Origins and contexts of the play
Pinter’s own comment on the source of three of his major plays is frequently quoted by critics :
I went into a room and saw one person standing up and one person sitting down, and few weeks later I wrote The Room. I went into another room and saw two people sitting down, and a few years later I wrote The Birthday Party. I looked through a door into a third room and saw two people standing up and I wrote The Caretaker.
According to his official authorized biographer, Michael Billington, Pinter “talked in detail about the play’s origins” in images from his own personal experience and observations for the first time with him (in the mid 1990s), when Pinter told Billington that he wrote the play while he and his first wife Vivien Merchant
“were living [… ] in this first-floor flat in Chiswick: a very clean couple of rooms with a bath and kitchen. There was a chap who owned the house: a builder, in fact, like Mick who had his own van and whom I hardly ever saw. The only image of him was of this swift mover up and down the stairs and of his van going . . . Vroom . . . as he arrived and departed. His brother lived in the house. He was a handyman . . . he managed rather more successfully than Aston, but he was very introverted, very secretive, had been in a mental home some years before and had had some kind of electrical shock treatment . . . ECT, I think . . . Anyway, he did bring a tramp back one night. I call him a tramp, but he was just a homeless old man who stayed three or four weeks.” […] Mick, as he says, was the most purely invented character of the three. For the tramp [Davies], however, he had a certain fellow feeling. […] “It [the Pinters’ life in Chiswick] was a very threadbare existence . . . very . . . I was totally out of work. So I was very close to this old derelict’s world, in a way.”(Harold Pinter 114–17).”
For earlier critics, like Martin Esslin, The Caretaker suggests aspects of the Theatre of the Absurd, described by Esslin in his eponymous book coining that term first published in 1961; according to Esslin, absurdest drama by writers such as Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, Jean Genet, and Edward Albee, and others was prominent in the late 1950s and early 1960s as a reaction to chaos witnessed in World War Two and the state of the world after the war.
Billington observes that “The idea that [Davies] can affirm his identity and recover his papers by journeying to Sidcup is perhaps the greatest delusion of all, although one with its source in reality”; as “Pinter’s old Hackney friend Morris Wernick recalls, ‘It is undoubtedly true that Harold, with a writer’s ear, picked up words and phrases from each of us. He also picked up locales. The Sidcup in The Caretaker comes from the fact that the Royal Artillery HQ was there when I was a National Serviceman and its almost mythical quality as the fount of all permission and record was a source.’ To English ears,” Billington continues, “Sidcup has faintly comic overtones of suburban respectability. For Davies it is a Kentish Eldorado: the place that can solve all the problems about his unresolved identity and uncertain past, present and future” (122).
About directing a production of The Caretaker at the Roundabout Theater Company in 2003, David Jones observed:
The trap with Harold’s work, for performers and audiences, is to approach it too earnestly or portentously. I have always tried to interpret his plays with as much humor and humanity as possible. There is always mischief lurking in the darkest corners. The world of The Caretaker is a bleak one, its characters damaged and lonely. But they are all going to survive. And in their dance to that end they show a frenetic vitality and a wry sense of the ridiculous that balance heartache and laughter. Funny, but not too funny. As Pinter wrote, back in 1960 : “As far as I am concerned The Caretaker IS funny, up to a point. Beyond that point, it ceases to be funny, and it is because of that point that I wrote it.”
- Mick, a man in his late twenties
- Aston, a man in his early thirties
- Davies, an old man
This three-act play involves interactions between a mentally-challenged man, Aston; a tramp, Davies, whom Aston brings home to his attic room; and Aston’s younger brother (Mick), who appears responsible for the house.
(A night in winter)
Aston has invited Davies, a homeless man, into his apartment after rescuing him from a bar fight (7–9). Davies comments on the apartment and criticizes the fact that it is cluttered and badly kept. Aston attempts to find him a pair of shoes for Davies but Davies rejects all the offers. Once he turns down a pair that doesn’t fit well enough and another that has the wrong color laces. Early on, Davies reveals to Aston that his real name is not “Bernard Jenkins”, his “assumed name”, but really “Mac Davies” (19–20, 25). He claims that his papers validifying this fact are in Sidcup and that he must and will return there to retrieve them just as soon as he has a good pair of shoes. Aston and Davies discuss where he will sleep and the problem of the “bucket” attached to the ceiling to catch dripping rain water from the leaky roof (20–21) and Davies “gets into bed” while “ASTON sits, poking his [electrical] plug (21).
(The LIGHTS FADE OUT. Darkness.)
(LIGHTS UP. Morning.)
As Aston dresses for the day, Davies awakes with a start, and Aston informs Davies that he was kept up all night by Davies muttering in his sleep. Davies denies that he made any noise and blames the racket on the neighbors, revealing his fear of foreigners: “I tell you what, maybe it were them Blacks” (23). Aston informs Davies that he is going out but invites him to stay if he likes, indicating that he trusts him (23–24), something unexpected by Davies; for, as soon as Aston does leave the room (27), Davies begins rummaging through Aston’s “stuff” (27–28) but he is interrupted when Mick, Aston’s brother, unexpectedly arrives, “moves upstage, silently,” “slides across the room” and then suddenly “seizes Davies’ “arm and forces it up his back,” in response to which “DAVIES screams,” and they engage in a minutely-choreographed struggle, which Mick wins (28–29), ending Act One with the “Curtain” line, “What’s the game?” (29).
(A few seconds later)
Mick demands to know Davies’ name, which the latter gives as “Jenkins” (30), interrogates him about how well he slept the night before (30), wonders whether or not Davies is actually “a foreigner”—to which Davies retorts that he “was” indeed (in Mick’s phrase) “Born and bred in the British Isles” (33)—going on to accuse Davies of being “an old robber […] an old skate” who is “stinking the place out” (35), and spinning a verbal web full of banking jargon designed to confuse Davies, while stating, hyperbolically, that his brother Aston is “a number one decorator” (36), either an outright lie or self-deceptive wishful thinking on his part. Just as Mick reaches the climactic line of his diatribe geared to put the old tramp off balance—”Who do you bank with?” (36), Aston enters with a “bag” ostensibly for Davies, and the brothers debate how to fix the leaking roof and Davies interrupts to inject the more practical question: “What do you do . . . when that bucket’s full?” (37) and Aston simply says, “Empty it” (37). The three battle over the “bag” that Aston has brought Davies, one of the most comic and often-cited Beckettian routines in the play (38–39). After Mick leaves, and Davies recognizes him to be “a real joker, that lad” (40), they discuss Mick’s work in “the building trade” and Davies ultimately discloses that the bag they have fought over and that he was so determined to hold on to “ain’t my bag” at all (41). Aston offers Davies the job of Caretaker, (42–43), leading to Davies’ various assorted animadversions about the dangers that he faces for “going under an assumed name” and possibly being found out by anyone who might “ring the bell called Caretaker” (44).
(THE LIGHTS FADE TO BLACKOUT.
THEN UP TO DIM LIGHT THROUGH THE WINDOW.)
A door bangs.
Sound of a key in the door of the room.
DAVIES enters, closes the door, and tries the light switch, on, off, on, off.
It appears to Davies that “the damn light’s gone now,” but, it becomes clear that Mick has sneaked back into the room in the dark and removed the bulb; he starts up “the electrolyte” and scares Davies almost witless before claiming “I was just doing some spring cleaning” and returning the bulb to its socket (45). After a discussion with Davies about the place being his “responsibility” and his ambitions to fix it up, Mick also offers Davies the job of “caretaker” (46–50), but pushes his luck with Mick when he observes negative things about Aston, like the idea that he “doesn’t like work” or is “a bit of a funny bloke” for “Not liking work” (Davies’ camouflage of what he really is referring to), leading Mick to observe that Davies is “getting hypocritical” and “too glib” (50), and they turn to the absurd details of “a small financial agreement” relating to Davies’ possibly doing “a bit of caretaking” or “looking after the place” for Mick (51), and then back to the inevitable call for “references” and the perpetually-necessary trip to Sidcup to get Davies’ identity “papers” (51–52).
Davies wakes up and complains to Aston about how badly he slept. He blames various aspects of the apartment’s set up. Aston suggests adjustments but Davies proves to be callous and inflexible. Aston tells the story of how he was checked into a mental hospital and given electric shock therapy, but when he tried to escape from the hospital he was shocked while standing, leaving him with permanent brain damage; he ends by saying, “I’ve often thought of going back and trying to find the man who did that to me. But I want to do something first. I want to build that shed out in the garden” (54–57). Critics regard Aston’s monologue, the longest of the play, as the “climax” of the plot. In dramatically terms, what follows is part of the plot’s “falling action”.
(Two weeks later [… ]Afternoon.)
Davies and Mick discuss the apartment. Mick relates “(ruminatively)” in great detail what he would do to redecorate it (60). When asked who “would live there,” Mick’s response “My brother and me” leads Davies to complain about Aston’s inability to be social and just about every other aspect of Aston’s behavior (61–63). Though initially invited to be a “caretaker,” first by Aston and then by Mick, he begins to ingratiate himself with Mick, who acts as if he were an unwitting accomplice in Davies’ eventual conspiracy to take over and fix up the apartment without Aston’s involvement (64) an outright betrayal of the brother who actually took him in and attempted to find his “belongings”; but just then Aston enters and gives Davies yet another pair of shoes which he grudgingly accepts, speaking of “going down to Sidcup” in order “to get” his “papers” again (65–66).
Davies brings up his plan when talking to Aston, whom he insults by throwing back in his face the details of his treatment in the mental institution (66–67), leading Aston, in a vast understatement, to respond: “I . . . I think it’s about time you found somewhere else. I don’t think we’re hitting it off” (68). When finally threatened by Davies pointing a knife at him, Aston tells Davies to leave: “Get your stuff” (69). Davies, outraged, claims that Mick will take his side and kick Aston out instead and leaves in a fury, concluding (mistakenly): “Now I know who I can trust” (69).
Davies reenters with Mick explaining the fight that occurred earlier and complaining still more bitterly about Mick’s brother, Aston (70–71). Eventually, Mick takes Aston’s side, beginning with the observation “You get a bit out of your depth sometimes, don’t you?” (71). Mick forces Davies to disclose that his “real name” is Davies and his “assumed name” is “Jenkins” and, after Davies calls Aston “nutty”, Mick appears to take offense at what he terms Davies’ “impertinent thing to say,” concludes, “I’m compelled to pay you off for your caretaking work. Here’s half a dollar,” and stresses his need to turn back to his own “business” affairs (74). When Aston comes back into the apartment, the brothers face each other,” “They look at each other. Both are smiling, faintly” (75). Using the excuse of having returned for his “pipe” (given to him earlier through the generosity of Aston), Davies turns to beg Aston to let him stay (75–77). But Aston rebuffs each of Davies’ rationalisations of his past complaints (75–76). The play ends with a “Long silence” as Aston, who “remains still, his back to him [Davies], at the window, apparently unrelenting as he gazes at his garden and makes no response at all to Davies’ futile plea, which is sprinkled with many dots (“. . .”) of elliptical hesitations (77–78).
Analysis of the characters
When he was younger he was given electric shock therapy that leaves him permanently brain damaged. His efforts to appease the ever-complaining Davies may be seen as an attempt to reach out to others. He desperately seeks a connection in the wrong place and with the wrong people. His main obstacle is his inability to communicate. He is misunderstood by his closest relative, his brother, and thus is completely isolated in his existence. His good-natured attitude makes him vulnerable to exploitation. His dialogue is sparse and often a direct response to something Mick or Davies has said. Aston has dreams of building a shed. The shed to him may represent all the things his life lacks: accomplishment and structure. The shed represents hope for the future.
Davies manufactures the story of his life, lying or sidestepping some details to avoid telling the whole truth about himself. A non-sequitur. He adjusts aspects of the story of his life according to the people he is trying to impress, influence, or manipulate. As Billington points out, “When Mick suggests that Davies might have been in the services — and even the colonies, Davies retorts: ‘I was over there. I was one of the first over there.’ He defines himself according to momentary imperatives and other people’s suggestions” (122).
At times violent and ill-tempered, Mick is ambitious. He talks above Davies’ ability to comprehend him. His increasing dissatisfaction with Davies leads to a rapprochement with his brother, Aston; though he appears to have distanced himself from Aston prior to the opening of the play, by the end, they exchange a few words and a faint smile. Early in the play, when he first encounters him, Mick attacks Davies, taking him for an intruder in his brother Aston’s abode: an attic room of a run-down house which Mick looks after and in which he enables his brother to live. At first, he is aggressive toward Davies. Later, it may be that by suggesting that Davies could be “caretaker” of both his house and his brother, Mick is attempting to shift responsibility from himself onto Davies, who hardly seems a viable candidate for such tasks. The disparities between the loftiness of Mick’s “dreams” and needs for immediate results and the mundane realities of Davies’s neediness and shifty non-committal nature creates much of the absurdity of the play.
The language and plot of The Caretaker blends Realism with the Theater of the Absurd. In the Theater of the Absurd language is devalued.
The play has often been compared to Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett, and other absurdist plays because of its apparent lack of plot and action.
The fluidity of the characters is explained by Ronald Knowles as follows: “Language, character, and being are here aspects of each other made manifest in speech and silence. Character is no longer the clearly perceived entity underlying clarity of articulation the objectification of a social and moral entelechy but something amorphous and contingent (41).
One of the keys to understanding Pinter’s language is not to rely on the words a character says but to look for the meaning behind the text. The Caretaker is filled with long rants and non-sequiturs, the language is either choppy dialogue full of interruptions or long speeches that are a vocalized train of thought. Although, the text is presented in a casual way there is always a message behind its simplicity. Pinter is often concerned with “communication itself, or rather the deliberate evasion of communication” (Knowles 43).
The play’s staccato language and rhythms are musically balanced through strategically placed pauses. Pinter toys with silence, where it is used in the play and what emphasis it places on the words when they are at last spoken.
Mode of drama: Tragicomedy
The Caretaker is a drama of mixed modes; both tragic and comic, it is a tragicomedy. Elements of comedy appear in the monologues of Davies and Mick, and the characters’ interactions at times even approach farce. For instance, the first scene of Act Two, which critics have compared to the hat and shoe sequences in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, is particularly farcical:
ASTON offers the bag to DAVIES.
MICK grabs it.
ASTON takes it.
MICK grabs it.
DAVIES reaches for it.
ASTON takes it.
MICK reaches for it.
ASTON gives it to DAVIES.
MICK grabs it. Pause. (39)
Davies’ confusion, repetitions, and attempts to deceive both brothers and to play each one off against the other are also farcical. Davies has pretended to be someone else and using an assumed name, “Bernard Jenkins”. But, in response to separate inquiries by Aston and Mick, it appears that Davies’ real name is not really “Bernard Jenkins” but that it is “Mac Davies” (as Pinter designates him “Davies” throughout) and that he is actually Welsh and not English, a fact that he is attempting to conceal throughout the play and that motivates him to “get down to Sidcup”, the past location of a British Army Records Office, to get his identity “papers” (13–16).
The elements of tragedy occur in Aston’s climactic monologue about his shock treatments in “that place” and at the end of the play, though the ending is still somewhat ambiguous: at the very end, it appears that the brothers are turning Davies, an old homeless man, out of what may be his last chance for shelter, mainly because of his (and their) inabilities to adjust socially to one another, or their respective “anti-social” qualities.
In his 1960 book review of The Caretaker, fellow English playwright John Arden writes: “Taken purely at its face value this play is a study of the unexpected strength of family ties against an intruder.” As Arden states, family relationships are one of the main thematic concerns of the play.
Another prevalent theme is the characters’ inability to communicate productively with one another. The play depends more on dialogue than on action; however, though there are fleeting moments in which each of them does seem to reach some understanding with the other, more often, they avoid communicating with one another as a result of their own psychological insecurities and self-concerns.
The theme of isolation appears to result from the characters’ inability to communicate with one another, and the characters’ own insularity seems to exacerbate their difficulty communicating with others.
As the characters also engage in deceiving one another and themselves, deception and self-deception are motifs, and certain deceptive phrases and self-deceptive strategies recur as refrains throughout the dialogue. Davies uses an assumed name and has convinced himself that he is really going to resolve his problems relating to his lack of identity papers, even though he appears too lazy to take any such responsibility for his own actions and blames his inaction on everyone but himself. Aston believes that his dream of building a shed will eventually reach fruition, despite his mental disability. Mick believes that his ambitions for a successful career outweigh his responsibility to care for his mentally-damaged brother. In the end however all three men are deceiving themselves. Their lives may continue on beyond the end of the play just as they are at the beginning and throughout it. The deceit and isolation in the play lead to a world where time, place, identity, and language are ambiguous and fluid.
By: Aqsa Riaz