onal, Challenging andDisturbing to the Values and Assumptions of An Audience. Discuss With close
The Caretaker, written by the British playwright Harold Pinter in the late
1950’s and early 1960’s disrupts the audiences perceptions of existence and
their understandings of it. The play deconstructs perceived notions and
conceptions of reality, and disturbs the audiences perception of their own
identity and place within a world which is primarily concerned with the search
and need for identity. Pinter was clearly influenced by the fashionable
philosophic review of human condition that was prominent in the 1950’s and
1960’s existentialism. The play attacks the notion that there are no absolute
truths or realities. Pinter is therefore concerned with what exists as unknown
and intangible to humanity. His theatre interrogates the truth of nature and
realities of language and demonstrates that much of what the audience regards as
fact is fiction as he explores the uncertainty of human existence.
When an audience of the 1960’s went to the theatre, it can generally be assumed
that they had preconceived ideas about what they expected and what they are
going to gain from the theatrical experience. The traditional attitudes towards
theatre and the conventions of realist drama are disrupted by Pinter. This
confronts the assumptions and values of the audience, an experience which would
be disconcerting and frightening to many.
Pinter divorces and exposes society’s codes, institutions and human relations.
Throughout the play the audience is rarely comfortable. This disruption is
established from the outset of the play when Mick, a character who at this stage
of the play the audience knows nothing about, sits on the bed and stares at the
audience in silence for 30 seconds’. Traditionally in realist drama such as
Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler characters use simple exposition through language
and non-verbal elements to let the audience in’ and enlighten them on what is
happening on the stage and the results and reasons for and behind actions.
Pinter disrupts this tradition and this in itself would have been a disturbing
phenomena to the conservative audiences of post-war Britain. Mick’s arrival on
stage generates unease within the audience and the tension would only increase
as Pinter provides the audience with no explanation for him being there. Mick
leaves the stage in a state of maintained silence, hence the first images
presented in the play confront many of the assumptions of a traditional
Mick is alone in the room, sitting on the bed. He wears a leather jacket He
slowly looks about the room, looking at each object in turn. He looks up at the
ceiling, and stares at the bucket Silence for thirty seconds. Mick turns his
head. He stands, moves silently to the door, goes out, and closes the door
It is not until the Act two that this character becomes known to the audience as
Mick. This deferral of information is quite confrontational as it opposes
accepted and naturalised preconceptions of power and right. Mick’s position on
the bed and his costuming – wearing a leather jacket places him in the
traditionally accepted position of power. However this idea is problematised
when Mick leaves the room and Aston enters with the key, thus demonstrating the
illusory and ambiguous nature of power. Mick not re-entering until later in the
play confronts traditional notion that as he was introduced first, he is in a
position of power. The opening scene defamiliarises the Audience with
traditional notions of power and establishes a precedent for the remainder of
Pinter does not adhere to the accepted use of dramatic conventions. There is no
traditional relation of character histories within the opening scenes and lack
of revelation is maintained throughout the play as relatively little is exposed
about the characters backgrounds. This makes events within the room conditional
phenomena, which are dependent on the individuals involved and what the audience
is able to interpret.
Pinter denies meaning in traditional places of discovery and appears to provide
it by means and in situations that are not socially acceptable or considered as
being the norm. An example of this is the obvious exposition in Aston’s long
monologue about his time within a mental institution. The discussion of such
topics with practically a complete stranger and in social conversation
definitely oversteps the mark of social acceptability. The discussion of such
topics is very in your face’ and would be very disturbing and confrontational
to the original audience and modern audiences.
Pinter is able to create realisation of the inadequacies of the rules that
govern polite behaviour. This monologue disrupts the traditional notions of
good’ and evil’, and in effect reverses these roles. Within this speech, Aston
presents a doctor in negative images, and this figure who is traditionally seen
as the wielder of power, status and security is presented as an repressive agent
of an oppressive institution who uses physical and brutal means to deal with
patients’. The affirmed ideas of hospitals being a place of safety and refuge,
and doctors as good’ is also deconstructed by Pinter. Aston’s monologue serves
to shock the audience as he talks about something that the conservative society
was not open with, oversteps the mark of acceptability. Hence the audience would
have been confronted with ideas that were previously ignored or swept under the
carpet’, ideas that to many would be quite disturbing;
ASTON: Then one day they took me to a hospital, right outside London. They got
me there. I didn’t want to go. Anyway I tried to get out quite a few time. But
it wasn’t very easy. They asked me questions, in there. Got me in and asked me
all sorts of questions. Well, I told them when they wanted to know what my
thoughts were. Hmmnn. Then one day this man doctor, I suppose the head one
he was quite a man of distinction.
Aston’s monologue also disrupts the audiences concept of civil rights. In a
democratic nation it is generally expected that what people are thinking is
their right. However this passage suggests that this notion is not true as Aston
was forced to reveal his thoughts. This is a very disturbing idea, as it
demonstrates that powerful institutions are able to force individuals into
submission and minimise their individuality. Especially after World War Two the
presentation of such ideas would be particularly disturbing as after this war
the rights of a individual were strongly valued to a greater extent to ever
The Caretaker discusses the illusory nature of security and challenges the
audiences traditional notions of safety and the home as a place of refuge.
Davies refusal to be caretaker because he could be buggered as easy as that’ if
he opened the door is clearly juxtaposed with the scene were Davies is pursued
by an electrolux controlled by Mick. The original Audiences of the late 1950’s
and 1960’s would have been only too well aware of the terror and fear that was
generated by the knock at the door, because of the possibility of bearing bad
news as a result of World War Two. Hence this idea of the home as not being a
secure refuge may have been very disturbing to the audiences of this time, and
this coupled with the idea that the apparently mundane holds elements of power
and hazard would have threatened many audiences values and assumptions;
ASTON: You see, what we could do, we could I could fit a bell at the bottom,
outside the front door, with “Caretaker” on it. And you could answer any queries.
DAVIES: Oh, I don’t know about that.
ASTON: Why not?
DAVIES: Well, I mean, you don’t know who might come up them front steps, do you?
I got to be a bit careful
A few minutes later
Suddenly the electrolux starts to hum. A figure moves with it, guiding it. The
nozzle moves along the floor after DAVIES, who skips, dives away from it and
Before Pinter and other existential playwrights, language was used primarily to
provide the audience with a means of understanding, by which they were able to
come away with some knowledge and insight at the end of the play. Within The
Caretaker, language is not used in this way, instead its use is extended to
being a weapon and a form of interrogation, not only of characters within the
play but also to interrogate the values of the largely conservative post-war
Britain. It exposes the use of our language to construct fictions about our
lives and for the purpose of self-deception. The play produces a loss of faith
in language to unproblematically represent realities in the world and a loss of
faith in humanity to know what reality is.
The constant silences and pauses within characters conversation makes clear the
sub-text of all human interaction. Pinter himself said that one way of looking
at speech is to say it is a constant stratagem to cover silence’ this view and
the presentation of this view within the play would be very disturbing to an
audience, as it disrupts the traditional notions that language, the basis of all
human interaction is one-layered and can be defined, classified and understood.
The speech patterns of characters within The Caretaker helps to present the
existential viewpoint of problems of identity and classification. Davies’
frequent rhetorical questions pose the key existential questions of the
uncertainty of existence. The character of Mick does not subscribe to society’s
conventional codes. His verbal gymnastics and the punctuation of verbal
interrogation with polite social conversation decontextualises ordinary
conversation. After attacking Davies, Mick says;
MICK: You sleep here last night?
MICK: Sleep Well?
MICK: I’m awfully glad. It’s awfully nice to meet you.
Pinter uses language as a shield, to mask truths and present perceived realities
and to evade or disclose revelation. Traditionally language was not used in such
ways and the deviation from the traditional and conservative by Pinter creates
the need within the audience to reassess and reposition themselves in terms of
the language that they use and the meanings it does or can possibly generate.
Action is frequently deferred within the play, and at the end of The Caretaker
there is no resolution or revelation and instead the audience is left with
limited insight and knowledge. Instead existence has been problematised, leaving
many of the audience disturbed and unsure of their own identity and the
structure of society. This deferral of action is primarily indicated by Davies
and Aston. The prime example of this is in Davies constant references to his
planned trip to Sidcup and in Aston’s references to the shed that he is planning
to build. Through the representation of these possible future activities, it
appears that it gives purpose to their current actions and to some extent a
reason for living. It allows these characters to suggest that they are in fact
worthwhile human beings with a purpose and a life’. Pinter suggests through
this deferral of actions that people’s lives hold no worthwhile meaning and
ultimately there is nothing gained at the point of death.
The Caretaker is a subversive play that demythologises many of an audiences
assumptions and values. Pinter makes the audience experience paranoia and
feelings of menace and by disrupting conventions of social behaviour and
ignoring traditional dramatic realist’ protocol, Pinter confronts and
challenges the values and assumptions of an audience. He successfully
deconstructs notions of power and security, and problematises the conservative
belief that there are in fact absolute truths and realities.