Pinter's treatment of his themes and characters is realistic. He endows his characters with life and vitality. They speak in a colloquial language like Aston and Mick, or in Cockney like Davies. That brings out their social and educational background. What is more, they do not have any past history. Pinter's characterisation differs sharply from the conventional method. For Ibsen the past histories of the characters are the soil in which the plot takes its roots. But for Pinter, the past histories of the characters, like their off-stage lives, are not so important. They give some account of their past lives during the play. However, the only facts which Pinter is concerned with are the facts of what is said and done on stage. But in Pinter's case whether what the character tells us about his past is true or false.
No Past History
Thus, none of Pinter's characters are defined by their past history because they are liable to distort it. Nor are they defined by their position in society which they are liable to misrepresent. They are also not defined by their physical appearance which is seldom described. Indeed, Pinter rarely gives any physical description of his characters. Only a few hints are given.
Very Few Characters
Pinter does not believe in the multiplicity of characters of a play. The Caretaker has just three characters—Mick, Aston and David. Each of them is essential to the pattern of the play, and there are no supernemaries. But they are all convincingly drawn and are individuals in their own right.
Mick is Aston's younger brother. He is in his late twenties. He suffers from non-communication with his elder brother Aston and seeks the help of an intermediary, Davies, the tramp, to get across to Aston. And when he finds that Davies does not serve his purpose, he discards him even though he had earlier offered him The Caretaker's job in the house that he plans to burn the old, dilapidated house into.
Mick does not come face to face with Aston in the play even though he lives in the same room with him. He enters The Room in Aston's absence but leaves as soon as Aston comes.
All that we come to know about him is that Mick wears a leather jacket, he has a van of his own and he is some kind of construction business. We see him at the end of Act One Scene Two when he finds Davies rummaging through the junk in Aston's absence. Taking him to be a burglar, Mick seizes Davies's arm and forces it up his back. Davies screams. He swiftly forces him to the floor, with Davies struggling, grimacing, whimpering and staring. Mick signals him to be quiet. As Davies writhes in pain, Mick picks up his trousers, examines them and throws them at Davies.
Mick cross-examines him about his name and asks him whether he had slept in The Room the previous night. Then he starts a cat-and-mouse game with Davies. He is alternately warm and harsh. He gives long narratives about Davies (who gives out his name as Jenkins to him) about Davies resembling first, his uncle's brother, then having a funny kind of resemblance to a bloke I once knew in Shoreditch," and finally, accuse him of sleeping in his mother's' bed and "stinking the place out." He still considers Davies an intruder into the house and he calls him "a fibber" when Davies says that he was brought there by Aston, Finally, Mick tells him:
You are an old robber, there's no getting away from it. You're an old skate. You don't belong to a nice place like this. You're an old barbarian. Honest. You got no business wandering about in an unfurnished flat.
Mick tells Davies what he would charge him for living there. He starts a long spiel on the rent, various other charges and taxes in case Davies wants to stay there. He then asks Davies about his banker and solicitor so that he can draw up the agreement. Aston enters and he offers to tar the roof where it leaks to make the place habitable.
Mick has grandiose plans for renovating the place and when, Aston hands over the bag he has brought for Davies, Mick grabs it and starts tossing it about. This exasperates Davies. Mick warns him.
Watch your step, sonny '....You're knocking at the door when no one's at home. Don't push it too hard. You come busting into a private house, laying your hands on anything you can lay your hands on. Don't overstep the mark, son.
Davies tells Aston that his brother is "a bit of a joker" and that "he tends to see the funny side of things".
In their next encounter, when Davies comes to The Room at night, there is no light. He tries to light a match to find his way through the junk when the match box falls on the floor. Mick, who has been using the electrolux in the dark by plugging it into the light socket, kicks the match box and scares Davies. He find that his knife to defend himself only to find that Mick has been trying to scare him again.
Mick tells Davies that he had been doing spring cleaning his brother/s absence: "We take it in turns, once a fortnight, my brother and me, to give the place a thorough going over. I was working late tonight, I only just got here. But I thought I better get on with it, as it's my turn." And then he mischievously tells Davies: "It's not that I actually live here. I don't. As a matter of fact, I live somewhere else." And he invites a grateful Davies to his place some time for drinks and some music after he has apologised to him for giving him "a start". He pretends to be impressed when Davies him that he can only be purchased so far and no further. He offers Davies a sandwich as a gesture of friendship and grills him about Aston. "You're my brother's friend, aren't you?" But when Davies is diffident about answering the question. Mick is quick to take offence: "Don't you find him friendly then?"
Mick seeks Davies' advice by telling him that his brother doesn't like to work. "He's just shy of it. Very shy of it...If you got an older brother you want to push him on, you want to see him make his way. Can't have him idle, he's only doing himself harm. That's what I say...He's supposed to be doing a little job for me….I keep him here to do a little job for me...I keep him here to do a little job...but I don't know...I'm coming to the conclusion he's a slow worker., ..What would your advice be?"
Feeling that he has gained Mick's confidence, Davies tells him that Aston is "a bit of a funny bloke." But Mick stops him by saying that he is getting hypercritical about his brother, which puts Davies on the defensive. Mick then offers him the job of caretaker of the house (which Aston had also made to him earlier) because "you look a capable sort of man to me." He asks Davies whether he has been in "the services" and wants references before he can appoint Davies as caretaker, "just to satisfy my solicitor".
Seeks Davies's Advice
Davies feels that he has won Mick's confidence. He starts being offensive to Aston as Mick, is the landlord of the place and he has got "the deed to prove it". He suggests certain alterations in The Room to Mick and starts making demands. He complains against Aston to Mick and his unresponsive attitude, while Mick is planning to turn the place into a penthouse. "It wouldn't be a flat it'd be a palace." Mick wants Davies to have a chat with Aston about getting down to work and dispose of all the junk that he has collected. But Davies tells him, "He's no friend of mine. You don't know whether you are with him. I mean, with a bloke like you, you know where you are...I means you got your own ways....You may have some funny ways... You're straight forward………But with him, you don't know what he's up to half the time! ....He's got no feeling!" Davies suggests that Mick should himself talk to Aston since he is his brother.
Davies then starts insulting Aston till Aston shows him the door and asks him to leave the house.
Confident that he has Mick on his side, Davies returns with him. He apparently sumpathises with Davies on his plight but when Davies continues complaining against Aston, Mick loses his cool: "You saying my brother hasn't got any sense?" He says that he can't ask Aston to leave even though he is the landlord of the place. "On the other hand, he's the sitting tenant." He has to be given proper notice. When Davies refers to Aston's past mental illness and tells Mick that Aston should be sent to where he came from, i.e., the mental hospital, Mick is offended. Tongue-in-cheek, he asks for Davies's credentials as an interior decorator before he can start "doing up the place." But when Davies says that he doesn't possess any, Mick turns on him. Davies compounds his anger by calling Aston "nutty." Mick is now furious: "Nutty? Who's nutty?...Did you call my brother nutty? My brother. That's a bit of....that's a bit of an impertinent thing to say, isn't it?...What a strange man you are. Aren't you? You're really strange. Ever since you come into this house there's been nothing but trouble... Most of what you say is lies. You're violent, you're erratic, and you're just completely unpredictable. You're nothing else but a wild animal, when you come down to it. You're a barbarian. And to put the old tin lid on it, you stink from arse-hole to breakfast time."
Mick, like Aston had done earlier, kicks Davies out of The Room and returns to his old non-communicative stance with Aston, both the brothers inhabiting worlds of their own.
Aston, in his early thirties, is Mick's brother. He seems quite generous, as is indicated by his rescuing Davies from a potential brawl and later bringing the old tramp into his own house. Once he brings Davies home, Aston continues to come for him, giving him tolerance attempting to find shoes for him, giving him tobacco attempting to find shoes for him giving him money and even replacing Davies's bag when it is stolen. Unlike Mick, Aston is gentle and calm, enduring Davies continnal complaints about all that he is offered.
Stay in Mental Hospital
At the end of the second act, Aston reveals what may be at the root of his exceedingly calm nature. Some time before he reached adulthood, he was committed for a time to a mental institution, where he received incoluntary electroshock therapy. When in the hospital, Aston says, he counted on his mother to deny permission for the treatments. When she did not, he attempted to escape and, when that failed, he physically bought those who attempted to subject him to electric shocks.
When we see him now, he has brought home an old tramp and provided him shelter in his room. That the tramp is noisy, finicky, demanding and ungrateful is not Aston's concern. He tries to make Davies comfortable in the other bed in the junk-filled room, only to be disturbed by the noises Davies makes in his sleep. Otherwise, Aston is non-interfering; he keeps thinking with a plug or sandpapering a plank because he wishes to build a shed outside. That probably explains why he is always on the lookout for tools and appliances that might be of help to him.
Wary of Human Company
Ever since his experience in the mental hospital following his talking to people (his ''hallucinations"), Aston has been wary of human company. He tells
about his recent experience with a woman and wonders what she was up to: Davis
You know, I was sitting in a cafe the other day. I happened to be sitting at the same table as this woman. Well, we started to... we started to pick up a bit of a conversation. I don't know... about her holiday, it was, where she'd been. She'd been down to the south coast. I can 'I remember where long. Anyway, we were just sitting there, having this bit of a conversation...then suddenly she put her handover to mine...and she said, how would you like me to have a look at your body?...To come out with it just like that, in the middle of this conversation. Struck me as a bit odd.
Aston does not communicate much with his younger brother Mick, who is worried about him. He tells Davies that Aston is shy of work and seeks his advice as an intermediary. Taking him as a friend, both the brothers, separately, offer a job as caretaker of the place of Davies. But then Davies turns against Aston and starts playing one brother against the other, with the result that both of them ask him to leave. Their interaction is minimal and they are lost in their own worlds.
His adolescent experiences, when he used to go to a café opposite the house, have left a deep and lasting impact on Aston. (Incidentally, he came across Davies in the cafe, too). In his soliloquy at the end of the second act, he recounts them:
I used to go there quite a bit. Oh, years ago now. But I stopped. I used to like that place. Spent quite a bit of time in there. That was before I went away. Just before, I think that...place had a lot to do with it.
Aston used to talk to the people there.
They were all a good bit older than me. But they always used to listen... thought they understood what I said. I mean I used to talk to them. I talked too much. That was my mistake. They same in the factory. Standing there, or in the breaks, I used to...talked about things. And these men, they used to listen, whenever I...had anything to say. It was all right. The trouble was, I used to have kind of hallucinations, they...I used to get the feeling that I could see things...very clearly...everything was so clear... everything...everything used to be so quiet...all this... quiet... and... this clear sight...it was...but may be I was wrong. Anyway, someone must have said something. I didn't know anything about it. And...some kind of lie must have got around. And this lie went around. I thought people started being funny in that café. The factory, I couldn't understand it. Then one day they took me to a hospital, right outside
Aston was obviously disillusioned with human company and the need to communicate with anyone. The situation was further compounded by his mother who readily gave permission for the electroshock treatment to the hospital authorities since Aston was a minor at that time. He escaped. But
The trouble was...my thought...had become very slow...I couldn't think at all...I…I couldn't...get...my thought...together...uuhh...I could...never quite get it...together. The trouble was, I couldn't hear what people were saying. I couldn't look to the right or the left, I had to look straight, because if I turned my head around... I couldn't keep... upright. And I had these headaches. I used to sit in my room. That was when I lived with my mother. And my brother, he was younger than me. And I laid everything out, in order, in my room, all the things I knew were mine, but I didn't die. The thing is, I should have been dead. I should have died. Anyway, I feel much better now. But I don't talk to people now, I steer clear of places like that café. I don't talk to anyone...like that...I want to build that shed out in the garden.
Despite Davies's pleas, Aston kicks him out of the house when he finds him meddlesome and tale-carrier to his brother. He doesn't want to change his present world and obsession with the building of the shed outside. He would much rather prefer to brood alone and thinker with the various appliances he has collected in his room than have someone as noisy and grumbling as Davies stay with him in the same room, communicating only whatever is essential with his younger brother, Mick. Aston wants his own space and he wouldn't trade it for anything else in the world.
As Michael Billington remarked in his book The Life and Work of Harold Pinter, "Power is the theme: dominate or be dominated." Pinter shows, Billington continues, "that-life is a series of negotiations for advantage in which everything comes into play." Indeed, in The Caretaker, this often seems to be the case. Davies tries to play Aston and Mick against each other as he struggles to establish a foothold in The Room. Mick maintains power over Davies by physical as well as verbal assaults. And at the end of the play, Aston exerts his power by forcing Davies to leave; the struggle for power is indeed the dominating theme in the play.
Davies, an old tramp, is the protagonist in The Caretaker. His portrayal, says Ruby Cohen, is "a bitter commentary on the human condition". In their attitudes towards the old man, the human derelict, the two brothers present only surfaces contrasts. Mick begins by knocking him down, whereas Aston, instead of allowing him to die in despair, rescues him, shares his room with him and opens up home to him. Bother the brothers name the old man as caretaker, offer him a kind of scrutiny, which they both subsequently withdraw. Mick turns his back on the old man for failing to fulfil a role to which he never aspired, but Aston rejects him for what he is cantankerous, self-deluded and desperate.
Of all Pinter's plays, The Caretaker makes the most bitter commentary on the human condition; instead of allowing an old man to die beaten in a pub brawl, "the System" wisest on tantalising him with faint hope, thereby immeasurably increasing his final desperate anguish. There is perhaps a pun contained in the title: The Caretaker is twisted into taker on of care, for care is the human destiny.
The Davies-Aston relationship begins with Aston apparently in command of the situation as both hos and rescuer of the itinerant Davies. His calm, quiet acceptance of the uneasy guest seems a natural posture of superiority, and Davies at first accepts it as such. As both guest and rescued, Davies, in contrast to Aston, is noisy, repetitive and insecure. The evident aim of his early initiatives is to locate a potential common ground and probably one that will be seen his degree of dependency in the relationship. Ironically, his insecurity is increased by the very means that he adopts to diminish it. The fact that it is he, and not Aston, who feels compelled to talk undermines his position at the same time that his verbal manoeuvres seek to strengthen it.
Davies: Sit down' Huh... I haven't had a good sit down....I haven 'I had a proper sit down... well, I could tell you...
Aston: (placing the chair): Here you are.
Davies: Ten minutes off for a tea-break in the middle of the night in that place and I couldn't find a seal, not one. All them Greeks had it, Poles, Greeks, Blacks, the lot of them, all them aliens had it. And they had me working there...All them Blacks had it, Blacks, Greeks, Poles, the lot of them, that's what doing me out of a seat, treating me like dirt. When he come at me tonight. I told him. (Pause.)
Aston: Take a seat.
That Davies should invoke in rapid succession a sense of injury, a major prejudice, and a defiant self-reliance gives us a quick resume of the potential roles he might adopt relative to Aston. That Aston ignores all there...providing sympathy for the first, reinforcement for the second, nor admiration for the third gives us an immediate indication of the likelihood of their success.
Aston's seeming refusal to encourage any of Davies's tentative roles provides Davies with major problems. In the face of Aston's taciturnity he is forced to thresh arourd desperately for some means of altering the situation. It soon becomes apparent that his large supply of words is not matched by a similar supply of verbal strategies. As the conversation progresses he simply resorts to repeated use of the tactics implicit in his first speech. Appeals to Aston's sympathy and to his prejudices recur repeatedly, though Davies is smart enough to defend himself against becoming a victim of the kinds of prejudice to which he feels vulnerable.
All them toe-rags, mate, got the manners of pigs, I might have been on the food a few years but you can take it from me I'm clean. I keep myself up. That's why I left my wife. Fortnight after I married her, no, not so much as that, no more than a week. I took the lid off a saucepan, you know what was in pan. A pile of her underclothing, unwashed. The pan for vegetables, it was. The vegetable pan. That's when I left her and I haven't seen her since.
As he finishes speaking he finds himself to face to face with a "statue of Buddha standing on the gas stove". The mutual incompatibility of the stone face and that of the tramp comments directly on the success of these efforts to manipulate Aston's attitudes and concerns. The silent inscrutable Buddha, incongruously perched on the gas stove, is as much beyond Davies's comprehension as the taciturn Aston surrounded by the diverse objects collected in his room.
Efforts at Self-Reliance
Davies's other category of approaches involves attempts to assert a degree of independence from Aston. But his efforts to create an image of self-reliance are even less successful than his previous moves and not entirely compatible with them. His appeals for sympathy for his age and health mingle uneasily with assertions that he intends revenge for his misuse at the café: "I'll get him. One night I'll get him. When I find myself around that direction." The strength of this commitment is clearly undermined by Davies's vague reference to when it will occur and by his admission that this would not be his primary reason for going there.
In spite of these repeated failures, Davies's stock of variations on his manoeuvres is not yet exhausted. Indeed he has yet to play his trump card. Unsuccessful as the heroic survivor of the café incident, unsung as the virtuous rejecter of an unhygienic wife, and un-sympathised with as a downtrodden, exploited old man, he invokes a new image of one on the verge of self-sufficiency and success. The tack is circuitous, involving shoes, the weather, a false name, and papers that will "prove everything". But, in essence, the theme is that of a journey to Sidcup which will solve all problems and structure his life anew. Once the journey is made all difficies will disappear, and Davies will once more be a man to be reckoned with.
Davies: If only I could get down to Sidcup! I've been waiting for the weather to break.
He's got my papers, this man I left them with, it's got it all down there. I could prove everything.
Aston: How long's he had them?
Aston: How long's he had them?
Davies: Oh, must be...it was in the war...must be...about near on fifteen years ago.
But this manoeuvre, too, is thwarted by Aston's reactions to it. Clearly, Davies does not match his emphasis on the importance of the journey with a similar commitment to getting there. The time lag he admits to makes nonsense of the value he places on the journey, as Aston's puzzlement is evident. Once again the haphazard dialogue is matched revealingly with an item of junk that is eminently visible but obliquely connected to its surroundings.
Abuses Aston's Kindness and Generosity
At this point, Aston's contribution to the 'conversation' seems rather unfriendly, to say the least. Whatever Davies does to try to improve the connection between himself and Aston is neutralised by his inability to elicit from Aston the responses he needs. To Davies it seems that Aston's posture of quiet superiority is a consistent strategic imperviousness to his needs and wiles. But Aston's behaviour seems peculiarly inconsistent. His apparent unconcern for Davies's psychological needs is sharply contrasted with an evident concern for his physical needs. Aston's initial generosity toward Davies in the café is extended by offers of cigarettes, shoes and money, and by a willingness to go and retrieve Davies's belongings for him. This inconsistency, this apparent lack of connection between two aspects of Aston's behaviour, is another manifestation of juxtaposed but unclearly linked data in the play. But its effect on the relationship is by no means unclear; this inconsistency disorients Davies and maintains his subservience as effectively as Mick's later inconsistent conversation. As this section progresses, however, it gradually becomes apparent that Aston's efforts (unlike Mick's) are not deliberately aimed at this goal. Indeed, it is very difficult at this point to perceive a deliberate aim in any of Aston's behavior. It does seem clear, however, that he does not share Davies's urgent need for a verbally explicit rapport.
The problem the audience has in understanding Aston is obviously shared by Davies. Sensing the failure of his efforts to impose on Aston any of the relationship roles he has in mind, Davies eventually switches to trying to draw out of Aston information that might guide him to more successful manoeuvres. Feeding him topics dealing with The Room and its contents, Davies once more finds himself making little headway:
Davies: You got any more rooms then, have you?
Davies: I mean, along the landing here...up the landing there...
Aston: They're out of commission.
Davies: Get away.
Aston: They need a lot of doing to.
Davies: What about downstairs?
Aston: That's closed up. Needs seeing to...The floors... (Pause.)
Aston's unwillingness to discuss any of these more neutral topics suggests that his reluctance to converse with Davies is motivated by something more than mere resistance to Davies's wiles; the reluctance seems to proceed from a general antipathy toward any kind of conversation. But, paradoxically, he is not entirely unwilling to talk. While evasive about the house and his legal relationship to it, he does venture the information that he "might build" a shed in the back garden. This willingness to talk is further indicated by a sudden longer statement on the drinking of Guinness—a topic that he discusses with a seriousness that does little to calm the puzzled, uneasy Davies.
I went into the pub the other day. Ordered a Guinness. They gave it to me in a thick mug. I sat down but I couldn't drink it. I can't drink Guinness from a thick mug. I only like it out of a thin glass. I had a few sips but I couldn't finish it.
This relates to nothing previously discussed, and whatever significance it has for Aston is not shared by Davies, who resorts to a quick change of subject.
The short speech is undoubtedly odd, but the kind of oddity it represents provides the first clear indication of the basic difficulty confronting the pair. If Davies fails to respond to or follow up on this topic because he is unable to locate its significance, perhaps this is also the reason for Aston's similar reactions to Davies's conversation topics. The speech itself, while specifying nothing precisely undermines Davies's operating assumption that Aston's taciturnity is simply a manifestation of superiority and disinterest. Such an assumption has already been brought into question by Aston's non-verbal generosity to Davies, and this speech suggests that Aston, in spite of his general silence, also has a need to talk. The section ends with Aston, as he has done extensively during this opening scene, devoting his attention to a faulty plug on an old electric toaster. His persistent concern for this faulty connection characterises the activity of the opening section: potential links between the characters remain uncertain because the means of establishing appropriate connections has gone awry.
Davies: I used to know a bootmaker in Action. He was a good mate to me. (Pause)
You know what that bastard monk said to me? (Pause) How many more Blacks you got around here then?
Plays One Brother Against the Other
That is when Davies turns to Mick, who plays a cat-and-mouse game with him. Davies tries to play one brother against the other in order to keep a roof over his head. He has been out on the road most of his life and he would like to cling to the crumbs he is offered. But his efforts are futile. Mick calls him "a fibber" who stinks the place out and Aston, in spite of all his earlier generosity, turns his back upon him. Davies's final image that we have, despite his desperate, pitiable condition is that of an old tramp who is ungrateful, self-deluded and cantankerous as he finally pleads with Aston:
But... lost... look...listen...listen here ...I mean....what am I going to do?... What shall I do?... Where am I going to go?...Listen...If I got down...If I was to...get my papers... would you...would you let... would you... if I got down...got my....
Q. 2. Write a note on the World of Harold Pinter.
Each of Harold Pinter's [first] four plays ends in the virtual annihilation of an individual. In Pinter's first play, The Room, after a blind Negro is kicked into inertness, the heroine, Rose, is suddenly stirken with blindness. In The Dump Waiter, the curtain falls as Gus and his prospective murderer stare at each other. Stanley Webber, the hero of The Birthday Party, is taken from his refuge for 'special treatment'. In The Caretaker, the final curtain falls on an old man's fragmentary (and unheeded) pleas to remain in his refuge.
Influences of Kafka and Beckett
As Pinter focusses more sharply on the wriggle for existence, each of his successive hero-victims seems more vulnerable than the last. Villain assaults victim in a telling and murderous idiom. Although Pinter's first wo plays are in one act, and the second two in three acts, each successive drama seems to begin closer to its own end, highlighting the final throes of the hero-victims.
But who are they—these nondescript villains and victims, acting out their dramas in dilapidated rooms ? Victims emerge from a vague past to go their ineluctable destruction. Villains are messengers from mysterious organisations—as in the works of Kafka or Beckett.
If Pinter has repeatedly been named as Beckett's heir on the English stage, it is because the characters of both lead lives of complex and unquiet desperation—a desperation expressed with extreme economy of theatrical resources. The clutter of our world is mocked by the stinginess of the stage-worlds of Beckett and Pinter. Sets, props, characters and language are stripped by both playwrights to what one is temped to call their essence.
However, Pinter is not only Beckett's spiritual son. He is at least a cousin of the Angry Young Englishmen of his generation, for Pinter's anger, like theirs, is directed vitriolic ally against the System. But his System cannot be reduced to a welfare state, red-brick universities and marriage above one's class. Of all the Angries, John Wain approaches closest to Pinter's intention when he states that the artist's function "is always to humanise the society he is living in, to assert the importance of humanity in the teeth of whatever is currently trying to annihilate that importance". Pinter's assertion, however, takes a negative forum; it is by his bitter dramas of dehumanization that he implies "the importance of humanity." The religion and society which have traditionally structured human morality, are, Pinter's plays, the immoral agents that destroys the individual.
Like Osborne, Pinter looks back in anger; like Beckett, Pinter looks forward to nothing (not even Godot). Pinter has created his own distinctive and dramatic version of Man vs. the System. Situation him between Beckett and The Angries is only, a first approximation of his achievement.
House as Metaphor
The house as human dwelling is a metaphor at least as old as the Bible, and on the stage that house is most easily reduced to a room (e.g., Graham Greene's Living Room, Beckett's Endgame). Pinter's rooms are stuffy, non-specific cubes, whose atmosphere grows steadily more stale and more tense. The titular Room of his first play is "A room in a large house"; in The Dumb Waiter, we descend to "a basement room"; in The Birthday Party, we have "The living room of a house in a seaside town", and, in The Caretaker, it is simply "A room". Unlike the tree and road of Godot, which suggest vegetation and distance; or the shelter of Endgame, which looks out on earth and sea; unlike the realistic "one-room flat...at the top of a large Victorian house" of Look Back in Anger, Pinter's rooms, parts of mysterious and in fine series, are like cells without a vista. At the opening curtain, these rooms look naturalistic, meaning no more than the eye can contain. But by the end of each play, they become sealed containers, virtual coffins.
Within each Pinter room, the props seem to be realistically functional and only in retrospect do they acquire symbolic significance. Consider, for example, Pinter's treatment of such crucial details as food and clothing, in comparison with the casual realism of Osborne, or the frank symbolism of Beckett. The various preparations for tea in Look Back in Anger seem to be paralleled by the prosaic coca, tea, bread, sandwiches, crackers of Pinter's plays; in sharp contrast is the farcical and stylized carrot-turnip-radish 'business' of Godot. So too, three men grabbing for an old man's bag in The Caretaker has few of the symbolic overtones of the slapstick juggling of derbies in Godot.
Symbolic Significance of Shoes
It is, however, in their respective use of that innocuous prop, a pair of shoes, that the different symbolic techniques of Beckett and Pinter are in most graphic evidence. Earlier in Godot,
establishes shoes as a metaphysical symbol: "There's man all over for you, blaming on his boots the faults of his feet." At the end of Godot, it is by virtue of being barefoot that Estragon admits he has always compared himself to Christ. In Pinter's Caretaker, the old man keeps trying on different shoes that might enable him to get on the road to Sidcup, where he claims to have left his identity papers. Each pair of shoes is rejected for specific misfit—"a bit small", "too pointed", "no laces"—before the curtain lines of the play: "they're all right...if I was to...get my papers...would you...would you let...would you...if I got down...and got my..." The finality of the fragments indicates that no shoes can ever fit, that the journey to Sidcup cannot be made. Thus, the symbolic significance of the shoes is instantaneous with Beckett, cumulative with Pinter. Vladimir
Characters as Symbols
Most crucial to an understanding of Pinter's theatre is the symbolism of his characters. For all their initially realistic appearance, their cumulative impact embraces the whole of humanity. In so generalising, Pinter extends the meaning of his characters beyond such particulars as Osborne treats; nevertheless, he does not achieve the metaphysical scope upon which Beckett insists, from his opening lines: "Nothing to be done".
Pinter's defenseless victims are a middle-aged wife, man who asks too many questions, am ex-pianist, a broken old man. Ruthlessly robbed of any distinction, they come to portray the human condition. And Pinter's villains, initially as unprepossessing as the victims, gradually reveal their insidious significance through some of the most skilful dialogue on the English stage today. For it is language that betrays the villains—more pat, more cliché-ridden, with more brute power than that of their victims.
Even hostile critics have commented on the brilliance of Pinter's dialogue, and it is in the lines of his villains that he achieves precise dramatic timing and economical manipulation of commonplaces. Representatives of the System, Pinter's villains give direct expression to its dogrha. In the plays of Osborne and Beckett, which also implicitly attack the System, the oppressive forces are presented through the words of their victims.
Jimmy Porter of Osborne's Look Back in Anger garbs the System in contemporary corporate metaphors:
Jimmy Porter: ....the Economic of the Supernatural. It's all a simple matter of payments and penalties...Reason and progress, the old firm, is selling out. Everyone get out while the going's good. Those forgotten shares you had in the old traditions, the old beliefs are going up—up and up and up. There's going to be a changeover. A new Board of Directors, who are going to see that the dividends are always attractive, and that they go to the right people. Sell out everything you've got; all those stock in the old, free inquiry. The Big Crash is coming, you can't escape it, so get in on the ground floor with Helena and her friends while there's still time. And there isn't much of it left. Tell me, what could be more gilt-edged than the next world! It's a capital, gain, and its all yours.
Estragon: Good idea.
Estragon: On the other hand it might be better to strike the iron before it freezes.
Estragon: What exactly did we ask him for?....And what did he reply ?
Estragon: That he couldn't promise anything.
Estragon: In the quiet of his home.
Estragon: His friends.
Estragon: His correspondents.
Estragon: His bank account..... Where do we come in?
Estragon: Take your time.'
In Pinter's Birthday Party, Goldberg and McCann express the System by echoing modern commonplaces of social success. Pinter damns them with their own deadly cliches.
Goldberg: Between you and me. Stan, it's about time you had a new pair of glasses.
Mccann: You can't see straight.
Goldberg: It's true. You've been cockeyed for years.
Mccann: Now you're even more cockeyed.
Goldberg: He's right. You've gone from bad to worse.
Mccann: Worse than worse.
Goldberg: You need a long convalescence.
Mccann: A change of air.
Goldberg: Somewhere over the rainbow
Mccann: Where angels fear to tread....
Goldberg: We'll make a man of you.
Mccann: And a woman.
Goldberg: You'll be re-orientated.
Mccann: You'll be rich.
Goldberg: You'll be adjusted.
Mccann: You'll be our pride and joy.
Goldberg: You'll be a mensch.
Mccann: You'll be a success.
Goldberg: You'll be integrated.
Mccann: You'll give orders.
Goldberg: You'll make decisions.
Mccann: You'll be a magnate.
Goldberg: A statesman.
Mccann: You'll own yachts.
In comparing the three excerpts, we note that Osborne's sustained metaphors are almost lyrical with rebellion, but both Beckett and Pinter resort to pithy stichomythia. Although the passages are typical of the technique of each play the respective tonal differences depend upon the dramatic structure. Osborne's satiric hostility recurs through Look Back in Anger, but Beckett's attitude towards Godot is ambivalent. The quoted excerpt occurs early in the play, when the tramps, in spite of their pathetic plight, can still attempt to define the System in familiar human terms. But by the end of the drama, man and deity are poignantly reduced to their compulsive, impossible, problematical inter-relationship; "in this immense confusion one thing alone is clear," says
. "We are waiting for Godot to come." Vladimir
In the Pinter's play, the messengers of the System glibly mouth its pat phrases—increasingly pointed as the dehumanisation of the victim progresses. In the quoted excerpt, which occurs towards the end of the drama, the seemingly irrelevant conclusion, 'Animals', corrosively climaxes the process...
Commentary on the Human Situation
Although Mick is slang for Irish, it is not clear in The Caretaker that Pinter is again designation the Christian tradition by an Irish name. Rather, the two brothers jointly seen to symbolise the family compatibility between a religious 'heritage and contemporary values. Thus, it is the elder, conventionally dressed Aston who is a carpenter, with its evocation of Christ, and it is the leather-jacketed Mick who is in the building trade and owns a motorized van. It is Mick who destroys a statue of Buddha, and who has grandiose schemes for redecorating the house. Aston's projects are humblers; he has been restored to competence by modern treatments for mental deviates; before the end of the play, he does manage to tar the roof of The Room, so it no longer leaks. Although Mick is presumably the owner and Aston the inhabitant of the house, the possession is finally left in doubt. As Mick explains, "So what it is, it's a fine legal point, that's what it is."
In their attitudes towards the old man, the human derelict, the two brothers present only surface contrasts. Mick begins by knocking him down, whereas Aston, instead of allowing him to die in despair, rescues him, shares his room with him, and opens up hope to him. Both the brothers name the old man as caretaker, offer him kind of scrutiny, which they both subsequently withdraw. Mick turns his back on the old man for failing to fulfill a role to which he never aspired, but Aston rejects him for what he is—deluded, and desperate.
Of all Pinter's [early] plays, The Caretaker makes the most bitter commentary on the human condition; instead of allowing an old man to die beaten, the System insists on tantalising him with faint hope, thereby immeasurably increasing his final desperate anguish. There is perhaps a pun contained in the title: The Caretaker is twisted into a taker on of care, for care is the human destiny.
Pinter's drama savagely indicts a System which sports maudlin physical comfort, vulgar brand names, and vicious vestiges of a religious tradition. Pinter's villains descend from motorized vans to close in on their victims in stuffy, shabby rooms. The System they represent is as stuffy and shabby; one cannot, as in Osborne's realistic dramas, marry into it, or sneak into it, or even rave against it in self-expressive anger. The essence of the Pinter victim is his final sputtering helplessness.
Although Pinter's God-surrogates are as invisible as Godot, there is no ambiguity about their message. They send henchmen not to bless but to curse, not to redeem but to annihilate. As compared to the long, dull wait for Godot, Pinter's victims are more swiftly stricken with a deadly weapon—the most brilliant and brutal stylisation of contemporary cliché on the English stage today.