The initial reviews 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-symbolical-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. To discuss ‘meaning’ without taking this into account is to distort the play as a whole and devalue its achievement. The combination of the comic and the serious, laughter and silence, is often deeply disturbing for an audience: but only in confronting it can we begin to understand the play.
For one member of the audience, at least, the relationship between the comic and the serious elements was unacceptable. Leonard Russell, the Sunday Times book reviewer, recorded his impressions of a performance at the Duchess Theatre in an open letter to Harold Pinter: ‘I will go so far as to admit that I found it a strangely menacing and disturbing evening. It was also a highly puzzling evening; and here I refer not to the play but to the behaviour of the audience. On the evening I was present a large majority had no doubt at all that your special contribution to the theatre is to take a heart-breaking theme and treat it farcically. Gales of happy, persistent, and, it seemed to me, totally indiscriminate laughter greeted a play which I take to be, for all its funny moments, a tragic reading of life. May I ask this question—are you yourself happy with the atmosphere of rollicking good fun?’(The Sunday Times, Aug. 14. 1960. 21) Pinter’s reply, printed with this, is of such crucial importance for an understanding of the play, that I give it in full: ‘Your question is not an easy one to answer. Certainly I laughed myself while writing “The Caretaker,” but not all the time, not “indiscriminately.” An element of the absurd is, I think, one of the features of the play, but at the same time I did not intend it to be merely a laughable farce. If there hadn’t been other issues at stake the play would not have been written. Audience reaction can’t be regulated, and no one would want it to be; nor is it easy to analyse. But where the comic and tragic (for want of a better word) are closely interwoven, certain members of an audience will always give emphasis to the comic as opposed to the other, for by so doing they rationalize the other out of existence. On most evenings at the Duchess there is a sensible balance of laughter and silence. Where, though, this indiscriminate mirth is found, I feel it represents a cheerful patronage of the characters on the part of the merrymakers, and thus participation is avoided. This laughter is in fact a mode of precaution, a smoke screen, a refusal to accept what is happening as recognizable (which I think it is) and instead to view the actors (a) as actors always and not as characters and (b) as chimpanzees. From this kind of uneasy jollification I must, of course, dissociate myself, though I do think you were unfortunate in your choice of evening. As far as I’m concerned, ‘The Caretaker’ is funny, up to a point. Beyond that point it ceases to be funny, and it was because of that point that I wrote it.’ Pinter’s letter is an essential starting point for discussion of the play. Adequate criticism must be based on a recognition of both the comic and ‘tragic’ elements compounded in the parallel process of stage performance and audience response. Our 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.1 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.’ In order to do so, I want to focus not so much on the physical structure which is relatively straightforward but rather on the structure of feeling, the emotional rhythm of laughter and silence which culminates in the arrested tension of both.2 Rather than follow the tendency to generalize from paraphrase and thereby lose the essential drama, I wish to examine certain passages in order to bring out the deeply sensitive psychological insight that lies behind Pinter’s plain statement.
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.’3 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 recognized retrospectively. Mick’s silence and departure stays as a qualm, leaving a question behind the laughter that is immediate.
Aston’s opening invitation to Davies to ‘sit down’ is manifestly frustrated by the evident disorder of the attic. As Aston sorts out a chair, Davies breaks into the first of so many complaints: ‘Sit down? Huh . . . I haven’t had a good sit down . . . I haven’t had a proper sit down . . . well, I couldn’t tell you . . . Ten minutes off for a tea break in the middle of the night in that place and I couldn’t find a seat, not one. All them Greeks had it, Poles, Greeks, Blacks, the lot of them, all them aliens had it. And they had me working there . . . they had me working . . . All them Blacks had it, Blacks, Greeks, Poles, the lot of them, that’s what, doing me out of a seat, treating me like dirt. When he come at me tonight I told him.’ (pp. 7-8) Davies’s categorical discriminations (‘sit down . . . good sit down . . . proper sit down’) express the degree of deprivation that he feels he has suffered. His present gratitude is deflected and finally demolished by recrimination directed at the immediate past. An aggrieved sense of active and collective discourtesy by default is magnified to a major injustice; it is as if the merely adventitious revealed the latent injustice of victimization as a permanent condition of the world. As so often in comedy a mundane occurrence is given an unwarrantedly inflated significance. Davies’s bigotry, aggravated by constitutional self-righteous defensiveness, evidently distorts whatever really happened, and as a consequence we laugh rather than sympathize. The insistent repetitions inadvertently suggest that, on the one hand, it is both the multi-racial conditions of work and work itself that has pained Davies, and on the other that his appeal is in part determined by a bit of tobacco coming his way: as Aston begins to roll himself a cigarette. Davies watches him. (8). This initial comedy continues to develop in the ever widening gap between the intentions of Davies’s speech and its effect on the audience.
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.
Before taking a seat, winded by climbing the stairs, Davies must loosen himself up. He exclaims loudly, punches downward with closed fist crying ‘I could have got done in down there’ (8). There is no blood and Davies’s evidently exaggerated claim is undermined even further by comic colloquialism. The stance of retrospective pugilism suggests a purely mimetic valour. It is clear that the combination of self-assertion and self-deception creates for Davies a fiction to live by. But although the imperatives of his existence have confounded fiction and fact, the distinction is evident to the audience throughout. Aston immediately offers Davies a roll-up but he replies: ‘What? No, no, I never smoke a cigarette. . . . I’ll tell you what, though. I’ll have bit of that tobacco there for my pipe, if you like . . . That’s kind of you, mister. Just enough to fill my pipe, that’s all. I had a tin, only . . . only a while ago. But it was knocked off. It was knocked off on the Great West Road.’ (8) Davies’s refusal of the roll-up is reinforced by a categorical statement similar to the earlier example which expresses both the certainty of negative choice and yet an alternative possibility in the suggestion of a latent discrimination. His initial question—’What?’—is a response to Aston’s putative motive and means; Davies is rejecting what he feels may be charity but offering to accept Aston’s tobacco in terms of his own positive preference for the more socially acceptable pipe, all the time leaving the actual decision to Aston. Davies’s acknowledged indebtedness is modified by the subsequent etiquette. His self-conscious moderation forestalls any charge of excess, establishing his action as a gentlemanly custom rather than revealing a condition of permanent dependence. The closing anecdote is intended to alter the action of giving and receiving into a form of indirect restitution. A similar rationalization takes place later in the act when Davies accepts ‘a few bob’ from Aston: ‘Thank you, thank you, good luck. I just happen to find myself a bit short. You see, I got nothing for all that week’s work I did last week. That’s the position, that’s what it is.’(19) Though retrospective criticism of this nature articulates the ironies of Davies’s gesture and utterance, the immediacy of the audience’s experience registers this emotively, responding to the comic moment which is immediately fulfilled when Aston fails to corroborate Davies’s revision of his misfortune. ‘You heard me tell him, didn’t you?’ Davies asks. Aston replies ‘l saw him have a go at you,’ forcing him to attempt to draw sympathy by reference to age, ‘Go at me? You wouldn’t grumble. The filthy skate, an old man like me.’ But here Davies’s aggressive demotic ironically pre-empts the response he seeks, while the claim that breathlessly follows—‘I’ve had dinner with the best’—incites the broadest laughter with its blatant improbability. Aston, with a neutral imperturbability that promotes our laughter even further, refuses to comply and calmly repeats himself, ‘Yes, I saw him have a go at you.’ Davies’s only recourse is to recall his personal standards to bolster his present judgments: ‘All them toe-rags, mate, got the manners of pigs. I might have been on the road a few years but you can take it from me I’m clean. I keep myself up. That’s why I left my wife. Fortnight after I married her, no, not so much as that, no more than a week, I took the lid off a saucepan, you know what was in it? A pile of her underclothing, unwashed. The pan for vegetables, it was. The vegetable pan. That’s when I left her and I haven’t seen her since.’(p. 9) Davies has no apparent sense that such demonstrative probity is so farcically disproportionate that it cancels what it claims. Following Davies’s earlier revision of events, this exaggeration suggests that what we hear is a ludicrous distortion of whatever may have happened. The indiscriminately vulgar language of the opening—‘All them toe-rags, mate, got the manners of pigs’—burlesques the posture of arbiter of decorum which it protests. Immediately following this, Davies describes the row in the café. While claiming ‘proper respect’ due to ‘an old man,’ if a few years younger he would break in half ‘that Scotch git.’ All the socially regulative values Davies claims—dignity, respect, propriety, decorum—are confounded by the language and gesture of a caricatured ethic more appropriate to an anti-social ‘wild animal,’ as Mick later describes him. In short Davies’s comic character is founded on a total travesty of the mode of being to which he aspires. The pathos of his deprivation is made comic with the citation of a public lavatory attendant as a promotor of personal hygiene. Vast significance is given to the quotation —‘Shoes? It’s life and death to me, man.’ Davies’s scale of values inverts the normative values of the audience, accustomed to more abstract priorities, which remain unquestioned since Davies’s cannot be taken seriously. We ‘reason not the need’ when it is rendered in comic picaresque.
Elaborating on his need for footwear, Davies launches into the celebrated tale of the quest to the Luton monastery. A ‘bastard monk,’ the representative of a holy order, warns the suppliant, ‘If you don’t piss off . . . I’ll kick you all the way to the gate.’ As Davies expands on his misfortunes, mounting audience laughter accompanies each incident, culminating in applause at the close of the story. And with applause action is temporarily suspended. For a few crucial seconds the actor is divorced from the character as the audience celebrates a comic performance. The reality of whatever happened in Luton is subverted by characteristically jaundiced aggression which is transferred to the monk, diametrically evoking laughter rather than sympathy. Thereafter, Davies as a credible being struggles not only with Aston and Mick, but with the theatrically formalized predisposition of the audience, a predisposition to see Davies as a type, a brilliantly embodied ‘act,’ at best a tramp, but hardly an individual. Shortly after the Luton story, the anecdote of Sidcup and the ‘papers’ consolidates this.
Davies insists that the Sidcup papers ‘prove who I am . . . They tell you who I am’ (20). But we know he will never collect those chimerical documents of fifteen years ago. Lack of shoes, or bad weather, or something else will always intervene. His reassumption of a past bureaucratic identity could not alter what he is. It is being a tramp which has shaped his body and soul, and not the fact that he is called Bernard Jenkins rather than Mac Davies. Every utterance and every gesture he makes denote a class rather than an individual; dialect subsumes idiolect. Davies is finally no more than his language and appearance—and this is how Mick encounters him at the end of the first act.
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 like work.
Davies : Go on!
Mick : No, he just doesn’t like work, that’s his trouble.
Davies : Is that a fact?
Mick : It’s a terrible thing to have to say about your own brother.
Davies : Ay.
Mick : He’s just shy of it. Very shy of it.
Davies : I know that sort.
Mick : You know the type? (48)
At the end of Act I Mick immediately recognizes Davies’s work-shy ‘type,’ and his first words, ‘What’s the game?’ are really the later statement, ‘I know what you want’ (59), put in the form of a question.
It has been shown by Peter Davison4 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. At this point the verbal slapstick seems almost innocuous: ‘You remind me of my uncle’s brother. He was always on the move, that man. Never without his passport. Had an eye for the girls. Very much your build. Bit of an athlete. Long-jump specialist. He had a habit of demonstrating different run-ups in the drawing-room round about Christmas time. Had a penchant for nuts. That’s what it was. Nothing else but a penchant. Couldn’t eat enough of them. Peanuts, walnuts, Brazil nuts, monkey nuts, wouldn’t touch a piece of fruit cake. Had a marvellous stop-watch. Picked it up in Hong Kong. The day after they chucked him out of the Salvation Army. Used to go in number four for Beckenham Reserves. That was before he got his Gold Medal. Had a funny habit of carrying his fiddle on his back. Like a papoose. I think there was a bit of the Red Indian in him. To be honest, I’ve never made out how he came to be my uncle’s brother. I’ve often thought that maybe it was the other way round. I mean that my uncle was his brother and he was my uncle. But I never called him uncle. As a matter of fact I called him Sid. My mother called him Sid too. It was a funny business. Your spitting image he was. Married a Chinaman and went to Jamaica.’ (31) 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—I recognise 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 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 for 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, word: ‘Nutty? Who’s nutty? Pause Did you call my brother nutty? My brother.’ (73). 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 foreigness 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.’ (32) 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 neighbouring, localities linked by bus routes at the centre of which is the ‘bloke’s old mum . . . still living at the Angel.’ Mick evokes neighbourhood, pub and home—the self-advertisement of a particular kind of Londoner recognizing an outsider and reminding him of the fact.
By contrast Davies’s 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 bootmaker in Acton. He was a good mate to me.’ Whereas Mick’s two speeches are littered with familiar 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! (35)
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 . . .’ (35)—the serious force of his charges is tempered, firstly by his appropriation of Davies’s language (‘filthy skate,’ 9) and secondly, by an extended parody of the conditions of tenancy and purchase. Between an outline of costs and a 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.’ (35-6) 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 you 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 emphasises the fact by flicking Davies’s trousers in his face—‘several times.’ This is then followed, almost immediately, by one of the oldest ploys 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 game symbolizes 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 Brown5 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 places like the café and did talk to strangers again—namely Davies—and suggests that the impetus for this was twofold. 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 recognizes 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 in question here. Rather than a disinterested act deriving from an impulse or 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 contrast forcefully with Aston’s previous reticence. As conversational gambits they are disastrously bizarre; it is almost as if part of an interior monologue has suddenly come to the surface. The preoccupations 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 he needs wood. Saws are needed for the wood, a sawbench is needed for sawing, a shed is needed for a sawbench, a cleared garden 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. Its pathos is deepened by the laughter that has preceded it. 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 references to Aston compromise and complicate our response. At this point a 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 counterpointed. Mick’s dry-mock is still there (‘You must come up and have a drink sometime. Listen to some Tchaikovsky.’ ) and Davies’s procrastination, although now indiviously ungrateful, is still lightened by 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’(61), is much less casual than it seems. Davies, as part of the ‘junk,’ will obviously have to go, and we recognize 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 in 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?
Aston : Yes.
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?
Aston : Yes.
Davies : What, in that? (11)
Similarly, Mick’s pointed summary not only places Davies as part of the rubbish and simultaneously predisposes him to attack Aston, but gives utterance to that protracted stare at the opening of the play: ‘All this junk here, it’s no good to anyone. It’s just a lot of old iron, that’s all. Clobber. . .’ (61)
Davies echoes this in his viciously prolonged attack on Aston as an irresponsible lunatic, ‘. . . all this junk I got to sleep with . . . this lousy filthy hole’ (67). Davies’s contemptible vilification is emotionally complex for an audience. If it confirms our opinion of Davies’s opportunist nastiness and strengthens our impulse to reject him as wholly objectionable, at the same time it provides almost a release for our strained protective feelings towards Aston. The opening lines of the speech (66-7) continue Davies’s exaggerated sense of comic victimization made ludicrous by disproportionate expectation: ‘It’s getting so freezing in here I have to keep my trousers on to go to bed. I never done that before in my life. But that’s what I got to do here. Just because you won’t put in any bleeding heating!’ We may derive a temporary sense of relief in what follows by intellectually assessing the circularity of Davies’s charge—Aston is lunatic because he is irresponsible and irresponsible because he is a lunatic—and even maintain our distance when Davies claims the friendship and kindred opinion of Mick. But this relief is completely shattered as Davies sadistically baits Aston with the prospect of renewed electrical treatment. As the emotion rises both in Davies and the audience it is, paradoxically, both undercut and heightened by localized London slang ‘They’d take one look at all this junk I got to sleep with they’d know you were a creamer.’ Davies charges Aston with what, in all probability, has been levelled at him, ‘a creamer.’ It is almost funny as an unexpected synonym for the more current ‘nutcase,’ but at the same time more insidiously mocking for Aston, since Davies uses the highly specific argot of Aston’s own background. Yet even at this point we are tempted to laugh as Davies’s expression gets more and more Welsh in self-righteous anger: ‘You want me to do all the dirty work all up and down them stairs just so I can sleep in this lousy filthy hole every night? Not me, boy. Not for you, boy.’ But the idioms that provoke laughter also arrest it: ‘You’re up the creek! You’re half off!’ Our awareness of the possibility of this being true checks our natural tendency to respond humurously to figurative exaggeration. Davies’s subsequent question ‘Who ever saw you slip me a few bob?’ simultaneously recalls Aston’s kindness in doing just that, and predisposes the audience to take up a defensive position, on Aston’s behalf, against Davies’s final callousness—‘I never been inside a nuthouse!’ Even here, the colloquially derisive reduction makes us want to laugh, as we have laughed at the peremptory idiom of Mick’s attack on Davies. But as Davies draws his knife an ominous silence supervenes. This tableau recalls Davies’s ineptitude in threatening Mick earlier, and Aston finally breaks the tension with a delayed understatement that is totally deflating: ‘I think it’s about time you found somewhere else. I don’t think we’re hitting it off!’
This is precisely what Mick has been working towards. He could have thrown Davies out whenever he liked, but he has waited two weeks for Aston to see through Davies’s character. Mick has promoted the exposure in order that Aston will see and feel as he does. The usual interpretation of Mick and Aston’s relationship—that there is an unspoken bond of brotherly love between them—is really rather naive and sentimental. Mick smashes the Buddha to pieces out of a frustrated rage that derives from his suppressed acknowledgement of the truth of Davies’s previous accusation (‘He’s nutty’), and his subsequent passionate outburst is a wilful attempt to see Aston’s condition in terms of his failure to decorate the house, rather than in terms of what lies beneath it. To have thrown Davies out would have been a tacit admission that Aston was a lunatic to have brought him there in the first place. (Perhaps Davies wasn’t the first?).
In other words, Mick’s obligation to his brother is formal rather than affective. Mick’s character—tough, sardonic, worldly-wise—is similar to that of the people in the café and the factory who found Aston ‘funny’ and were instrumental in having him put away. Like his mother, and the doctor, Mick wants Aston to ‘live like the others’ (55). He understands Davies so well because they both have a kind of bureaucratic view of the world. They both see human activity in terms of status conferred by institutions that regulate society (social security. solicitors, etc.). Whereas the Buddha for Aston was an example of something ‘well made,’ for Mick it embodies all that he cannot face in his brother—the inscrutable, the passive, and the alien. But, in tarring over the roof Aston is learning to take care of himself, in Mick’s terms. At the opening of the play the suspended bucket focusses for Mick his brother’s condition as he understands it, and their only exchange in Act II concerns the problem of tarring over the leaking roof. As Act III opens, Davies contemplates Aston’s silence in terms of his single activity of doing the job (ironically this anticipates his own expulsion). This small task signalizes that Aston will comply with Mick’s view of things, a complicity dramatized by the ‘faint smile’ they exchange towards the close. Mick smiles in recognition of what he sees as his rightness in paying off Davies, and Aston smiles back conceding the fact—his last words to Davies were ‘Get your stuff.’
Davies must go, however plangent his appeal: ‘What am I going to do? . . . Where am I going to go?’ (77-8) 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’s language echo those moments of comedy which are now stifled by the spectre of destitution. Davies’s need for material items has created moments of high comedy, but the serious moral implications of such subsistence culminate in these 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, intimations 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 . . . ?’ (24)
The points where the laughter spasmodically ceases are obvious enough in the rhythm of the play. These dramatic moments correspond psychologically to the point in each of us where conflicting impulses of vestigial atavism and ostensible civility meet. We experience, in The caretaker, the Hobbesian triumph of superior laughter over inferior object and ludicrousness transforms the socially embarrassing. But beneath this is the self-protective impulse to remove what is psychologically painful. Just as children laugh at (and thus exorcise) the sight of physical deformity, so we react to Davies’s warped morality—all the time expecting him to ask for our compassion. But Davies remains intransigent; he does not offer us the adult compromise of compassion. In our laughter there stirs an uneasy atavism which grows in proportion as Davies’s nastiness increases. We cannot finally accept Davies on his own terms—as he is. He has to be either ‘killed off’ by our laughter, or transformed by the tragic dignity of self-awareness. Our emotional expectations are in part shaped by dramatic convention. Davies must be either contemptible or pitiful; a comic vice exposed in laughter, or, by token of some redemptive self-insight, an ultimately tragic figure. But he is actually neither, and this is what is almost too painful. In the theatre adult emotions are customarily channelled into a comforting species of self-protective compassion. Pinter refuses to provide this. Initially Pinter felt that there would have to be a death at the end of the play,6 but it is clear that this would have only provided another kind of emotional release—and evasion. Pinter not only dropped this notion but, in revision, chose to stress the ineluctable concrete actuality of Davies there before us7: resistant to allegory, abstraction, and moral formula. Here, in the long silence, no longer so much an audience as a disparate assembly of individuals which includes Davies, we are forced to confront the limits of our human response, the edges of emotional vulnerability, the barriers of social ordinance that join and divide us all. This is our ‘participation,’ and this is where the ‘point’ of laughter and silence, as Pinter’s letter reminds us, both begins and ends.
1 Interview with John Sherwood. BBC European
2 Cf. Bernard F. Dukore Where laughter stops: Pinter’s tragicomedy, Columbia and London, 1976, particularly pp. 25-31.
3 Second edition, revised, London, 1962. 7. All references to this edition unless otherwise stated.
4 ‘Contemporary drama and popular dramatic forms,’ in Aspects of drama and the theatre, Sydney, 1965. 160-66.
5 Theatre language, London, 1972. 67-8.
6 The point arose in several early interviews, firstly with Kenneth Tynan (BBC Home Service, 28.10.60) ‘ . . . the original idea when writing [The caretaker] was that I was going to end the play with a violent death of the tramp . . . It suddenly struck me that it wasn’t necessary.’
7 Pinter deleted several of the final exchanges between Davies and Aston, added pauses, and delayed Aston’s moving to the window and turning his back, thereby emphasizing Davies’s isolation and rejection. Cf. The caretaker, London, 1960. 79-82.