Aston's Motivations in his Relationship with Davies

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Numerous critics have said that much of the action of The Caretaker is dominated by the characters' struggle for power over one another. 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 continued, "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 a dominant theme in the play.

To suggest, however, as Billington and others have, that all of the characters are primarily motivated by power is an oversimplification of Pinter's play. It is true that such an assessment seems to apply to Davies. If he is to stay in the room and have Aston or Mick see to his needs and desires, he needs to gain control over them, even if he has to do so by making himself sometimes appear, not powerful, but needy. In essence, Davies cares for no one but himself and will do whatever he thinks will allow him to stay in the room. Mick, defending his territory against an intruder, attempts to control Davies primarily by physical and verbal violence. He has no real regard for the tramp. On the other hand, Mick does have at least some feeling, even if only a sense of obligation, for his brother and is, in fact, taking care of at least some of Aston's needs by allowing him to stay in the room. Although he expresses anger at his brother when he breaks the Buddha against the stove, although he tells Davies that Aston's trouble is that he does not want to work, Mick does defend Aston against Davies's cruel remarks—and he allows Aston to stay in the room. The desire for power motivates him but it is not his only motivation. Nonetheless, it does seem fair to consider the desire for power as a primary motivation for both Davies and Mick.

While Davies and Mick are dominated by their own drives for power, to suggest quite the same of Aston is to simplify his character as well as the play as a whole. Aston's attempts to care for Davies and to talk to him seem motivated, at least in part, by kindness and concern for the tramp. On the other hand, it is hard to see Aston as motivated entirely by altruism. Indeed, one could argue that Aston is kind to Davies because he wants to control him, because he wants to meet his own needs and thus is as motivated by power as are Davies and Mick. In truth, neither interpretation of Aston's character captures the whole man. Aston does make an effort to meet his own needs but not in a cynical search for power. What Aston truly desires throughout most of the play is real contact with another human being. It is only when his efforts at connection fail that Aston exerts simple power over Davies.

In Act I, after the opening scene in which Mick looks about the dismal room, then leaves, Aston comes onstage followed by Davies. Upon entering the room, Davies begins to speak of the encounter that led Aston to bring him home. Davies was involved in some sort of scuffle...

(This entire section contains 2043 words.)

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at the restaurant where he was working, and Aston saw a man "have a go’’ at Davies. In relating this incident, Davies complains a great deal about his treatment at the restaurant, claiming that he was not being treated according to his station, that he was told to do work he considered beneath him.

In spite of his concern with his place in the world, however, it is clear from Davies's clothes that he is a tramp and, whether such a viewpoint is moral or not, most so-called "respectable'' people would consider him beneath them. While many would feel sorry for someone in Davies's position, almost no one would actually take such a person home to care for him. Aston's bringing Davies home, therefore, seems an act of incredible kindness. Such kindness can also be seen to some extent in the way Aston and Davies converse. For the most part, Davies speaks and Aston listens, enduring the old man's complaints, never challenging even the most absurd of Davies's claims, such as his assertion that women have often asked him if he would like to have them look at his body. When Aston does speak to Davies, most of the time he asks questions about the old man's needs and desires.

As Act I continues, Aston makes a number of offers to Davies and these offers seem to escalate in extremity. He offers the tramp a cigarette, shoes, and money. He says he will retrieve the belongings Davies left in the restaurant. He offers to let Davies stay in his own room and even gives the tramp the keys to the house. By the end of the first act, Aston's offers of help become so extreme that they would seem incredible to most people. So unbelievable is Aston's kindness to Davies that it raises the question of motivation. It is hard to accept that a person could be that kind simply out a sense of responsibility towards one's fellow man.

There are, however, some hints that Aston may be acting from something other than kindness, may in fact be seeking to have Davies satisfy his own needs. In the first act, Aston twice tells Davies of incidents from his own life. First he tells Davies a simple story—that he went into a pub and ordered a Guinness, which was served to him in a thick mug. He tells Davies that he could not finish the Guinness because he can only drink out of a tin glass. Davies completely ignores Aston's story and immediately begins speaking about his own plans to go to Sidcup. Later, Aston tells Davies of his sitting in a cafe and speaking to a woman who, after a brief conversation, put her hand on his and asked if he would like her to look at his body. Davies responds first with disbelief, saying ‘‘Get out of it,’’ then goes on to say that women have often said the same thing to him, not quite ignoring Aston's remarks this time, but using Aston's experience simply as a means to boast about himself.

In both cases, there is no logical prelude to Aston's stories. They seem to come out of nowhere. The most likely interpretation seems to be that Aston simply wants someone to talk to, and this interpretation seems borne out in Aston's speech in the second act in which he tells of how he was put in a mental hospital after he ‘‘talked too much.’’ This suggests that Aston's kindness might stem from his own need to connect with a human being, any human being, even Davies. If this is the case, Davies offers no satisfaction to Aston, for the tramp is interested only in himself.

Toward the end of the first act and throughout most of the second, Aston begins to seem less motivated by simple kindness. His leaving of Davies alone in the house seems, on the face of it, an act of consideration and of trust but it is in fact somewhat ambiguous. Aston almost certainly knows that Mick may come into the house and that, if he does so, he will view Davies as an intruder. In a sense, Aston, while not at this point confronting Davies with his own power, leaves Davies in a position in which he may have to face the anger and power of Mick. Thus Aston exerts a sort of familial power over Davies.

After Mick's encounter with Davies and Aston's return to the room, Aston continues to show ambiguity in his treatment of Davies. When Mick keeps Davies's bag from him, Aston makes some attempt to get the bag back to him, but finally, he gives the bag to Mick, and it is Mick who returns it to Davies. Aston still attempts to acquire shoes for Davies, and he offers him the job of caretaker, but he complains that Davies makes noises when he sleeps. When Davies complains about the draft and rain from the open window, Aston asserts himself by telling Davies that he himself cannot sleep without the window being open.

Toward the end of the second act, though, Aston temporarily gives in to Davies on the matter of the window. He tells Davies he can "close it for the time being.’’ In his giving in to Davies in this way, Aston may be motivated by simple kindness, or he may seek to appease Davies so that he can again attempt to talk to the man, to engage him in some sort of relationship. Again, this can be interpreted as an effort to control Davies in order to meet his own needs.

At this point in the play, it is more difficult to believe that Aston acts only from kindness. It seems possible that Aston may truly be motivated by the desire to manipulate Davies in order to use him to satisfy his own need for contact. The situation becomes more complicated, however, at the end of Act II, when Aston, in a lengthy monologue, speaks to Davies about his mental troubles. Aston tells the story of his talking too much in the cafe, of his hallucinations, his commitment, his mother's betrayal, his experience of involuntary electroshock treatments. This monologue is like nothing else in the play. Aston tells the tramp a serious story about what is almost certainly the most painful experience of his life.

Aston seems again to want someone to listen to him, and one could again argue that he simply wants Davies to meet his own needs. Such a view, however, would be too simplistic. In telling this story to Davies, Aston takes a serious risk. The social stigma attached to those who have received such treatment in a mental hospital, particularly electroshock therapy, is strong, especially in the time in which Pinter is writing. When Aston tells Davies about his hospital experience, he makes himself extremely vulnerable to the tramp. He gives Davies ammunition to use against him. This is not a man in search of power but one who desperately seeks to make real human contact.

But Aston ultimately cannot make that contact with Davies. Pinter uses lighting to illustrate this. By the end of Aston's monologue, he alone can clearly be seen; Davies stands in the shadows. This shows that no connection is made. His attempt to connect with a human being leaves him vulnerable and alone.

In the final act, Davies exploits Aston's moment of honesty. He attempts to ally himself with Mick and against Aston. Aston, once again seeming to attempt an act of kindness, continues to seek shoes for Davies, but the tramp scorns Aston's efforts to help. In fact, Davies verbally assaults Aston, insulting him, accusing him of being insane, telling Aston that he could go back into the hospital, that he could receive electroshock treatments again. It is at this point that Aston finally tells Davies he has to leave. His attempts to be kind to Davies, to connect with him, have completely failed. Even when he tells Davies to leave, however, Aston again shows kindness, offering Davies money. But still he finally and literally turns his back on Davies as he looks out the window and waits for the tramp to leave.

While it is clear that Davies, with no place to go, is alone at the end of the play, what is often overlooked is the fact that Aston is also alone. He has shown kindness to Davies. He has desperately attempted to make real human contact with him. In the end, however, Aston's desire for connection cannot be saved. It is only power that Davies understands.

Source: Clare Cross, for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000.

A Naturalism of the Grotesque

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When Harold Pinter tells us that his plays contain no meaning outside of the material itself, I think we should believe him, giving thanks for his unusual, though somewhat self-incriminating, honesty. The Caretaker—being little more than the sum of its component parts and dramatic values—certainly seems totally free from either significance or coherence. In this, no doubt, it has something in common with real life. But while the work displays a surface painstakingly decorated with naturalistic details, these are so peculiarly selected that the effect is quite distorted: the play is a slice of life, sliced so arbitrarily that it has lost all resemblance to life. Because of the mystery surrounding Pinter's principles of selection, therefore, suspense is the play's greatest virtue. Pinter manipulates this with considerable skill, tantalizing us with the promise of some eventual explanation—but he stubbornly refuses to deliver. He refuses, in fact, to communicate with us at all. His language, while authentic colloquial speech, is stripped bare of reflective or conceptual thought, so that the play could be just as effectively performed in Finno-Ugric. You might say that The Caretaker approaches the condition of music—if you could conceive of music without much development, lyric quality, or thematic content. For the play is so scrupulously non-analytical—so carefully documented with concrete (though pointless) happenings, specific (though atypical) character details, and particularized (though unrecognizable) responses—that it goes full circle from its surface naturalism and ends up a total abstraction.

The basic anecdote is this: A slavish, peevish, vicious old down-and-out named Davies is offered lodging in a junk-filled room, part of a network of apartments waiting to be redecorated. His benefactor, the would-be decorator, is a listless, dull-witted chap named Aston, who has collected Davies in much the same impersonal way he has collected the other useless articles in the place. Aston gives Davies abed, money, shoes, clothes, and a caretaking job, which the derelict, consumed with defenses and prejudices, accepts or rejects with alternating gratitude and grumbles. Though they live in the same room and share a quality of spiritual paralysis (Aston wants but is unable to build a tool shed; Davies is desirous but incapable of going to Sidcup for his papers), they cannot connect. Nor do they connect with Aston's brother, Mick, a mordant young entrepreneur who hardly says a word to Aston and who relates to Davies mainly by baiting him with cruel practical jokes. Following Aston's confession that shock treatments had addled his brain (a confession alien to the style of the play), Davies tries to form an alliance with Mick to evict Aston from the room. Mick first encourages Davies' scheme; then, smashing his brother's statue of Buddha for emphasis, ridicules it. After a petty altercation between the two roommates over Davies' noisy sleeping habits—which climaxes when Davies, flourishing a knife, lets slip some unfortunate remarks about Aston's ‘‘stinking shed’’—Aston asks him to leave. Whimpering like a rebellious slave whipped into submission, Davies begs to be allowed to remain.

That, apart from a wealth of equally mystifying details and a few comic episodes, is the meat of the play; and I'm perspiring from the effort to extract this much coherence. One is forced to respect Pinter's command of the stage, since he has composed scenes of substantial theatrical force dominated by a compelling air of mystery, but his motive for writing the play escapes me. I would be delighted to be able to tell you that Pinter nurtures some of the seeds he plants in the work—that The Caretaker is about the spiritual vacancy of modern life, the inability of slave types to achieve dignity, or (favorite theme of "sensitive" contemporary playwrights) the failure of human beings to communicate with one another. But I cannot honestly conclude that it is about anything at all, other than itself. The situation, apparently ordinary, is so special, and the characters, apparently human, are so unrepresentative, that we are totally alienated from the events on the stage; and finally begin to regard these creatures as a bacteriologist might examine germ life on another planet.

For this reason, the present tendency to couple Pinter and Beckett is more misleading than it is illuminating. Pinter has obviously borrowed some of Beckett's techniques and conventions—the tramp figure, the immobility of the central characters, the repetitions in the dialogue, the occasional vaudeville stunts, the mixture of comedy and seriousness—but he has used them for totally different purposes. In Waiting for Godot, the action is metaphorical and universal; in The Caretaker, it is denotative and specific. Beckett's play reveals the feelings of a metaphysical poet about the quality of human existence. Pinter's, excluding both feeling and thought, bears almost no relation to any known form of human life, and is so impersonal it seems to have written itself. What Pinter has created, in short, is a naturalism of the grotesque wrapped around a core of abstraction—something less like Beckett than like Sherwood Anderson, though lacking the compassion of either.

The production takes full advantage of ample theatrical opportunities. Donald McWhinnie approaches the play, quite correctly, as if it were a perfectly conventional kitchen drama, adding a note of casual imperturbability with his direction which enhances the oddness. Brian Currah's setting—an artfully arranged hodgepodge of vacuum cleaners, lawn mowers, broken-down beds, paint buckets, and other articles of junk—provides the proper air of imprisonment. And the acting is further proof that the new English proletarian style is now more flexible than our own. Pinter, who writes succulent parts for actors, has created a really juicy character in Davies, excellently played by Donald Pleasence with a kind of shambling, sniveling, corrosive nasti-ness. But for me the best performance of the evening is contributed by Alan Bates as Mick, whose alternating cruelty, irony, wit, and injured innocence are etched with such assurance that one is almost convinced that there is something of consequence beneath the baffling exterior of the part.

But the surface refuses to budge. In The Caretaker, Pinter has gone beyond the most extreme theories of the most radical Existentialists: he has created a work in which existence not only precedes essence but thoroughly destroys it. Without some hint of the essential, all judgments must be relative, and a critic of the drama becomes as useless as those critics of Action painting who are given to analyzing their own subliminal responses to a work instead of the work itself. My subliminal response to Pinter's play was a growing irritation and boredom, somewhat mitigated by admiration for his redoubtable theatrical gifts. If these gifts can someday be combined with visionary power, beauty, heart, and mind, then we shall someday have a new dramatic artist and not just an abstract technician of striking scenes for actors.

Source: Robert Brustein, ‘‘A Naturalism of the Grotesque’’ in his Seasons of Discontent, Simon & Schuster, 1965, pp. 180-83.

Review of The Caretaker

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I was instantly fearful that The Caretaker would become popular for the wrong reasons. There was the chance, for instance, that it would be regarded as zany comedy, and forcibly laughed at. One response that is regularly made to contemporary plays of the profoundest despair is the tittering pretense that the author has carved his vast zero as a joke. This is not emptiness, the nervous laughter says, but an irresponsible playfulness. People are always mentioning the Marx brothers in connection with the "comedy" of carefully illustrated nothingness, as though we had once laughed at the Marx brothers because they struck us as irrational in the clinical sense.

Thus laughter was felt to be obligatory as three remarkable actors played out the following sequence in Harold Pinter's remarkable play. A filthy old ingrate who had been given shelter in a refuse-littered attic was offered a satchel by the vacant-eyed brother who had admitted him. Another brother, hostile for no known reason, intercepted the satchel each time it was presented. The satchel was thrust forward, snatched away, thrust forward, snatched away, thrust forward, snatched away, finally hurled to the floor in a burst of dust. The repeated gestures did have an echo of a vaudeville routine in which a chair was invariably whisked out from under the comedian as he was about to sit on it. But the routine we once laughed at had had a rationale: we understood the sequence of events, however unlikely or unlucky, that led to each experience of frustration. Here, deliberately, no causes were indicated. The bag was offered without charity and retrieved without reason. The old man's frustration was absolute; it was also—to him, as to us— incomprehensible. To laugh at it almost suggested malice. Or, at the least, the defensive sound of the giggle that is meant to ward off a threatened dissolution of the mind.

There was, further, a strong likelihood that The Caretaker would become necessary theatergoing merely because it was, as dramaturgy, novel, eccentric, hence a conversation piece for tired dinner tables. Three characters moved in and out of a domestic graveyard, most often with a sense of stealth, to sit and stare at one another, to recite unseeing monologues (on several occasions the listener on stage simply went to sleep, or otherwise abstracted himself), sometimes to engage in eye-to-eye conversation in which each participant pursued his own thoughts and failed to grasp the other's. All three were kept at arm's length from us, almost at species' length. The homeless old man was indecent at every turn of mind: he hesitated to use the toilet for fear the "blacks'' next door might have used it; he treated the benefits doled out to him with fastidious contempt (‘‘Them bastards at the monastery let me down’’); he threatened to usurp, with a snivel and a whine, the refuge he did not deserve. The brother who was his benefactor was mindless; doctors had done something to his brain. The brother who visited came to challenge, to sneer, to torment; he was the brazen, mesmerizing pseudo delinquent none of us understands. Such sympathy as stirred in us went, by inversion, to the disreputable vagrant; horror that he was, he was recognizably human and not a robot or a Martian. But in general we were in the company of the loathsome, the lamed, and the spiteful. It was lamentably easy for so defiant a play to become, through its very violation of our ordinary tastes and our ordinary expectations, simply fashionable.

The Caretaker merited, and I think required, another kind of attention. There were two levels on which it might have been attended to, one with deep communion and hence satisfaction, one with detached but genuine curiosity.

To have been deeply satisfied, perhaps even moved as one is moved by an instant recognition of a kindred soul, it would have been necessary to share Mr. Pinter's vision of the present state of man. This vision was not reduced to a series of editorial statements; it stood as a vision, as a fluid image, as an atmosphere. But what it saw and showed us was a world wholly opaque, wholly impermeable, and, beyond the fact that we could neither see into it nor probe it with our fingers, wholly hollow. Mr. Pinter had attempted to construct, and had succeeded in constructing, a poetry of the blind: the sensed experience of a man who has suddenly lost his sight and is now in an unfamiliar room. This man gropes his way, hesitantly, talking to himself to keep himself company. There are objects about, and they can be touched when they are stumbled over; though they can be vaguely identified by cautious exploration, they remain unfriendly. There are people about, and they can be called to: but what they say is misleading because the tone of voice is not supported by the expressiveness of a face. One can guess, and do the wrong thing. One can plead, and not know when the others present are exchanging cold glances. Man— and the grimy caretaker was most nearly man in the play—is lost, rejected by what he had thought were his own kind, ousted from what he had thought was his home. Appeal is at last impossible: there are no hearts or heads to be reached.

To say that this tense, concentrated, sustained position was superbly illustrated in performance is to say too little. The play itself, given its particular insight and its precisely appropriate method of articulating that insight, must be regarded as perfect. For it to have been perfectly satisfying in the theater, however, one would have had to be ready not only to attend closely but to nod firmly and say, ‘‘Yes, beyond doubt this is the life we live.’’

Short of such utter identification, there was a second level at which the play's fascination might have been honestly felt. A playgoer might have gone to the play without having yet surrendered all hope of speaking to his fellow men, without having concluded that all dialogue is a dialogue with the figures on Easter Island, without having agreed to regard the world about him as a disarray of ripped umbrellas, broken Buddhas, and empty picture frames. It is nonetheless true that a considerable segment of twentieth-century society has so come to see the neighborhood it inhabits. The antiworld is with us, late and soon; it faces us from the paintings on our walls no less than from the increasingly impotent people within our prosceniums. What exists—in the public reality or the private mind—had better be known, whether in detachment or in surrender, whether in cool appraisal or in assent. There may have been no better way of knowing it in the early sixties than through the already cool, ruthlessly framed, astringently orchestrated survey of the wreckage called The Caretaker.

Source: Walter Kerr, ‘‘The Caretaker'' in his The Theatre in Spite of Itself, Simon & Schuster, 1963, pp. 116-19.


Critical Overview