The Caretaker as a Comedy of Menace
Table of Contents
The initial review of Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker generally followed a pattern: the brilliance of the actors was celebrated and the questions of influence, primarily Beckett’s, were linked to discussions of the relationship between the comic and serious elements in the play. Interpretations of the ‘meaning’ varied from the literal to the fully allegorical, by way of generalized abstract tags. Subsequent academic criticism, deriving from textual study rather than stage performance, has nearly always followed the serio-tragical-symbolism-abstract line- what we might call Modern Man in Search of His Insurance Cards, or, I stink Therefore I am. The comedy of The Caretaker is not a dispensable palliative. The combination of the comic and the serious, laughter and the silence is often deeply disturbing for an audience.
Adequate criticism must be based on a recognition of both the comic and ‘tragic’ elements compounded in the paralleled process of stage performance and audience response. Out emotional reaction of laughter or silence complements what happens on stage. Both actors and audience create a structure of feeling that the play has in its ‘living moment’, as Pinter puts it. The ‘point’ where The Caretaker ‘ceases to be funny’ must be found within the movement of the play itself and within the emotional complex of our ‘participation’.
Deeply Sensitive Psychological Insight
When the curtain rises, Mick shares the activity of the audience. ‘He slowly looks about the room looking at each object in turn. He looks up at the ceiling, and stares at the bucket. Then he brazenly separates himself from the audience. ‘Ceasing, he sits quite still, expressionless, looking out front. Silence for thirty seconds.’ Mick then leaves upon hearing ‘muffled voices’. This silent enigma is in dramatic contrast to the end of the play. At the outset Mick, in effect, rejects the audience by walking offstage after a protracted silence, while at the close it is Davies who is left onstage rejected by the audience in so far as we recognize that he must go. But this formal, inverted symmetry is recognised retrospectively. Mick’s silence and departure stays as a qualm, leaving a question behind the laughter that is immediate.
Davies’s Tramplike Appearance and Mannerisms
Even before he speaks Davies’s tramp-like appearance has prompted a certain predisposition in the audience. Socially, tramps are at an ‘inferior’ extreme, and their condition precludes a normative response by definition. Reactions to tramps are nearly always compounded of fear, distaste, embarrassment, seeming indifference, or a degree of sympathy arising from unconscious self-reproach at our own well-being. Whatever feeling predominates depends upon the tramp’s behaviour on a scale from abasement to aggression. Abasement invites individual, summary charity as a token of Society’s larger responsibility for victims of circumstance. Aggression (like Davies’s), though frightening on actual encounter, ultimately prompts laughter in the dramatic representation of self-determined viciousness. The transformation of the actual into the dramatic, the street into the theatre, the individual into audience, brings with it the laughter of relief.
It is as if throughout most of Act I Mick has been listening in, since he shows an uncanny insight into Davies’s character. In this sense Mick is almost a representative of the audience, knowing, sardonically, as much as they know. On the other hand Mick knows his Davieses as he knows his London, but he expresses it indirectly in terms of Aston’s behaviour:
MICK: He doesn’t work.
DAVIES: Go on!
MICK: No, he just doesn’t like work, that’s his trouble.
MICK: He’s just shy of it. Very shy of it
DAVIES: I know that sort.
MICK: You know the type.
At the end of Act: Mick immediately recognises Davies’s work-shy ‘type’, and his first words, “What’s the game ?” are really the later statement, “I know what you want,” put in the form of a question.
It has been shown by Peter Davison that Mick’s first two speeches derive in form from the traditional music-hall monologue. As such, along with something like the bag-passing game, they border on the farcical. But there is more to them than this. In laughing at the combination of the ludicrous, the grotesque and the improbable, the audience joins Mick in laughing at Davies. In other words, Mick provides the relief of a new comic perspective which enlists the audience on its side.
In spite of its seeming inconsequentiality this speech manifestly says a lot about Davies, Mick and Aston on a naturalistic and psychological level. Mick’s sardonic delivery expresses at once both discursive doubt and impatience with the conversation game and a sadistic playfulness. The verbal barrage parallels the earlier arm-twisting: verbal intimidation follows physical domination. Mick is equally dexterous at both. What Mick is really saying behind the formal obliquity of his narrative is this! recognized your sort, a tramp (‘always on the move’), with your story of ‘papers’ (‘never without his passport’), your ridiculous physical posturing (‘Bit of an athlete’), thrown out of a monastery (‘they chucked him out of the Salvation Army’) of questionable background (a bit of the Red Indian in him”), now mixed up with my brother ( I’ve never made out of how he came to be my uncle’s brother’), why don’t you clear off (‘married a Chinaman and went to Jamaica’). But at the same time Mick is deflecting a suppressed view of his own brother that is forced into his mind by the fact of Davies’s presence: my brother (You remind me of my uncle’s brother”) has picked up this nut (‘had a penchant or nuts’), he must be nutty as a fruit cake (‘wouldn’t touch a piece of fruit cake’). Mick’s feelings only emerge eventually by way of his surrogate; Davies whose exclamation ‘He’s nutty!’ enables Mick to savour the suppressed, emotionally forbidden, work: ‘Nutty? Who’s nutty? (Pause). Did you call my brother nutty? My brother.
Mick’s second speech is also something more than an exercise in intimidation. It is a comically indirect way of elaborating on what is implicit: the foreignness of Davies. The indigenous Mick ironically compares the indigent Davies with a fellow Londoner. Mick’s irony is sharpened by his reflection on the sense of difference felt by a working- class North Londoner for those from south of the Thames. “When I got to know him I found out he was brought up in Putney. That didn’t make any difference to me.” The ‘bloke’, after all, ‘was born in the Caledonian Road, just before you get to the Nag’s Head’. Mick’s North London references are to neighboring localities linked by bus routes at the centre of which is the ‘block’s old mum… still living at the Angel’. Mick evokes neighbourhood, pub and home-the self-advertisement of a particular kind of Londoner recognising an outsider and reminding him of the fact.
By contrast, Davies lonely wandering existence is reflected by sporadic, peripheral references to places outside of London proper (Sidcup, Luton, Watford, Wembley) and to past friends: “I used to know a bookmaker in Acton. He was a good mate to me.” Whereas Mick’s two speeches are littered with familial terms (uncle, brother, mother, cousin). Davies’s anecdotes suggest that over the years, in all of London between Luton and Sidcup, only two encounters have ever led to friendship-and both friendships of a dubious kind. The style and delivery of Mick’s speeches suggest the amateur comedian at home in pub, club or family; Davies is only a solitary tramp stranded somewhere on the Great West Road or the North Circular, an anomaly. But all these serious undertones are checked by a sense of game. Mick’s interrogation of Davies is deliberately punctured by straight music-hall cross-talk:
MICK: That’s my bed.
DAVIES: What about that, then’ MICK: That’s my mother’s bed.
DAVIES: Well she wasn’t in it last night!
Even when Mick rounds on Davies in this third long speech. “You’re stinking the place out. You’re an old robber, there’s no getting away from it. You’re an old skate…..”-the serious force of his charges is tempered, firstly by his appropriation of Davies’s language (‘filthy skate’, and secondly, by an extended parody of the conditions of tenancy and purchase. Between an outline of costs and recommendation of Aston as decorator, Mick threatens “Otherwise I’ve got a van outside, I can run you to the police station in five minutes, have you in for trespassing, loitering with intent, daylight robbery, filching, thieving and stinking the place out”. Amusing to the audience, this exaggeration is frightening to Davies since the language parallels his own exaggerated sense of persecution. The ludicrous magnification of the obligations, commitments and penalties of legal responsibility in buying a house is a humorous reminder to the audience of an often exhaustingly protracted business, but to Davies it is a manifestation of a bureaucratic world that excludes him. Mick makes the point in his repeated final question “Who do your bank with ?” This complex verbal humour is accentuated by the visual comedy. Throughout the act Davies has been on stage without his trousers, in his long pants, and Mick emphasizes the fact by flicking Davies’s trousers in his face- ‘several times’. This is then followed, almost immediately, by one of the oldest plays in the slapstick repertoire, the bag-passing game with its knockabout sequence reversal. Threat and menace are conflated in Mick’s speeches and the bag-passing game is almost wholly funny (but not merely funny, since the same symbolises the way in which Davies himself passes from brother to brother). Then, with the terrifying attack in darkness and the succeeding revelation that it is Mick merely ‘spring cleaning’ with an electrolux, violence and laughter are powerfully juxtaposed.
Thus Pinter exploits different kinds of comedy in a cumulative and structured way: comedy of character is established in Act I and then extended by music-hall monologue and broad farce in Act II. Comedy of language, gesture and action is then allowed to build up to the moment when it is dramatically arrested by Aston’s long, painful account of treatment in a mental hospital, and the events leading up to it. Aston’s speech has always been recognized as a major moment in the movement of the play, but its full significance has not been adequately discussed.
John Russell Brown has pointed out the correspondences between Aston’s hospital treatment and his present behaviour. He underwent electrical treatment and now fiddles obsessively with electrical equipment: he has a white coat, a pillow and a sheet at the ready: the uncovered light bulb glares down; he stares smilingly over Davies in bed. Brown also points out that Aston did go back to place like the café and did talk to strangers again-namely Davies-and suggests that the impetus for this was two- hold. Aston is haunted by revenge and somehow sees his own role as a ‘caretaker’ of Davies. These are all important points, but need to be taken further.
Aston refers to the ‘piles of papers’ he was shown as medical evidence: Davies refers to the ‘piles of papers’ kept in the attic. Aston says that the window of his hospital room was barred; the indications are that the attic window was kept open even before Davies’s malodorous entry. Aston spent five hours sawing at the bars, and is now preoccupied with saws, ostensibly to carry out the building work. He recognises that in café and factory he “talked too much’, and his long speech is a chilling reminder that he still does.
What does all this add up to? Surely the commonly accepted notion of Aston’s ‘charity’ in taking in Davies is called a question here. Rather than a disinterested act deriving from an impulse r conviction of moral duty and thus a token of his social rehabilitation it is part of the irreparable damage brought about by his sufferings. Aston’s ‘charity’ is a way of simultaneously vindicating himself and impugning those who have harmed him. Davies is there in the attic because of Aston’s psychology, not because of his ethics: Aston sees. Davies as a version of himself.
Aston’s recollections of the glass of Guinness and the lady in the café indicate his continuing disorientation. Both these speeches occur after pauses and have no relation to what precedes them and both after pauses and have no relation to what precedes them, and both contrast forcefully with Aston’s previous reticence. As conversational gambits they are disastrously bizarre; it is almost as if of an interior monologue has suddenly come to the surface. The preoccupation of Aston and Davies are psychological treadmills imprisoning each in his mutually exclusive world. For Aston to work on the house he needs to clear the garden for a shed. To build the shed on the house he needs to clear the garden for a saw bench, is needed for the shed. Davies, to sort himself out needs his papers at Sidcup. To get to Sidcup he needs good shoes, to get good shoes he needs, money, to get money he needs his papers to sort himself out…
Both minds have been numbed by the different experiences of being on the road and being in a mental hospital: both are reduced to a preoccupation with the physical function of hands and feet. With Aston’s speech the laughter ceases. And there is no ‘caretaker’ for them. The audience is silenced and confounded as the darkness grows.
As Act III opens, and before anything is said, Davies is seen in a comic tableau, pipe in hand and incongruously garbed in a smoking jacket. Here, after the strain of confronting the nature of Aston’s being, we are at last allowed the relief of laughter. But when Davies speaks, although his concerns seem much the same (the gas stove, blacks, shoes, etc) his continual reference to Aston compromise and complicate our response. At this point as subjective coefficient of guilt rises in us, deriving in part from our former complicity with Mick (now more evidently working on his strategy of expulsion) and in part from laughing at Aston’s expense. Whereas earlier Davies seemed self-determining and thus responsible for what he is, he now seems more like a plaything being used by Mick for certain questionable ends.
The serious and the comic are now much more, forcefully counter pointed. Mick’s dry-mock is still there (“You must come up and have a drink something. Listen to some Tchaikovsky” and Davies’s procrastination, although now invidiously ungrateful, is still lightened to pure comedy (“the only way to keep a pair of shoes on, if you haven’t got no laces, is to tighten the foot, see ?” But Davies’s response to Mick’s evocation of a penthouse ‘palace”-“What about me?”-gives voice to the inevitable question at the heart of the situation. Mick’s “All this junk here, it’s no good to anyone”, is much less casual than it seems. Davies as, part of the ‘junk”, will obviously have to go, and we recognise it.
Mick obliquely incites Davies’s verbal attack on Aston by giving voice to what the tramp has felt from the outset. Davies’s real feelings n surveying the attic are compromised by the fact that Aston has rescued him. As a consequence Davies says the opposite of what he feels:
DAVIES: This your room?
DAVIES: You got a good bit of stuff here. ASTON: Yes.
DAVIES: Must be worth a few bob, this…put it all together.
There’s enough of it.
ASTON: There’s a good bit of it, all right.
DAVIES: You sleep here, do you?
DAVIES: What, in that?
Davies must go, however plangent his appeal: “What am I going to do?…. Where am I going to go.” The pauses between each utterance are lengthened into the long silence of the final stage direction. Aston turns back to the window, remains still, his back to him, at the window, but we are faced with Davies’s concrete questioning presence. We are forced here to confront not only what laughter has created but also what laughter has suppressed. The repetitions of Davies language echo those moments of comedy which are now stifled by the specter of destitution. Daviess need for material items has created moments of high comedy, but the serious moral implications of such subsistence culminate in those questions. The material, social and cultural privileges that presuppose our presence in the theatre are indices of the totality of Davies’s deprivation. Throughout the play Davies has been the object of the solidarity of laughter, but now the audience itself is exposed in its own silence before him. The possibilities of food, shelter and warmth are now to be replaced by the possibilities of hunger, cold and exposure, intimation of which have been present all along (“I could have died on the road,” Davies says at one point. Was this the substance of his nightmares ?). The harsh regimen of the doss-house has been evoked earlier in Davies’s hurried attempt to forestall what he knows must happen as the rule of each daybreak: “Don’t you want me to get out….”