Archive for the ‘Plays’ Category

The “Comedies of Menace”

The Writer’s Almanac recently featured some biographical details about Harold Pinter. Of particular interest was Pinter’s memory of the opening night, in 1967, of The Homecoming as “one of the greatest theatrical nights of his life.” The audience hated the play, but as Pinter said, the actors “hated the audience back even more….By the end of the evening, the audience was defeated…There’s no question that the play won on that occasion.”

Given our experience with this play, I can vouch for the hatred we felt; however, I have since reconsidered, as in this post from 2006:



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I just finished Classical Mythology taught by Elizabeth Vandiver. You really can’t go wrong with Greek and Roman myths and it was fun to revisit old familiar stories and learn  new interpretations of some of them.  Her discussion of Ovid was particularly interesting to me after reading Jane Alison’s fictionalized account of the exiled poet.  I also liked how she talked about modern placement of the urge to mythologize into the future with Science Fiction.  But her chapter on the “Terrible House of Atreus” and her reading of the Oresteia by Aeschylus really resonated for a few reasons.  Through Rufus Fears’ course Books that Have Made History, Books that can Change your Life (still my favorite), I read the Iliad, so had already had an introduction to the House of Atreus and the bloody deeds of Agamemnon.  Professor Fears also devotes some time to the Greek tragedies, but to me they were his weakest chapters.  I couldn’t really figure out why one would want to read or watch the bloody drama of intergenerational slaying.  Professor Vandiver gave a broader context to the House of Atreus, going back to the first evil deed committed by Tantalos and showing how the curses on the family just multiplied through the generations with parents slaying children and vice versa.  The playwright’s intention, as explained by Vandiver, was to show how the personal vengeance method of dispensing justice breaks down when the parties are of the same family.  Each person had an absolute duty to commit an action (Orestes had to avenge the death of his father) as well as an absolute duty not to commit that action (he also was not allowed to harm his mother).  Fears also brought up the irreconcilable nature of these forces but Vandiver takes it a step further when she shows how the trial of Orestes introduces a new, sustainable form of justice – a court of law with judgment by peers.  She is also great when discussing the story of Oedipus.

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The Homecoming

The Homecoming, by Harold Pinter…Nobel prizewinner or the worst play ever written? We took four friends to a May 2005 production at the local theatre company, and we hated it. So, when I learned that it had won the Nobel Prize, I was taken aback. The production we saw was so pointless. I was expecting to be disturbed, but instead felt just uninterested and annoyed by the actions of the players. So, recently I picked up a copy of the play and was immediately engaged by the characters (still unsympathetic to put it mildly, but more believable), the dialogue (much wittier than in the production) and the suspense introduced by the interplay of the awful personalities and the addition of a female stranger, Ruth, into the already unstable mix.

So, the play is awful and disturbing, but it’s also very well written. The minor elements, like MacGregor and Jessie, which form a subtle undercurrent to the play’s action, are resolved in the end. The mystery of Lenny’s occupation is cleared up. The only thing that is unclear is Ruth’s behavior, but that is also the thing that makes the play more than just a dated, drawing-room type drama like “Look Back in Anger.” Maybe the play can’t be understood out of context? But, just going on my own reaction, the presence of Ruth is what gives the play suspense. It is amusing to watch the antics of these horrible, dysfunctional people on stage, but once the alien presence in the person of Ruth is introduced, I felt tense and threatened. And disturbed by her seeming to go willingly into bondage to them. It’s true that Ruth seems powerful at the end with the two remaining brothers in thrall and Max on his knees to her, but the situation seems fraught with menace. Actually, Pinter’s work has been called the ‘comedy of menace’ as seemingly simple situations turn threatening and ominous without explanation or warning.

Well, I just found out that the play was written in 1967, not that long after Osborne.  Frank Rich recalls that the play was shocking and terrifying at that time and was part of a Pinter campaign against theatrical “literal-mindedness.” Reviewing a more recent (1991) production, Rich notes that the cultural shifts that have occurred since the sixties have rendered the play much less shocking and terrifying; however, the “nastiness and (gallows) humor” still come through. The term “Pinteresque” seems to mean themes of “nameless menace, erotic fantasy, obsession and jealousy, family hatred and mental disturbance” – too right! The other Pinter trademark seems to be the famous pause, which occurs constantly (and annoyingly in our production) and seems to symbolize the gaps in our knowledge as we struggle to make sense of the onstage lives. The pauses worked in the written version. I’m not sure why nothing about this play worked for us in the production we saw; what would a good production be like? I may have to sit through it again sometime to find out.

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