Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Alvina Krause: What's the Playwright Getting At?


A student in one of my earliest classes was cast in a summer production of Dark of the Moon while I was away from school.  She wrote to me expressing difficulties and dissatisfaction with her work. I wrote to Alvina Krause about it.  This is the letter Krause sent me. (I have italicized the words she underlined.)

Your student has skipped the important initial step in all acting. Take care not to skip it in your teaching!  She is concerned--rightly--with who she is.  Good!  But first must always come the play--the drama
Barbara Allen exists in a created drama.

First step always:
The playwright has something to say.  What?  About what?  For what purpose (Entertainment, yes, but based on what--specifically)?

2.  He says it in the form of drama--not poetry, not fiction--Drama.  What does that mean:  opposing forces, conflict between forces--

3.  Then whom does he choose to represent his forces--who are the characters through whom he can speak--

First Step.
Dark of the Moon (Your student better keep the title in mind).
There are forces in this world that destroy the joy of life itself. One is the Church with its "thou shalt nots":  Dancing is evil--Sex is evil, etc.  It exorcises "evils" in services that are orgies of sex in the name of the holy spirit.
The author is not concerned with true belief, true religion; he is concerned about a force in religion which destroys the vital joy in God's world.

2.  The conflict, then, must be between characters who represent the pure joy of living vs. the brethren of holiness who destroy in the name of holiness.

3.  Who then must the characters be?
The church vs. the Witch Boy and Barbara Allen who is of the church but who is still filled with the joy of living, loving, being. (Always seek the opposites in character!)  Witch Boy--of the free world, God's natural vital world, of the sea, the sky, the stars, the wind, the moon, but who is pulled toward earth by the power of wonder, of discovery, of--?
He meets Barbara Allen and their free souls, spirits--what have you--unite.  She doesn't need to "flirt", to exercise the petty little tricks of earth-love--Something akin in her meets something akin in him.  There is nothing sordid or evil in their union.  But the Church says "Thou shalt not".

Now let your student play the drama of Barbara Allen.
She analyzes well, but she didn't begin at the beginning.  Suggest that she run by the lake in the dark of the moon--or the light--stretch her arms wide to hold the beauty of the night, sing out joyously to the sky, whirl in the breeze, come alive (what does it mean: "alive") from top to toe-- Create a world in which there are no "thou shalt nots" which destroy the joy of God's world.

It isn't a great play but it is a beautiful one if the director is capable of finding its living pulse.  It has depths that are not melodrama, nor pure spectacle.

This letter made the phrase "learn to trust the play" meaningful to my teaching life.

1.  What's the play about?  What does it say about that theme?  For what purpose? (What does the play want the audience to do as a result of being entertained? What does "entertain" actually mean/imply?)

2.  What dynamic forces in conflict create the world of the play?  (What does "the world of the play" refer to exactly?)

3.  What characters specifically embody those discrete forces?

Surprise yourself.  Take a look at plays discussed in previous posts on this blog.  Even with the densest, greatest, most complex of masterpieces, try to be as simple and clear and unambiguously direct as Krause is with Dark of the Moon.

The Seagull  
       Keep the title in mind

      What's being dramatized?  (What does the word "dramatized" actually mean?)

Romeo and Juliet
       Is it just about young love? What forces in conflict is the tragedy rooted in?

The Homecoming
       What exactly are the conflicting social and domestic currents that underlie the world of this play? What specific force does each character embody?

Old Times
       If you focus on the world of the play and not just on the individual lives of the characters, then asking "what's at stake" may be another way of getting at what is the central dramatic conflict. (What exactly does the phrase "the world of the play" mean?)

Arms and the Man 
      What does Shaw hope people will do in response to seeing this play?

Doing this preliminary work before you start acting or directing a play is as reasonable as drawing up a blueprint before you start building, or outlining a novel or a screenplay before you start writing.  It provides a guide for the work of creating character and relationships, situation and given circumstances, drama.  It becomes the grounding for a responsible and creative "director's concept" or for truly insightful subsequent "actor's choices".

During the time I studied with Krause, whenever we worked on a new play she would always start by asking:  What is the playwright getting at?
As the place to start, it continues to makes sense.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The End of Old Times


I have another Pinter ending question. Do you have any wisdom regarding the end of "Old Times"? I'm working on the Anna/Deeley scene you mentioned in another post. In the end are Anna and Kate one and the same person? Or are Kate's final monologues a description of her attempt to "kill" the Anna piece of her personality, a piece that she perhaps is frightened or ashamed of? Or has she discovered that her relationship with Anna is really the only fulfilling relationship she has had, despite her efforts since? All too pat for Pinter I think. Would love your insight.


I remember an audition notice for a university production of Old Times.  It said something like this:
Is it happening or are they imagining it?
Are they middle-aged or ageless?
Are they separate people or are they all part of the same mind?
And on and on.

Everything happening in Old Times is really happening. It's a straightforwardly realistic play. The transition between the first two scenes is not exactly in the form of the Nineteenth Century realists, but the first scene is akin to Nineteenth Century melodrama in which an old servant enters with a new servant and says: “There are a few things you need to know about the family”, after which exposition the main characters enter and the story of the play begins.
Pinter needs such a scene to set up what’s about to happen in Old Times but he can’t have a scene with Deeley and Kate just before Anna gets there because he doesn’t want to take all the time afterwards for a doorbell to ring and introductions to be made and small talk about what’s been going on while coats are being taken off and put into closets, all the while trying to build the tension between Deeley and Anna to the point where it actually becomes stageworthy. Written that way, the play will be as long as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and not as interesting.
And I’m reminded of Alfred Hitchcock’s observation that films are like life only with all the boring parts removed.
Ditto for plays.
So:  With Anna standing up center in dim light, her back to all, the play begins mid-scene with a comic/tense dramatizing of both Deeley’s uncommunicative relationship with Kate and his excruciating fears about her past with Anna—which in Pinter is all you need to know about the family-- followed by a smash cut to Anna gushing mid-visit with Deeley already wanting to strangle her and her cultural affectations.
It’s clever and efficient.
And real.

All the people are real.
Deeley is a self-satisfied man, confident in his job and in his marriage, though we chuckle at the blindness of such confidence and the hints that perhaps his confidence in just about everything is being shaken this evening.
He’s got a little of the working class street fighter in him still. Only now the street fighter is armed with an educated mind and great verbal capacity. 
From the beginning of the play, slumped in his chair, he is a man on guard, alert, readying himself for the  possibility of defensive attack; a man terrified that not only may he actually not be the center of the universe, but he may not even be necessary to the universe.

We’ve all experienced that moment when a chance remark or a casual statement makes us suddenly question what we have unconsciously believed was granite truth about central aspects of our lives:  a relationship, a significant past family experience, and so on. (A college friend told me about a family gathering at which an old old woman was introduced to him and she said, "Oh yes, you're Evelyn's boy" and then added, "uh, adopted son".  Something he was hearing for the first time.)
We recognize in ourselves Deeley's panic, the source of his fear, his extreme behavior—and with that comes the uneasy laughter of such recognition. 

Deeley’s terror and how he handles it are the source of the comedy and the drama of Old Times.

Kate is a person who long ago lost the need, if indeed she ever had it, to fight for control of any situation. She long ago learned not to confront others directly. The play offers evocative images of her:  A faun, folding herself away.  A Bronte not in passion, but in secrecy.  A balloon floating.  To Type A personalities like Deeley (and Anna), she may seem passive, but her head is on her shoulders, it is quite fixed.

You may see Kates sitting with friends who are chattering away, eager to give their opinions about everything, while Kate herself seems uninvolved, looking past them, perhaps watching birds in tree branches or children playing in the park, a slight smile playing on her lips that says, “If only you were where my mind is right now, you’d know everything you need to know”.

She lets people think what they want. It’s possible to think that she thinks you’re wonderful even if she’d rather never see you again. It’s pretty clear that Anna invested with intimacy and eros all the time that she and Kate lived together while Kate allowed it all to happen by not being fully involved and by never directly challenging Anna’s feelings nor questioning her behavior.

Kate is like a cat who sits curled on the sofa and lets you pet her and lets you think she has feelings for you (which, in reality, may be true) even as she looks off in the distance, and as she stands and stretches and then walks away.

There is humor in the unaggressive, nonconfrontational way she deals with aggressive confrontational Deeley and Anna.  We sense she has never fought, never confronted, and yet she has always done exactly as she wants; she has never compromised her spirit. In this respect, she and Ruth from The Homecoming are, if not sisters, perhaps cousins.

Princess Diana had the trick of lowering her head and lifting her eyes and looking away with a little smile. There were no harsh edges and yet she confronted the British monarchy in ways no one had ever done without having their head impaled on a pike outside the palace doors. I suggest any actress who wants to create a Kate study videos of Princess Diana.

It may be a bit hard on Anna to say she fakes who she is.  But she has certainly over the years created her adult affect. She’s the kind of person we imagine saying “Dahling” a lot.  Hot, smoldering, flowing lava engulfing everything in its smothering path. She gushes, fills a room with her enthusiasm—even when the enthusiasm is only over the memory of a shared bag lunch.
Part of the comedy of Act I is watching her engulf and neutralize Deeley’s deft sharp-edged vocal rapier thrusts with her thick honeyed lava voice. She’s one of the Pinter women who have learned to defeat male power games by subverting them rather than by engaging directly.
By Act II the gushing may slow to a simmer, but it moves and bubbles right near the surface. And beneath the surface she communicates to Deeley:  "I can play any game you want as fast as you change the rules and I'll win."  There is nothing confrontational about it. There is nothing bitchy or provocative about her behavior.  All of it is done with the manners and the external behavior of a well-behaved though slightly affected English woman who is visiting an old friend and her husband.

The essential dramatic opposition of the play comes from the necessity of polite warm dinner party conversation and behavior played against Deeley’s growing hostility as his fears intensify that Kate and Anna were lovers.

Except for that opening smash cut, the play happens in real time. During the intermission between acts some minutes pass.  It might be interesting to speculate about just how Anna gets from the living room to the bedroom during those minutes.  Does she wait til Deeley goes to the kitchen to make coffee and then just walk into the bedroom?  Or does Deeley, before he goes into the kitchen, snarkily suggest they wait in the bedroom for Kate to come out of the bath? Or…?

This evening is fraught with Deeley’s fear of the unknown and Anna’s stoking of his fear and Kate’s noncommittal permission for the two of them to spar over her.  It prohibits frankness. Direct verbal communication is dangerous (See the Homecoming and the Applying Shakespeare posts), so the actual words spoken may seem to bear little direct relationship to what is going on because what is going on is going on beneath the surface.  Everyone knows what’s really happening, what conflict is really taking place, but so long as no one verbalizes it, no one loses power. But they know this is a death struggle.  Who does/did Kate love more? And what implications for the future does the answer to that question have?
At no time during the entire play does either Deeley or Anna simply turn to Kate and ask her what she thinks, what her feelings are, what her feelings were. (Why?) They talk about her, as she remarks, as if she weren’t there.
The whole play hinges on Deeley’s not being able simply to come out with it:  Were you two lovers?

So long as the actors create this tense, fraught, prohibitive atmosphere—and its comic intensities--the play stays comprehensible, suspenseful and realistic.  It is in the absence of that taut atmosphere that actors and directors fall into strange, absurd, even expressionistic non-interpretations, which fuel Pinter’s reputation for writing plays that are bizarre and wacky and weird.

What is Old Times about?  And what is dramatized beneath this surface? Some thoughts:  

*The person you have shared your life with may turn out suddenly to be a stranger.  And you are a blind fool if you think you know someone fully.

*In intimate human relationships, sex and sexuality are powerful, mysterious forces—essential, but essentially unknowable.

*In intimate relations people use the fear that there are things we don’t know about the other in order to “win” the constant battle for who’s in control.

Very near the end of the play, Deeley finally comes close to saying right out what has been building the entire evening:

Deeley:  You say she was Bronte in secrecy but not in passion. What was she in passion?

Anna:  I feel that is your province.

Deeley:  You feel it’s my province?  Well, you’re damn right.  It is my province. I’m glad someone’s showing a bit of taste at last.  Of course it’s my bloody province. I’m her husband.

Finally (at what point precisely? And why then?) Kate stops the escalating ugliness cold. With the simple truth of the most touching, straightforward line in the whole play, Kate knocks down the houses of turmoil and power struggle that Deeley and Anna have created over the course of the evening:  She fell in love with you.  With this line and with her final aria, Kate diminishes all their sturm und drang about sex and sexuality with the great truth of Love.

Kate’s aria demonstrates that she’s an expert at communicating powerful truths in such a way as to make it impossible for others to challenge.  With her aria she makes herself devastatingly clear, and potently enough to bring the entire evening’s electric tensions to an end: 

Anna, there came a point when you were simply dead to me. And so you left.
Deeley, I met you later and fell in love with you. You resisted my sexual/social gamesmanship. You wanted to get married. And so we did. Now here we are.

There is nothing for Deeley or Anna to say.
Kate wins.
As I suggested previously about The Homecoming, I think Old Times implies nothing about the life of its characters beyond the final moment of the play.  In Old Times this last moment is a freeze frame. 
Story over.  Point made.  The end.

Monday, April 19, 2010



Macbeth's "tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" speech.  It's the second most famous speech in Shakespeare, and is often quoted out of context as a song of despair.  But how does it fit into the broader view of the character and the story?

Some read it as a final glimmer of humanity in a man degraded by showers of blood.  Others say it's a brutish thug's stupid attempt at being profound.  Ian McKellen apparently said the most important word is "and." (Which is cool, but doesn't help much.) What do you say? Any thoughts would be appreciated.


In drama, tragedy happens to people who do terrible violence and who discover they have the capacity to realize profoundly and objectively their responsibility for it.  A play can be a tragedy when the extremes of suffering that people inflict on one another are dramatized against a culturally deep belief in the possibility of human greatness.

I do believe that Macbeth is tragedy and not melodrama; or that it embraces the stuff of melodrama to reveal tragedy in it.  Which implies a central character capable of tragedy.  I think Macbeth has the capacity for greatness, for profound insight into his own character and the situation he has created.  Can a small person be tragic?

Thug he may be.  What hand-to-hand combat life-and-death soldier isn’t part thug?  And Macbeth is a great soldier.  A man of muscle and strength.  He can wield a broadsword mightily.  His feet are planted on the ground firmly, he’s balanced, ready to take direct physical action.  The kind of man who could truly muscle his way through any situation.  A man of courage in the face of steel and mud and death, who has the ability to summon adrenalin beyond what the rest of us can imagine.  Manliness.  Honor.  Virtue.
Thuggery raised to emblematic patriotic heights of masculinity and valor.

This is the Macbeth that Laurence Olivier was thinking of when, learning that the slight, gentle actor Maurice Evans was going to play Macbeth, he said:  “That cockney faggot!  Macbeth’s balls are made of brass!”

Early in the play the witches offer the brass-balled soldier who has imagined himself king of his country signs that perhaps the cosmos agrees with him.  In response, his poetic language is pretty Anglo-Saxonly prosaic:

…Stars, hide your fires,
Let not light see my black and deep desires;
The eye wink at the hand; yet let that be
Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see.

His language indicates, I think, that the witches’ prophecies have reached only the thug; they haven’t gone deep, haven’t yet struck his greater self.  His words could almost be Lady Macbeth speaking, as she does in the very next scene, both of them expressing essentially the same two thoughts in simple elemental earthy language:

...Come, thick night
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark
To cry “Hold, hold!”

...What thou wouldst highly,
That wouldst thou holily; wouldst not play false,
And yet wouldst wrongly win. Thou’ldst have, great Glamis,
That which cries, “Thus thou must do,” if thou have it;
And that which rather thou dost fear to do
Than wishest should be undone.

That night there’s a celebration at Inverness and Duncan is toasting Macbeth and the crowd is cheering him as a great soldier of Scotland and Duncan claps him on the back, etc., until finally he has to flee the room to clear his head and think.  He has to have a talk with his inner thug.

His thinking goes something like this: 
If we lived in a cosmos in which we could murder the king without repercussion, then I’d do it in a heartbeat.  If the universe didn’t bend irrevocably toward justice….
But it does.  What goes around comes around.  And we’ll get bit on the ass. 

These ordinary ideas cast into the great poetry that Macbeth speaks to the heavens are thus transformed into profound thinking, a grave weighing of dire consequence, all of which proceeds from profound depths of character.

 If it were done, when 'tis done, then 'twere well
It were done quickly. If th’assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease, success; that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all—here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We’ld jump the life to come.  But in these cases
We still have judgment here, that we but teach
Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return
To plague th’inventor.

The end of this speech manifests a deeper capacity for profound thinking in him than we have yet seen as it also extends his awareness into the farthest reaches of the heavens.  Here he reveals a mind and heart that sense his individual actions reverberating in the greater cosmos.

...Besides, this Duncan
Has born his faculties so meek, hath been
So clear in his great office, that his virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against
The deep damnation of his taking off;
And pity, like a naked new-born babe,
Striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubin, hors’d
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,
That tears shall drown the wind.

The ideas that Macbeth vocalizes with this language will stay with him and will link directly to the great realization he makes in his “Tomorrow and tomorrow and…” moment.

Sublime dramatic poetry from a character in a play is a direct reveal of the multitude of responses during that moment which are referred to as "subtext"—all that is happening to a person that is not spoken, all that goes unvocalized.  The greater the poetry in a dramatic situation, the less subtext within the speaking character--the less that could be said--as poetry is language that speaks the not-directly-communicable. Dramatic poetry is subtext given voice.
The character who generates great poetry has profound and inexpressible-by-prose depths of humanity that poetry is the vocal manifestation of.

In today’s world, tragedy may no longer be possible because we no longer believe in greatness of human character.  Instead of tragic irony we get cynicism or narrow skepticism, however hard-edged they might be.  For today’s culture, then, it’s possible to make Macbeth solely a thug.  You have only to reduce the poetry he speaks to literal straightforward unresonant thuggish prose—and you can do that without changing any of the words.  The poetry I’m referring to is found in the voice as the extension of human depths and not in the literal words (see the preceding post). 
Eliminate poetry and you eliminate greatness of character.  But, eliminate poetry and you also eliminate meaning, for the meaning of dramatic poetry is in the poetry not in the words.  Eliminate the dramatic poetry of this speech and you can get a thug.  Give the poetry its full vocal expression and you discover greatness of mind, depth of passion and concern, HUMAN DECENCY. 
And, therefore, tragedy of character. 
(As a footnote, I might add that to create this truly the actor must have similar greatness of mind and depth of passion and concern. Otherwise, it's likely to become false emotional pyrotechnics without substance, which actually is as meaningless as the thuggishly prosaic delivery is.
Footnote to footnote:  An actor's greatness of mind and depth of passion and concern are not guarantees against pyrotechnics without substance.)

By the end of this sublime dramatic poetic wrestle with his inner thug, Macbeth chooses not to go through with the murder.  The decent honorable man wins out. 

Until Lady Macbeth, who has been sitting in the big party room practically reading Macbeth’s mind out here in the hall, comes out and throws every idea of masculinity and manhood and honor at him.  Do you know when you were most manly?  When you said you’d do it.  It’s the right thing to do and the cosmos has even provided the right opportunity by bringing Duncan into this house.  And by the way, husband of mine, speaking of balls:  You swore to me you’d do this.  And if I had sworn to it, even if what I had sworn to was to bash in the skull of our only child, I would follow through with it.
And with it all, there's a directness in her eyes, a slight smile tugging at the corners of her mouth, a hand touching his chest--all saying to him:  You are magnificent.  You are worthy.  If not you, then who?
What’s a thug to do?

Later that evening Macbeth, the soldier who can with a sense of right and honor unseam his enemy combatant on the battlefield from the nave to the chops with a broadsword gripped in both hands, now stands alone in an anteroom of his castle, the vision of a dagger pointing him up the back stairs to stab Duncan in secret, in shadow, without honor, without manliness. 
And so to I have done the deed.

By the time he gets to where he is for the “tomorrow and tomorrow and…” moment, he is
…in blood
Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er.

way of life
Is fal’n into the sear, the yellow leaf,
And that which should accompany old age,
As honor, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have; but in their stead,
Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honor, breath,
Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not.

And in the immediate moment, trusting the only thing he has left—the witches and their prophecy--he has put on armor and is ready to strike out to the battle field.

Your phrase “final glimmer of humanity” suggests that he has lost his humanity.  If he has, there is no tragedy, just pathetic degradation.  But he hasn’t lost it.  What’s tragic is to see that deep human decency stifled, repressed, mangled, as he gets sucked in by the equivocations of the witches.  (Equivocation:  Language containing the possibility of two opposing interpretations in one statement—usually meant to deceive.)  The play is steeped in situations rife with mutually exclusive opposites existing side by side within the same reality, starting with practically the very first words of the play—Fair is foul, and foul is fair

Naturally, like the rest of us, Macbeth hears loudest whatever encourages his deepest wishes.  We all know what it’s like to want something so bad that we begin to read the signs of it in everything around us.  And when we see enough signs, who hasn’t decided to steel his spine and do something at least questionable if not plainly unethical because the ends were so clearly justified?  Because our better angels are surely urging us on?  The ick factor will last only a brief time, right?

Macbeth knows that Lady M is coming apart, that his bloody deeds are undoing her.  So when he hears the women scream, something in him knows what’s happened, even as he asks. 
And he’s ready for it:

She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.

Here starkly presented is the culminating moment of two leitmotifs that have run through the play: Time and Death.

One of the things that people who live by equivocation do is find reasons to resist seeing where all this is leading.  To take action now so as to create the future that the cosmos seems to have in mind without regard for possible negative consequences. To jump the life to come. 
And this is the moment when it all catches up to Macbeth. 
The Queen, my Lord, is dead.

What comes next is poetry of great tragic realization.  Not mental anguish, not intellectual fabrication.  But profound realization of how the whole course of a life has come to this moment and what little it all has meant.

McKellen is right:

Day after day, one day following another, though never today, like one bead after another and another on a string--
To MOR row AND to MOR row AND to MOR row

The long plodding rhythmic beats reinforced by the P and D alliterations continue the image--
Creeeeps IN this PET ty PACE from DAY to DAY

Almost visibly before him time stretches on endlessly, even to the crack of doom.
To the LAST SYLlable OF reCORded TIIIIME.

One lived day following another and where does it all lead?
And AAALL our YESterDAYS have LIGHTed [think your name here to create the image of] FOOLS
The WAY to DUSty DEATH.  Ouuut OOUUUUUTTT [remember Lady M’s  “Ouut, damn’d spot! ouuut, I say!” as futilely, frantically, she rubs her hands] brieeeef CANdle. 
I love that the same sound occurs both in Creeps and Brief: Sustain (and intensify) the E in “creeEEps” to create the interminable and slow march of days, then sustain (and intensify) the E in “brieEEEf” to create the horror of the swift passing of a life.
Each day you live takes forever and the years go whizzing by.  And what does it all add up to?  A tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing.

I’ve sometimes thought that Macbeth is the tragedy of being out of sync.  The Macbeths have capacities for making a good king and queen.  But it’s just not their time; the occasion simply won’t permit it, what with the rules of succession and such.  But then the demonic world assures him that he will be king.  And we all know that God helps those who help themselves, right?
What’s a thug and his lady to do?

To the very end Macbeth lives by his bargains with the Equivocator Supreme.  What else does he have to cling to?
*Nothing bad can happen until Birnan Wood comes to Dunsinane.
*Fear No man of woman born.
Both the Decent Man and the Thug have become victims of the Duped Believer.

But at least he chooses to go out the thug warrior he has always been.

It doesn’t seem stupid in any way at all to me.  Nor pathetic. 
It seems a tragic waste.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Applying Shakespeare Study to Other Dramatists

A facebook friend posted the following notice on her wall. She allowed me post it here.

Actor friends: how have you applied Shakespeare training to other work you've done? Anything about having worked with language that dense and meaningful when approaching other playwrights? (I'm writing a paper and got stuck. Thank you, you're awesome.)

Learning Shakespeare means (among other things) learning how to work magic with your voice. It isn’t just “language” that you learn; rather it’s the communicative power of the voice: Sound values, rhythm, assonance/dissonance, consonance, the onomatopoeic qualities of words, intonation, pace, emphasis, even the principles of rhetoric as they are communicated in vocal/sound qualities, and so on and so on.

And these give the actor clues to character, to relationships, to mood, to situation. Shakespeare teaches these elements most forcefully because his poetry is at the forefront of his dramaturgy. Compare Macbeth’s language (metaphor, imagery, multi-syllabic Latinate words—
the multitudinous seas incarnadine making the green one red; If th'assassination could trammel up the consequence and catch with his surcease success) with Lady M’s (no great metaphors, single syllable Anglo-Saxon words—my hands are of your color though I shame to wear a heart so white; Shame itself,/Why do you make such faces? When all's done/You look but on a stool) and you contrast their very characters.

In Cleopatra’s confrontation with Antony, a look at who completes whose lines and who gets to speak more lines and when, etc. gives clues not only to their relationship but to the very tenor of the conflict between them.
And so on.

The language of all good plays is heightened language that has some of the clue-giving qualities of Shakespeare’s poetry.

Take a look at Agnes’s language from the opening of Albee’s
A Delicate Balance:

Speaks usually softly, with a tiny hint or a smile on her face: not sardonic, not sad…wistful, maybe)
What I find most astonishing—aside from that belief of mine, which never ceases to surprise me by the very fact of its surprising lack of unpleasantness, the belief that I might very easily—as they say—lose my mind one day, not that I suspect I am about to, or am even…nearby…

He speaks somewhat the same way)
There is no saner woman on earth, Agnes.
Putters at the bottles.)

AGNES: …for I’m not that sort; merely that it is not beyond…happening; some gentle loosening of the moorings sending the balloon adrift—and I think that is the only out-weighing thing: adrift; the…becoming a stranger in…the world, quite…uninvolved, for I never see it as violent, only a drifting—what are you looking for, Tobias?

TOBIAS: We will all go mad before you. The anisette.

A small happy laugh) Thank you, darling. But I could never do it—go adrift—for what would become of you?

And so on.

An actor who has studied Shakespeare and who has then developed an awareness of the significance of sound, of the meaning of intonation and rhythm, of the organic connection of vocal qualities to the character of the human being they are the natural voice of—such an actor will find Albee as revelatory in his language as Shakespeare is.

Take a look (as I suggested above with
Antony and Cleopatra) at line length and frequency between characters in the Tobias/Agnes scene, the Tobias/Claire scene, the Tobias/Julia scene. What do you discover about Tobias’s relationship with each of them? Can you discover something about the mood of each scene just from the implied music of the language?

Consider any really good playwright from this perspective: Mamet, O’Neill, Williams, Shepard, Suzan-Lori Parks. (I’m citing only playwrights who write in English. One of the great short-comings of translations, however good they are, is how much of this very life-stuff of the original language must be lost in translation.)

Discovering the real communicative power of sound values can help an actor find better ways to express what’s happening in a scene than simple volume and emotion. In Pinter’s
Old Times, for example, Deeley gets more and more frustrated with Anna as the two of them square off at the beginning of Act II. Kate is in the bath and Deeley and Anna wait in the bedroom, locked in a contest over Kate. He can’t just shout out his anger, he can’t just spit out his frustration, for in the world of Pinter so baldly expressing those feelings is tantamount to losing the very combat you’re engaged in that is producing them. And so those desires to lash out, to strike, must dive down; they are held back, they are repressed. And they consequently exert great pressure to be heard.
They find their way into word choice, sentence length, consonants that bite and vowels that spit.
And finally, in this sequence, they nearly burst out of him Alien-like:

DEELEY: Of course she’s so totally incompetent at drying herself properly, did you find that? She gives herself a really good
scrub, but can she with the same efficiency give herself an equally good rub? I have found, in my experience of her, that this is not in fact the case. You’ll always find a few odd unexpected unwanted cheeky globules dripping about.

Say the speech and really clip the crisp consonants. Emphasize the short vowels. This is an ugly speech. The sounds want to strike Anna. The sound values are trying to humiliate her even as Deeley’s physical behavior must maintain the externals of social protocol.

By the end of this sequence, Deeley loses the round. (Staccato sentences, harsh, sharp consonants, short ugly vowels.)

DEELEY: Listen. I’ll tell you what. I’ll do it. I’ll do the whole lot. The towel and the powder. After all, I am her husband. But you can supervise the whole thing. And give me some hot tips while you’re at it. That’ll kill two birds with one stone.

To himself.

DEELEY: Christ.

And it’s all expressed in the vocal qualities of the language.

Some final thoughts to keep us searching:
*How does studying the music of Shakespeare’s Elizabethan dramatic poetry help you better to discover the dramatic music of the language of Tennessee Williams? Of Samuel Beckett? (I saw the Gate Theatre production of Waiting for Godot and the music of those voices shamed me with my previous thoughts of how clunky some of those lines seemed to me—I had forgotten that I was imposing my own American language rhythms on the play.)
*How could you help the Gate Theatre actors discover, create, communicate
Glengarry Glen Ross?
*Rehearse your next Moliere scene with French accents.
*How does the study of Shakespeare help an actor prepare to do a speech from Shaw? Any sequence of Booth and Lincoln from Top Dog/Underdog? Henry's "cricket bat" speech from The Real Thing? Aston’s major monologue from The Caretaker?

There’s lots more to be said about this, but I shall stop now.
Perhaps we’ll get some good stuff through comments from others.

Post Script:
Here's part of some notes I once wrote to students about Agnes:

A quality/capacity of Agnes that [Student A] must add to her characterization is one [Student B] will need absolutely, as it is the characteristic that Agnes starts the play with in that extraordinary “What I find most astonishing” sequence. Albee refers to it as “bemusement” and “wistfulness”. I would add “whimsy” even.
For Agnes, it is a true tactic of engagement of others. It’s one of the ways she disarms you and wins you over. When she begins a thought, Agnes gets your attention and then she allows herself to be caught by an implication of some word she has spoken and then she follows it along a tangent—“Tangent”? Yes, I suppose…. Or perhaps “nuance” is more accurate, though “side-track” would be too strong a word, I think—and then she returns precisely to where she was before she let herself follow that nuanced side-tracking tangent. While she does this for her own bemusement, she is absolutely aware that her listener is just outside the whimsy of her thought/word process and is compelled to follow along the twisting path—perhaps “twisting” is too extreme; rather, “meandering” I think—of her mental processes. And she knows her listener is being ultimately won over by her. Whimsied into submission to her point of view. Bemusement? Certainly. But there is a quiet joy in her ability to circle around her listener thus. Real amusement too I think. She does it with/to Tobias at the beginning of the play and she tries to do it with Julia in their first encounter in Act Two.
Something that goes along with this quiet amusement of hers is a firmness, a steadiness, even a determination, that has no acidity in it. She is not tart or sharp in her manner, however self-possessed she may be. [Student A] was getting perilously close to becoming too much of a lemon when Agnes is actually a peach of a woman. Agnes loves these people. Or at least she cares deeply about them. She may have to scold, she may have even to be hurtful—or as Hamlet would have it with Gertrude, “cruel only to be kind”--but she does it from maternal, sisterly, wifely duty and, yes, love. She harbors no uglying level of resentment toward any of them—even Claire. Deep disappointment maybe, personal resentment no. A most complex human being.
By the way, neither peach nor lemon is probably a good metaphor for Agnes, but I just couldn't help myself.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Alvina Krause on Juliet's Nurse

Years ago a friend of mine was cast as the Nurse in a university production of Romeo and Juliet. She got the following letter from Alvina Krause (Northwestern University acting teacher who created the three-year acting course at NU over her tenure from 1930-1963.)

You love attention--Oh dear, you've walked so far! Ouch! Your feet hurt--Oo--your knees. Ooohh--your spine--Ah, there's a chair--in the sun--you can't just plop in it in the presence of your mistress--oh--oh your shoulders--nice chair, oh she's taking me to it, oh oh won't it be wonderful to sink down on it--fool her, play the game, you will never get down to it, your back, oh, your back, oh, easy easy my spine--rub it, higher, ummmm, wonderful, play the game--lower, higher--oh, the sun, I like to be in the sun, move a little, purr like a cat, smell--what? stew? beef? What's for dinner--taste it, lick your lips, how will you get a nice big helping, how will you get a nice spot by the fire--work Juliet, have to work her--place in the sun, a nice chunk of meat, a snooze by the fire--work her, tell her what she likes, hold back, a little more attention, tell her a little more--and so forth...
The nurse is perfectly hale and hearty, strong--she just doesn't want to work any more, wants her place in the sun, curls up like a cat and purrs--where Juliet and Romeo are all youth and love, she is old age thinking only of comfort and food--licks her chops, smacks her lips when thinking of food, feels in her bones the comfort of a chair before she snuggles into it. Her fingers itch at the thought of money--she played Romeo and his friends for money before she gave Juliet's letter--She loves attention, care, takes it for granted, but knows she will get more if she plays for it, holds back her message while she sniffs the air, smacks her lips, rubs her knees, half goes asleep--she is wonderful--She cries over Juliet's dead body, but that's that, she has to sit down, fall asleep--mustn't be caught in the plot, better fall asleep--so tired, so sad, better fall asleep, moan a little, talk a little, mustn't be involved--She is great--be a nice house cat, get attention, love it--
Just couldn't resist sharing my thoughts with you--

Every family has an old grandmother or a fat old aunt who is jolly and who loves playing with the kids and teasing them, but whose real attention is on finding the most comfortable chair, on getting the favorite drumstick from the turkey, who loves the attention of her family as they make sure she's cool enough, comfortable enough, has her glass of iced tea filled, etc.
What I appreciate about this letter is the subtle but significant shift from convention it suggests in understanding the nurse. Most interpretations I have seen create a nurse whose essential driving force is her love of Juliet. Even the teasing and the playing of Juliet is done for Juliet, through love of Juliet.
This letter suggests that while the nurse may very well like Juliet, her essential driving force is herself, her need of comfort and pampering in her old age. And thus constituted, she can take her place with the other adults in the play--parents, government, religious advisor--in dramatizing the essential theme of the play: the conflict between the generations over what's important about living, resulting here in tragedy.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Pinter: The Homecoming

Winter Quarter acting class for LA Internship Students.

What’s going on at the end of The Homecoming?

This one has been talked about—and never definitively--for the more than forty-five years since the play was written. And for just about every response you will imagine, you can find somebody who has already proposed it and others who have refuted it.

Here’s my take:
With many playwrights, the end of the play (what everything is getting to) is a good place to start to figure out what must be happening at the beginning (what do you start with in order to get inevitably to that end?) as well as a good way to get at what the whole play is dramatizing about being human.
But Pinter famously wrote his plays by starting with a simple image or a bit of dialogue and then writing on just to see where it would take him. Of The Homecoming he said he started with the first line: “What have you done with the scissors?”
He had no idea who was saying it or to whom it was being said. But as soon as the answer came—“Why don’t you shut up, you daft prat?” --he had what he called ‘the spring of drama’.
He said that The Homecoming was the first of his plays actually to “find its form”.
So it seems to me a good idea to start at the beginning of the play and see where/how we get to the end.

Act One

A young man wearing a dark suit sits on a sofa quietly reading the newspaper, specifically the racing page. An old man comes in wearing a cardigan and a cap and carrying a stick. He goes to the sideboard, opens a drawer, rummages (noise noise). He walks around the room, looks about. Finally he says, “What have you done with the scissors?” [A smile from audience members. If you’re lucky on some nights, a chuckle. They all know what it’s like to have a parent justify not being able to do something by accusing the child of related wrong-doing.]

The young man does not respond.

Old man with more authority and frustration: “I said I’m looking for the scissors. What have you done with them?”

The audience looks to the young man who again does absolutely nothing in response. Not even a slight shuffle of the newspaper. The audience chuckles.

Old man, growing impatience as he tries to get affirmation of his power in this relationship and situation: “Did you hear me? I want to cut something out of the paper?”

Young man continuing to look at the paper, stating a fact, deliberately not recognizing conflict, and knowing that in so doing, he will stoke the old man’s fire: “I’m reading the paper”. [Chuckle.]

Old man tries scorn as a way to keep or to gain the upper hand: “Not that paper. I haven’t even read that paper. I’m talking about last Sunday’s paper. I was just having a look at it in the kitchen”.

A pause as he waits for a response, which, of course, he does not get. The young man knows how to play this power game.

“Do you hear what I’m saying? I’m talking to you! Where’s the scissors?”

Finally, looking up, speaking quietly, even reasonably, the young man says: “Why don’t you shut up, you daft prat?” [gasp, laugh, hoot, whatever in the audience]

The old man raises his stick and threatens physical violence that he is incapable (any more) of following through with.

And so on.

What unfolds after this are the contentious relationships among a family of five working class men who actively and elementally resent and mistrust one another—deep rooted hatred, long held grudges, hostility barely kept beneath the surface. It is vulgar and unpleasant. And it’s out loud funny.

It’s important to identify the source of the comedy of a play and of individual scenes rather than simply to make individual moments or lines funny. The source of the comedy can point the way to the true heart of the play. What is the comedy in this old man vilifying and threatening his grown son with the violence he used to deliver regularly as an angry abusive young husband and father? Why do we laugh when the son calmly responds by utterly ignoring the harangue as if he and his father were having a simple, neutral uncharged conversation? What’s the source of the humor in the relationship between the resentful old man and his prissy bachelor brother, who each revile the other’s very existence? Not to mention the son’s blatant ridiculing of his uncle, who chooses not to deal directly with it (Why?). And finally the dim lumbering younger brother who, if he knows he’s being ridiculed, hasn’t the verbal wherewithal to compete.

What’s the source of the comedy? What’s being dramatized here?

In class, a student once said he thinks when we sit in a theatre with a group of people watching a Pinter play, we laugh because we realize that things we thought were dark secrets within our own lives are actually shared by others--and so we laugh both nervously and in happy surprise and relief.

When the lights come up on the next scene, Teddy and Ruth are discovered standing in the archway wearing traveling clothes, suitcases on the floor at their side. What follows is a still, restrained interchange (in contrast to what has preceded it) between an educated husband and wife in which the drama and the comedy are found in the wound-up unstated, even flat-out denied panic crackling just behind the husband’s tight, seemingly self-assured manner and played against the wife’s calm reserve and only slightly registered amusement at his tight-assedness.
We understand Teddy through Ruth’s unspoken responses and ringing pauses. And what we notice most strikingly is his utter unwillingness to acknowledge both his dislike of his family and his fear of them, however palpable that dislike and fear may be and however much he may try to lay the discomfort of the situation on her supposed uneasiness and his willingness to help her.
Ruth is a self-contained woman of great equipoise. She offers a comment or a suggestion and if it is dismissed or contradicted, she registers not a hint of displeasure, engages not at all in argument. She simply remains silent and lets it die. The flicker of a smile that plays in her eyes and at the corners of her mouth tells us what she’s thinking. It’s a smile almost without humor, born of years of dealing with a narrow-minded arrogant control freak who will not so much as entertain an opposing point of view to anything he believes. It’s as though she knows we’re watching and she trusts us to get it. We quickly become her confederates.
With all her calm quiet seeming acquiescence, however, she does exactly as she wants. Pinter said of her that she is “the nearest to a free woman that I’ve ever written—a free and independent mind”. She leaves the house to take a “stroll” (It’s the middle of the night!) Teddy watches her through the window and chews his knuckles.

Lenny and Teddy encounter each other next and within the outer form of exchanging social pleasantries, they manifest absolute mutual brotherly contempt. It, too, as well as being harrowing, is out loud funny. (What do we recognize in them?)

In the sequence that follows with Lenny and Ruth, Ruth displays her unflappable ability to put men in their place if need be. Lenny tries every tactical trick he’s got to knock her off balance, to unsettle her, even to frighten her with barely veiled threats of violence—all within the trappings of polite conversation. She responds serenely, deftly, without the slightest direct acknowledgment of his obvious provocations nor with any overt suggestion that she knows there is a contest of wills to win.
And so win she does.

What comes next is perhaps the darkest and vilest confrontation in the play—and naturally, one of the funniest: the late-night dust up between Lenny and Max. As in their first scene, Lenny responds to Max’s vitriol with the outward form of seemingly polite, even mundane father-and-son conversation, but fueled by his anger at being defeated by Ruth, he strikes directly at the frightened impotent core of this old man. It is an angry bitter climax to the whole sequence that began with Teddy and Ruth standing quietly in the archway.

Lights up quickly on the following morning. There’s a funny and uncomfortable Max/Joey interchange in which both Joey’s dislike of Max and his inability/unwillingness to confront him as Lenny does come through in his awkward avoidance of accepting Max’s invitation to go to a football game, which is followed by Max and Sam pushing their mutual antagonism one step further over meals and clean-up.

Finally Teddy and Ruth appear for the meeting with Max that we’ve been waiting for. And Max does not disappoint. The contempt he demonstrates for Teddy in the brutality of his mock surprise and his deliberate ignorance of who Ruth is is shocking (and, of course, hilarious) while Ruth’s absolute poise and unshockability in the face of this assault seals the deal: This woman is unassailable.

As in his opening scenes with Ruth and with Lenny, Teddy continues here to choose to pretend that the hostile undercurrents do not exist, as he must have done through most of his life; and to assume an intellectual superiority and thus to rise above it all. In doing so, however, he doesn’t free himself; he only refuses to play; and so he loses.
On the other hand, Ruth communicates clearly, if beneath the surface, that she is aware of the contest and that she will not be intimidated by the gamesmanship—and in so doing she establishes her power in the situation.

So what do we have? A family of men who hate one another utterly but who reserve a special core contempt for the oldest son/brother who has returned unannounced after six years. He brings his wife who seems to view them all from a place of bemused remove and quiet fearlessness.

Beneath the narrative: Shared pasts. People who know where all the vulnerabilities lie. Resentments that have bred years of on-going power struggles. A family whose tentative equilibrium is maintained by the individual wielding of threat and counter-threat—never actually verbalized because such acknowledgement is itself a weakness to be exploited by others. It’s volatile. It’s dangerous. But it’s also a stalemate.

To one degree or another, in some form or another, it describes the dynamics of lots of families.

Act Two

It’s an after-lunch coffee and cigars scene with its veneer of polite conversation designed by Max and Lenny to communicate long-held hostilities and resentment aimed particularly at skewering Teddy. Ruth punctures Max’s balloon with her “What happened to the group of butchers” as she did to Lenny in Act I with “How did you know she was diseased?” (I think of these as akin to Indiana Jones firing a single pistol shot as his response to the complicated sabre-wielding acrobatics of his assailant.)

In response, Max spews his venom first on the easiest target: Sam.
Then he goes for Teddy.
And Teddy does not defend himself. Or Ruth. He continues to refuse to recognize/admit that he is being attacked or that anything needs defending.

Ruth decides to dip her toe in, to touch on sensitive issues. She introduces, however indirectly, the subject of her origins. She starts with Teddy’s need to have Max’s approval of his marriage to her. Perhaps she’s testing to see how far this situation will go before something (Teddy) will finally burst. Perhaps she’s hoping Teddy will realize the ridiculousness of his caring what Max thinks.

Teddy does not take the bait. His consequent description of their life in America seems manufactured and flimsy.
Max’s “Eh, tell me, do you think the children are missing their mother?” is a direct challenge to Ruth.
The stage directions indicate that she looks at him. But she says nothing. Teddy feels the need to explain (of course the children miss us, we’ll be going soon) and so he sputters.
The next interchange between Lenny and Teddy about their cigars going out surely is one of those times when a cigar is not just a cigar.

Finally Max and Lenny go for/at Teddy. Lenny turns the idea of philosophy into a pretzel of philosophical absurdity. And still Teddy simply will not engage.
When Max and Lenny practically get to laughing outright in Teddy’s face (Joey as usual is dense and oblivious), Ruth finally intervenes with her “I…move my leg…I wear underwear which moves with me” speech, a game changer for the men and for the play.

What’s happening here? So far, all the gamesmanship, all aspects of the pissing contest have been conducted verbally, even in the abstract, however earthy the language. This final attack on Teddy and philosophy reaches an extreme of deliberate and conceptual humiliation.
To counter it all, to defeat it, Ruth introduces the concrete, the sensory, and she does so in a provocative and highly-charged way—though she suggests that if the men interpret her moving of her leg or the moving of her lips as sensual or sexual, that may say more about them than about her. They may “misinterpret”.

The men are stunned. Teddy stands up (why?), says nothing. Does he sense where she’s going with this? What her goal is? Is he aware that she has just taken the contest into a realm where he will not go? Is he afraid that she’s giving the opposition ammunition? that she might reveal the truth about her past and her sexualness?
Whatever his astonishment, Ruth continues. She was born near here, she says, and then six years ago she went to America: Rocks sand and insects. Clearly she isn’t as happy as Teddy pretended only minutes earlier.
Then Max stands but not until after

She is still.

Why doesn’t Max instigate further and provoke an even greater humiliation of Teddy?
Max is no dummy when it comes to gamesmanship. He knows this is not the time to try to further one up anybody. A stunning blow has been struck. Nothing to be gained by rubbing Teddy’s nose in it yet. Rather let him stew a bit. Time to gather forces somewhere away from the battle lines. Time to let Teddy deal with this dropped bomb. Or is it a hot potato?
(Whatever it is, it is time for me to stop all the mixed metaphors.)
Max and Lenny and Joey leave.

Once they are alone, Ruth repeatedly gives Teddy every opportunity to admit that he fears and hates his family (as she did even when they first arrived last night: “Do you want to leave?” “The children might be missing us”). Since nearly her every response in this scene is a question asking him to vent his rage, his fears, his hatred, it seems to me that this indeed has been the goal of everything she’s done during the after-lunch coffee of Act II.
But Teddy won’t/can’t take advantage of this opportunity, can’t/won’t come right out and admit it. Rather he leaves her with his typical “You rest” to go upstairs and pack and she closes her eyes. Not in rest, surely, but in-- concern? frustration? resignation? Is this a game changer for her too?

When Lenny comes in he feels safe enough to sit next to her and she lets him.
Ruth: I modeled for porn. I made a living from sex. (Some think she is saying that she misses that life, longs to return to it. I’m not convinced.)
Teddy comes downstairs with their suitcases and jackets.
Lenny has been emboldened. He senses an opportunity to stick it to Teddy. How about a last dance with his sister-in-law? Then while they’re dancing, how about a kiss? Considering what kind of a sexual creature Lenny is (even if the story he tries to intimidate Ruth with in Act I, in which he beats up the woman under the arch, isn’t true, it’s a representation of what he imagines; and the fact that a fun sexual encounter for him is watching Joey rape strangers), none of this is either sexual or provocative, however much an assault on Teddy it is meant to be.

Joey comes in and reads the situation at its most literal: Lenny’s got a tart here. Joey takes over, sits on the sofa with Ruth, embraces her, kisses her, lies—stage directions-- heavily on her and-- stage directions--they are almost still, all the while punctuating the action with comments to Lenny: “This is right up my street” “It’s better than a rubdown”. Lenny watches. Ruth and Joey roll onto the floor. Lenny touches Ruth with his foot.

This is all shocking but is it titillating? is it sexually arousing? is it even sexual? It seems to me to be particularly pheromone-and-hormone-free. It’s still about power and oneupmanship. This is the family Teddy will neither confront nor deny.
Suddenly Ruth pushes Joey away and stands up. He gets to his feet and stares at her. She then demonstrates how pitifully impotent they all are. (I want something to eat. Get me something to drink. Not in this glass. Put it in a tumbler.) And they respond, almost powerless to oppose her. Joey certainly is. But are they powerless because suddenly they are all in her sexual thrall? Or is it still mostly about Teddy? As Lenny gets drinks for all, he seems to be delighting in watching Teddy deal with this situation.

Finally Ruth turns to Teddy: “Have your family read your critical works?” Is this an attack on Teddy or is a challenge to him? Probably both. Is she trying to get Teddy to react? to lash out? to free himself? I think so—even as she may be also lacerating him with the truth of his own limitations.
Teddy digs in, pulling himself as metaphorically high above them as he can. He declares that he lives in the intellectual abstract realm free of passion, free of conflict, and he intends to stay there—watching them all from above.

Lights up on the sad and creepy little scene with Sam and Teddy as they sit near the suitcases waiting for Ruth to come downstairs. What is Sam suggesting by asking Teddy if he "took to" MacGregor and telling him that he was his mother Jessie’s favorite, the “main object of her love” and that he is Sam’s favorite as well? What is he implying by saying that if Teddy stayed a couple of weeks they could “have a few laughs”. (A closer look at what sexual intimacy—or just sexual activity--means to each of the men in this play makes it more unlikely that all of this is leading to a simple sexual homecoming.)

In the whole cheese roll sequence that follows, Lenny comes as close as ever to stating baldly the reasons for the depth of his and Max’s hatred of Teddy. The closer he gets, however, the funnier he gets in his astonishment at Teddy’s pilfering of the cheese roll. No direct statements of feelings in this house.

Joey comes downstairs. Two hours with Ruth upstairs and Joey, the only male in the family who actually has sex with women—though take note from the story he and Lenny relate later what the nature of that sexual activity is—has discovered that he doesn’t have to go “whole hog”, that he can be happy going “no hog at all”. Joey, it seems, lacks maternal comforting more than he needs sex and brutality.
And as a side note, Ruth has therefore engaged in no actual sexual activity.

While the entire next section concerning setting Ruth up in business is outrageous and outrageously funny, it isn’t actually about Ruth. Once again, it’s Max and Lenny going after Teddy. (Joey is too dim to grasp it and Sam will finally explode in rage at the absurdity of it all.) They aren’t seriously proposing the arrangement; they are seriously torturing Teddy with what is a perceived dysfunction in his marriage. And, of course, so long as he refuses to engage, they continue to elaborate. And Ruth lets them dig themselves deeper.
Why does Ruth do what she does here? I think she once again wants Teddy to be pushed far enough to assert himself, to stand up to Max and Lenny, and to defeat them.

Teddy may have an infinite capacity to disengage, but finally Sam can’t take the ridiculousness of the situation and he shouts straight out the truth that has stood between him and Max for the last many years. “I drove Mac and Jessie around while they fucked in the back seat.” It is the only time in the play when such a truth is so clearly stated. Then Sam nearly suffers a stroke or a heart attack and Max accuses him of having “a diseased imagination”. So much for the truth clearly stated.

There comes a point in the creating of this business arrangement when the men, being who they are, can’t or won’t back down (Where does this occur?). It’s not about actually getting Ruth to become the wife/mother/whore in their deprived male lives. Rather, it’s all about the drive to win, to do anything to keep from losing this battle rooted in years and years of contempt and resentment. It’s about doing anything to humiliate Teddy.
And note what Ruth creates as that future domestic situation they are suggesting: They will supply her with a flat, with clothes, with all necessities. She agrees to do nothing specific in return. And she says they will proceed only when a completely legal document has been signed.
Is this actually going to happen? I can’t believe that it is. She is simply calling their collective bluff.

As it turns out, the stick up Teddy’s ass is so firmly and deeply rooted that it probably won’t ever come out. For all of Pinter’s and his critics’ talk of his characters having no actual past, no back story, the clues to the relationship of Teddy to his brothers and to his father from the time that he was born absolutely account for his retreat into his intellect as a way to elude them, to survive. And finally, it’s become his prison.
He leaves to get a ride to the airport without Ruth rather than confronting the reality of his situation. In all of drama is there a more extreme example of a man determined to live a life in denial of the truth about his family and his relationship to that truth? (Okay, maybe Oedipus—but then he’s not in denial, he’s just blind.)

So: What’s happening at the end of The Homecoming?

Sam lies immobilized on the floor. Lenny stands watching, realizing, I think, that in the intensity of their attack on Teddy they have lost all leverage in the situation and Ruth has seized power. Joey, pieta like and unaware, finds maternal comfort with Ruth. And crawling toward Ruth on the floor, Max verbalizes their great fears: Ruth doesn’t really plan to go along with them, does she? She’s using them, isn’t she? Things will go badly, won’t they? They’ve been beat at their own game, haven’t they?
How did they get here? What terrible thing will happen if this situation continues?

If there were one more scene to come, any of several possibilities could follow logically from what has gone before: Ruth could say she plans to look at flats the next day and then go upstairs, leaving the men to decide what to do next. Or she might simply stand up, take her suitcase, and leave. At which point the men might go back to life as it was or they might realize that they have to figure out a new way to co-exist. Then she might catch up with Teddy. (He did say they could manage “until you come back”). Or she could seek out former friends in the sex business to give her a helping hand. Or…? Or…?
It doesn’t matter.

Pinter’s plays tend not to go about being “about” something the way traditional realistic plays are about something. With traditional realistic plays you end with a clear sense of how life will go on after the curtain falls. With this play, there is no life after the curtain falls. The convoluted system of interaction in this family by which each member uses the fears and weaknesses of the others to maintain an advantage; the way each uses whatever leverage he has to keep himself from succumbing to the contempt of the others; the way they all keep the tentative and volatile equilibrium of this family going; has come to an end. Ruth has beaten them at their game. And she has also left the sterile life with Teddy in America, perhaps for good. A situation has worked itself to a conclusion. A point has been made. Period.
What happens next? It doesn’t matter.

Pinter said “I thought I was dealing with love in The Homecoming”. If it is love that the play deals with, I think that love is Ruth’s love for Teddy. They come back to his childhood home and she tries to get him to break free of its stranglehold on his humanity. The action of the play is her increasingly extreme attempts to get him to act passionately in his self-defense.
Imagine how the action of the play would change if at any of those moments Teddy would just say, “I hate you all. I have hated you since the day I was born. You’re low, vulgar, common and I’m glad finally to rip you out of my soul and my life”. Or if he had just said to Ruth when they were alone, “You’re right. I hate these people. They bullied me my whole life and in my heart of hearts I have wished them all dead. I need you. I love you. Let’s go home”.
The sequel—Homecoming II: The Return to America—might then be about freeing him from that stick he’s got lodged so firmly up and so deep within.

As it is, her final words to him are "Eddie." [The only time in the play this name is used and surely an intimate endearment] “Don’t become a stranger”.
And what does he do? Teddy goes, shuts the front door.

Post Script One:

All this being said, I can understand the point of view that the homecoming in the play is Ruth’s; that it is here, near her birth place, that she comes to see clearly how much she hates her life with Teddy in America and that she misses the Ruth she left behind, however unsavory that life may have been. And so she decides to take advantage of the opportunity to build another life here.
This take on the play does imply a life after the final curtain. And it is just that life, created/envisioned by the last tableau of the play, that causes problems for me: are these men, without great financial means, really going to go through with all this, knowing that Ruth will be legally obligated to do nothing for them? And is Ruth really planning to become a part of these men’s lives, however much she would be in control? If not, is she really planning, in her mid-thirties, to set herself up as a prostitute? None of this seems to be much of an alternative future for that free and independent mind.

Addendum to Post Script One:
I also haven't been able to buy into the idea that it is Ruth's homecoming in the sense that she is "not well" and that this trip is designed to help her with her presumably sexual illness; that when she goes for her stroll Teddy chews his knuckles because he is concerned about her; that she insinuates herself into the family so that she can conquer them sexually and free herself from the suffocation of her marriage.

Post Script Two:

Most discussions of The Homecoming focus on gender issues (woman as wife, mother, whore; man as beast, however impotent a beast) and sexual politics. While these issues are part of the lifeblood of the play and even a central idea of the narrative, I have never been convinced that they are truly what the play is dramatizing, what the play is getting at. They may constitute an idea within the play but—to borrow Eric Bentley’s phrase—you must try to get at the idea behind the idea.

And that’s what I’m still trying to do.