial chaos. She will replace the boys’ deceased mother, a mother “who taught the boys everything they know . . . all the morality they know . . . every single bit of the moral code they live by.” Their Hobbesian mother had taught them all about the “war of all against all” but with her gone, there was anarchy. She had kept a lid on everyone’s brutish behavior. Now, with Ruth in charge, there will presumably be an agreed order, wrought by her sexual power. There is a peace at the end (the conclusion is quite tranquil) that is rooted in male sexuality and female potency —and all arranged via a Freudian twist on a Hobbesian contractual negotiation among autonomous selves.
In the December, 2007 Playbill (vol. 123, no. 12, p. 64) Ian McShane (Max) who has known Pinter for decades, states that “Max and Lenny share the same sharp, tough, brutish view of the world” and that “Harold shares that too.” If so, Pinter’s Hobbesian social metaphysics adds another dimension to his well known, persistent, stern critique of American foreign policy, particularly the ongoing war in Iraq, as evinced in his Nobel speech. If a Hobbesian analysis of Pinter’s work is correct and a war of all against all of self interested egos is at the root of Western, democratic individualism, then we should be exceptionally careful about our self confident, cultural and socio-political superiority and our penchant to export our Western democracy and impose order in places deemed less enlightened. If Hobbes and Pinter are right, then the idea of Western individual liberty has a very dark underside. We should be well advised, then, in a postmodern, anti-foundationalist sense, to be very cautious about assuming an automatic preeminence for the Western, individualist paradigm and we should be skeptical about compelling others to subscribe to it.