Pinter’s second full-length play, The Caretaker, opened in London in 1960 and, after a twelve-month run, moved to Broadway, where it was acclaimed as a critical, if not commercial, success. The Caretaker has been described as Pinter’s most naturalistic play. The British theater critic Kenneth Tynan called it “a play about people,” which, in Pinter’s case, marked a significant turn in his approach to theater. His early work, such as The Room (1957) and The Dumb Waiter (1959), was laden with symbolism and was heavily influenced by the absurdist theater of Irish playwright Samuel Beckett and Russian-born French playwright Eugène Ionesco. In The Caretaker, however, Pinter eschews latent meanings and focuses instead on the lives of the three characters, presenting the action realistically and in a naturalistic fashion. The setting, a cluttered room, has no overt symbolic significance. It is, as is often the case in Pinter’s plays, a realistic vision of isolation and withdrawal. Nor does Pinter force any allegorical message into the story. The characters are readily identifiable as local people in ordinary circumstances.
Nevertheless, the play is anything but conventional. The characters seem unfinished, indeterminate, with no stable, verifiable stake in life. Davies, an inveterate liar, claims he has “papers” in Sidcup that will establish his identity, but it is never made clear exactly who he is, where he has been, or what the papers in Sidcup would prove. Aston, the benevolent brother who befriends Davies, recites a poetic soliloquy that describes his incarceration and treatment in a mental institution, but why he was committed is never established. He says only that, at some point in his life, he saw things too clearly and talked too much where he worked. His brother, Mick, who is more hostile to Davies, seems to improvise his past, whimsically concocting stories that confuse Davies while providing no real information regarding his identity. Their plans about the future are especially vague. Davies hopes to get his papers from Sidcup but makes no real effort to go. Aston hopes to build a shed, but the idea sounds more like a pipe dream than any project he could actually complete. Mick mentions several projects involving renovation and a van, but he is never specific; when he offers details, no conclusions can be drawn from what he says.
Another characteristically unconventional tactic Pinter uses in The Caretaker , giving it a quality of uncertainty that is a trademark of his plays, is the way the meager plot belies the psychological complexities of the characters as they strive to discover and maintain their separate identities. Aston finds Davies one night after the homeless tramp has been fired from his job and offers to share his living quarters with him. Davies is a self-righteous bigot, a cantankerous reprobate, ungrateful, untrustworthy, and exceedingly selfish. Aston, who is laconic, withdrawn, and passive to a fault, overlooks the old man’s negative traits and tries, inexplicably, to make him comfortable, offering him money, a bed, and a key to the house. As soon as Aston leaves the room, however, Davies is assaulted by Mick, who was trying to develop Aston’s interest in some projects, hoping to help him adjust after his treatment at the mental institution. Mick sees Davies as a manipulator trying to take advantage of Aston’s condition. He immediately engages Davies in a series of verbal encounters that serve to disorient the old man and to protect Aston, realizing that Aston must reject Davies voluntarily to assure himself that he can deal independently with people and situations in his life. In the end, after talk of Davies...
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becoming “caretaker” of the property, Aston sees through the tramp’s machinations and tells him to leave.
The irony in the title of The Caretaker evolves from Davies’ being offered a job as caretaker when, in fact, he is capable neither of caring for himself nor of expressing care for others. It is his rejection of basic human kindness, his need to manipulate instead of trust, and his choice of lies over honesty that finally result in his being rejected by the brothers. Cynically, the play suggests that the innocents of the world are at risk and that to survive without being threatened one must develop the defensive tactics that Aston is still learning, but that Mick has already mastered.