By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The Caretaker was Harold Pinter’s first successful play, first staged in 1960 in London. The play is a subtle exploration of madness, power, and the inertia at the core of many people’s lives. But because The Caretaker is such a subtle piece of theatre, it might be worth recapping the plot of the play (if we can call it a ‘plot’ as such) before proceeding to an analysis of its themes.
The Caretaker: summary
There are just three characters in The Caretaker: Mick, his older brother Aston, and a homeless man named Davies (who also goes by the name Jenkins).
Before the play begins, Aston intervened and rescued Davies from a brawl, and has brought him back to Mick’s flat (where Aston is also living) so he has somewhere to stay for the night. Davies makes a number of critical comments about the state of the flat, which is being renovated. He also says that he needs a good pair of shoes so he can go to Sidcup and retrieve his papers, as he is known under the name Bernard Jenkins but his real name is, in fact, Mac Davies.
Next morning, Aston complains that Davies was making a lot of noise during the night, muttering in his sleep. Davies tries to blame the noise on the foreign neighbours, making a racist comment. Aston leaves Davies with a key while he heads out, and while he’s alone in the flat, Davies rummages through Aston’s possessions.
When Mick arrives home, he thinks Davies has broken in. But Aston comes back with Davies’ bag and explains who Davies is. The three of them engage in a comic tussle over Davies’ bag. Aston also tells Davies that Mick is his brother; Aston is staying with him as he is renovating the house. Aston offers Davies the job of caretaker of the house, but Davies says he’ll have to think about it.
Mick later offers Davies the same job, but again, Davies plays for time, not wanting to accept the job yet. Mick also starts to open up to Davies about his brother. The next day, as Aston is talking to Davies, we find out that Aston has had electric shock therapy for mental illness (he was having hallucinations). The therapy made him unwell.
Two weeks pass. Davies is still at the house, and we find Mick outlining his plans for its renovations. Davies, who keeps talking about needing to go down to Sidcup to get his papers, is presented with some new shoes. When Davies makes his usual noises at night, Aston wakes him, only for Davies to threaten him with a knife and deny that he’s been inside a ‘nuthouse’ or insane asylum. Aston tells him to leave, but Davies says he is there to help Mick with the house.
The next day, when Davies makes a disparaging remark about Aston’s sanity, Mick turns on him. Mick then leaves, and Davies pleads with Aston to allow him to stay at the house.
The Caretaker: analysis
The Caretaker, Harold Pinter’s first successful play (his earlier play The Birthday Party had premiered to harsh critical reviews two years earlier), was produced in 1960 and was an instant success, with its admirers including Noel Coward and Terence Rattigan. It is appropriate that the play premiered in 1960, since it might be viewed as a bridge between the absurdism of 1950s theatre (most famously embodied by Samuel Beckett) and the minutely observed domestic situations of the plays of Joe Orton from the early to mid-1960s.
There are many absurdist elements to The Caretaker. For instance, there is Davies’ constant insistence that he needs to get to Sidcup; like Vladimir and Estragon (who are also, like Davies, often played as vagrants) from Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, who appear to spend day after day waiting on a road for a man named Godot to show up (spoiler: he never does), he is trapped in a futile and repetitive task which will never be completed.
The Theatre of the Absurd developed in the 1950s, largely in response to the horrors of the Second World War: after such atrocities, theatre sought new, indirect ways to deal with the brutal and often nonsensical acts that human beings can be capable of. This often involves an exaggerated focus on something very small – such as Davies’ bag in The Caretaker – for comic effect.
Repetition and futility are also key elements, as observed above – and the fact that the characters in The Caretaker don’t really go anywhere, or do anything of any real consequence, marks the play as absurdist.
Curiously, Pinter initially planned to have Davies violently murdered at the end of the play, but the more low-key ending more brilliantly captures the sense of going nowhere fast that all three characters in The Caretaker embody: Davies will never get to Sidcup or get the settled life he needs, Aston will never get over the damage done by his electric shock therapy, and Mick’s house may never be fully renovated.
The two key elements of The Caretaker in terms of character are the relationship (and power dynamic) between the two brothers, Mick and Aston, and the hypocritical and self-destructive personality of Davies. Having been shown some charity by Aston, who takes him back to the flat, he wastes no time in criticising it.
He is (twice) offered work as the titular ‘caretaker’ of the flat, by both brothers, but on both occasions he demurs, appearing to be as workshy as Aston (whom he accuses of not liking work).
His reasons for doing so – the idea that if he became Caretaker someone might track him down, when he’s meant to be in hiding under an assumed name – are tenuous at best. He makes racist comments about the noise from the neighbours to conceal the fact that the noise was actually made by himself.
In this connection, Aston is sharply contrasted with Davies: despite his troubled past, and the ‘therapy’ that has left him with permanent brain damage, he wishes to help a down-and-out man in need of support. Davies, however, responds with ingratitude, and (deludedly) thinks that Sidcup is the answer to all his problems: going to Sidcup to attain the official records which determine his true identity will, he believes, set him back on the right track.
Another contrast is that, whereas Aston confides in Davies, telling him the difficult story of his electro-convulsive therapy, Davies avoids telling Aston about his own past, inventing some details and evading others.
Despite these flaws, an argument can be made that Davies provides a useful function for the two brothers, bringing them closer together at a time when, it is implied, they had become somewhat estranged (probably owing to the controversial therapy Mick had made his brother undergo).
Although he achieves this vague reconciliation between the two brothers by accident rather than intent, Davies is the catalyst which helps Mick and Aston, indirectly, to face up to their conflicted recent past and to effect a rapprochement, of sorts. Even if he doesn’t want the job, Davies acts as a kind of ‘caretaker’ of the bond between the two brothers.