HAROLD PINTER 1960
The Caretaker was the first of Pinter’s plays to bring him artistic and commercial success as well as national recognition. Opening on April 27, 1960, at the Arts Theatre in London, The Caretaker was an immediate hit with audiences as well as critics, receiving mostly favorable reviews. In addition, The Caretaker received the Evening Standard Award for best play of 1960. In the many years since its first production, the play has continued to be the recipient of critical praise. It has been adapted for television as well as film and has seen numerous revivals all over the world, including at least one production with an all-female cast.
The real-world origins of the play lie in Pinter’s acquaintance with two brothers who lived together, one of whom brought an old tramp to the house for a brief stay. At the time, Pinter himself had very little money and so identified somewhat with the tramp, with whom he occasionally spoke. Artistically, The Caretaker is clearly influenced in both style and subject matter by Samuel Beckett’s 1955 classic Waiting for Godot, in which two tramps wait endlessly for someone they know only as Godot to come and give meaning and purpose to their lives.
Through the story of the two brothers and the tramp, The Caretaker deals with the distance between reality and fantasy, family relationships, and the struggle for power. It also touches on the subjects of mental illness and the plight of the indigent. Pinter uses elements of both comedy and tragedy to create a play that elicits complex reactions in the audience. The complexity of the play, Pinter’s masterful use of dialogue, and the depth and perception shown in Pinter’s themes all contribute to The Caretaker’s consideration as a modern masterpiece.
On October 30, 1930, Harold Pinter was born to Jewish parents in Hackney, a working-class neighborhood in London. It was a difficult time for Jews in England. Hitler’s rise to power had begun, and the fascism he championed had its British sympathizers. In 1939, Britain entered World War II; during the Blitz, Hitler’s intense bombing of London, Pinter, like many young people, was evacuated to the countryside, which was considered safer. Later, Pinter returned to London and experienced the terror of the Blitz firsthand. After the war, difficulties for British Jews continued. Jews were attacked in the streets, and Pinter later recalled his own involvement in a number of altercations.
Pinter attended the Hackney Down Grammar School and, in 1948, received a grant to study at the Royal Academy of the Dramatic Arts but soon dropped out. Shortly afterwards, he started reading the works of Samuel Beckett (Waiting for Godot), who became a great influence on Pinter’s work. In 1950, two of Pinter’s own plays were published. That same year, he began working professionally as an actor, both in London and on tour. During this time he met the actress Vivien Merchant. The two were married in 1956, and their son Daniel was born in 1958. Pinter and Merchant were divorced in 1980, at which time Pinter married Lady Antonia Fraser.
In 1956, John Osborne’s play Look Back in Anger ushered in a new period of British drama; the period was characterized by playwrights who came to be known as the “angry young men.” Pinter’s writing came to be identified with this group. In 1957, The Room became the first of Pinter’s plays to be produced. That year he also wrote The Dumb Waiter and The Birthday Party, which was initially condemned by critics but has since come to be considered one of the most important plays of the twentieth century. In spite of the earlier critical failure of The Birthday Party, Pinter began to achieve a modest success, writing radio and television plays. In 1959, he wrote The Caretaker, which was produced in 1960; the play became Pinter’s first critically
successful play. It was also the first of Pinter’s plays to be filmed. The playwright soon began adapting the work of other dramatists for film while continuing to write his own plays. His major works include The Homecoming (1965), Old Times (1971), and the screenplay for The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Later plays, such as One for the Road (1984) and Mountain Language (1988), reflect Pinter’s growing interest in leftist politics. Many critics consider the newer more critical plays inferior to Pinter’s earlier work, but even if such criticism has merit, his earlier work alone has been enough to establish Pinter as one of the great playwrights of the twentieth century.
Act I opens in a room full of assorted objects, clearly best described as junk. These include an iron bed, paint buckets, numerous boxes, a toaster, a statue of Buddha, a kitchen sink, and a gas stove. A bucket for catching drips hangs from the ceiling. Mick, a man in his twenties, sits alone on the bed, slowly looking around the room, focusing on each object in turn. When the bang of a door is heard, followed by the sound of muffled voices, Mick leaves the room.
Aston, in his thirties, and Davies, an old tramp, enter the room. Aston tells Davies to sit and offers him a cigarette. Davies reveals that he has just been fired from his restaurant job for refusing to do work he considers beneath him. Aston begins working on fixing the toaster while Davies complains about “Poles, Greeks, Blacks, the lot of them,” then mentions that he left the bag with his possessions in the restaurant. Davies questions Aston about the house, about how many rooms there are, about Aston’s position. Aston replies that he is “in charge” of the house and that he is working on building a shed. Davies asks Aston about spare shoes, but when Aston finds some for him, Davies complains that they don’t fit.
Aston gives Davies money and offers to let him stay in the room until he gets “sorted out.” Davies says that he plans to go to Sidcup, “if only the weather would break,” to get his papers, which he says “prove who I am.” Davies finally goes to bed while Aston continues to work on the toaster. The lights fade out, indicating night, then come up again, showing that morning has arrived. Aston tells Davies he was making noises in his sleep, and Davies insists that it could not have been him, that it was probably “them Blacks.” Aston says he is going to leave for a while, then surprises Davies by saying that he can stay alone in the room.
When Aston leaves, Davies immediately begins looking through the objects in the room. Mick comes in and is unnoticed by Davies until Mick seizes Davies’s arm, forcing him down on the floor. Mick then lets go of Davies, sits down, and asks the old man, “What’s the game?”
Act II opens a few seconds later. Mick starts questioning Davies in a hostile fashion, repeating many of the same questions over and over again. This confuses and frightens the tramp. Davies tells Mick that he was brought to the room by “the man who lives here,” but Mick informs Davies that he is in fact the owner of the house and that unless Davies wants to rent the room, Mick can take him to the police. Aston then enters with a bag, which he says belongs to Davies, but Mick grabs the bag and keeps it from the tramp. Mick finally lets Davies have the bag, then leaves the room. Aston tells Davies that Mick is his brother and that he himself is supposed to be decorating the house and plans to build a shed where he can do woodworking.
Aston asks Davies if he would like to stay on as caretaker, but Davies seems reluctant. The lights fade to blackout, then come up again dimly. Davies enters the room, but is unable to get the light on and stumbles about in the darkness. Suddenly Mick, already in the room, begins vacuuming, frightening Davies with the noise. Mick then takes the vacuum plug out of the socket and replaces the light bulb. Davies and Mick talk, and Mick tells Davies that he is impressed by him and that the two just “got off on the wrong foot.”
Mick offers Davies a sandwich and, as the two eat together, Mick tells Davies that Aston’s trouble is that he doesn’t like work. Mick then offers Davies a job as caretaker, and Davies again seems reluctant to accept the position. Finally, however, he agrees. When Mick asks for references, however, Davies claims that his papers are all in Sidcup but that he will go there soon. The lights fade, then come back up, indicating another morning. Aston wakes Davies up, reminding Davies that he had planned to go to Sidcup that day. Davies says he wants to go out for tea. Aston tells him of a cafe nearby, then begins a long monologue, as the lights in the room fade so that only Aston can be seen clearly. Aston tells of how he used to talk to people in that cafe but that he talked too much. He began having hallucinations and was taken to a hospital, where a doctor proposed electroshock therapy.
Aston says that he was a minor at the time, so he knew the doctors could not perform electroshock without his mother’s permission. Aston wrote his mother, asking her not to agree to the treatment, but she gave the doctors permission anyway. Aston tried to escape but was caught, and though he physically fought the doctors, he was forced to receive treatment. Ever since, his thoughts have been slow, and he tries to avoid talking to people. He speaks of wanting to find the man who “did that to me,” but first, he tells Davies, he wants to build the shed in the garden.
Act III begins two weeks later. Mick and Davies are together in the room, and Davies is complaining about Aston, who, he says, will not give him a knife for his bread and refuses to keep the Blacks next door from coming into the house and using the lavatory. Davies says that he and Mick could “get this place going,” and Mick offers a series of decorating ideas, using the words and images common in house and garden magazines—which seem like ludicrous fantasies for the house he owns.
Mick says that the house would be a palace, and that he and his brother would live in it. Davies asks what would happen to him. Mick ignores his question, and Davies continues to complain about Aston—he will not give Davies a clock, and he wakes Davies up in the night. Mick then leaves, and Aston enters. He has another pair of shoes for Davies, but Davies complains that these shoes also don’t fit. Davies then tells Aston that a man has offered him a job. He needs to go to Sidcup but the weather is bad. The lights go out, and a dim light through the window reveals that Davies and Aston are both in bed. Aston switches on the light and wakes Davies, complaining that the tramp is making noises in his sleep. Davies begins insulting Aston, saying that he is not surprised that Aston was put in a mental institution. Davies complains about Aston’s treatment of him, and tells Aston that he could be taken back to the hospital and given electroshock treatments again. Aston tells Davies that he needs to find another place to live. Davies tells Aston that Mick will “sort you out,” that Davies has been offered a job. Davies then leaves.
The lights go out, then back up. It is early evening. Mick and Davies enter the room, Davies complaining about Aston to Mick, who first listens somewhat sympathetically, then tells Davies he can stay if he is as good an interior decorator as he says he is. When Davies denies being a professional decorator, Mick accuses him of falsely presenting himself. Davies says that Aston must have told Mick that Davies is a decoration. When Davies tells Mick that Aston is “nutty,” he goes too far, and Mick begins insulting Davies, calling him a barbarian. Mick then picks up the Buddha and hurls it against the stove, breaking it. Aston comes in. Mick leaves, and Davies begins desperately pleading with Aston, attempting to work out a compromise so that he can stay in the room. Aston says that Davies must leave. Davies continues to beg Aston to let him stay, but Aston turns to the window, ignoring Davies. Finally, the two stand, silent for a moment, Aston still facing the window. The curtain falls.
Aston, in his early thirties, is Mick’s brother. He seems quite generous, as is indicated by his rescuing Davies from a potential brawl and later bringing the tramp into his own house. Once he brings Davies home, Aston continues to try to care for him, giving him tobacco, attempting to find shoes for him, and even replacing Davies’s bag when it is stolen. Unlike Mick, Aston is gentle and calm, enduring Davies’s continual complaints about all that he is offered.
At the end of the second act, Aston reveals what may be at the root of his exceedingly calm nature; sometime before he reached adulthood, he was committed for a time to a mental institution, where he received involuntary electroshock therapy. When in the hospital, Aston says, he counted on his mother to deny permission for the treatments. When she did not, he attempted to escape and, when that failed, physically fought those who attempted to treat him, although his efforts were ultimately futile.
At the time of the play, Aston lives in his brother’s house, planning to build a shed that the audience realizes will never materialize. Aston initially accepts a great deal of abuse from Davies, who uses his confession of psychiatric treatment against him. Aston is finally pushed to his limit, however, and tells the old man he must leave. As the play ends, Aston literally turns his back to Davies, as the tramp begs to be allowed to stay.
Davies is an old man who temporarily moves into the room when Aston rescues him from a brawl. Although Davies was just fired from his menial job, wears old clothes, has no money, and is obviously a tramp, he insists on maintaining what he considers his proper station and refuses to do work he considers beneath him. He also considers himself, as a white Englishman, superior to the Blacks, Greeks, and Poles he rails against. Although Davies does thank Aston for his kindnesses, he complains constantly. Nothing Aston does is good enough for him—the shoes don’t fit, the clothes aren’t warm enough, and the room itself is too drafty. Davies is also deceitful, even lying about his own name when it suits him. He speaks often of going to Sidcup for the papers he needs in order to find work, but the weather is never good enough. The audience realizes
- The Caretaker was adapted as a film in 1964. This British production stars Alan Bates as Mick, Donald Pleasance as Davies, and Robert Shaw as Aston. The producer was Michael Birkett. The film also appeared under the title The Guest.
- A made-for-television version was filmed and shown on the BBC in 1966. This version was directed by Clive Donner and starred Ian MacShane as Mick, John Rees as Aston, and Roy Dotrice as Davies.
that Davies has no intention of taking the trip, of taking care of himself instead of taking advantage of others.
Davies only thinks of himself. When Aston reveals his history of mental illness, Davies is incapable of any sort of sympathy and taunts Aston with his past. He tries to play the brothers against one another, attempting to ingratiate himself with Mick by criticizing Aston. Finally, Aston tires of Davies’s criticism, complaints, and personal attacks, and tells the tramp to leave. Davies desperately begs Aston to reconsider, and the old man finally becomes a pitiable figure, having nowhere to go and no one to whom he can turn. This complicates audience reaction to Davies. He has been depicted as a cunning, deceitful, and ungrateful tramp, but finally becomes also a pathetic and poverty-stricken old man.
Mick, Aston’s brother, is in his late twenties. He is the owner of the building that contains the room in which the play’s action occurs. Mick identifies himself as a successful businessman, although whether he is truly successful and what he actually does for a living are not clear. Since Mick allows Aston to live in his house, it seems that in the wake of Aston’s electroshock treatments, Mick has become a sort of caretaker for his brother.
Mick is a much more suspicious person than Aston, who is quick to take Davies into the house. Although Mick has to have heard the voices of Aston and Davies together as they came toward the room at the play’s beginning, when he finds Davies alone after Aston leaves, Mick physically attacks the old man. Mick follows the physical attack with a verbal attack as he fires quick questions, the same questions over and over, at the frightened tramp. Later, when talking with Davies, Mick alternates between politeness and brutality. Knowing that Davies has no pertinent experience, Mick offers the old man a job as a caretaker, but he later grows angry and accuses Davies of trying to pass himself off as a skilled interior decorator.
Mick also alternates between criticizing and defending his brother. Mick’s frequent changes in attitude make it difficult to ascertain his motivations, and his inconsistency seems to indicate that, at least part of the time, he is lying. His one moment of emotional truth comes when he smashes Aston’s statue of Buddha against the gas stove.
Truth, Lies, and Fantasy
In The Caretaker none of the characters can be trusted to speak the truth. All are, to some extent, deceptive, twisting reality in order to manipulate one another and to delude themselves. The character who is the most deceptive is probably Davies. From the beginning, it is clear that he is a liar, first attempting to win Aston’s respect by pretending to a past that rings false. “I’ve had dinner with the best,” he says. He also calls everything he says into question when he admits to having used a false name; the audience cannot even be sure that his true name is Davies. Davies’s talk of the future is also filled with lies and fantasy and serves two purposes—to manipulate Aston and Mick and to bolster his own self esteem. He speaks of getting even with the man whom he says attacked him: “One night I’ll get him. When I find myself in that direction.”
Davies also tells Aston and Mick that he will go to Sidcup to get his papers. He talks throughout the play of his supposed plans to go to Sidcup, plans he will act on if he acquires shoes, if the weather gets better, plans that the audience soon realizes will never materialize. By his insistence that he is not merely a tramp, that he has a grand past and will support himself in the future, Davies manipulates Aston into continuing to let him stay in the room.
Mick and Aston are not obvious liars like Davies, but the truth of what they say is also questionable. When Mick, after hurling the Buddha against the stove, says, “I got plenty of other things I can worry about . . . I’ve got my own business to build up,” it is unclear whether he is speaking the truth or trying to persuade himself and Davies of his own importance. When he discusses his grandiose plans for turning the house into a vision from a home and garden magazine, he is either playing with Davies or deluding himself with plans for a future that will never arrive.
Aston’s honesty is also questionable. Pinter himself has said that a common mistake among audiences watching The Caretaker is to assume that Aston is telling the truth about his experiences in the mental hospital. But even if Aston is truthful about that experience, he deludes himself with his talk of building a shed. Like Davies’s trip to Sidcup and Mick’s decorating plans, Aston’s shed is a fantasy that will never materialize.
All of the characters in the play not only deceive one another but also delude themselves. Instead of revealing the truth, communication in the play obscures reality. In the world of The Caretaker truth itself becomes an illusion.
Ideally, the family is a source of strength and support for its members, but in The Caretaker, family members are disconnected and even hostile. The brothers Mick and Aston say little of their parents; in fact, the audience does not even know if their mother and father are alive. The little they do say, however, reveals relationships that are strained at best. At one point, Mick speaks to Davies of his “uncle’s brother,” who may simply be another uncle, but who is more likely Mick and Aston’s father.
If this is, in fact, the case, Mick is so disconnected from his father that he cannot use the familial term “father” to identify him. “I called him Sid,” he tells Davies, and in fact, Mick himself seems unsure of what his relationship with this man is: “I’ve often thought that maybe . . . my uncle was his brother and he was my uncle.” Although Mick’s speech is obviously intended to have a comic effect, it does indicate that there is no real relationship between Mick and the man who may be his father.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- The Caretaker has often been compared to Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot. Compare Beckett’s play to Pinter’s. How do the tramps Vladimir and Estragon compare to Davies? What are the thematic similarities and differences between the two plays?
- Research the historical treatment of the mentally ill, considering especially societal attitudes, and compare past times with the present. Discuss Aston’s treatment and Davies’s reaction in terms of the history of the treatment of mental illness.
- None of the women mentioned in The Caretaker appear onstage, and the audience only knows of them through what other characters say. What attitudes toward women are reflected in the characters’ dialogue? What is the effect of having none of the women onstage?
- Compare the characters and situations of Pinter’s The Birthday Party to those in The Caretaker. How are the two plays alike? How are they different?
- Discuss The Caretaker as a comedy. What are the comic elements of the play? What is the effect of Pinter’s use of comedy on the plays’ ending?
Aston’s mention of his mother is brief but revealing. While in the mental hospital, he says, he believed he was safe from electroshock therapy because he was a minor and his mother would have to give permission for such treatment. Although he wrote and asked her not to give permission, she signed the papers anyway, allowing the doctors to give Aston electroshock treatment. Aston’s one memory of his mother is of his trust and her betrayal of that trust.
Aston and Mick’s relationship is also one of distance, but that distance is relieved with some evidence of familial feelings. Mick has taken some responsibility for Aston—he allows Aston to live in his house, and Mick tells Davies that he and his brother take turns cleaning. And when Davies describes Aston as nutty, Mick takes offense, or pretends to take offense. But the brothers are also disconnected. They rarely speak to one another, rarely, in fact, stay in the same room together. In addition, just after Mick expresses anger at Davies’s comment about Aston, he himself picks up Aston’s Buddha and destroys it. This action reveals some hostility toward his brother.
The meaning of Mick’s action is complicated, however, when Aston enters immediately afterwards, and, for the first time, the two brothers face one another, “smiling faintly.” The meaning of the smile, however, is ultimately ambiguous. It may indicate a sort of reconciliation or connection, possibly a united front against Davies. Yet it could also indicate that a surface kindness, an appearance of connection, masks the hostility and estrangement of the brothers. It could even be intended to highlight the ambiguous nature of the brothers’ relationship. However, even if the relationship is somewhat ambiguous, what does seem clear is that in The Caretaker the family is not an idealized haven from the world but a collection of various relationships, sometimes distant, sometimes hostile, always complicated.
Much of the action in The Caretaker follows from the characters’ pursuit of power over one another. This is evident from the beginning, when Davies, rescued by Aston from a possible brawl, first attempts to raise Aston’s estimation of him by suggesting a past grander than his present, claiming social superiority over those with whom he has been working, and finding fault with virtually everything that anyone does for him. Davies presents himself as one who deserves much more than life has given him and so suggests that he has no reason to feel himself inferior to Aston.
Aston acts kindly toward Davies, but his motives are not entirely clear. For instance, by leaving the tramp in the room alone at the end of the first act, knowing that Mick could come in at any time, Aston leaves the old man vulnerable to Mick’s anger—and thus may be asserting a sort of familial power. When Mick does find Davies alone, he first attacks Davies, establishing physical power over him, then threatens to take Davies to the police, reminding the tramp that he has little control over his future. Mick further establishes his power over Davies by his relentless questioning of the tramp, which leaves Davies confused and frightened.
The remainder of the play sees continual struggles for power. Mick keeps Davies’s bag from him, frightens him with the vacuum cleaner, and angrily accuses Davies of falsely presenting himself as an interior decorator. Davies attempts to gain power by trying to get Mick to side with him against Aston. Davies also attempts to assert his own power over Aston by continually reminding Aston that he has been in a mental hospital and telling Aston that he could easily have to back there. Davies’s attempts to gain power, however, finally backfire. Mick defends his brother, again establishing a sort of conjoined familial power, and Aston tells the tramp he must leave. In the final scene, it is Davies who is powerless in spite of his efforts. It is he who is alone and has no place to go.
The Caretaker is set in a single room, a dismal space full of assorted junk and with one window half covered by a sack. Among the objects in the room are paint buckets, a lawn-mower, suitcases, a rolled-up carpet, a pile of old newspapers, and a statue of the Buddha atop a gas stove that does not work. A bucket, used to catch water from the leaking roof, hangs from the ceiling. The room has so much junk in it that it seems more a storage area than a place to live. The room stores not only useless junk but, metaphorically, useless people such as Aston, who can no longer have a real life in the outside world, and briefly Davies, who, in a sense, is just another useless thing that Aston has picked up and brought back to the room.
With its collection of junk, its leaky ceiling, and its window with a sack instead of curtains, the room is the antithesis of the kind pictured in home and garden magazines, which are parodied in a speech by Mick in Act III. In that speech, Mick describes for Davies his supposed plans for the room: “This room you could have as the kitchen . . . I’d have teal-blue, copper and parchment linoleum squares . . . venetian blinds on the window, cork floor, cork tiles.” This exaggerated description has a comic effect but also serves to highlight the distance between the reality of the room and the assorted fantasies of Mick, Aston, and Davies. And no matter what dreams are spoken of in the play, the room is a constant reminder of harsh reality.
In past centuries, a comedy has been a play with a so-called “happy ending,” in which the main character’s problems are resolved, the “good” are rewarded, and the “bad” are punished. Modern drama, however, has seen the development of a hybrid of tragedy and comedy, sometimes called tragicomedy, in which there are comic elements with dark undercurrents. The Caretaker is such a play.
In The Caretaker, Pinter uses numerous comic devices. The character Davies himself is a sort of stock figure from vaudeville, the tramp/clown, which was also used as a persona by actor Charley Chaplin. Similar to the tramp/clown in a vaudeville sketch, Davies provides a great deal of physical, slapstick humor. For instance, Davies removes his trousers to go to bed, and when Mick arrives he takes them, teasing the old man by flicking the trousers in his face, further emphasizing the connection to Vaudeville, in which a man is often stripped of his dignity when his pants fall down. Mick also takes Davies’s backpack, which gets tossed around the room as Davies tries to retrieve it. And later, when Davies flees Mick’s electrolux (vacuum), this scene of panic also connects him to the classic tramp/clown.
In addition to the physical comedy in the play, there is also a great deal of verbal comedy. In Davies’s dialogue, the difference between reality and Davies’s words often has a comic effect. “I’ve had dinner with the best,” he tells Aston. “I’ve eaten my dinner off the best of plates.” This highly doubtful statement from the tramp has a humorous effect, as does Davies’s story of his experience at the monastery near Luton. In this story, Davies tells a monk, “I heard you got a stock of shoes here,” but the monk replies, “Piss off. . . . If you don’t piss off . . . I’ll kick you all the way to the gate.” This story has a comic effect because the monk’s supposed response to Davies is so unexpected and because of the contrast between the monk’s words, “Piss off,” and his traditionally reserved and pious position.
Mick’s interrogation of Davies, his quick questions and his claim that Davies represented himself as a professional interior decorator, are also humorous, again because of contrast—this time between the tramp Davies and the professional qualifications Mick describes.
Although there are many comic elements in The Caretaker, there is also a dark side to Pinter’s play. The ending, in which Davies becomes a frightened old man with no place to go, creates a sense of pity for the tramp’s condition. In the final scene, Davies is too pathetic to be funny; in fact, he almost becomes a tragic figure, and the tragedy of his situation is made more profound by the comedy that preceded it.
In literature, a symbol stands for something other than itself. Probably the most important symbol in The Caretaker is the Buddha that sits atop the gas stove. This Buddha is an object that Aston has picked up and brought back to the already cluttered room. In this sense, the Buddha resembles Davies, who can also be seen as something useless that Aston has picked up. The Buddha, therefore, could be a symbol of Davies.
It should be noted here, however, that there is not always a clear one-to-one correlation between a symbol and what it represents. A complex symbol can have a number of possible meanings, all of which can be joined together to create a greater whole. Mick’s smashing of the Buddha in the third act, therefore, could have several interpretations. Whether the Buddha symbolizes Davies, is a representation of Aston’s inner peace, or is just another item that Aston has brought back, Mick may destroy it because it represents his brother, whom he may even hate. The Buddha, however, as another piece of junk in a house that belongs to Mick, could also symbolize the life he leads. In that case, Mick may destroy the Buddha because of his frustration with his life as a whole. The Buddha could represent all of these things, or it could represent something else. Sometimes the success of a symbol lies in its ambiguity.
The years following victory in World War II were a time of hardship in Britain. A 1947 fuel crisis left many without heat, and food shortages resulted in the continuation of wartime rationing well into the late- 1940s. These years also saw a serious housing shortage. During the war, when construction of housing had ceased, two hundred thousand houses were completely destroyed and half a million more required extensive repair. Some Britons saw hope
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1960: Many government programs for the assistance of the poor have been developed, but the efficacy of such programs begins to be called into question.
Today: Although government programs continue to help millions, many begin to doubt that the government is truly capable of offering real solutions to the problem of poverty. Focus on the assistance of the private sector grows, and there is a new emphasis on volunteerism.
- 1960: The domestic economy is recovering from its Postwar malaise, and the so-called “consumer culture” grows. Television becomes popular, and people are exposed to more advertising than ever before.
Today: Emphasis on consumer acquisition continues as corporate power grows and advertising becomes even more pervasive (and persuasive).
- 1960: New medications begin to revolutionize treatment of the mentally ill, but psychologists and psychiatrists often blame severe illnesses such as schizophrenia and manic-depression on psychological factors.
Today: Scientific study has revealed a biological basis for major psychiatric illness, but the mentally ill and their families still face discrimination, as the social stigma of mental illness continues.
- 1960: Immigrants and members of minority groups face difficult times, much prejudicial treatment, and little legal protection.
Today: Members of minority groups are protected by law, and racism is generally socially unacceptable. The rise of the militant right and hate groups, however, present new threats to immigrants and people of color.
for the future in socialism, and the late- 1940s saw the development of the Welfare State, which placed responsibility for the relief of the poor on the government. In 1946, the National Insurance Act and the National Health Service Act were passed, providing insurance and medical care to the poor. The National Assistance Act was developed to provide a safety net for the poor. Many believed that new government policies would end poverty altogether.
Such optimistic assessments, however, were soon proven false. In addition, those who saw socialism as a solution to Britain’s problems were disillusioned by the Soviet Union’s 1956 invasion of Hungary, which showed that a socialist system could be as violent and corrupt as any other political system.
These years also saw a decline in Britain’s status among nations. Previous generations had said that the sun would never set on the British empire, but now that empire was crumbling, with former colonies such as India gaining freedom from British rule. In 1956, the Suez crisis, in which Britain was condemned by the United Nations for its attempt to gain control of the Suez Canal in Egypt, resulted in international humiliation for the former empire. British troops were forced to withdraw, and the Prime Minister resigned over the incident.
In spite of political difficulties, however, the late- 1950s saw some domestic economic recovery, and Britain saw the rise of a consumer culture focusing on the acquisition of material goods. Ownership of what were formerly luxury items, such as refrigerators, washing machines, and automobiles, rose significantly between 1953 and 1960. In addition, the development of television led to a new perceived need. Magazines enticed consumers to buy with photographs and descriptions of beautifully decorated homes. Not surprisingly, British citizens were exposed to more advertising than ever before. It is, in fact, the language of house and garden magazines and of advertisements that Mick uses when he describes for Davies his vision for the future of The Caretaker’s squalid setting.
In the 1950s, treatment of the mentally ill was undergoing change, as the introduction of new psychiatric medications made it possible for patients to leave institutions and live in their communities. Nonetheless, many patients remained institutionalized and, although more humane than those of past eras, mental hospitals of the time were sometimes little better than warehouses for those whose illnesses had no real cure. In addition, in spite of advances in medications, little was known about the biological causes of severe mental illness, and such illnesses were still generally believed to have psychological bases. Psychiatrists often blamed the family unit for illnesses such as schizophrenia and manic-depressive disorder, and particular blame was laid at the feet of the mother and the ways in which she brought up her children.
As early as the sixteenth century, physicians had attempted to cure schizophrenia by inducing convulsions with camphor. In the 1930s, modern electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) was developed in Rome. In the 1950s, ECT was commonly used to treat depression and schizophrenia. At that time, however, treatments were often given without muscle relaxants, which prevent broken bones during seizures, or general anesthesia. In addition, the mentally ill had not yet benefited from the patients’ rights movement of the 1960s, and so the involuntary ECT that Aston was subjected to was much more common than it is today.
The first production of The Caretaker at the Arts Theatre in London on April 27, 1960, met with an enthusiastic audience response. In his book The Life and Work of Harold Pinter, biographer Michael Billington quoted the Daily Herald’s description of the play’s reception: “Tumultuous chaos. Twelve curtain calls. And then, when the lights went up, the whole audience rose to applaud the author who sat beaming in the circle.” Early reactions from the critics were positive as well. Billington noted that the News Chronicle’s critic wrote, “This is the best play in London.” Michael Scott, in his book Harold Pinter: The Birthday Party, The Caretaker, The Homecoming, quoted critic Charles Marowitz: “The Caretaker, Pinter’s latest play, is a national masterpiece.” Indeed the play was recognized as such by others; it received the Evening Standard Award for best play of 1960.
Many critics compared The Caretaker to Samuel Beckett’s 1955 play Waiting for Godot, in which two tramps wait for a man they know only as Godot to arrive and give meaning and purpose to their lives. T. C. Worsley, in a 1960 review quoted by Scott, remarked, “Certainly we seem to be in Godot country,” then noted that Pinter’s play seems more accessible: “We are in the Beckett climate, but not the Beckett fog where everything means something else.” Marowitz, who also pointed out the resemblance to Beckett’s work, remarked that such a resemblance takes nothing away from Pinter: “The mark of Beckett on Pinter is dominantly stylistic; as for the subject matter, it may have a Beckettian tang to it, but the recipe is original.”
Pinter’s use of language in the play has also been the subject of much discussion. Playwright John Arden, also quoted by Scott, discussed language in terms of the play’s “realism.” According to Arden, previous realist playwrights wrote plays in which “a series of events were developed, connected by a strictly logical progression of fact, and we could be sure that anything done or said on the stage had its place in the concrete structure of the plot.” The dialogue in Pinter’s work, however, reflects a new type of realism, meandering speech that shows “not merely what [the characters] would have said if the author thought it up for them, but what they actually did say.”
An important aspect of Pinter’s dialogue for Arden was “his expert use of ‘casual’ language and broken trains of thought,” which presents a more natural use of speech. For Marowitz, however, Pinter does not simply reflect real speech, but enhances it: “If Pinter uses tape-recorders to achieve such verisimilitude, he also edits his tapes poetically to avoid stale reproductions of life.”
Other critics, however, who agreed that the dialogue is realistic, found fault elsewhere. Kenneth Tynan, writing in 1960, and quoted in File on Pinter, commented on Pinter’s realism. “Time and again,” Tynan wrote, “without the least departure from authenticity, Mr. Pinter exposes the vague, repetitive silliness of lower-class conversation.” Yet Tynan suggested a certain cruelty in the quality
of Pinter’s dialogue. “One laughs in recognition,” he wrote, “but one’s laughter is tinged with snobbism.”
Alan Brien, writing for the Spectator in 1960 (also quoted in File on Pinter) disagreed, arguing that Pinter’s characters are like the members of the audience. The critic emphasized that this aspect is an improvement over Pinter’s earlier plays: “His characters are now people rooted in a world of insurance stamps, and contemporary wallpaper, and mental asylums. They are still lost in mazes of self-deception, isolated behind barricades of private language, hungry at the smell of the next man’s weakness—in other words, just like us.”
The Caretaker continues to be considered a classic of modern drama by most critics, but in recent years, some complaints about the play have been voiced. Kitty Mrosovsky, writing of a 1981 production and quoted in File on Pinter, once again compared the play to Waiting for Godot, but not favorably: “It has dated in a way that the earlier Waiting for Godot (1955) has not . . . Not that the tramps nowadays are any fewer, nor the derelict attics with their buckets to catch the drips. But the patina of social comment can almost be peeled off the play’s core, leaving at most a wry proposition about the purgatory of sharing a bedroom with your neighbor.”
Critic Elizabeth Sakellaridou, in her book Pinter’s Female Portraits, faulted the play on feminist grounds. Sakellaridou noted that the women mentioned in the play never appear onstage, and so “they reflect the idiosyncrasies and moods of the three male characters, and therefore, they are highly subjective creations which can hardly be identified as real people.” Sakellaridou went on to suggest that the characterization of women in the play reflects a negative attitude in general on the part of Pinter. The text of the play, she noted, “reveals mistrust and fear, abuse and contempt for women.”
It is not only feminists who see global problems with Pinter’s play. Bernard Levin, writing of a 1977 production (quoted in File on Pinter), found little redeeming value in the play at all and spoke of the “emptiness, weightlessness, and triviality” of The Caretaker. “We come out exactly the same people as we were when we entered,” he continued. “We have been entertained . . . we have not been bored. But we have advanced our understanding and our humanity not a whit.” Levin further suggested that the great praise the play has received has been undeserved: “The needle is sharp, the thread fine, the material sumptuous, the seamstress the best. But the Emperor’s clothes do not exist.”
By his reference to the traditional tale of the emperor’s new clothes, Levin acknowledged the high esteem in which the play is held. In spite of such criticism as his, The Caretaker continues to inspire numerous revivals as well as much critical attention. Although the play is not without its detractors, most critics of modern drama consider The Caretaker a contemporary classic.
Cross is a Ph.D. candidate specializing in modern drama. In this essay, she discusses Aston’s motivations in his relationship with Davies.
Numerous critics have said that much of the action of The Caretaker is dominated by the characters’ struggle for power over one another. As Michael Billington remarked in his book The Life and Work of Harold Pinter, “Power is the theme: dominate or be dominated.” Pinter shows, Billington continued, “that life is a series of negotiations for advantage in which everything comes into play.” Indeed, in The Caretaker, this often seems to be the case. Davies tries to play Aston and Mick against each other as he struggles to establish a foothold in the room. Mick maintains power over Davies by physical as well as verbal assaults. And at the end of the play, Aston exerts his power by forcing Davies to leave; the struggle for power is a dominant theme in the play.
To suggest, however, as Billington and others have, that all of the characters are primarily motivated by power is an oversimplification of Pinter’s play. It is true that such an assessment seems to apply to Davies. If he is to stay in the room and have Aston or Mick see to his needs and desires, he needs to gain control over them, even if he has to do so by making himself sometimes appear, not powerful, but needy. In essence, Davies cares for no one but himself and will do whatever he thinks will allow him to stay in the room. Mick, defending his territory against an intruder, attempts to control Davies primarily by physical and verbal violence. He has no real regard for the tramp. On the other hand, Mick does have at least some feeling, even if only a sense of obligation, for his brother and is, in fact, taking care of at least some of Aston’s needs by allowing him to stay in the room. Although he expresses anger at his brother when he breaks the Buddha against the stove, although he tells Davies that Aston’s trouble is that he does not want to work, Mick does defend Aston against Davies’s cruel remarks—and he allows Aston to stay in the room. The desire for power motivates him but it is not his only motivation. Nonetheless, it does seem fair to consider the desire for power as a primary motivation for both Davies and Mick.
While Davies and Mick are dominated by their own drives for power, to suggest quite the same of Aston is to simplify his character as well as the play as a whole. Aston’s attempts to care for Davies and to talk to him seem motivated, at least in part, by kindness and concern for the tramp. On the other hand, it is hard to see Aston as motivated entirely by altruism. Indeed, one could argue that Aston is kind to Davies because he wants to control him, because he wants to meet his own needs and thus is as motivated by power as are Davies and Mick. In truth, neither interpretation of Aston’s character
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Waiting for Godot, a 1955 play by Samuel Beckett, is often compared to The Caretaker and generally recognized—as many of Beckett’s plays are—as a major influence on Pinter’s style.
- Look Back in Anger, a 1956 play by John Osborne, is often cited as a turning point in modern British drama, the first play of the so-called “Angry Young Men” theatre movement. The play focuses on the struggle of a young couple, the unemployed Jimmy Porter and the wife he abuses.
- The Birthday Party, a 1958 play by Pinter, concerns Stanley, the only lodger in a dilapidated boarding house, who is terrorized by two mysterious men who arrive looking for him. Although this play originally received negative reviews, it is now regarded as one of Pinter’s most important works.
- Old Times, a 1971 play by Pinter, focuses on a married couple, Deeley and Kate, who are visited by Kate’s old friend Anna. The play centers on a power struggle between Deeley and Anna, each of whom wants to prove his or her possession of Kate.
- The Bell Jar (1963), an autobiographical novel by American poet Sylvia Plath, chronicles Plath’s experience with mental illness in the early- 1950s. The novel records one person’s experience with mental health care and electroshock treatment in that time period.
captures the whole man. Aston does make an effort to meet his own needs but not in a cynical search for power. What Aston truly desires throughout most of the play is real contact with another human being. It is only when his efforts at connection fail that Aston exerts simple power over Davies.
In Act I, after the opening scene in which Mick looks about the dismal room, then leaves, Aston comes onstage followed by Davies. Upon entering the room, Davies begins to speak of the encounter that led Aston to bring him home. Davies was involved in some sort of scuffle at the restaurant where he was working, and Aston saw a man “have a go” at Davies. In relating this incident, Davies complains a great deal about his treatment at the restaurant, claiming that he was not being treated according to his station, that he was told to do work he considered beneath him.
In spite of his concern with his place in the world, however, it is clear from Davies’s clothes that he is a tramp and, whether such a viewpoint is moral or not, most so-called “respectable” people would consider him beneath them. While many would feel sorry for someone in Davies’s position, almost no one would actually take such a person home to care for him. Aston’s bringing Davies home, therefore, seems an act of incredible kindness. Such kindness can also be seen to some extent in the way Aston and Davies converse. For the most part, Davies speaks and Aston listens, enduring the old man’s complaints, never challenging even the most absurd of Davies’s claims, such as his assertion that women have often asked him if he would like to have them look at his body. When Aston does speak to Davies, most of the time he asks questions about the old man’s needs and desires.
As Act I continues, Aston makes a number of offers to Davies and these offers seem to escalate in extremity. He offers the tramp a cigarette, shoes, and money. He says he will retrieve the belongings Davies left in the restaurant. He offers to let Davies stay in his own room and even gives the tramp the keys to the house. By the end of the first act, Aston’s offers of help become so extreme that they would seem incredible to most people. So unbelievable is Aston’s kindness to Davies that it raises the question of motivation. It is hard to accept that a person could be that kind simply out a sense of responsibility towards one’s fellow man.
There are, however, some hints that Aston may be acting from something other than kindness, may in fact be seeking to have Davies satisfy his own needs. In the first act, Aston twice tells Davies of incidents from his own life. First he tells Davies a simple story—that he went into a pub and ordered a Guinness, which was served to him in a thick mug. He tells Davies that he could not finish the Guinness because he can only drink out of a tin glass. Davies completely ignores Aston’s story and immediately begins speaking about his own plans to go to Sidcup. Later, Aston tells Davies of his sitting in a cafe and speaking to a woman who, after a brief conversation, put her hand on his and asked if he would like her to look at his body. Davies responds first with disbelief, saying “Get out of it,” then goes on to say that women have often said the same thing to him, not quite ignoring Aston’s remarks this time, but using Aston’s experience simply as a means to boast about himself.
In both cases, there is no logical prelude to Aston’s stories. They seem to come out of nowhere. The most likely interpretation seems to be that Aston simply wants someone to talk to, and this interpretation seems borne out in Aston’s speech in the second act in which he tells of how he was put in a mental hospital after he “talked too much.” This suggests that Aston’s kindness might stem from his own need to connect with a human being, any human being, even Davies. If this is the case, Davies offers no satisfaction to Aston, for the tramp is interested only in himself.
Toward the end of the first act and throughout most of the second, Aston begins to seem less motivated by simple kindness. His leaving of Davies alone in the house seems, on the face of it, an act of consideration and of trust but it is in fact somewhat ambiguous. Aston almost certainly knows that Mick may come into the house and that, if he does so, he will view Davies as an intruder. In a sense, Aston, while not at this point confronting Davies with his own power, leaves Davies in a position in which he may have to face the anger and power of Mick. Thus Aston exerts a sort of familial power over Davies.
After Mick’s encounter with Davies and Aston’s return to the room, Aston continues to show ambiguity in his treatment of Davies. When Mick keeps Davies’s bag from him, Aston makes some attempt to get the bag back to him, but finally, he gives the bag to Mick, and it is Mick who returns it to Davies. Aston still attempts to acquire shoes for Davies, and
“IT IS ONLY POWER THAT DAVIES UNDERSTANDS”
he offers him the job of caretaker, but he complains that Davies makes noises when he sleeps. When Davies complains about the draft and rain from the open window, Aston asserts himself by telling Davies that he himself cannot sleep without the window being open.
Toward the end of the second act, though, Aston temporarily gives in to Davies on the matter of the window. He tells Davies he can “close it for the time being.” In his giving in to Davies in this way, Aston may be motivated by simple kindness, or he may seek to appease Davies so that he can again attempt to talk to the man, to engage him in some sort of relationship. Again, this can be interpreted as an effort to control Davies in order to meet his own needs.
At this point in the play, it is more difficult to believe that Aston acts only from kindness. It seems possible that Aston may truly be motivated by the desire to manipulate Davies in order to use him to satisfy his own need for contact. The situation becomes more complicated, however, at the end of Act II, when Aston, in a lengthy monologue, speaks to Davies about his mental troubles. Aston tells the story of his talking too much in the cafe, of his hallucinations, his commitment, his mother’s betrayal, his experience of involuntary electroshock treatments. This monologue is like nothing else in the play. Aston tells the tramp a serious story about what is almost certainly the most painful experience of his life.
Aston seems again to want someone to listen to him, and one could again argue that he simply wants Davies to meet his own needs. Such a view, however, would be too simplistic. In telling this story to Davies, Aston takes a serious risk. The social stigma attached to those who have received such treatment in a mental hospital, particularly electroshock therapy, is strong, especially in the time in which Pinter is writing. When Aston tells Davies about his hospital experience, he makes himself extremely vulnerable to the tramp. He gives Davies ammunition to use against him. This is not a man in search of power but one who desperately seeks to make real human contact.
But Aston ultimately cannot make that contact with Davies. Pinter uses lighting to illustrate this. By the end of Aston’s monologue, he alone can clearly be seen; Davies stands in the shadows. This shows that no connection is made. His attempt to connect with a human being leaves him vulnerable and alone.
In the final act, Davies exploits Aston’s moment of honesty. He attempts to ally himself with Mick and against Aston. Aston, once again seeming to attempt an act of kindness, continues to seek shoes for Davies, but the tramp scorns Aston’s efforts to help. In fact, Davies verbally assaults Aston, insulting him, accusing him of being insane, telling Aston that he could go back into the hospital, that he could receive electroshock treatments again. It is at this point that Aston finally tells Davies he has to leave. His attempts to be kind to Davies, to connect with him, have completely failed. Even when he tells Davies to leave, however, Aston again shows kindness, offering Davies money. But still he finally and literally turns his back on Davies as he looks out the window and waits for the tramp to leave.
While it is clear that Davies, with no place to go, is alone at the end of the play, what is often overlooked is the fact that Aston is also alone. He has shown kindness to Davies. He has desperately attempted to make real human contact with him. In the end, however, Aston’s desire for connection cannot be saved. It is only power that Davies understands.
Source: Clare Cross, for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000.
In the following essay, noted theatre critic Brustein examines Pinter’s play as a work of existentialism, concluding that The Caretaker is “a work in which existence not only precedes essence but thoroughly destroys it.”
When Harold Pinter tells us that his plays contain no meaning outside of the material itself, I think we should believe him, giving thanks for his unusual, though somewhat self-incriminating, honesty. The Caretaker—being little more than the sum of its component parts and dramatic values—certainly seems totally free from either significance or coherence. In this, no doubt, it has something in common with real life. But while the work displays a surface painstakingly decorated with naturalistic details, these are so peculiarly selected that the effect is quite distorted: the play is a slice of life, sliced so arbitrarily that it has lost all resemblance to life. Because of the mystery surrounding Pinter’s principles of selection, therefore, suspense is the play’s greatest virtue. Pinter manipulates this with considerable skill, tantalizing us with the promise of some eventual explanation—but he stubbornly refuses to deliver. He refuses, in fact, to communicate with us at all. His language, while authentic colloquial speech, is stripped bare of reflective or conceptual thought, so that the play could be just as effectively performed in Finno-Ugric. You might say that The Caretaker approaches the condition of music—if you could conceive of music without much development, lyric quality, or thematic content. For the play is so scrupulously non-analytical—so carefully documented with concrete (though pointless) happenings, specific (though atypical) character details, and particularized (though unrecognizable) responses—that it goes full circle from its surface naturalism and ends up a total abstraction.
The basic anecdote is this: A slavish, peevish, vicious old down-and-out named Davies is offered lodging in a junk-filled room, part of a network of apartments waiting to be redecorated. His benefactor, the would-be decorator, is a listless, dull-witted chap named Aston, who has collected Davies in much the same impersonal way he has collected the other useless articles in the place. Aston gives Davies a bed, money, shoes, clothes, and a caretaking job, which the derelict, consumed with defenses and prejudices, accepts or rejects with alternating gratitude and grumbles. Though they live in the same room and share a quality of spiritual paralysis (Aston wants but is unable to build a tool shed; Davies is desirous but incapable of going to Sidcup for his papers), they cannot connect. Nor do they connect with Aston’s brother, Mick, a mordant young entrepreneur who hardly says a word to Aston and who relates to Davies mainly by baiting him with cruel practical jokes. Following Aston’s confession that shock treatments had addled his brain (a confession alien to the style of the play), Davies tries to form an alliance with Mick to evict Aston from the room. Mick first encourages Davies’ scheme; then, smashing his brother’s statue of Buddha for emphasis, ridicules it. After a petty altercation between the two roommates over Davies’ noisy sleeping habits—which climaxes when Davies, flourishing a knife, lets slip some unfortunate remarks about Aston’s “stinking shed”—Aston asks him to leave. Whimpering like a rebellious slave whipped into submission, Davies begs to be allowed to remain.
That, apart from a wealth of equally mystifying details and a few comic episodes, is the meat of the play; and I’m perspiring from the effort to extract this much coherence. One is forced to respect Pinter’s command of the stage, since he has composed scenes of substantial theatrical force dominated by a compelling air of mystery, but his motive for writing the play escapes me. I would be delighted to be able to tell you that Pinter nurtures some of the seeds he plants in the work—that The Caretaker is about the spiritual vacancy of modern life, the inability of slave types to achieve dignity, or (favorite theme of “sensitive” contemporary playwrights) the failure of human beings to communicate with one another. But I cannot honestly conclude that it is about anything at all, other than itself. The situation, apparently ordinary, is so special, and the characters, apparently human, are so unrepresentative, that we are totally alienated from the events on the stage; and finally begin to regard these creatures as a bacteriologist might examine germ life on another planet.
For this reason, the present tendency to couple Pinter and Beckett is more misleading than it is illuminating. Pinter has obviously borrowed some of Beckett’s techniques and conventions—the tramp figure, the immobility of the central characters, the repetitions in the dialogue, the occasional vaudeville stunts, the mixture of comedy and seriousness—but he has used them for totally different purposes. In Waiting for Godot, the action is metaphorical and universal; in The Caretaker, it is denotative and specific. Beckett’s play reveals the feelings of a metaphysical poet about the quality of human existence. Pinter’s, excluding both feeling and thought, bears almost no relation to any known form of human life, and is so impersonal it seems to have written itself. What Pinter has created, in short, is a naturalism of the grotesque wrapped around a core of abstraction—something less like Beckett than like Sherwood Anderson, though lacking the compassion of either.
The production takes full advantage of ample theatrical opportunities. Donald McWhinnie approaches the play, quite correctly, as if it were a
“WHAT PINTER HAS CREATED, IN SHORT, IS A NATURALISM OF THE GROTESQUE WRAPPED AROUND A CORE OF ABSTRACTION—SOMETHING LESS LIKE BECKETT THAN LIKE SHERWOOD ANDERSON.”
perfectly conventional kitchen drama, adding a note of casual imperturbability with his direction which enhances the oddness. Brian Currah’s setting—an artfully arranged hodgepodge of vacuum cleaners, lawn mowers, broken-down beds, paint buckets, and other articles of junk—provides the proper air of imprisonment. And the acting is further proof that the new English proletarian style is now more flexible than our own. Pinter, who writes succulent parts for actors, has created a really juicy character in Davies, excellently played by Donald Pleasence with a kind of shambling, sniveling, corrosive nastiness. But for me the best performance of the evening is contributed by Alan Bates as Mick, whose alternating cruelty, irony, wit, and injured innocence are etched with such assurance that one is almost convinced that there is something of consequence beneath the baffling exterior of the part.
But the surface refuses to budge. In The Caretaker, Pinter has gone beyond the most extreme theories of the most radical Existentialists: he has created a work in which existence not only precedes essence but thoroughly destroys it. Without some hint of the essential, all judgments must be relative, and a critic of the drama becomes as useless as those critics of Action painting who are given to analyzing their own subliminal responses to a work instead of the work itself. My subliminal response to Pinter’s play was a growing irritation and boredom, somewhat mitigated by admiration for his redoubtable theatrical gifts. If these gifts can someday be combined with visionary power, beauty, heart, and mind, then we shall someday have a new dramatic artist and not just an abstract technician of striking scenes for actors.
Source: Robert Brustein, “A Naturalism of the Grotesque” in his Seasons of Discontent, Simon & Schuster, 1965, pp. 180-83.
Kerr offers a favorable appraisal of Pinter’s play in this review, citing the play as a challenging work of theatre.
I was instantly fearful that The Caretaker would become popular for the wrong reasons. There was the chance, for instance, that it would be regarded as zany comedy, and forcibly laughed at. One response that is regularly made to contemporary plays of the profoundest despair is the tittering pretense that the author has carved his vast zero as a joke. This is not emptiness, the nervous laughter says, but an irresponsible playfulness. People are always mentioning the Marx brothers in connection with the “comedy” of carefully illustrated nothingness, as though we had once laughed at the Marx brothers because they struck us as irrational in the clinical sense.
Thus laughter was felt to be obligatory as three remarkable actors played out the following sequence in Harold Pinter’s remarkable play. A filthy old ingrate who had been given shelter in a refuse-littered attic was offered a satchel by the vacant-eyed brother who had admitted him. Another brother, hostile for no known reason, intercepted the satchel each time it was presented. The satchel was thrust forward, snatched away, thrust forward, snatched away, thrust forward, snatched away, finally hurled to the floor in a burst of dust. The repeated gestures did have an echo of a vaudeville routine in which a chair was invariably whisked out from under the comedian as he was about to sit on it. But the routine we once laughed at had had a rationale: we understood the sequence of events, however unlikely or unlucky, that led to each experience of frustration. Here, deliberately, no causes were indicated. The bag was offered without charity and retrieved without reason. The old man’s frustration was absolute; it was also—to him, as to us—incomprehensible. To laugh at it almost suggested malice. Or, at the least, the defensive sound of the giggle that is meant to ward off a threatened dissolution of the mind.
There was, further, a strong likelihood that The Caretaker would become necessary theatergoing merely because it was, as dramaturgy, novel, eccentric, hence a conversation piece for tired dinner tables. Three characters moved in and out of a domestic graveyard, most often with a sense of stealth, to sit and stare at one another, to recite unseeing monologues (on several occasions the listener on stage simply went to sleep, or otherwise abstracted himself), sometimes to engage in eye-to-eye conversation in which each participant pursued his own thoughts and failed to grasp the other’s. All three were kept at arm’s length from us, almost at species’ length. The homeless old man was indecent at every turn of mind: he hesitated to use the toilet for fear the “blacks” next door might have used it; he treated the benefits doled out to him with fastidious contempt (“Them bastards at the monastery let me down”); he threatened to usurp, with a snivel and a whine, the refuge he did not deserve. The brother who was his benefactor was mindless; doctors had done something to his brain. The brother who visited came to challenge, to sneer, to torment; he was the brazen, mesmerizing pseudo delinquent none of us understands. Such sympathy as stirred in us went, by inversion, to the disreputable vagrant; horror that he was, he was recognizably human and not a robot or a Martian. But in general we were in the company of the loathsome, the lamed, and the spiteful. It was lamentably easy for so defiant a play to become, through its very violation of our ordinary tastes and our ordinary expectations, simply fashionable.
The Caretaker merited, and I think required, another kind of attention. There were two levels on which it might have been attended to, one with deep communion and hence satisfaction, one with detached but genuine curiosity.
To have been deeply satisfied, perhaps even moved as one is moved by an instant recognition of a kindred soul, it would have been necessary to share Mr. Pinter’s vision of the present state of man. This vision was not reduced to a series of editorial statements; it stood as a vision, as a fluid image, as an atmosphere. But what it saw and showed us was a world wholly opaque, wholly impermeable, and, beyond the fact that we could neither see into it nor probe it with our fingers, wholly hollow. Mr. Pinter had attempted to construct, and had succeeded in constructing, a poetry of the blind: the sensed experience of a man who has suddenly lost his sight and is now in an unfamiliar room. This man gropes his way, hesitantly, talking to himself to keep himself company. There are objects about, and they can be touched when they are stumbled over; though they can be vaguely identified by cautious exploration, they remain unfriendly. There are people about, and they can be called to: but what they say is misleading because the tone of voice is not supported by the expressiveness of a face. One can guess, and do the wrong thing. One can plead, and not know when the others present are exchanging cold glances. Man—and the grimy caretaker was most nearly man in the play—is lost, rejected by what he had thought were his own kind, ousted from what he had thought was his home. Appeal is at last impossible: there are no hearts or heads to be reached.
To say that this tense, concentrated, sustained position was superbly illustrated in performance is to say too little. The play itself, given its particular insight and its precisely appropriate method of articulating that insight, must be regarded as perfect. For it to have been perfectly satisfying in the theater, however, one would have had to be ready not only to attend closely but to nod firmly and say, “Yes, beyond doubt this is the life we live.”
Short of such utter identification, there was a second level at which the play’s fascination might have been honestly felt. A playgoer might have gone to the play without having yet surrendered all hope of speaking to his fellow men, without having concluded that all dialogue is a dialogue with the figures on Easter Island, without having agreed to regard the world about him as a disarray of ripped umbrellas, broken Buddhas, and empty picture frames. It is nonetheless true that a considerable segment of twentieth-century society has so come to see the neighborhood it inhabits. The antiworld is with us, late and soon; it faces us from the paintings on our walls no less than from the increasingly impotent people within our prosceniums. What exists—in the public reality or the private mind—had better be known, whether in detachment or in surrender, whether in cool appraisal or in assent. There may have been no better way of knowing it in the early sixties than through the already cool, ruthlessly framed, astringently orchestrated survey of the wreckage called The Caretaker.
Source: Walter Kerr, “The Caretaker” in his The Theatre in Spite of Itself, Simon & Schuster, 1963, pp. 116-19.
Page, Malcolm, compiler. File on Pinter, Methuen Drama, 1993, pp. 23-25.
“MR. PINTER HAD ATTEMPTED TO CONSTRUCT, AND HAD SUCCEEDED IN CONSTRUCTING, A POETRY OF THE BLIND: THE SENSED EXPERIENCE OF A MAN WHO HAS SUDDENLY LOST HIS SIGHT AND IS NOW IN AN UNFAMILIAR ROOM.”
Sakellaridou, Elizabeth. Pinter’s Female Portraits: A Study of Female Characters in the Plays of Harold Pinter, Macmillan, 1988, pp. 127-29.
Billington, Michael. The Life and Work of Harold Pinter. Faber, 1996.
This is the first authorized biographical study of Pinter. Billington uses information gleaned from interviews with Pinter and his friends to illuminate the playwright’s life and work.
This book provides a careful examination of the history of British society and contains considerable material on Postwar Britain.
Diamond, Elin. Pinter’s Comic Play, Associated UP, 1985.
Diamond focuses on the use of comedy in Pinter’s major plays. This book includes a chapter on The Caretaker.
Dukore, Bernard F. Harold Pinter, Grove Press, 1982.
This is a brief introduction to Pinter’s major plays.
Scott, Michael, editor. Harold Pinter: The Birthday Party, The Caretaker, The Homecoming, Macmillan, 1986.
This book is a compilation of numerous reviews and essays on the works cited in the title.