I have now reached an age at which the “cutting-edge” works of contemporary literature that I read as an undergraduate are starting to be regarded from a truly historical perspective.
For instance, this year is the fiftieth anniversary of the original staging of Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming. To mark the anniversary, the play is being staged at Trafalgar Studio One on London’s West End.
I was first introduced to Pinter’s work in a survey course on contemporary British literature. The assigned readings included three of his plays, one of which was The Homecoming. I still very vividly recall the experience of reading those plays for the first time. I was sitting in the university library’s “smoking room” and hoping to finish at least one of the plays before I went to work at my part-time job at a plant that did the laundry for about 40 hospitals located across six states. But I became so absorbed in the plays that that afternoon I missed about the first hour and a half of my shift.
The part of the plant in which I worked was full of the steam and rumble of industrial-sized washing machines. They were giant, stainless-steel cylinders divided into four “pockets,” each of which had a pressure-sealed, heavy, sliding door that had to be pushed upward in order to load the pocket. With an older guy whom everyone called “Big John” to his face and “the Polack” when they were talking about him, I would load 250 pounds of sheets into each pocket, rolling the sheets out of a large wheeled bin and over our shoulders into the chest-high openings. Over the nine-hour shift, we would load the four washing machines between 60 and 70 times.
And even in that place, I recall that, for that whole evening, I could not shake my absorption in the Pinter plays. The mood of the plays—the way in which the characters’ language seemed to become almost its own reality, apart from the reality of their lives that it was ostensibly supposed to signify—was something that I grasped very viscerally, even if I would have struggled to explain it or its impact on me.
In hindsight, it was one of those moments in which I truly felt what it means to become educated—to gain an understanding of the world that in some way transcends the typical limits of experience.
The advertising copy for the anniversary production of The Homecoming makes a more succinct case for the play’s enduring power:
“Widely regarded as Pinter’s finest play, the dangerous and tantalisingly ambiguous world of The Homecoming is a crackling hotbed of visceral tension. . . .
“When Teddy returns from America to introduce his wife Ruth to his family in London, they discover a claustrophobic and brutal household where his father Max, brothers Lenny and Joey, and uncle Sam live in a state of mutual loathing and festering resentment. Theirs is a motherless, compassionless, and lawless home where Ruth immediately becomes the centre of attention.
“Pinter’s sinister masterpiece simmers with suspense and rings with savage humour as Ruth navigates her way between the roles of predator and prey in an incisive battle of wills.”