Thursday, April 7, 2011

Pinter: The Caretaker

I read your comments on Pinter’s The Homecoming and I liked it a lot. I agreed with almost everything you said. So I wondered if you would write your thoughts about The Caretaker. I’m reading it for a class and I think I might be missing something. Also, can you say something about how to act it?

When critics said that Shaw’s women weren’t true to life, Shaw said that what his women weren’t true to was theatrical conventions, which people mistook for truth to life. Pinter’s plays seem bizarre and his dialogue unrealistic for the same reason: They feature the true-to-life speech of people not put on the stage until Pinter did—or at least not in the same kinds of dramatic contexts. As much as Pinter expressed admiration for Beckett, he does not belong with Beckett or with Ionesco in the whole “theatre of the absurd” category.
Pinter’s plays are realistic.

Pinter wrote his first play, The Room, for a friend as a student production in 1957, followed in the same year by The Birthday Party and The Dumb Waiter. At that time the poo-bahs of British dramatic playwriting were Terrence Rattigan (Separate Tables) and Somerset Maugham (The Constant Wife), who embraced Nineteenth Century realism and the principles of the well-made play to write dramas about the upper classes and their post world war(s) travails.
The so-called kitchen sink plays that shook the English theatre of the 50s—epitomized by Arnold Wesker (The Kitchen) and particularly John Osborne (Look Back in Anger)--dramatized for the first time the lives of working class Britons, whom Maugham called “scum”.  They also pretty much embraced the well-made play construct and the principles of psychological realism.

Not incidentally at this time, American rock n roll swept England and galvanized working class youth, whose bands stormed the pop cultural stage; with their accents, their speech patterns, their attitudes, they frightened the privileged classes and threatened the stability of the dominant culture. The scum seemed to be taking over.
Rock n roll blew away boogie woogie and then the Beatles et al swept away rock n roll. Osborne and Wesker blew Rattigan and Maugham off the stage and, perhaps infused with Beckett’s existential loner sensibility, Pinter blew Wesker and Osborne away. (Joe Orton and other working class kids were doing the same thing to Noel Coward and British comedy. And Lindsay Anderson and Tony Richardson brought kitchen sink realism to British film.)

If Pinter’s plays are, as has often been repeated, comedies of fear and menace, it’s because the world that working class Britons inhabited was a world of fear and menace, of uncertainty, of daily power struggles in and outside the home—elemental when you don’t have money and position to support you. And while his comedies of menace are realistic, they are not cast in the form of Nineteenth Century realism and its pallid Twentieth Century progeny that dramatized the complex psychologies of characters engaged in situations nearly always involving the dynamics of family rooted in the larger society of their time--and which ultimately are “about” that larger society. For Ibsen, who shakes his fist at the universe and at the society responsible for the ills he writes about, the socio-historical process is human destiny. And while Chekhov asks us to understand compassionately how we fail our dreams and how unintentionally cruel we can be to one another, his plays dramatize an entire social class drifting toward annihilation.
If Ibsen or Chekhov were writing The Caretaker, the very situation of the play would involve a full exploration of Mick’s and Aston’s psychological constructs as they emerge from a background of family dynamics necessarily central to the play; and the play would dramatize something about the family and the social world that creates such families and the effects of all this on individual human psychology and ultimately something about the class system in the wider England of the 1950s.

Pinter just ignores all that.
Or he simply posits all that in order to zoom in on, and then dramatize in detail, something else. No societal interrogation; no concerns about broader political realities; not even an interest in individual psyches and “inner lives”, the emblems of psychological realism--however much critics try to see such concerns in him or lament their absence.
Pinter’s plays just aren’t written like plays used to be because they aren’t interested in the same things about people that plays used to be interested in. Which is why they seemed bizarre when they first appeared, ambiguous and absurd; and why, to some degree, they still do. But in these plays there are no absurdities, no ambiguities, other than those that exist inherently (and realistically) in any situation where mutual fear and hostility, intimidation and consequent lack of forthrightness, are major driving forces. Before he became an eminence grise of global political concern in his last decades, Pinter concerned his plays centrally with how fearful we are of others; how unspoken hostilities and hatreds are experienced directly and clearly, however indirect and murky our verbal communication may seem. He gets us to laugh with recognition: to realize that our personal terrors and paranoias aren’t unique to us.
About language Pinter said we actually have no difficulty communicating. We communicate exactly what we mean--and others communicate to us exactly what they mean—whatever we may do with the actual words we speak. Anyone who has ever been cornered by bullies who enjoy the agony they inflict with their ambiguous and indirect threats will instantly recognize the speech strategies of Mick with Davies (and Goldberg and McCann with Stanley in The Birthday Party and Lenny with Max and Teddy and Ruth in The Homecoming) as excruciatingly true to life.
Yes, the language of The Caretaker is theatrical. It is as heightened beyond the every day as is the language of any good playwright. Tom Stoppard describes it this way: These plays [Waiting for Godot and The Birthday Party], so unlike Shakespeare, did the thing that makes Shakespeare breathtaking and defines poetry—the simultaneous compression of language and expansion of meaning.
In great plays the compression and expansion of the meaning of everyday reality applies to all aspects of “the poetry of theatre” not just to language. The Caretaker may compress and expand—intensify and extensify—reality, but that doesn’t make it unrealistic. It makes it art.

I believe Pinter when he says that he starts with some interesting image or intriguing bit of dialogue and then writes to see where it will lead him. But Pinter also rented a flat at one time in a house owned by a young builder whose mentally challenged brother lived in the building and served as its custodian and at one time the brother had a homeless old man living with him.
It is true that Aston is caretaker of the derelict building and that Davies is asked if he’d like to assist as caretaker of the building; but the title character of The Caretaker is Mick and what he’s taking care of isn’t the building.

Why does the play begin with Mick?

Why does Mick leave the room when he hears Aston coming up the stairs with a stranger?
Does Mick leave the building?
Davies knows that Aston is slow.  And therefore gullible.  And Davies goes to work taking advantage of what seems to him to be a push-over.
Mick hears it all and bides his time.

Why doesn’t Mick simply throw Davies out? 

Mick is a young working class guy taking care of his older brother, who is not capable of living independently. Older brother Aston thinks of himself as independent and Mick does all he can to maintain the illusion. The work Aston is doing to rehabilitate the building keeps him occupied and Mick has no illusion that it will lead to anything practical.
Aston is a big generous trusting guy. The room is filled with things he has brought home.
The play dramatizes how Mick gets Aston to realize that Davies, the old man Aston has brought into his home, is a parasite whom Aston must eliminate.
There are the Pinter themes of fear and intimidation, of power plays and status, of shifting allegiances and gamesmanship. If there is a theme behind these themes it’s there because this is a love story, a brotherly love story.

Mick must be just as complete a human being as, say, Chekhov’s Treplev or Ibsen’s Oswald. But in a different way with different requirements of completeness.
Think of character and characterization not so much as “life story” but as “habitual patterns of behavior”.
What habitual patterns of behavior does the play require of Mick?
Mick grew up in a working class environment.
Put on a leather jacket and jeans. Boots.
Light a cigarette (matches? a zippo?) and let it hang between your lips.
Walk down the street, ready to punch out anyone who gives you shit.
Do a little amateur boxing footwork and then put a chip on your shoulder and walk into a neighborhood bar. Easy with friends, ready for hostility from strangers.
Shoot craps in the alley with buddies.
While you’re doing all this, play skittle music and early raw rock n roll until it becomes part of your inner rhythms.

Mick has become a builder and he owns a van. His hands can make fists and punch somebody out if need be; they can pick up a crow bar and beat the crap out of somebody; but they no longer mix cement or hammer nails into doorframes. If they ever did.

Mick can wheel and deal.
Go into Cocker Lumber Supply and talk Cocker into letting you have all his left over odd pieces.
Interview a young tough who comes to ask if he can work on the team you’re hiring to renovate an old house. Interview one you decide to hire and one you decide to reject.
Watch a sixteen year old bullying some ten year olds and then go over and scare the shit out of him using the most polite seemingly innocuous language you can.
Carry on a civil disagreement (about what?) with some jerk until without warning you simultaneously howl and smash your fist into the wall behind him.
Work on all this until you completely absorb the behavior with understanding, until you can improvise freely, fully, confidently. Pay particular attention to developing the ability to read the responses of others for signs of discomfort, fear.  Enjoy making people squirm.
Improvise yourself into becoming a Mick.

Then: Devise improvisations that create Mick’s relationship with Aston.
Go to Aston’s room when he’s out. Look carefully at every new piece of junk he’s brought in since the last time you checked on him. Let them play upon you.
If it helps, create an experience or two from their early life that anchors Mick's caring for Aston.
Suggest to Aston that he build a railing for the second floor fire escape. Tell him to check Cocker’s Lumber for left-over pieces.
Mick is the kind of guy who is not his brother’s keeper. And then we experience his care of, even his love for, Aston.

Let the play guide you in your creating.
No need, for example, to explore Mick’s and Aston’s relationship with their parents. It is the absence of that relationship that is meaningful. 
No need to concern yourself with tangentials such as Mick’s sex life. It simply is not part of who the play needs him to be.
Same applies to Aston and Davies.

When characters are established, move on to improvising the situations of the play with an eye toward creating the clarity and the intensity—and the comedy--of each scene.
What must we create to focus on what the play asks us to dramatize?
What does the play want the audience to do in response to seeing it?


  1. Had the great pleasure of seeing this on Broadway about 7 or 8 years ago. I found the play literally haunting, in that I couldn't get its words or characters out of my head for days.

    Thanks for this.

  2. i see this interpretation of Davies as someone taking advantage of Aston all over the place, but i'm not sure i agree. Aston initiates the offers in some cases - such as the room, the inital staying. the film version Pinter screenplayed takes the same line, with Aston making the first overtures.

    i think to some extent Aston needs what Davies offers, as well. and Davies is a member of an underclass, homeless and abused, that was on the rise in the post-war world. Pinter, as you observed, must have been familiar with the social problems of the time, must have spoken to and met homeless men. Davies is a character we're allowed to have sympathy for - why does he make noises in the night? why does he "take advantage" of Aston? i believe the play speaks about the need of all three for one another. Mick takes pride from his protective role, Davies takes his very means of survival from the kindly stranger and Aston desperately clings to what he can remember of social life. are Aston's faux responsibilities the best thing for him? how much do they contribute to his inability to talk in cafés as he used to?