Friday, 21 November 2008

Times Change Department: The Sexism of Harold Pinter

How things have changed! Despite a fascinating production, I left the Théâtre du nouveau monde’s version of Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming last night wondering that nobody has denounced it for the sexist document that it is.

The play (Le Retour, in René Gingra's translation) begins with two aging brothers, Max, a retired butcher, and Sam, a chauffeur, arguing over nothing. The action steps up when Max’s oldest son, Teddy, arrives home after several years in the US with his wife Ruth. There’s a lot of rivalry between Teddy and his brothers, Joey, who is a would-be boxer, and Lenny, who seems to be a pimp. Ruth is at the center of all this and the play ends with her staying behind to become, it appears, both the sex slave of the men and their means of support as a whore.

Ruth is little more than a cipher in the play, just a female body to bear sons and lovers. As far as I can tell, no one has commented on her from a feminist—or even female—perspective , although Oedipal readings abound in the comments I found in a quick Google search. She is just there to do the bidding of the men, to tease them into jealousy, to clean and cook and submit.

The set of this production is so captivating—it makes the East London sitting room look like an Edward Hopper painting—that I didn’t question the premise until we’d left. Then on the bus ride home I began to get angrier and angrier. There is value in reviving plays from earlier periods, but surely someone involved should have twigged to how much times have changed. Any intelligent comment on Pinter should take into account the way he is writing from a point of view which dismisses the personhood (to coin a phrase) of women.


Anonymous said...

I can't deny that many of Pinter's plays are deeply concerned with masculinity, not least of which in The Homecoming--but the idea of Ruth as a cipher seems to me to be a tragic directing error rather than a flaw in the play. Ruth should tower over the pathetic male creatures--the script calls for a 'giantess' and, while I can't say whether the play is successful from a feminist point of view, it seems clear to me that Pinter attempts to have Ruth deny the rigid, masculinist stereotypes the other men in the play force upon her and in the end she asserts her own autonomy. I'm willing to concede that this autonomy--very much fitting with some fantasies of male desire--may be flawed, but it is nonetheless very difficult for me to interpret her character as a 'cipher'. Not that I doubt your analysis of the play you saw, simply that I question the directing decisions that effected that realization.

Mary Soderstrom said...

That is very interesting. The young woman who played Ruth looked very much like Juliette Binoche or Audrey Hepburn, very pretty and well dressed. She definitely wasn't a giantess!

Thanks for pointing out Pinter's intentions.