THREE ONE-ACT PLAYS
1. THE ROOM (1957)
Pinter's first play has the basic situation that recurs in his subsequent work—that of a room, a room with a door and the cold and hostile world outside the door.The other basic ingredients of Pinter's play are also there—a couple, the man large, brutal and about fifty, and the woman who is older than the man, sixty, motherly and sentimental. The man just sits there, reads the newspaper and allows himself to be fed and looked after. And he hardly utters a word. Rose, the woman, seems to be married to the man, Bert Hudd, though that is not certain. Rose certainly seems very anxious to please Bert and to make herself as useful and agreeable to him as possible, though he shows no reaction whatever. Pinter has created an atmosphere of ambiguity and uncertainty around his characters.
Danger is inherent in a warm room surrounded by a hostile world. And likewise, a couple—a man and a woman—where the woman wants to give love and the man does not accept her gift, must be dangerous also. The woman is fighting to maintain the relationship, but the man remains cold. Rose constantly refers to the cosiness and warmth of The Room, as against the dampness and obscurity of the basement flat that had, at first, been offered to them. Again and again, she asks herself whether there are any tenants still living in the basement and she congratulates herself on living on the first floor. Bert, who drives a van, still has a delivery to make and has to go out in the cold winter evening. He remains silent even when Mr. Kidd, an older man, who is hard of hearing and whom Rose treats as the landlord though he seems to be no more than The Caretaker, enters The Room.
Rose tries to question Mr. Kidd about the tenants down in the basement. But he does not answer her questions, perhaps because he is dead or perhaps for some other, sinister, reason. Mr. Kidd talks in a foolish manner which, however, creates an atmosphere of menace and of uncertainty. He then leaves. So does Bert after a while. Rose is now alone. She is about to put the dustbin outside the door but, when she opens the door, she is terrified to find a young man and a young girl standing outside; she is shocked to see them.
Atmosphere of Menace
The atmosphere of menace is here further developed. It seems at first that Rose's terror would prove baseless, but the young couple is only looking for some accommodation. They want to see the landlord and ask him if there is any room available. The young woman, Mrs. Sands, tells Rose that they had gone down to the basement to look for the landlord and they had learnt from a man there that room number seven was available. They had not been able to see the man who was perhaps sitting a partition in the basement. Rose is surprised. She tells Mrs. Sands that she is occupying room number seven. She vehemently denies that her room is going to become vacant.
Mr. and Mrs. Sand leave and Mr. Kidd returns, this time in a state of great excitement. He informs Rose that for the last many days he has been pestered by an intruder, who doesn't give him a moment's peace and who wants to talk to Rose. The intruder, a man, is lying in the basement and refuses to move from there without seeing Rose. He wants to see Rose in the absence of her husband. Rose tells Mr. Kidd that he should ask the man to come quickly before Bert returns. Mr. Kidd leaves, and again Rose is left alone. This time again the door has become the important point of suspense and tense expectations.
The door opens and a blind negro, Riley, enters. Rose reacts to him with all the symptoms of disgust, fear, and even racial hatred. But Riley say that he is a messenger for Rose from her father. He addresses Rose as 'Sal' and tells her that her father wants her to come back home. Rose, who had initially reacted to Riley's entry, now softens. She tells Riley that her life here is almost intolerable.
Bert comes back at this moment. He speaks for the first time in the play, telling Rose that he had driven his van at a furious speed. Seeing Riley in The Room he is enraged and attacks him, banging Riley's head against the gas stove until Riley lies motionless on the floor. Rose is shocked; she clutches her eyes. She has gone blind. The play ends on this note. The suddenness of the brutal ending has a tremendous impact as it comes as a complete surprise.
The relationship between the brutal husband and his sentimental wife, who is tormented by dark foreboding and existential fears, is perfectly realistic. Rose and Bert are subtly contrasted with Mr. and Mrs. Sands, the young couple, who are looking for a room. The relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Sands also shows signs of tension between an intelligent woman and a lazy and a dull man who dominates her by sheer brutality. The blind negro, on the other hand, who has been lying in the basement for days and who has brought a message for Rose from her past, is clearly a symbol or an allegory. He has been lying down and he clearly had a premonition of the future. He must, therefore, be a being from this world. He may be a dead man or a messenger of death, perhaps Rose's own dead father. His blackness and his blindness reinforce these allegorical implications. The blindness which strikes Rose at the end of the play is also symbolic; it signifies the end of her relationship with Bert, but perhaps it is more than that—it signifies her own death. Mr. Kidd's character combines the realistic and the symbolic elements even more effectively. The Room is a remarkable first play; the dialogue is masterly and effective; each character has his own individual style of speech.
2. THE DUMB WAITER (1959)
The Dumb Waiter uses the same situation as The Room. Again, we are in an enclosed room enclosed by a dark, mysterious world outside. Again, the people in The Room are watching, in a state of terrible suspense, a door which is sure to open. Moreover, in the case, we are, from quite early in the play, made aware that whoever enters by the door will have to die because the two men in The Room, Ben and Gus, are professional murderers. They are employees of a mysterious organisation which sends them, from time to time, on mission of violence and murder.
At first, the two men are merely told the name of the town and the address to which they have to call. They are to stay there and await further instructions. When the instructions arrive, they are to liquidate the victim and go back as quickly as they can. Back at the base, they are to wait for the next phone call with the next address for the next murder.
Suspense and Fear
Ben and Gus are now looking at the door, waiting for the victim to walk into the trap. Of course, they do not know the identity of the victim. This leads to suspense and creates fear in the audience.
Now comes a surprise. The two men are watching the door, which seems to the only way into The Room. But there is another opening into the dark, menacing, outside world. Neither the men in The Room nor the audience have, so far, noticed that, between the two beds on which Ben and Gus are sitting, there is a panelled opening.
Suddenly the panelling is pulled up. It reveals that the basement room in which the men are sitting must originally have been the kitchen of a restaurant because, behind it, there is a dumb waiter. The two men are waiting for their victim in a totally uninhabited house. The question is: for whom is The Dumb Waiter working? Moreover, in the tray which comes down, the two killers find chits of paper and orders for various food items. Eventually, it turns out that the man to be murdered is Gus, one of the two killers! Ben has received the order to kill his companion. The two men face each other as the curtain falls. The question whether Ben will kill Gus remains unanswered.
The play is quite symbolic. The supernatural power operating in the play symbolises the sub-conscious motivation of the characters who, in themselves, are drawn with extreme realism. Ben and Cous are Cockneys; they have most convincingly been characterised by their use of language. They operate in a world the working of which they do not comprehend. They merely have to carry out instructions which come from above. They are totally insecure; each has a feeling to guilt; and each suffers from boredom that comes from doing things which seem to have no meaning.
The play depicts the process of alienation to which human being are subjected in a highly organised industrial society, which denies to the individual of low intelligence and limited insight any real understanding of its working. It depicts the frustration that such a process leads to and the violence into which this frustration is bound to erupt. Ultimately, the play seems to convey a complex existential situation through its emotional tone. The failure on the part of Gus and Ben to understand the working of their organisation, their irritation and frustration finds it expression in the dialogue that bristles with their difficulties of communication. Again and again, they become entangled in linguistic knots which they are unable to resolve. The famous exchange about whether one should say "I'll light the kettle" or "I'll light the gas" is just one among such funny and revealing passages. Ben say that current form of speaking is to say, "light the kettle", while Gus insists that the correct form is: "light the gas".
3. A KIND OF
This one-act play conveys profound insights into the nature of time and the self without the use of extravagant language and without resorting to any areas of uncertainty. It has been inspired by a medical book, Awakening, written by a physician, Oliver Sacks, who based it on his personal experiences at
's New York . He had witnessed the awakening, from some forty years of catatonic lethargia, of a large number of patients who had been victims of a mysterious disease, called encephalitis lethargica, which had swept Mount Carmel Hospital Europe and the in the 1920s in a epidemic from. Patients suffering from this disease had been almost completely cut off from the world of consciousness until the discovery of a wonder drug, called L-DOPA, suddenly opened up the possibility of these patients returning to a fully conscious and active life. Oliver Sacks' book contains twenty detailed case histories of such patients, some of whom succeeded in regaining their full consciousness, while others failed. United States
A Kind of Alaska is an imaginative recreation of such a case of awakening. The case has been wholly invented by Pinter; the setting has been transferred from
to America . The patient in the play is a woman, Deborah. She had fallen into a catatomic state at the age of sixteen, and is now in her mid-forties. She is waking up to what appears a room in a hospital. Hornby, the doctor in his sixties, sits by her side. He has been treating her. England
A Kind of Alaska describes Deborah's gradual and painful realisation that she has lost almost thirty years of her life. At the beginning of her recovery she has the reactions and personalities of a teenage girl in the 1930s. When her sister Pauline enters The Room, Deborah does not recognise her. She takes her for some old aunt she has never met before. Deborah warns that her mother is dead, that her father has gone blind and that he is being looked after by the third, elder, sister, Estelle. Deborah also learns that Hornby, the doctor by her bedside, had married her younger sister Pauline, but he had been devoting most of his time and attention to Deborah.
Gradually, Deborah begins to feel the weight of these twenty-nine years, which she has lost, descending upon her. She begins to remember what she felt like in the years after catatomic lethargia. She recalls having seen a vast series of halls with enormous interior windows resembling walls and looking like mirrors. She visualises herself lying in bed and people bending over her and speaking to her to make some inquiries. The play ends with Deborah accepting the new reality. "I think I have the matter in proportion," she says, and then, after a pause, she adds, "Thank you."
Here Pinter's choice of a subject has enabled him to write a play with powerful intimations of themes which had been haunting him—time, the self, memory and the nature of reality. In this play he has not even resorted to the manipulation of chronological sequence which enabled him, in Betrayal, to combine outward realism with philosophical depth. The language of A Kind of Alaska subtly captures the girlish tones of a teenager's frozen self and its gradual transition to resigned maturity without any of the more extravagant linguistic devices of his earlier play, or even of Family Voices.
FOUR FULL-LENGTH PLAYS
1. THE BIRTHDAY PARTY (1958)
The Birthday Party was Pinter's first full-length play. Most reviewers dismissed the play as a futile effort and did not find it funny enough. The compared it solving "a crossword puzzle where every vertical clue is designed to put you off the horizontal." They found it obscure with the half-gibberish and lunatic savings of his characters who are unable to explain their actions, thoughts or feelings. A reviewer said:
The first Act sounds an offbeat note of madness; in the second, the note has risen to a sort of delirium; and the third Act studiously refrains from the slightest hint of what the other two may have been about.
However, one reviewer, Harold Hobson, publicly acknowledged that Pinter "possesses the most original, disturbing and arresting talent in theatrical
." He compared the unfavourable reviews of The Birthday Party to the initial reactions to the works of John Osborne (Look Back in Anger) and Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, who were later recognised as throughout the world "as the most important dramatists who use the English tongue...The early Shaw got bad notices; Ibsen got scandalous notices. Mr. Pinter is not only in good company, he is in the very best company." Hobson found The Birthday Party 'absorbing' and 'witty'; its characters 'fascinating': "The plot, which consists, with all kinds of verbal arabesques and echoing explorations of memory and fancy, of the springing of a trap, is first-rate: The whole play has the same atmosphere of delicious impalpable and hair-raising terror which makes The Turn of the Screw (by Henry James) one of the best stories in the world...It is exactly in this vagueness that its spine-chilling quality his. Mr. Pinter and The Birthday Party, despite their experience last week, will be heard of again. Make a note of their name." Hobson's prophesy turned out to be true. The Birthday Party has been recognised to be a great play. London
In a letter to a friend, Pinter has recorded the circumstances which served as a stimulus to him for the writing of this play. He was on one occasion staying in a hired lodging in
Eastbourne, a seaside town. He found the lodging filthy and the landlady disgusting. The whole atmosphere of the play seemed to hem repulsive: "I have filthy insane digs, a great bulging scrag of a woman with breasts rolling at her belly, an obscene household, cats, dogs, filth, tea, stainers, mess, bullocks, talk, chat, rubbish shit scratch dung poison, infantility..." he wrote. Pinter's experience of the lodgings proved to be the origin of The Birthday Party—"Now this woman was Meg in the play, and there was a fellow staying there in Eastbourne on the coast. The whole thing remained with me, and three years later (in 1957), I wrote the play."
The play opens with a conversation between a couple, Meg and Petey, both in their sixties. It is quite inconsequential and superfluous as Meg asks her husband whether their lodger,
, has not yet come downstairs for his breakfast, Stanley Webber is a man in his late thirties and he has been staying as lodger for about a year. Meg is incharge of the boarding house, while her husband, Petey, works as a deck-chair attendant on the sea beach. Meg has become fond of Stanley ; she feels happy while taking a cup of tea to him in his room upstairs. She is also proud of her boarding house, which, she claims, is on the approved list of boarding houses. Meg's concern for Stanley shows that, while she looks after Stanley in a motherly way, she has a desire to become his mistress, even though Stanley 's manner of talking to her is brusque. Stanley
Meg recalls the day when
used to play the piano on the pier to entertain the seabathers. But, now for some time past, he has been out of work; he hardly ever goes out of doors. Meg urges Stanley to start playing the piano again, but Stanley replies that he does not have a piano of his own, but he has been offered a very good job as a pianist and that soon he would be leaving Meg's boarding house to join a concert party that is expected to tour all the big cities of Stanley Europe.
Premonition of Death
Lulu, Meg's next-door neighbour, now comes to see her. A young girl, Lulu is carrying a parcel. As Meg is leaving the boarding house to do a bit of shopping, she askes Lulu to put the parcel on the sideboard of the living room. When Meg is gone, Lulu enters into a conversation with Stanely. She offers to go out of doors with him for some sort of a picnic. But
shows no interest in Lulu, who leaves, calling him a list of a 'washout'. Stanley
The two expected visitors now arrive at the boarding house. On seeing the strangers,
slips out through the back door. The two men enter the boarding house and make themselves quite comfortable. They are Goldberg, a Jew in his fifties, and McCann, an Irishman in his thirties. McCann addresses Goldberg by his first name, Nat. Goldberg compliments McCann on being a very competent man and McCann thanks Goldberg for the favours he has done to him in the past. It seems that the two men have come there to accomplish some mission and that they have been sent by some organisation that they are serving. McCann is feeling somewhat nervous about the kind of job he and Goldberg are expected to accomplish. Goldberg, however, tries to soothe his feelings by assuring him that even though the job be hazardous, they have no reason to fear because it would not in any way harm them personally. Stanley
Meg now returns from her shopping. She enters into a conversation with Goldberg and McCann. They ask her all sorts of questions about her present lodger, Stanley Webber, who has been staying there for a year or so. When Meg informs that it is
's birthday today, Goldberg suggests that they should all celebrate the occasion and host a party for Stanley . He promises to make all the necessary arrangements. Meg is delighted at the idea of the party; she would put on her party dress for the occasion. It is also agreed that Lulu would also be invited to the party. Stanley
The two men are escorted upstairs, to The Room which has been assigned to them.
comes back and asks Meg about those two men, but she can provide precious little information to him. She then tells Stanley about The Birthday Party and that she has brought a present for him. Stanley is somehow not aware that it is his birthday today. Meg then opens the parcel that Lulu had placed on the sideboard. She takes out a drum from the parcel and tells Stanley that if is her birthday present to him. It is a boy's drum, a kind of toy-drum. Stanley puts the drum around his neck and begins to play on it with the two drum-sticks. At first, he plays on the drum gently and in slow rhythm. Then he begins to go round the table, playing on the drum in the same regular manner. Suddenly, the beating of the drum becomes irregular and loud. Then he begins to bang the drum-sticks with great force, without any rhythm. He is now beating the drum in a savage manner as if he were under the influence of some evil spirit. Stanley
On the evening of the same day, McCann is alone in The Room.
had gone out to avoid the two visitors. When he returns McCann starts speaking to him in a friendly way. He tells Stanley that a birthday party has been arranged for him that night. Stanley, who has been apprehensive about the purpose and the motive of the two visitors, denies that it is his birthday today; in fact, his birthday will fall next month. He tells McCann that he is in no mood for the party and that he would just be going out again. In his opinion, a birthday party is merely an occasion to get drunk. He asks McCann about the guests at the party and is told that Lulu and McCann's companion, Goldberg, would be the other guests. Stanley
But just then Petey and Goldberg enter. Petey introduces
to Goldberg, but says that he would not be able to join The Birthday Party because he is already committed to play chess with his friends in the club. He leaves Goldberg starts a conversation with Stanley even though Stanley is not interested; he wants to have nothing to do with Goldberg and McCann. Stanley now pretends to be the manager of the boarding house. He tells them that there is no room available and that The Room given to them by Meg was by sheer mistake. They should go out and look for some other accommodation. Seeing the bottles of liquor arranged for The Birthday Party, Stanley tells them that the boarding house does not have a licence to serve drinks or to permit drinking. Stanley
Goldberg and McCann are, however, in no mood to leave and
warns them against starting any kind of trouble. Their attitude towards Stanley now becomes menacing McCann threatens to kick Stanley if he remains obdurate. The two men ask Stanley to sit down, but he refuses. A heated exchange follows between Stanley and the two visitors. Stanley
Goldberg and McCann now start interrogating
. This interrogation is based on all kinds of charges and accusations that the two men can bring against Stanley , with Stanley either giving irrelevant answers or no answers at all. They ask him why he shuns Lulu as if she were a leper and why he has left the 'organisation', and why he has 'betrayed' them. They accuse him of playing a dirty game. They call him a 'fake'. Goldberg asks McCann to snatch Stanley 's glasses, and Stanley has to clutch the chair in order not to stumble and fall down. McCann accuses Stanley of having killed his wife. Stanley can merely mumble "What wife ?". Goldberg then asks Stanley why he has never got married. The questions continue and a desperate Stanley kicks Goldberg in the stomach. McCann picks up a chair and is about to hit Stanley when Goldberg stops him. The many questions that the two men ask Stanley are not related to one another; there is no logic behind these questions; some of the questions are contradictory; and they are of a kind no one can make a head or tail of. Stanley
Meg appears on the scene and the two men, who were on the verge of hitting
, now pretend as if nothing unusual had happened. Goldberg compliments Meg on her pretty party dress. The bottles of whiskey are opened and liquor is served to everyone. Meg makes a sentimental speech about Stanley . Just then Lulu arrives. Goldberg introduces himself to her as Nat Goldberg and Lulu is given a drink. Everybody drinks to Stanley 's health and wishes him a happy birthday. Stanley
Meg gets into a reminiscent mood under the influence of whiskey. Her father was a very big doctor who took her to
when she was a little girl. McCann sings a patriotic song about the beauty of his native Ireland ; he feels homesick and wants to return to his country. Ireland
Lulu has all the time been flirting with Goldberg: "I've always liked older men. They can soothe you." She tells him that he closely remembers the first man she fell in love with.
Meg now suggests that they should play a game, and they play the blind man's buff. McCann removes
's glasses before blindfolding him. McCann has put one of the drums Meg had given to Stanley as birthday present in his way. Stanley keeps moving with the drum clinging to his foot. He happens to move towards Meg. He lays his hands upon her and begins to strangle her. Goldberg and McCann come forward and push Stanley away from Meg. Stanley
Suddenly, the electric lights go out. There is blackout in The Room. McCann lights his torch but it falls from his hands and The Room is again plunged into darkness.
moves towards Lulu in the darkness. Lulu screams and faints. Everybody is in a state of confusion mingled with terror. When McCann finds his torch after some time and lights it, Lulu is found lying spread-eagled on the table, with Stanley bending over her. As soon as the light of the torch falls on Stanley , he begins to giggle. Goldberg and McCann move towards him, but he moves away and stands with his back against the wall. Goldberg and McCann pounce upon Stanley . Stanley
How Goldberg and McCann deal with
after seizing him is not depicted on the stage, nor described. But from what happens subsequently, we can imagine that the two men have dealt with Stanley in the most brutal and inhuman manner. Stanley
Next morning, Petey is reading his newspaper as usual. Meg nurses a headache because of her excessive drinking the previous night. She tells her husband that she has no cornflakes and no bread in the house. She can, therefore, serve no breakfast to him or to
. She finds the drum she had given as a birthday present to Stanley broken. The sight of the broken drum saddens her. But Petey tells here that she can always buy another drum for Stanley . Meg replies that she would soon be going out to do it. But when she opens the door to go out, she stops suddenly and turns to Petey. She asks him about the big black car parked outside. Petey says that the car belongs to Goldberg. She asks him whether there is a wheel-barrow in the car. Petey replies that there is no reason why there should be a wheel-barrow in the car. Meg is greatly relieved to learn that. Stanley
As Meg is about to go out, Goldberg comes from upstairs and tells her that she maks a very nice cup of tea. Meg asks him whether
is also coming downstairs. Goldberg replies that on a lovely sunny day Stanley would certainly come downstairs also. When Meg is gone, Petey asks Goldberg how Stanley is feeling as his condition last night was pitiable. Goldberg replies that only a qualified doctor can tell exactly how Stanley is feeling. The birthday celebration proved too much for Stanley and he had a nervous breakdown. Petey is worried. He says that if Stanley does not recover by lunch-time, he would go and fetch a doctor. Goldberg asks him not to bother as Stanley has already been taken care of. Stanley
McCann and Goldberg Shaken
A nervous McCann now comes downstairs. He tells Goldberg that he would not go up to
's room any more. He however, says that Stanley is now quiet and he is not talking. Goldberg asks McCann if Stanley is ready to leave. McCann asks Goldberg to go upstairs and find this out for himself. Petey now goes into the garden to take a look at his peas. Stanley
Goldberg also appears shaken, like McCann. He tells McCann that it is unusual for him to experience such a feeling of uneasiness. McCann happens to address Goldberg as Simey. This infuriates Goldberg who tells him, "Never call me that." He does not want the name by which his mother and his wife used to call him used to call him should be used by anybody else. He tells McCann that he follows certain principles in life and that he is a self-made man.
Lulu appears and she accuses Goldberg of having seduced her the previous night. But both Goldberg and McCann make fun of her and Lulu leaves.
Petey now comes back. He is surprised to see the two men trying to take
with them. Goldberg tells him that they are taking Stanley to Monty because he needs special treatment. When Petey suggests that Stanley stay where he is, Goldberg menacingly says that Petey should also go with him. Petey realises his helplessness at this. He encouragingly tells Stanley , "Stan don't let them tell you what to do." Goldberg and McCann leave, taking Stanley with them. Petey only stares at the departing figures. Stanley
The sound of a car starting is heard. Petey picks up the newspaper and begins to read it. Meg returns. She asks Petey whether the two men have gone and whether they would be back for lunch. No, replies Petey. Meg does not know that Goldberg and McCann have taken
with them. Petey does not want to shock his wife by telling her this. He tells her that Stanley is still asleep. "Let him sleep," he says. Stanley
Meg is cheerful. She tells Petey that last night's birthday party was a successful one and that he should have been there to share the fun and excitement. Everyone at the party had agreed that she was "the belle of the ball".
Vagueness and Obscurity
The vagueness and obscurity of the play has make the critics interpret The Birthday Party in several ways. One interpretation is that it presents an image of man's fear of being driven out from his warm place of refuge on earth. Another is that the play is a metaphor for growing up. Yet another view regards
, the central character, as an artist whom society claims back from a comfortable bohemian existence and who is compelled by society to conform to its own standards of conduct and behaviour. Still another view is that Goldberg and McCann represent parts of Stanley 's own sub-conscious mind. Stanley
The most appropriate label for this play would be "the comedy of menace". Throughout the play we are kept amused, and yet throughout the play we find ourselves on the brink of terror. Some indefinable and vague fear keeps us on our edge. We feel uneasy all the time even when we are laughing or smiling with amusement.
The deliberate vagueness on Pinter's part remains his hallmark and is integral to the effect of his plays. Nevertheless, The Birthday Party represents in no uncertain terms Pinter's grip on larger dramatic forms than those found in his shorter plays. Instead of two major characters, as in the one-act plays, we have six characters in The Birthday Party. Instead of one act lasting perhaps forty-five minutes, we have here three acts lasting for a total of two hours or more. Instead of types, as in shorter plays, we have here living beings for whom we can feel compassion and sympathy that human beings evoke in real life.
Ronald Hayman says, "The impact (of The Birthday Party) is enormous, with moments of terror and violence on the stage that are the best Pinter has contrived, while the structure is the most impressive he has yet achieved. The parts all contribute to the whole, and the comedy blends well with the serious statements. The mystification is there, as always, but it does not interfere with the precision and clarity of the pattern."
2. THE CARETAKER (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 , The Caretaker was an immediate hit with audiences as well as critics, receiving mostly favourable 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. London
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.
The Caretaker is a three-act play with three characters—Mick, Aston and Davies. Mick and Aston are brothers. Mick, the younger of the two, is in his late twenties; he is a successful businessman of some kind though we can never be quite sure about the truth of what is said about a character in a play by Pinter. Mick owns a small van and seems to be buying and selling properties. For his elder brother. Aston (who is in his early thirties), Mick has bought an old, neglected house in a western suburb of
. Only one room in the house is habitable. Aston has, rather vaguely, been entrusted with the task of getting the old house repaired and renovated. In the mean time, the one habitable room in the house is cluttered up with old furniture and other junk which Aston has been accumulating. Even this room has a leaking ceiling. Aston is slow, awkward man, who constantly fiddles with screw-drivers and handsaws. But he is good-natured and ready to help his fellow human beings. London
The play opens with Aston bringing in Davies, an old tramp, whom he has saved from being beaten up in a brawl in a cafe. Davies tells him that he had been working as cleaner in that cafe and in the quarrel that had taken place he had refused to remove a bucket of rubbish, which was not his duty to remove. Davies, it seems, only insists on doing job proper to his position in life. But he is also full of race-hatred. He rails against the Greeks, the Poles, the Blacks, the Indians, etc. Moreover, he is bitter, weak and constantly deceiving others as well as himself. For example, he tells Aston that his real name is not Davies but Jenkins and that he has an insurance card name in the name of Jenkins. Yet, when he is further questioned, he says that Davies is his real name. In order to get his papers, Davies has to go to Sidcup, but to make to that place he would need good shoes. And good shoes are difficult to obtain without enough money.
Aston feel sorry for the old man and invites him to stay with him in his room for a few days until he gets a new job somewhere. He gets a second bed ready for Davies, who can hardly believe his good luck.
Aston Trusts Davies
The next morning Aston mildly complains that Davies had been talking in his sleep. Davies hotly denies it and attributes the noise to the Blacks living next door. Aston goes out, leaving The Room in Davies's charge. Davies is surprised that he is being allowed to remain alone in the house and that he has been trusted with whatever is there in The Room. Aston even gives the second key to Davies. But Davies is frightened by the electric fire and the old gas stove.
When Davies is left alone in The Room, Pinter has already established, out of Davies lack of self-confidence and his nervousness, about the menace of these objects, and atmosphere of threat, mystery and horror. At this moment, Mike, the younger brother, walks into The Room and frightens Davies out of this wits by suddenly seizing him from behind and treating him as if he were a burglar. Mike's action is brutal intrusion into Davies' privacy.
Mick cross-examines Davies rapidly, alternating between harshness and politeness. He seizes Davies's trousers and has become very threatening again. Aston returns and Mick's attitude immediately changes to one of a matter-of-fact inquiry about the house. Davies's presence in The Room is apparently forgotten.
It is Aston who draws Davies back into the conversation by telling him that he has got Davies bag from the cafe, where he had left it the night before. There follows another bout of teasing by Mick, who grabs the bag repeatedly so that it rapidly passes from one character to another in an endless round. Then, as mysteriously as he had come, Mick goes away again.
Davies asks Aston who the man was, and Aston informs him that it was his brother. Davies says that the man is "a bit of a joker". With almost motherly affection, Aston gives to Davies a number of things he has brought for him. Even the bag, it really turns out, is not Davies; somebody else had taken away Davies' bag from the cafe, and Aston has brought another bag for him from some second-hand stall.
Davies The Caretaker
Aston is happy to have someone to look after. He goes so far as to offer the homeless tramp a permanent home. He says that Davies could look after the place and keep it clean. Davies can hardly believe his good fortune. But, at the same time, his timid nature comes to the fore and his acceptance of the offer is vague an half-hearted. What would happen if people who are after him came to the door and rang the bell and he, as The Caretaker, had to go and open it?
Davies goes out for a short while. When he returns to The Room, he tries to switch on the light but it doesn't work. A sudden loud and strange noise puts him into a state of extreme fear. Mick, who is using a vacuum cleaner had plugged it into the socket meant for the lamp, leading to the sudden noise and darkness. When the light is on again, Davies is discovered trying to defend himself with a knife in his hand. He is ready to strike any attacker. But Mick has now become polite and considerate to Davies. He complains to Davies about his brother Aston's laziness. He also offer Davies the position of The Caretaker of the home. Davies is surprised. He feels uncertain as to which of the two brothers is the actual owner of the house. Then, recognising the obvious superiority of the younger brother, Davies decides that he should try to please Mick and get into his good books. He starts speaking ill of his benefactor, Aston, who had brought him to the house.
There is growing tension between Aston and Davies. Davies cannot sleep by the open window and complains about the rain coming in while Aston requires fresh air to sleep. Then obviously, from a deep longing to communicate, Aston begins to tell Davies the story of his life.
There was a time when Aston was as nimble and as vocal as his brother. Indeed, he used to talk too much and he used to have hallucinations. He had been taken to a mental hospital. A doctor had informed him that he would have to be treated for his mental illness and that would require electric shocks. But Aston had refused the treatment. The doctor had, however, obtained the permission of Aston's mother, and Aston was subjected to shock treatment. That is how, Aston explains to Davies, he has become slow and unable to work.
Davies cannot resist the temptation of taking advantage of Aston's confession. Learning that Aston has been to a mental hospital and that he has admitted to his own inadequacy, Davies is thrilled to treat his benefactor like a superior dealing with an inferior. Instead of sympathising with the plight of the person who has come to his rescue, Davies is now exhilarated. He sides with Mick and acts as his friend, and he treats Aston as a lunatic.
Mick speaks to Davies about his dream of transforming the neglected house into a luxurious residence. Mick would like the place to be decorated and transformed into something wonderful. Thinking that he has been appointed caretaker of the house by Mick, Davies complains to Mick about Aston. He asks Mick to inform Aston that from now on Davies will be incharge of the place. But Mick, who has been cleverly tempting the old man to reveal his true nature, goes away saying, "Yes. May be I will."
Aston returns. He has at last got hold of a pair of shoes for Davies. But Davies starts finding fault with the shoes. In fact, Davies has no longer any intention of going to Sidcup.
A Hostile Davies
In the night when Aston complains about Davies' talking in his sleep and making noises, Davies reacts with anger. Acting as the dominant partner, he pulls out his knife and threatens Aston. Aston suggests that the time has come when Davies should find some other place to live. Davies retaliates by announcing that he has been put in charge of the house and that it is Aston who might have to leave. Aston merely puts Davies's things into his bag and hands it over to him. Davies has no choice but to leave. But he feels certain that he will come back.
The same evening Davies returns and in the absence of Aston and denounces Aston to Mick. Mick appears to be listening sympathetically but when Davies goes so far as to suggest that Aston should be sent back to the mental hospital, Mick's attitude changes abruptly. He now treats Davies as an impostor; he calls Davies a wild animal and barbarian. Inanger, Mick picks up and smashes the figure of Buddha, which is one of Aston's favourite pieces in The Room. Davies becomes speechless with astonishment.
Aston returns. The two brothers look at each other. Both are smiling faintly. Mok then leaves The Room. Aston sees the broken pieces of Buddha's figure, then goes to his bed and begins to work on his electric plug.
Davies makes a feeble attempt to regain Aston's favour, but Aston is adamant. The play closes with Davies desperately pleading for shelter in The Room, while Aston stands silently by the window with his back turned to him. Davies's voice sticks in his throat.
Davies the Manipulator
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."
The first production of The Caretaker at the Arts Theatre in
on London 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 ." 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 recognised as such by others; it received the Evening Standard Award for Best Play of 1960. The Caretaker was also adapted as a film in 1964. London
3. THE HOMECOMING (1965)
The Homecoming shocks its audiences not only by the casual and matter-of-fact way in which it talks of sex and prostitution, but also, and even more, by the apparently inexplicable motivations of its main characters. Why should a woman, the mother of three children and the wife of an American college professor, calmly accept an offer to have herself set up as prostitute; how could a husband not only consent to such an arrangement but actually put the proposition to his wife? Is Pinter merely out to shock for the sake of shock? Alternatively, those who admired the play's obvious theatrical effectiveness, with its sudden surprises and unexpected turns, defended it a being a cluster of symbolic images and poetic metaphors which should, therefore, not be subjected to excessive scrutiny on counts of verisimitude and realistic credibility. Martin Esslin considers The Homecoming "a poetic image of a basic human situation" that can also stand up to the most meticulous examination as a piece of realistic theatre, and that, indeed, "its achievement is the perfect fusion of extreme realism with the quality of an archetypal dream image of wish fulfilment."
The story of this play is simple but sensational. Max, a seventy-year-old retired butcher, shares his old house somewhere in the industrial area of
with two of his three sons. They are Lenny and Joey. Joey, who is the youngest of the three, is an amateur boxer who hopes to become a professional. In the meantime, he holds a job with a demolition company. He is slow of speech and clumsy, while Lenny is intelligent and smart. Lenny's occupation is not quite clear. Max's brother Sam, a hire-car driver, is the fourth man living in the house. London
Max talks a good deal about his late wife, Jessie. He also talks a good deal about his lifelong friend MacGregor, now dead. The sons, especially Lenny, treat their father badly. The old man acts as a housewife and cook; he also has to listen a great deal of criticism of his cooking. In turn, he is extremely rude to his brother Sam. A great mystery seems to surround the now dead wife of Max and the mother of his three sons, Jessie.
The time is night. The inmates of the house have gone to bed. But two intruders stand at the threshold of The Room. They are Teddy, Max's eldest son, and his wife Ruth. Teddy is a professor of philosophy at a college in
. He has been visiting America alongwith his wife. On their way back, they have decide to visit the house where Teddy was born and to introduce Ruth to his family whom she has never met before. Teddy still has a key to the front door, and that is how he has been able to get in with Ruth without ringing the door bell. He does not want to wake up anyone. Italy
Teddy goes upstairs and finds his old room empty. He wants Ruth to go up and get some sleep, but she wants to stay awake and perhaps go out for a walk. Teddy goes upstairs and gives Ruth the front door key. Ruth goes out for a walk.
Lenny, who has not been able to sleep, happens to meet Teddy. But the meting of the two brothers after six years is very casual. Teddy goes into his room while Lenny sits downstairs smoking.
Ruth comes back. The meeting between Lenny and Ruth (whose identity Lenny doesn't know yet) is also very casual. Lenny inquires who she is and what has brought her into the house in the middle of the night. Ruth replies that she is his brother Teddy's wife, but Lenny doesn't react at all. He merely seeks her advice about his insomnia. Later, he makes it clear that he does not really believe that she is Teddy's wife. He asks her whether he can hold her hand by telling her a long and frightening story about a lady who had propositioned him and whom he could have killed, but whom he had beaten up brutally. The lady was diseased. Ruth does not react to this story of violence. But the story implies that Lenny is, in some way, connected with the world of prostitutes and gangsters.
Atmosphere of Mystery and Violence
The atmosphere of mastery deepens when Lenny tells her another story about how he had given a heavy blow to an old woman who had asked his help in moving a heavy washing just because she herself had shown no sign of giving him a helping hand. Both the stories describe Lenny's acts of violence against women.
Ruth doesn't quite believe Lenny, but she understands something. A battle of words develops between the two when Lenny suggests that he should relieve her of an ashtray by her side and of the glass she is drinking from. When he insists on taking the glass from her, Ruth replies: "If you take the glass, I'll take you." Lenny asks if she is making some kind of a proposal to him. Ruth laughs, drains the glass and merely says: "Oh, I was thirsty."
The noise of their altercation awakens Max. He comes down and asks Lenny what is going on. Lenny does not disclose the presence of Teddy of his wife. He maintains that he has been sleepwalking. Finally, he turns on his rather and asks him, "It's a question I have been meaning to ask you for some time. That night, the night you got me, that night with Mum, what was it like?" Max is furious. He curses Lenny: "You'll drown in your own blood," and goes back upstairs.
Next morning, when Teddy and Ruth come downstairs, Max is upset that he has not been informed of their arrival. Without knowing who Ruth is, he asks Teddy: "Who asked you to bring tarts in here?.............I've never had a whore under this roof before. Ever since your mother died. My word of honour. Take that disease away from me. Get her away from me." Without paying any attention to Teddy's pleas that Ruth is his wife, Max orders Joey to turn them out. When Joey apologises to Teddy, saying that Max is an old man, Max hits Joe violently. Max is about to collapse from exertion. When Sam tries to come to his aid Max hits him also over the had with his stick. With Joey and Max on the floor and Sam holding his head, Lenny, who has now appeared on the scene, and Teddy face each other in silence.
Max's mood now changes. He asks Ruth if she is a mother. When she replies that she has three children, he is pacified. He even offers Teddy a warm cuddle, saying that Teddy still loves his father.
The same afternoon, Max prepares lunch for the whole family. He is flattered by Ruth's approval of his cooking. He then begins to reminisce about his late wife, Jessie, and what she had done for the family. But in the same breath, he refers to her as a 'slut-bitch'.
Lenny begins to tease Teddy about his philosophy. He asks Teddy to comment on the nature of reality. Teddy refuses to answer, but Ruth suddenly intervenes, saying. "Look at me, I move my leg. That's all it is. But I wear underwear with moves with me. It captures your attention. Perhaps you misinterpret. The action is simple. It's a leg moving." Teddy gets up, feeling alarmed. Sam has already gone for work. Max, Joey and Lenny also leave. Teddy and Ruth are the only ones left behind. Teddy suggests that they should go back to
immediately. But Ruth does not show any enthusiasm. Teddy goes upstairs to pack. America
Ruth Refuses to Leave
Lenny returns. He and Ruth start talking. She tells Lenny that before she married Teddy and went to
, she used to be a model and that she had been once photographed nude by the side of a lake. Teddy comes downstairs with the luggage and tells Ruth that they should leave. But Lenny suggests a dance before they leave. Lenny and Ruth dance, and he kisses her. America
Max and Joey return from the gymnasium, where Joey has been training. When Joe sees Ruth kissing Lenny, he exclaims, "Christ, she is wide open. She's a tart." Saying this, Joey takes Ruth from Lenny's arms, sits down on the sofa, embraces and kisses her. But Max is indifferent. Far from criticising Ruth, he praises her beauty and grace when Joe and Ruth roll off the sofa on the floor. Max tells Teddy that he has always liked him the most among his three sons.
The Cost of Maintaining Ruth
Ruth now demands something to eat and to drink; she has become bossy and demanding. She herself now starts teasing Teddy about his philosophy. Joey spends the afternoon with Ruth upstairs. When he comes down, Lenny asks him how he has got on with Ruth, but Joey tells him that he did not go all the way. Lenny is angry; he start scolding Teddy for having a wife who is tantalising. Teddy indifferently replies that perhaps Joey hasn't got the right touch. Max and Sam are also informed that Ruth has proved merely to be a tentalising kind of woman. Max is upset. He asks Ruth if she had merely tantalised his son Joey. He suggests that Ruth should stay on in the house. When Teddy asks how they would bear the additional cost of her staying there, it is suggested that each of them should contribute a little from his wages towards the cost of maintaining Ruth.
It now turns out that Lenny is, in fact, a professional pimp for a number of women in
Soho. He says that Ruth could work part-time there—not more than four hours a night. He asks Teddy to recommend Ruth to the American professors planning to visit . Teddy's objection is dismissed by Max, who says that the health service in England is there to look after people. England
Ruth now comes downstairs and it is her own husband who puts the proposition to her. She seems pleased with the idea but lays down conditions, saying that she would need at least three rooms and a bathroom, a personal maid servant and some money for clothes and furnishing at the very start. Lenny agrees to all these conditions.
Just then, Sam who has been a witness to the going-on all along blurts out that on one occasion Max's friend MacGregor had Jessie at the back of his cab when he (Sam) was driving along. After saying this, Sam collapses. At first, they think that he is dead but he is still breathing.
They leave him lying there. While Ruth calmly concludes the bargain. Teddy is now about to leave alone for
. When he is going, he asks her whether she would change here mind. Ruth now calls him Eddie, a name she has not used for him before, and tells him "Don't become a stranger." Teddy goes away. America
Ruth sits, relaxed, in a chair. Sam lies motionless on the floor. Joey goes to Ruth's chair and kneels before her. She touches his head and he puts it in her lap. In a state of agitation, Max says, "I am too old, I suppose. She thinks I’man old man. I'm not such an old man."
Ruth remains silent. Max becomes more and more pleading, more and more insistent. Evidently, he, too, is sexually attracted towards his daughter-in-law. He falls to his knees and crawls towards Ruth, saying all the way that he is not such an old man and begging for a kiss. Ruth is silent and irresponsive. She keeps stroking Joey's head while Lenny stands watching. Evidently, all the men in the family want Ruth as their mistress.
The Homecoming shocks the audience, first by the manner in which sex and prostitution have been discussed and second, by the strange and inexplicable motivations of its main characters. As do most of Pinter's plays, The Homecoming also exists on another level. Its real action is a metaphor for human desires and aspirations. It represents a myth, a dream image, a projection of archetypal fears and wishes. The play deals with both the themes of Oedipus by Sophocles and King Lear by William Shakespeare—the theme of the son's desire for the sexual conquest of his mother in Oedipus and the desolation of old age in King Lear. Ruth is a mother-figure. Just like Jessie, she has three sons, Lenny and Joey are complementary: Lenny is slick and fast; Joey is slow and strong. They act as one: Lenny arouses Ruth and then passes her on to Joey without the least hesitation. Similarly, Max, the father, and Teddy, the eldest son, could be viewed as two aspects of the father-figure. At the end of the play, Max and Teddy have been defeated while Lenny and Joey are victorious.
The final image of The Homecoming is the elimination of Lenny's and Joey's Oedipal dreams: their mother, young and beautiful, has become available to them as a sexual partner, a whore, while the defeated father cringes on the floor pleading for some scrapes of her sexual favours. As for Ruth, she sees herself as an object of passive desire. That is the significance of her speech about herself as a moving object in response to the discussion about the real nature of a table. Having failed in her marriage, Ruth is in a state of existential despair, which is understandable and which motivates here behaviour. She has tried to fight her own nature and she has been defeated by it. She now yields to it and surrenders herself without any thought of the consequences.