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London flat. One-room setting for the play’s entire three acts. The time setting is contemporary with the writing. The room is in a run-down house in a run-down area in the west side of London, several of whose districts are mentioned—Shepherd’s Bush, Camden Town, and Finsbury Park. The poor state of the room is instrumental to the plot. A bucket catches rainwater dripping through its leaking roof. The room has no washing or cooking facilities, and there is no heat. The only window is half-covered with a sack, letting in a draft and the rain.
Only Aston’s bed is visible; Davies’ bed is covered by mundane items that form a surreal collection when heaped together. They include a kitchen sink (a nod to the “kitchen-sink” realism of British playwrights of the period), a stepladder, a coal bucket, a lawn mower, a shopping trolley, boxes, and the drawers of a sideboard. All these items must be moved before Davies can sleep on his bed. Beside the bed is a gas stove. Though it is clearly not connected, Davies complains about its presence and the danger of fire or explosion.
Elsewhere in the room are a cupboard containing such items as a clothes horse upon which Davies sometimes hangs his trousers at night, piles of boxes and newspapers, and an electric toaster, which Aston tries to fix throughout the play.
There are other rooms “along the landing” that also belong to the brothers; they are apparently in even worse condition. Beyond the window, to the rear, is an overgrown garden for which Aston has plans—he wants to clear it and build a shed; however, it seems obvious that he never will.
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The years following victory in World War II were a time of hardship in Britain. A 1947 fuel crisis left many without heat, and food shortages resulted in the continuation of wartime rationing well into the late-1940s. These years also saw a serious housing shortage. During the war, when construction of housing had ceased, two hundred thousand houses were completely destroyed and half a million more required extensive repair. Some Britons saw hope for the future in socialism, and the late-1940s saw the development of the Welfare State, which placed responsibility for the relief of the poor on the government. In 1946, the National Insurance Act and the National Health Service Act were passed, providing insurance and medical care to the poor. The National Assistance Act was developed to provide a safety net for the poor. Many believed that new government policies would end poverty altogether.
Such optimistic assessments, however, were soon proven false. In addition, those who saw socialism as a solution to Britain's problems were disillusioned by the Soviet Union's 1956 invasion of Hungary, which showed that a socialist system could be as violent and corrupt as any other political system.
These years also saw a decline in Britain's status among nations. Previous generations had said that the sun would never set on the British empire, but now that empire was crumbling, with former colonies such as India gaining freedom from British rule. In 1956, the Suez crisis, in which Britain was condemned by the United Nations for its attempt to gain control of the Suez Canal in Egypt, resulted in international humiliation for the former empire. British troops were forced to withdraw, and the Prime Minister resigned over the incident.
In spite of political difficulties, however, the late-1950s saw some domestic economic recovery, and Britain saw the rise of a consumer culture focusing on the acquisition of material goods. Ownership of what were formerly luxury items, such as refrigerators, washing machines, and automobiles, rose significantly between 1953 and 1960. In addition, the development of television led to a new perceived need. Magazines enticed consumers to buy with photographs and descriptions of beautifully decorated homes. Not surprisingly, British citizens were exposed to more advertising than ever before. It is, in fact, the language of house and garden magazines and of advertisements that Mick uses when he describes for Davies his vision for the future of The Caretaker's squalid setting.
In the 1950s, treatment of the mentally ill was undergoing change, as the introduction of new psychiatric medications made it possible for patients to leave institutions and live in their communities. Nonetheless, many patients remained institutionalized and, although more humane than those of past eras, mental hospitals of the time were sometimes little better than warehouses for those whose illnesses had no real cure. In addition, in spite of advances in medications, little was known about the biological causes of severe mental illness, and such illnesses were still generally believed to have psychological bases. Psychiatrists often blamed the family unit for illnesses such as schizophrenia and manic-depressive disorder, and particular blame was laid at the feet of the mother and the ways in which she brought up her children.
As early as the sixteenth century, physicians had attempted to cure schizophrenia by inducing convulsions with camphor. In the 1930s, modern electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) was developed in Rome. In the 1950s, ECT was commonly used to treat depression and schizophrenia. At that time, however, treatments were often given without muscle relaxants, which prevent broken bones during seizures, or general anesthesia. In addition, the mentally ill had not yet benefited from the patients' rights movement of the 1960s, and so the involuntary ECT that Aston was subjected to was much more common than it is today.
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The Caretaker is set in a single room, a dismal space full of assorted junk and with one window half covered by a sack. Among the objects in the room are paint buckets, a lawn-mower, suitcases, a rolled-up carpet, a pile of old newspapers, and a statue of the Buddha atop a gas stove that does not work. A bucket, used to catch water from the leaking roof, hangs from the ceiling. The room has so much junk in it that it seems more a storage area than a place to live. The room stores not only useless junk but, metaphorically, useless people such as Aston, who can no longer have a real life in the outside world, and briefly Davies, who, in a sense, is just another useless thing that Aston has picked up and brought back to the room.
With its collection of junk, its leaky ceiling, and its window with a sack instead of curtains, the room is the antithesis of the kind pictured in home and garden magazines, which are parodied in a speech by Mick in Act III. In that speech, Mick describes for Davies his supposed plans for the room: "This room you could have as the kitchen ... I'd have teal-blue, copper and parchment linoleum squares .. . venetian blinds on the window, cork floor, cork tiles.’’ This exaggerated description has a comic effect but also serves to highlight the distance between the reality of the room and the assorted fantasies of Mick, Aston, and Davies. And no matter what dreams are spoken of in the play, the room is a constant reminder of harsh reality.
In past centuries, a comedy has been a play with a so-called ‘‘happy ending,’’ in which the main character's problems are resolved, the "good" are rewarded, and the "bad" are punished. Modern drama, however, has seen the development of a hybrid of tragedy and comedy, sometimes called tragicomedy, in which there are comic elements with dark undercurrents. The Caretaker is such a play.
In The Caretaker, Pinter uses numerous comic devices. The character Davies himself is a sort of stock figure from vaudeville, the tramp/clown, which was also used as a persona by actor Charley Chaplin. Similar to the tramp/clown in a vaudeville sketch, Davies provides a great deal of physical, slapstick humor. For instance, Davies removes his trousers to go to bed, and when Mick arrives he takes them, teasing the old man by flicking the trousers in his face, further emphasizing the connection to Vaudeville, in which a man is often stripped of his dignity when his pants fall down. Mick also takes Davies's backpack, which gets tossed around the room as Davies tries to retrieve it. And later, when Davies flees Mick's electrolux (vacuum), this scene of panic also connects him to the classic tramp/clown.
In addition to the physical comedy in the play, there is also a great deal of verbal comedy. In Davies's dialogue, the difference between reality and Davies's words often has a comic effect. ‘‘I've had dinner with the best,’’ he tells Aston. ‘‘I've eaten my dinner off the best of plates.’’ This highly doubtful statement from the tramp has a humorous effect, as does Davies's story of his experience at the monastery near Luton. In this story, Davies tells a monk, "I heard you got a stock of shoes here,'' but the monk replies, "Piss off.... If you don't piss off .. .I'll kick you all the way to the gate.'' This story has a comic effect because the monk's supposed response to Davies is so unexpected and because of the contrast between the monk's words, "Piss off,'' and his traditionally reserved and pious position.
Mick's interrogation of Davies, his quick questions and his claim that Davies represented himself as a professional interior decorator, are also humorous, again because of contrast—this time between the tramp Davies and the professional qualifications Mick describes.
Although there are many comic elements in The Caretaker, there is also a dark side to Pinter's play. The ending, in which Davies becomes a frightened old man with no place to go, creates a sense of pity for the tramp's condition. In the final scene, Davies is too pathetic to be funny; in fact, he almost becomes a tragic figure, and the tragedy of his situation is made more profound by the comedy that preceded it.
In literature, a symbol stands for something other than itself. Probably the most important symbol in The Caretaker is the Buddha that sits atop the gas stove. This Buddha is an object that Aston has picked up and brought back to the already cluttered room. In this sense, the Buddha resembles Davies, who can also be seen as something useless that Aston has picked up. The Buddha, therefore, could be a symbol of Davies.
It should be noted here, however, that there is not always a clear one-to-one correlation between a symbol and what it represents. A complex symbol can have a number of possible meanings, all of which can be joined together to create a greater whole. Mick's smashing of the Buddha in the third act, therefore, could have several interpretations. Whether the Buddha symbolizes Davies, is a representation of Aston's inner peace, or is just another item that Aston has brought back, Mick may destroy it because it represents his brother, whom he may even hate. The Buddha, however, as another piece of junk in a house that belongs to Mick, could also symbolize the life he leads. In that case, Mick may destroy the Buddha because of his frustration with his life as a whole. The Buddha could represent all of these things, or it could represent something else. Sometimes the success of a symbol lies in its ambiguity.
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1960: Many government programs for the assistance of the poor have been developed, but the efficacy of such programs begins to be called into question.
Today: Although government programs continue to help millions, many begin to doubt that the government is truly capable of offering real solutions to the problem of poverty. Focus on the assistance of the private sector grows, and there is a new emphasis on volunteerism.
1960: The domestic economy is recovering from its Postwar malaise, and the so-called "consumer culture'' grows. Television becomes popular, and people are exposed to more advertising than ever before.
Today: Emphasis on consumer acquisition continues as corporate power grows and advertising becomes even more pervasive (and persuasive).
1960: New medications begin to revolutionize treatment of the mentally ill, but psychologists and psychiatrists often blame severe illnesses such as schizophrenia and manic-depression on psychological factors.
Today: Scientific study has revealed a biological basis for major psychiatric illness, but the mentally ill and their families still face discrimination, as the social stigma of mental illness continues.
1960: Immigrants and members of minority groups face difficult times, much prejudicial treatment, and little legal protection.
Today: Members of minority groups are protected by law, and racism is generally socially unacceptable. The rise of the militant right and hate groups, however, present new threats to immigrants and people of color.
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The Caretaker was adapted as a film in 1964. This British production stars Alan Bates as Mick, Donald Pleasance as Davies, and Robert Shaw as Aston. The producer was Michael Birkett. The film also appeared under the title The Guest.
A made-for-television version was filmed and shown on the BBC in 1966. This version was directed by Clive Donner and starred Ian MacShane as Mick, John Rees as Aston, and Roy Dotrice as Davies.
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Page, Malcolm, compiler. File on Pinter, Methuen Drama, 1993, pp. 23-25.
Sakellaridou, Elizabeth. Pinter's Female Portraits: A Study of Female Characters in the Plays of Harold Pinter, Macmil-lan, 1988, pp. 127-29.
Billington, Michael. The Life and Work of Harold Pinter. Faber, 1996.
This is the first authorized biographical study of Pinter. Billington uses information gleaned from interviews with Pinter and his friends to illuminate the playwright's life and work.
Briggs, Asa. A Social History of England: From the Ice Age to the Channel Tunnel, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1994.
This book provides a careful examination of the history of British society and contains considerable material on Postwar Britain.
Diamond, Elin. Pinter's Comic Play, Associated UP, 1985.
Diamond focuses on the use of comedy in Pinter's major plays. This book includes a chapter on The Caretaker.
Dukore, Bernard F. Harold Pinter, Grove Press, 1982. This is a brief introduction to Pinter's major plays.
Scott, Michael, editor. Harold Pinter: The Birthday Party, The Caretaker, The Homecoming, Macmillan, 1986.
This book is a compilation of numerous reviews and essays on the works cited in the title.
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Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Views: Harold Pinter. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. An eclectic collection of essays by various critics. Comprehensive analyses of early and late writings and selected specific texts.
Burkman, Katherine H. The Dramatic World of Harold Pinter: Its Basis in Ritual. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1971. An analysis of Pinter’s work viewed through Freudian, Marxist, and myth analyses. Heavy on theory with solid literary analyses of individual plays.
Esslin, Martin. Pinter the Playwright. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann Educational Books, 1988. Precise and exhaustive critical study combining biographical details with critical analysis to identify sources of style and theme in Pinter’s work. Written with the assistance of Pinter, it includes discussion of previously unpublished material.
Gale, Steven H., ed. Harold Pinter: Critical Approaches. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1986. A collection of essays by various critics on a wide range of Pinter’s work. Places the material in the context of contemporary critical theories.
Merritt, Susan H. Pinter in Play: Critical Strategies and the Plays of Harold Pinter. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1990. Excellent discussion of current and past debates on critical theory as it relates to Pinter’s work. Provides scrupulous textual examination.