Thinking Makes It So: I hate this play

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By Kelly LeVan

I need to begin by stating my bias: I love plays. I have trouble finishing novels, but plays I really book through. This is not a mark of theatrical dexterity. Plays have fewer pages. They contain the barest modicum of description. And best of all, even in a good play, which generally has some action, mostly all that happens is people talk.A great play surpasses great literary fiction by straining it of its explanatory adjectives and page-long paragraphs.In literary fiction, plot acts as a device, a series of events that reveal what character will do and, consequently, who he or she is. In contrast, mysteries or thrillers rely on character as the device, somebody for the exciting plot to happen to. This is why literary fiction has better dialogue – because the characters talk about themselves and each other, not just the circumstances of their formulaic misfortune.Of course, ignoring plot too adamantly leads to terrible literary fiction, because no matter how wrapped up a writer can find herself in her gorgeous phrasings (I say “her” because I do this constantly), the reader will not get wrapped up. The reader will get bored, and read a play.Last month, in one of the 400 or so half-read New Yorker magazines lying around our house, I read an article about playwright Harold Pinter’s “The Homecoming.” The piece, called “Demolition Man” and written by John Lahr, tells in loving detail why “The Homecoming” stands as the very best Pinter play ever.“‘The Homecoming’ changed my life,” Lahr writes. “Before, I thought theatre was about the spoken; after, I understood the eloquence of the unspoken.”Now, before I go off on him, I’ll give him this point. Any intimate conversation, whether onstage or in a real living room, depends on the interlocutors knowing enough about each other that not everything has to be said. This undercurrent of secret knowledge is what makes the conversation intimate and important. It creates the tension and drama. In a play, it compels the audience to watch it.However, “The Homecoming” is about a writer getting his jollies. Inspired by Lahr’s high praise and my general affinity for absurdist literature, of which “The Homecoming” is an example, I read the play. In it, Teddy brings his wife of six years, Ruth, home to meet his family for the first time. Clearly, he’s been putting this off. No wonder: The couple’s second day there, Teddy’s brother and Ruth are making out. Soon, Ruth begins kissing and rolling around on the floor with two of his brothers. Ruth goes upstairs with one of them for two hours, while her husband waits in the kitchen. Although she reportedly doesn’t “go the whole hog,” the brothers decide she should stay on with them. They will rent her a small apartment nearby where she will sleep with other men for money.Ruth agrees to the arrangement and Teddy says good-bye.I haven’t seen the play. Perhaps it’s completely different onstage, filled in with body language and a well-timed cup chinking against its saucer, a sound Lahr writes “registers the depth of the distance between” Ruth and Teddy.Distance?!Lahr quotes playwright David Mamet as saying Pinter “kicked the whole thing down” – the “whole thing” being the English language. Lahr goes on to spend quite a few column-inches discussing what Pinter has done for language, particularly Pinter’s bravado and his spot-on Cockney Britain.What happened to the idea that a play’s success rides not only on the spoken, but the unspoken?I see the play as a story of flat characters, a bunch of lascivious guys who get to do whatever they want with a woman who doesn’t seem to mind. It reads like a Playboy story or the script to a softcore movie. I don’t see the “brilliant finale” Lahr extols. I do notice that most of Pinter’s critics and fellow playwrights are men, and I wonder if that has anything to do with his almost holy reputation.I’ve read Pinter before. I liked “The Birthday Party,” which I read for a college class taught by a woman who adored Pinter. She would probably say I need to look beyond my gut disgust for “The Homecoming” and examine its literary merits – how it changed theatrical expectations by slapping a red welt on conventional, moralistic plays where, as Pinter says quite beautifully in Lahr’s article, “it is not theatre but a crossword puzzle. The audience holds the paper. The play fills in the blanks. Everyone’s happy.”To some extent, my teacher’s hypothetical response is right, and intellectually, I love Pinter, too. What he says about his plays echoes what I think about theater. But I don’t think anyone can talk “The Homecoming” into something deep.Nevertheless, I read the play more than a month ago, and it still upsets me. This is not some trite piece of writing I can read, close and forget. I’ve raged about “The Homecoming” to several of my friends – telling them how gross it is, how simple, how self-serving, how puerile, how Pincer is nothing but a naughty little boy.True, but why does the play continue to engage me?

E-mail Kelly softcore scripts at laeditor@lamonitor.com.