Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Caretaker: Critical Appreciation

The Caretaker was first produced in London in 1960 and was Harold Pinter's first major success as a dramatist. It has three characters, the brothers Aston and Mick and the tramp Davies. Aston, who it is revealed has suffered from mental illness and undergone electric shock treatment, invites Davies into his house after rescuing him when he's about to be beaten up Mick, a builder and sadistic type, who has difficulty communicating with his brother, appear to resent this intrusion and virtually terrorises Davies.
However, Davies is eventually invited to take up the position of caretaker, but his selfish and inconsiderate behavior towards Aston leads to his being told by him to go. An attempt to gain the support of Mick faiis and the play ends with Davies appealing to Aston to be allowed to stay, an appeal that looks doomed to fail. The play resembles other Pinter dramas in which conflict is created by outsider figures—for example, Teddy in The Homecoming and Spooner in No Man’s Land—gaining entry into another's home, trying to establish themselves, but eventually being forced to leave.
Theatre of the Absurd
Pinter has been associated with the "theatre of the absurd" and through this is a play that destabilises such fundamental elements of dramatic structure as plot, character and the conventions governing the use of language, it does not do so in as radical a way as Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, in which famously nothing happens twice. Whereas Beckett's drama virtually discards conventional dramatic forms and theatrical devices, Pinter, in The Caretaker at least, does not completely reject them. There is something that resembles a plot, through one might find it puzzling, and there are characters who have some connection with reality even though it might be difficult to understand their actions and motivations.
Use of Language
Pinter's major dramatic innovation was in his use of language. A standard response to his drama has been to say it is about "the breakdown in communication". However in conventional drama what is striking is how amazingly effective language is as a means of communication. In contrast to his Pinter's characters often speak in broken sentences, utter non-sequitors, repeat themselves, pause for no apparent reason, don't listen to what is said to them or appear to understand it. It could be argued this is a break with the artificiality of conventional dramatic language in favour of realism. Yet realism is insufficient as an explanation of Pinter's language. At certain points the language becomes highly stylised. The play may expose the artificiality of speech and plot in conventional drama but it's doubtful that it does so in the interests of dramatic realism as such.
Perhaps the key to having some grasp of how The Caretaker works is to focus on the relation between language, meaning and psychology. In Pinter's drama meaning is not necessarily revealed in the words a character uses. It is thus not enough to say, ''What do these words mean?" Rather one should ask questions like: "Why does this character say this at this time" or "What is the character's motive for saying this?" or "What are the underlying interests that govern this speech or exchange?" This severs he conventional relationship between language and meaning. For example, there is a particularly fractured exchange between Davies and Aston in the scene in the second act after Aston suggests to Davies that he might be caretaker. Looking at the language in conventional semantic terms might lead to the conclusion that it exemplifies only bumbling inarticulacy. Yet if one looks beyond the semantics of language in orthodox linguistic terms in order to consider the question of possible motivation the exchange is open to interpretation: Davies does not want to commit himself to taking the job of caretaker that Aston apparently offers him; he's playing for time; he can't understand why anyone should want to do him a good turn; if he says yes he's worried he may fall into the trap. In this play, therefore, the language the characters use does not necessarily have any direct relationship to what they might mean. Also, in Pinter's drama, language use can't be easily separated from the question of power as virtually all relationships are depicted as power struggles of one sort or another.
Lack of Coherent Plot
A feature of innovative modern drama is its refusal to present the audience with a coherent plot that makes sense of the action. The Caretaker doesn't open with Davies and Aston. The first person we see is Mick, whom we later learn is Aston's brother and who is sitting on the bed, but as soon as he hears voices he gets up and leaves. We are given no information as to why he behaves in this way. Nor do we know why Aston invites Davies in and later offers him the job of caretaker. If one takes an absurdist view of the play, associating Pinter with such dramatists as Beckett and lonesco, then there may be no explanation for such happenings. Alternatively the audience is being challenged to interpret events in the same way that it is being challenged to interpret language. One can't be sure one's interpretation is the right one, but at least the action it open to interpretation, unlike most alsurdist drama. Does Mick's leaving before Aston enter The Room indicate something about the nature of their relationship? Though Aston and Mick are brothers they don't seem capable of communicating. Could this be connected with why Aston invites Davies to be caretaker? The possibility that there might be answers to such questions is a factor in keeping the audience involved in the action of the play and this, no doubt, contributed to the play's appeal to a wider audience and thus to its success on both sides of the Atlantic despite its dramatic innovations.
Humour
Another reason, however, for the play's popular success was its humour. Davies is a great, if unconscious, comic character, clearly he is someone who has been continually rejected and abused, and he is able to hang onto any vestiges of dignity only by over-compensating to a ludicrous extent. Thus he is never to blame; it is always the other person. To feel any sense self-esteem he must see himself always as superior to others, which accounts for his racism and denigration of virtually everybody with whom he comes into contact. The discontinuity between his own elevated sense of himself and the fact that he's a complete social failure is intrinsically comic, as is apparent min his account of experiences such as his visit to the monastery to get a pair of shoes where he is told to "piss off” by a monk. Much of the humour of the play is generated by such discontinuities of register since one would not expect a monk to use this kind of colloquial language of abuse. The highly comic scenes between Davies and Mick are similarly based on discontinuities of register are not only comic; they can be used to exercise power. Mick can easily assert dominance over Davies and Mick are similarly based on discontinuities of register, as when Mick discusses his plans for the house in the exaggerated descriptive language of interior decorating magazines. However, these discontinuities of register are not only comic; they can be used to exercise power. Mick can easily assert dominance over Davies by switching to a register that Davies can't function in: "Of course, we'd have to come to man small financial agreement, mutually beneficial," or moving quickly from one register to another so that Davies is at a loss as to how to respond.
Davies The Caretaker
Possibly the most significance feature of the play at the level of event is that both brothers offer Davies the job of caretaker. Why should they do that, especially to someone like Davies? This question is not answered in the play, but this does not mean that it is necessarily unanswerable, only that any answer will be an interpretation. A possible interpretation could be founded on the fact that the brother can't communicate with each other: The one has mental problems which seem to have been exacerbated by his experience of electric shock treatment; the other appears able to function only in an aggressive dominating mode that is quite inappropriate for communicating with Aston. Yet both brothers are inextricably connected through their ownership of the house: they need to be able to cooperate if any progress is to be made in getting it into any kind of order. But since they can't exchange a meaningful word with each other nothing gets done. What is needed in such a situation is a mediator: a third party who can act as a go-between. In that context one can-understand why they both offer Davies the job as caretaker. Mick's offer is the most surprising as initially he responds extremely aggressively to this intruder, but it is soon becomes clear that he can easily exercise domination and control over him and that he is therefore no threat.
Davies, however, does not appreciate that he should play a mediating role. Used to a world made up the dominating and the dominated, he thinks he can play one brother off against the other. Convinced that Mick is the more powerful brother and never comfortable with Aston, to whom, as someone mentally damaged, he naturally feels superior, he aligns himself with Mick and believes that together they can drive out Aston. After having been offered the position of caretaker by Mick, Davies's relationship with Aston seriously deteriorates. Despite Aston's continual efforts to establish some kind of rapport with Davies for example, he provides a pair of shoes for him—Davies continues to create conflict with Aston tells him he'll have to go, Davies responds: "Not me, man! You!" indicating the delusion he is under that Mick wants to get rid of his brother. When Mick finds out about the breakdown of Davies's relationship with Aston, Davies is no longer of any use as a go-between and Mick ends his relationship with him, on the pretext that he was under the false impression that Davies was "a first-class experienced interior decorator". Davies faces the prospect of being expelled from his refuge and the two brothers of returning to their former state of non-communication and isolation.
Lonely, Isolated Lives
Though there is much in this play that one can't be sure about, what seems reasonably certain is that it was in the interests of all three characters to cooperate with each other. The alternative of all three living isolated lives seems unproductive and futile, yet they never the less fail to achieve that cooperation.
Could things have worked out otherwise? Or is the ending tragic in the sense that such an outcome was inevitable? For things to have worked out otherwise all the characters would have needed to change in order to exploit this opportunity to alter their situations. For Aston and Mick such change is particularly difficult for each seems to be governed by forces that are beyond their control, Aston by the effects of mental illness, Mick by a personality disorder that means he can operate only aggressively. Yet both of them do change to some degree: each reaches out to another person, namely Davies, by offering him the position of caretaker. It's doubtful if much more can be expected from them. Davies, however, does seem to have freedom to change on response to this opportunity to improve his situation. He is not restricted by mental or personality problem in the way that Astron and Mick seem to be. Yet though Davies has a theoretical freedom to change, the tragedy of the situation is that this freedom is only theoretical: Davies can't transcend the influences and circumstances that have shaped him. Experience has caused him to think of every situation in a narrow self-interested way. He can't reach out to the otherness of Aston; he has to categorise him in such a way as to ensure his own sense of superiority. Davies has been as irretrievably shaped by the circumstance of his life just as much as Aston and Mick are shaped by mental or personality factors. Audiences clearly have been able to relate to the situation the play dramatists, judging both by its popular success and by the continued success of new productions. Perhaps one reason why audiences relate to it is that one can identify with the Davies's theoretical freedom to become a different person and change his life; yet, at the same time one can also identify with the fact that the effects of the past are virtually inescapable, cancelling out that freedom to change. There is a perhaps a universality about that predicament which audiences consciously or unconsciously recognise.

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