Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 984

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The first production of The Caretaker at the Arts Theatre in London on 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 London.'' 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 recognized as such by others; it received the Evening Standard Award for best play of 1960.

Many critics compared The Caretaker to Samuel Beckett's 1955 play Waiting for Godot, in which two tramps wait for a man they know only as Godot to arrive and give meaning and purpose to their lives. T. C. Worsley, in a 1960 review quoted by Scott, remarked,"Certainly we seem to be in Godot country,’’ then noted that Pinter's play seems more accessible: "We are in the Beckett climate, but not the Beckett fog where everything means something else.’’ Marowitz, who also pointed out the resemblance to Beckett's work, remarked that such a resemblance takes nothing away from Pinter: "The mark of Beckett on Pinter is dominantly stylistic; as for the subject matter, it may have a Beckettian tang to it, but the recipe is original.’’

Pinter's use of language in the play has also been the subject of much discussion. Playwright John Arden, also quoted by Scott, discussed language in terms of the play's "realism." According to Arden, previous realist playwrights wrote plays in which "a series of events were developed, connected by a strictly logical progression of fact, and we could be sure that anything done or said on the stage had its place in the concrete structure of the plot.’’ The dialogue in Pinter's work, however, reflects a new type of realism, meandering speech that shows "not merely what [the characters] would have said if the author thought it up for them, but what they actually did say.’’

An important aspect of Pinter's dialogue for Arden was "his expert use of 'casual' language and broken trains of thought,’’ which presents a more natural use of speech. For Marowitz, however, Pinter does not simply reflect real speech, but enhances it: ‘‘If Pinter uses tape-recorders to achieve such verisimilitude, he also edits his tapes poetically to avoid stale reproductions of life.''

Other critics, however, who agreed that the dialogue is realistic, found fault elsewhere. Kenneth Tynan, writing in 1960, and quoted in File on Pinter, commented on Pinter's realism. ‘‘Time and again,’’ Tynan wrote, ‘‘without the least departure from authenticity, Mr. Pinter exposes the vague, repetitive silliness of lower-class conversation.’’ Yet Tynan suggested a certain cruelty in the quality of Pinter's dialogue. ‘‘One laughs in recognition,’’ he wrote, ‘‘but one's laughter is tinged with snobbism.’’

Alan Brien, writing for the Spectator in 1960 (also quoted in File on Pinter) disagreed, arguing that Pinter's characters are like the members of the audience. The critic emphasized that this aspect is an improvement over Pinter's earlier plays: ‘‘His characters are now people rooted in a world of insurance stamps, and contemporary wallpaper, and mental asylums. They are still lost in mazes of self-deception, isolated behind barricades of private language, hungry at the smell of the next man's weakness—in other words, just like us.''

The Caretaker continues to be considered a classic of modern drama by most critics, but in recent years, some complaints about the play have been voiced. Kitty Mrosovsky, writing of a 1981 production and quoted in File on Pinter, once again compared the play to Waiting for Godot, but not favorably: ‘‘It has dated in a way that the earlier Waiting for Godot (1955) has not....Not that the tramps nowadays are any fewer, nor the derelict attics with their buckets to catch the drips. But the patina of social comment can almost be peeled off the play's core, leaving at most a wry proposition about the purgatory of sharing a bedroom with your neighbor.’’

Critic Elizabeth Sakellaridou, in her book Pinter's Female Portraits, faulted the play on feminist grounds. Sakellaridou noted that the women mentioned in the play never appear onstage, and so "they reflect the idiosyncrasies and moods of the three male characters, and therefore, they are highly subjective creations which can hardly be identified as real people.’’ Sakellaridou went on to suggest that the characterization of women in the play reflects a negative attitude in general on the part of Pinter. The text of the play, she noted, ‘‘reveals mistrust and fear, abuse and contempt for women.''

It is not only feminists who see global problems with Pinter's play. Bernard Levin, writing of a 1977 production (quoted in File on Pinter), found little redeeming value in the play at all and spoke of the "emptiness, weightlessness, and triviality'' of The Caretaker. "We come out exactly the same people as we were when we entered,’’ he continued. ‘‘We have been entertained ... we have not been bored. But we have advanced our understanding and our humanity not a whit.’’ Levin further suggested that the great praise the play has received has been undeserved: "The needle is sharp, the thread fine, the material sumptuous, the seamstress the best. But the Emperor's clothes do not exist.’’

By his reference to the traditional tale of the emperor's new clothes, Levin acknowledged the high esteem in which the play is held. In spite of such criticism as his, The Caretaker continues to inspire numerous revivals as well as much critical attention. Although the play is not without its detractors, most critics of modern drama consider The Caretaker a contemporary classic.

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