2. The Plays
2.1. The Birthday Party
2.2. The Homecoming
2.3. Comparison of the Plays
3. Representation of Women in Both Plays
3.3. Comparison between Meg and Ruth
Pinter’s plays are good examples for the theatre of the absurd, although Pinter himself probably would not have called them this way. He knew how to create his characters in such an absurd way, but also realistic at the same time that the audience was often left in astonishment and confusion. This paper will deal with the two Pinter plays “The Birthday Party” and “The Homecoming”. These are outstanding plays, foremost concerning the female characters. Both plays include mainly male characters and one outstanding female one. There is a second female character in “The Birthday Party”, but she only plays a minor role. It is interesting to see how Pinter contrasts the more or less strong female characters in otherwise all men plays. That is why this paper will pay special attention to the female characters.
This paper will start by first giving an overview over the plays and short characterisations of the male characters. Furthermore, there will be a comparison between those two plays and in how far Pinter’s plays may have developed. Continuing, I am going to focus on the female characters of the plays, Meg and Ruth. First, I will discuss the representation of women in the plays in general. Then, there will be a comparison between the two characters to see in how far their characteristics and their function in the plays differ.
2. The Plays
1.1. The Birthday Party
The Birthday Party was Pinter’s first full-length play, written in 1957. The play revolves around the elderly couple Petey and Meg, who run a boarding house at the English seaside. Their lodger, Stanley, is a young man who already lives there for about a year. When the two strangers, Goldberg and McCann, come into the boarding house it becomes clear that they are after Stanley. Meg thinks it is Stanley’s birthday that day and invites both men and her neighbour Lulu to a birthday party. Before the birthday party begins, Stanley is being in a cross examined by Goldberg and McCann and it does not become clear what it is that Stanley had done and why they are after him. Afterwards, Meg and Lulu enter and the birthday party begins. They start to play blind man’s buff.When it is Stanley’s turn he begins to strangle Meg and suddenly the lights go off. By the time the lights go on again, Stanley is bending over Lulu. The next morning, Goldberg and McCann want to leave and take Stanley with them. Petey tries to hinder them, but soon gives up and let them take Stanley to what they say is a doctor. The play ends with the return of Meg reminiscing that the birthday party was a success.
We do not get to know very much about Stanley in the play. He used to be a professional piano player and somehow was tricked when he thought he had a job at a concert hall. Now he lives in Meg’s and Petey’s boarding house, where he is and probably has always been the only lodger until Goldberg and McCann arrive. Stanley seems to have a connection to those two men of which we do not get to know any further details. They appear to be from the same area near London. His outer appearance is rather dishevelled, whereas, when he is taken away the next morning his outer appearance totally changed, Esslin says he is forced into respectability. Stanley is a character who is difficult to grasp. We get a feeling, foremost at the end of the play, that he is a victim, although we do not know what he has done that Goldberg and McCann are after him. Moreover, he can be seen as a victim of Meg who crushes him with what seems to be motherly affection. On the other hand, he is a very unsympathetic character in the way he treats Meg and Petey as well as Lulu who are nothing but nice to him. Most striking besides his mysterious connection to Goldberg and McCann is his relation to Meg on which there will be a more detailed explanation in a further part of this paper.
Goldberg and McCann are two rather untrustworthy characters. They appear out of nowhere in the little seaside town where Meg and Petey have their boarding house. What makes them even more dubious is that they have a van with which they cart Stanley away. This reminds the reader of the mafia. Goldberg appears to be of Jewish origin and we cannot be sure about his first name as he is being called by different names throughout the play. He used to be married and had a girlfriend at the same time. We do not get to know as much about McCann, only that he is an Irishman. Comparing the two it becomes clear that Goldberg is the one in charge and the more outgoing one. Moreover, he has a good understanding of people because he knows how he has to talk to everyone to get his way, which can be seen in the way he talks to Meg. McCann seems to be more introverted. Together with Stanley, they represent the dark side of the play other than Meg, Petey and Lulu who represent the simple and innocent side. We cannot understand the motives of Goldberg and McCann, which makes them appear to be as the intruders of this play. Naismith argues that Goldberg and McCann stand for the idea in Western Culture that if you do not behave someone will come and get you. This is a good point, because Stanley seems to hide at this boarding house and this theory supports the image of Stanley being a naughty child who needs to be punished and his, in this sense, mother is not strict enough to punish him. It seems like Stanley is caught between the caring home of Meg whose love he refuses and the punishment of Goldberg and McCann which he fears. In the end, he is being punished we only do not get to know in which way.
Petey on the other hand seems to be the most innocent character in this play. He does not really show an interest in his wife Meg, but the audience understands, as Meg is not easy to deal with and focusses her attention more on Stanley than she does on her husband. Moreover, Petey never really seems to be in the spotlight of the play. The other characters always appear to be more important for the development of the plot. However, this is also one of Petey’s character traits. He does not like to be in the centre of attention as his wife does. He is more of a quiet person. Sakellaridou argues that he is not intelligent enough to fully understand his wife’s needs. That is not the case, as it is his strategy to sustain his marriage to keep in the background and not to interfere with his wife’s ideas. It cannot be denied that he ignores his wife at times but with a complicated character like Meg, it is an effective strategy to keep silent. Furthermore, we do not know what their relationship was like before Stanley arrived. Petey sees more of what happens than any other character in the play. Only in the last bit of the play, he gets a central role when he tries to hinder Goldberg and McCann to take Stanley away. Nevertheless, he gives up his resistance all too easily and cannot save Stanley from whatever they plan on doing with him.
1.2. The Homecoming
The Homecoming of 1964 was one of Pinter’s most controversial plays. It is set in a house in the north of London where a family, containing of Max, his younger brother Sam and Max’s two younger sons Lenny and Joey, lives. One night, his oldest son Teddy and his wife Ruth suddenly return. Teddy, who is a university professor at an American university, went on a trip to Italy and on the way back, he comes to visit his family and brings his wife with him, whom his family has never seen before. By the time the family realizes Teddy came home, there is a tensed atmosphere between happiness and anger. It becomes clear that everyone in this family has a difficult relationship to one another. Now, where there suddenly a woman is involved, all the mechanisms, which established to get along with each other, suddenly break down. Ruth becomes the focus of all men. Max, Lenny and Joey are all attracted to her in their own way. The three men get the idea of Ruth staying in London and working for them as a prostitute. Teddy first tries to contradict but soon gives up and supports the idea of his own wife being a prostitute. When Ruth enters the room, the men propose the idea and she turns the situation into her favour, negotiates that she will get her own flat and other luxuries. The play ends with Teddy saying goodbye and his wife staying with his family.
Max is a rather difficult character. We learn that he used to be a butcher and he was married to a woman named Jessie whom he describes as a slut. Furthermore, he was involved in horse races and other dubious occupations with his friend Macgregor. Now, he does the housework while his other family members are involved in their own matters. He seems to be embittered, probably mainly because his wife and his best friend cheated on him as we get to know at the end of the play. Moreover, he cannot accept the way his life has turned after his wife died and he now he is left to take care of the family and his sons who actually do not need him anymore. He apparently used to be an important and feared man. Now he just sits at home cooking for his brother. Still he has the strong need to be acknowledged by women, as we can see when Ruth gets into the house. First, he is being rude to her and expresses his disgust towards women, but then we get to see that he wants her attention as every man in the family does.
About Sam, we learn that he is a chauffeur and used to be a cab driver. He was never married and now lives in his brother’s house. He is most likely the only one in the household who has a high standard of morals and tries to treat the others respectfully. He always seems to be the odd one out in this family with quite dubious characters. He is to be opposite to his older brother Max who appears to be a grumpy old man, whereas Sam made his peace with the life he is leading. In the end, he tries to stop the family to let Ruth work as a prostitute for them but does not succeed. Clearly, he also does not see that Ruth is actually taking advantage of the family. It seems that Sam always sees the best in people, but not in his own brother.
 Esslin, Martin. The Theatre of the Absurd (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1964) 211.
 Naismith, Bill. Harold Pinter (London: Faber & Faber, 2000) 37.
 Sakellaridou, Elisabet. Pinter’s Female Portraits: A Study of Female Characters in the Plays of Harold Pinter (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1988) 40.
 Raby, Peter. Tales of the City: Some Places and Voices in Pinter’s Plays. The Cambridge Companion to Harold Pinter. Ed. Peter Raby (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009) 63.