Long Essay: Contemporary English Literature



“Contemporary literature typically shows the home not as a place of refuge or fulfilment but as the source of personal anxiety”.

To some extent the home is not shown in contemporary literature as a place of refuge or fulfilment.  Consequently, an element of personal anxiety is expressed by the characters.  The interpretation of three plays will exemplify these points.  For instance, “Piaf”, “The Homecoming” and “Owners”.  Firstly, “Piaf” depicts the home environment of a woman who continuously finds discontent in her domestic life, somewhat, until the conclusion of the play.  Secondly, “The Homecoming” focuses on the breakdown of the traditional patriarchal system at home and promotes feminine superiority through sexual power in an incestuous manner.  Finally, “Owners”, while not as controversial as the other two plays above, portrays the domestic life of Lisa and her family.  That is, we discover here the triumphs and tribulations in the home environment where personal anxiety is greater for some rather than others.

In the play, “Piaf”, we find that our protagonist Edith, while having an expensive and prosperous lifestyle there is a juxtaposition made between this and her hectic working and love life; in addition Edith’s apartment in Paris consists of exclusive furniture typical of a prostitute.  Her apartment in Paris has seven bedrooms with views of this wonderful city.  Hence, in the other two plays, there are two or more major characters, here, a focus is made on the sexual object Edith herself.  Consequently, a concentration will be placed on her throughout the discussion of this play.[1] (pp26-42)

Secondly, “The Homecoming” shows the interrelation between a whore with her male lovers, just as in the above production.  Thus, in “The Homecoming” we find the glamorization of incest.  The reader may to some extent have been alarmed by the relaxed views on morality in “Piaf”, yet an even deeper perspective is offered here.

While focussing on this text, M. Esslin (1973: 150)[2] points out that Sam, who now is employed in a reputable hire car company, may in his younger days driven for prostitutes working for Max.  In addition he emphasises to Max that he was always caring for Max’s wife, Ruth when transporting her through the west end.  This shows that certainly Ruth may have worked as a prostitute.  For instance, a point highlighted here, is that Lenny’s negative outcry when he questions his father (Max) about his conception.  Moreover, Max’s remark that the boys were instructed by Ruth to be moral was double-sided on her part.  For the outcome was that Joey and Lenny had the status of pimps and rapists while under the guidance of a prostitute, namely, Ruth.

The sexual victor in “The Homecoming” is Ruth.  That is, she dominates the house by the conclusion of the play.  The patriarchal role of the father, namely, Max, is diminished (as will be shown below) from a sexual as well as moral perspective as his sons gain the sexual prerogative of the mother, Ruth.

Thirdly, Churchill’s play “Owners”, formulates the traditional family unit, in a sense, when compared to the other plays discussed above.  Thus, an emphasis is also placed on occupying a house, per se by its inhabitants as a typical family, in this case an extended one.

M. Wandor (1972: 120)[3] states that Lisa, Alec, his mother and their children, are occupants in Marion’s house.  Worsley attempts to make them depart through a bribe.  While Lisa wants to co-operate, Alec refuses the instruction.  Meanwhile, passivity dictates the eventuality of circumstances.  Consequently, our characters Alec, Lisa and their family enjoy a safe refuge to some extent.  The extremity of events which eventuate are dictated by the difficult circumstances of events later on in the play, towards the end of the Act Two.

While directing the discussion towards fulfilment an element of relevance is Edith’s songs and lovers.  Edith’s flatmate Lucien states that the audience is given a comprehensive outline of her songs and their meaning.  What is significant is that our protagonist’s voice is symbolised by the evolving golden sun at sunrise.  It is compared with the Seine River at the gentle season of spring.  This entertainer (Edith) expresses love through her songs, of sexual traitors, of disappointment, of love being beyond one’s control.  Her songs also emphasise loneliness, of feeling down, and we cannot tolerate it for her.

What then about personal fulfilment by the characters.  Let us focus on the first play.  Edith expresses fulfilment in her life and in the home through her songs.  While the playwright (Gems) refers to natural beauty such as the rising sun and landmarks and famous waterways in Paris, the reader can find further parts of importance.  For these are elements of sexual betrayal, and we sympathise with Edith due to her lack of companionship.

A promising conclusion to the play “Piaf” is presented to the audience.  Our protagonist meets a handsome young hairdresser while in hospital named Theophanis Lambouskas.  In addition, to express her gratification at marrying such a desirable man, since he fulfils her regelated dreams of a happy domestic life Edith states:

…ladies and gentlemen…ladies and gentlemen, I don’t deserve such happiness.  Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to present my husband…Theo Sarapo!...(p.69)[4]

Edith our much admired heroine may have been married before and endured a promiscuous life but was not particularly experiencing true companionship through the entire course of her life.  Nevertheless, at the play’s conclusion Edith found true love through her second husband Theo.  In addition, generally satisfying home life is expected through Edith and her new husband.  Moreover, in the tramp, whore, singer or whatever one pleases to label her as, is finally able to find time fulfilment in her home life.

A differing stance is taken by the second play as we shall see.  In terms of “The Homecoming” it is quite controversial enough to consider a woman as a whore but at the same time to have incestuous relationships with her three sons.  Meanwhile this is even hard for some members of society to grasp as being the norm.  What Pinter provides us with here is the permissible extreme of personal sexual gratification by a family.  Hence, this is a notion not mentioned in “Piaf” and “Owners”, and is quite specific as a topic in terms of its structure and theme.

Meanwhile, M. Esslin (1973: 149)[5] shows that, “The Homecoming” surprises its audience not simply by the easy-going manner in which sex and prostitution are mentioned in it, but also by the intentions of its major characters.  For instance, how can it be that a lady, mother of three sons, who is married to an American college professor, gently accepts an invitation to have herself placed as a prostitute.  Furthermore, how could her husband not only agree to such a decision but actually offer the position to his wife.

Nevertheless, Ruth is presented to the reader as being fulfilled sexually, morally and as a person, by establishing herself as a whore and at the same time, a mother in the home.  Consequently, Max, while well-educated is in favour of such a proposition even though he knows that she is immoral.  As far as the reader knows, from an oedipal perspective the three sons are satisfied because their ill-mannered sexual desires are fulfilled and at the same time they have gained the love and affection of their mother as a parent and sexual partner.

The third play bases personal fulfilment on the outlook by its two central characters.  In “Owners”, fulfilment in the home environment centres around the rivalry and disagreement between Lisa and Marion.

M. Wandor (1972: 120)[6] points out that Lisa is in favour of her position as mother of young children.  This situation is at loss due to maternal situations when Lisa finds out that Marion owns the house and tells her:

…I always hated you, you horrible bitch, you cunt, cunt, cunt…”

                                                                               C. Churchill (1985: 24)[7]

According to M. Wandor (1972: 120)[8] Alec and Lisa are offered money to depsrt by Marion but Alec considers neither people nor things as assets.  He is untouched and does not worry whether Lisa remains or not.  Lisa is justified on her enjoyment as a homemaker and mother.  To find that Marion is offering her and Alec money to evacuate the household is unfulfilling for this couple.  Also, their source of refuge is (what they consider) a safe haven has been threatened by Marion.

In Act Two of “Owners” Clegg and Worsley are homemakers.  Clegg tends to her baby and warms up the bottle.  The gender roles are changed in the opposite direction in this new family.  Clegg remains at home with the baby while Marion is employed elsewhere.  In addition, Worsley is the injured and fragmented elder sibling.  His hand is disfigured and his neck bandaged.  Consequently, a typical admired family unit is in existence here with minimal difficulties apart from Worsley’s condition and that of Lisa which will be explained below, in relation to her baby.

M. Wandor (1972: 121)[9] states that Lisa wants her baby back from Marion and is therefore sad and worried.  Marion considers letting Lisa and her family remain in the flat and in a sense forces Lisa to sign an adoption contract.  Lisa states:

            …I don’t see that signing a bit of paper makes him hers.  He is mine.  His blood and everything...His looks…he’s…yours and mine”

            C. Churchill (1985: 52)[10]

Hence, Lisa is deprived of her most loved, young possession, a beautiful son.  By being forced to part with him makes her express a great deal of personal anguish.

According to M. Wandor[11] (1972: 121) the child becomes the centre of desire.  And Marion in an insulting way suggests that:

            …The more you want it, the more its worth keeping…every one of you thinks I’ll give in because I’m a woman is it?  I’m meant to be kind, I’m meant to understand a woman’s feelings wanting her baby back.  I don’t.  I won’t.  I can be as terrible as anyone…

            C. Churchill (1985: 63)[12]

Nevertheless, Marion, instead of feeling remorse for her action is left untouched and content.  Moreover Marion shows the awe and possibly lowest form of sadism towards Lisa and falsely indicates that most women can be just as cruel and inconsiderate as anyone.

We find an interesting and varied contrast between “Piaf” and “Owners” since in the former, the mother, Edith, is not as emotionally touched or bothered by the death of her child.  Thus, in the latter, Lisa is quite distressed by the loss of her baby.  Perhaps Gems was trying to illustrate to the reader that Edith, contrary to the common belief on maternal instinct and feelings, that there are some women who are not comprehensively or completely moved by emotion by such as occurrence.  Hence, Caryl Churchill in “Owners”, on the other side of the same coin provides an opposing viewpoint in terms of Lisa.

In terms of personal anxiety this is quite a complex issue to address towards the three plays.  It is justified to say that in the plays, personal anxiety is alleviated for most of the characters.  Firstly, in “Piaf” our much tormented/tormentor heroine finds true love and has the opportunity to establish a new and refined domestic life.  This has been explained above but what about Edith’s rude attitude towards her companions such as Lucien.

Edith has an ill-mannered attitude towards the men of her life.  This is shown through the conversation with her lover Lucien who shares the residence with her.

While attempting not to engage in confrontation with Edith, her flatmate, Lucien, tries to reason with her to no avail.  This is due to him simply addressing her as Piaf.  In a fury she replies:

            ...Who said you could call me Piaf?  Who said you could call me Piaf?...

In reply Lucien states:

            …What did you want me to call you?

Her reply is sternly:

            …Madame to you, and don’t forget it.

He replies:

            …Even when we’re fucking?

And her reply is:

            …Especially when we’re fucking”...[13] (p.44)

Edith illustrates to the reader one of her personal qualities, as a whore, that being, her outlet for personal fulfilment, through intense sexual activity with a man.  Perhaps this is a safe refuge for Edith, as it brings her pleasure and an easy payment in francs.  But most importantly, this promiscuous tart is able to overcome personal anxiety through such a process.

It is difficult to ascertain whether Edith is satisfied with her rude attitude towards her loved ones, here or if she is in fact experiencing personal anxiety.  Meanwhile, from my perspective, I feel that Edith is trying to cover up her negative feelings and therefore the latter mentioned above prevails.  For surely, a woman, even a whore can’t expect everyone she knows who loves her to be a subordinate.

We are told by our protagonist Edith, that she had given birth to a baby daughter.  Unfortunately, the child died at a young age. (p.18)[14]  Instead of feeling sympathy for all her remaining family members, namely, her husband, Jean, Edith is otherwise.  She treats him like trash.  While Edith is in hospital, after abusing drugs and alcohol both she and Jean are violent towards each other.  Each person blames the other for Edith’s unhealthy state.  She claims that he was endeavouring to profit out of her entertainment.  Edith states:

            …Got it all worked out, have you?  He thought he was going to cop the lot, he dibs.”…

Her husband Jean replies in defence.

            …Are you joking, I was making more in hotel-management!...”[15] (p.49)

Contrary to the attitude towards her second husband Theo – Edith again provides the reader with a feeling of degradation to her loved family members that being, her husband Jean.  Monetary gain might be an object of personal fulfilment for Jean, although he denies this.

It may well be that Edith herself is the miser here, and that this is an element of her fulfilment.  By jeopardising the integrity of Jean, Edith finds personal refuge by insulting him.

Not through verbal abuse, but instead with physical violence, Edith presents herself as a dominant and unanswerable character.  That is, perhaps as an expression of outburst and feeling of loss due to being deprived of her little girl, Edith is beloving in such a manner.  Maybe her frustration is being exerted on Jean.  Moreover, which either way Piaf’s feelings of personal anxiety are shown here, while still pitiful, we feel a sense of disrespect for our heroine.

In “The Homecoming” one can argue that really it is Ruth who has more or less satisfaction.  Ruth by manipulating the sexual desires of her three sons has fulfilled her ambition of dominating the household.  This results in Ruth establishing the home as a sexual refuge for herself and subconsciously for her sons.

The three sons and Max are facing the dilemma of personal anxiety.  One son, Lenny, questions his creation, these and there is an element of doubt as to extent of Ruth’s employment as a whore.  Consequently, Max is defeated by the oedipal complex which is diseasing the minds of his three sons.

According to M. Esslin (1973: 154)[16] the conclusion vision of “The Homecoming” therefore is the climax of these children’s oedipal dreams:- Esslin states:

            …their mother, young and beautiful, has become available to them as a sexual partner, as a “whore”, while the defeated father grovels on the floor pleading for some scraps of her sexual favours.  This wish fulfilment dream is the exact reversal of the real situation that faces a young son: the father in proud possession and the son rejected, oppressed, dominated…[17]       M. Esslin (1973: pp154-155)

It is worth noting that the traditional position of the three sons in a household has been diminished.  Lenny and his brothers are no longer living in a safe, respectable home.  At the same time the Max has outwitted himself by allowing his sons to lose their dignity.  Also, Max has severed his opportunity for the life long pleasures to satisfy his sexual desires, with his wife.

Here we need to point out a few elements of the play directed more towards the three sons and their father Max.  Lenny shows personal anxiety towards his parents and especially to his father.

He questions his conception.  As Ruth was in fact a whore, working for Max, supposedly Max was not the biological father of her three boys.  In other words this worrying thought presented itself to Lenny and perpetuated a form of personal anxiety in the home for him.

One must look at the last play that this discussion is focusing on.  A mention needs to be made of “Owners” in terms of personal anxiety.  There is a mixed situation in this play.  It is justified to say that it is Lisa who endures the most worry and hence, personal anxiety.  She loses her baby at one stage of the play but luckily it is returned to her towards the end.  Moreover, could it be that Marion was suffering a personal anxiety unknown to the other characters and readers.  This substantiates her use of cruel and selfish tactics towards others.  Although this is possible, I find it hardly likely.

Perhaps Lisa experienced some form of refuge in the play as she was able to find a home for her family through Marion.  Even though difficult circumstances were present at times such as with the forced adoption of her baby son, Lisa fortunately was able to find fulfilment in that she did not have to work as a whore like Edith and Ruth.  Also Lisa more or less had a stable relationship with her family member and that in this sense her personal anxiety towards herself and others was minimised.

In the first two plays, ‘‘Piaf” and “The Homecoming”, we find sexual advances as the focal point.  From a feminist perspective we can allow for some flexibility in the authorisation for such action.  Edith, while promiscuous and rude merely relieved herself of her frustration due to personally anxiety.  Secondly, in “The Homecoming” we find that Ruth, in order to break out of her mould as a subordinate partner in her marriage to Max, uses sex as an object of power.  By carrying this force to the extremes of morality she engages in incest with her sons thereby tainting the respectability of her family unit.  Finally in “Owners” the reader finds that a feminist dilemma is focused on by our two major characters Lisa and Marion.  Lisa’s baby is used as a weapon of power, thus, distancing the focus of the plot from its essential theme – that being the importance of a stable and proper family environment in a house.  Although the three plays vary in their strengths and weakness in portraying the importance of a stable family household they are all quite justified in their attempts at this.


1.      Churchill, Caryl, Plays: 1, Owners, Traps, Vinegar Tom, Light.  Shining in Buckinghamshire, Cloud Nine, London, Methnen and Co., 1996.

2.      Esslin, Martin, Pinter: A Study of His Plays, London, Methnen and Co., 1973.

3.      Gems, Pam, Three Plays: Piaf, Camille, Loving Women, London, Penguin Books, 1985.

4.      Pinter, Harold, Harold Pinter: Plays 3:- The Homecoming, The Tea Party, The Basement, Lanscape, Silence Night, That’s Your Trouble, That’s All, Applicant, Interview Dialogue for Three, Tea Party (short story), Old Times, No Man’s Land, London, Faber and Faber Ltd, 1997.

5.      Wandor, Michelene, Look Back In Gender: Sexuality and the Family in post-war British drama, London, Methnen and Co., 1987.


 [1]        Pam Gems, Three Plays: Piaf, Camille, Loving Women, London, Penguin Books, 1985, pp.26-42.

[2]        Martin Esslin, Pinter: A study of his plays, London, Methuen and Co., 1973, p.150.

[3]        Michelene Wandor, Look Back in Gender: Sexuality and the Family in post-war British drama, London, Methuen and Co., 1987, p.120.

[4]        Gems, op cit, p.69.

[5]        M. Esslin, op cit, p.149.

[6]        M. Wandor, op cit, p.120.

[7]        Carly Churchill, Plays: 1, Owners, Traps, Vinegar Tom, Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, Cloud Nine, London, Methuen and Co., 1996, p.24.

[8]        M. Wandor, op cit, p.120.

[9]        M. Wandor, op cit, p.121.

[10]       C. Churchill, op cit, p.52.

[11]       M. Wandor, op cit, p.121.

[12]       C. Churchill, op cit, p.63.

[13]       P. Gems, op cit, p.44.

[14]       P. Gems, op cit, p.18.

[15] P. Gems, op cit, p.49.

[16] M. Esslin, op cit, p.154.

[17] M. Esslin, op cit, pp.154-155.