Pinter’s Opens in London

The Caretaker, Harold Pinter’s first widely acclaimed drama, established his career as one of the century’s leading playwrights.

Summary of Event

In early 1960, Harold Pinter was a young English playwright whose dramas The Room (pr. 1957, pb. 1960), The Birthday Party
Birthday Party, The (Pinter) (pr. 1958, pb. 1959), and The Dumb Waiter (pr. 1959 in German; pr., pb. 1960 in English) had met with mixed receptions. Although The Sunday Times’s drama critic Harold Hobson Hobson, Harold had championed Pinter’s works, other reviewers had been hostile; The Birthday Party had lasted only one week on the London stage. Pinter’s dramas, set in shabby, working-class surroundings and marked by long pauses between often terse and hesitant dialogue, reflected the influence of both absurdist literature and the “Angry Young Men” movement of 1950’s Britain. Observers remarked on the distinctive aura of menace that seemed to envelop the plays despite their banal settings, but neither critics nor audiences were enthusiastic. Caretaker, The (Pinter)
Theater;avant-garde[avant garde]
[kw]Pinter’s The Caretaker Opens in London (Apr. 27, 1960)[Pinters The Caretaker]
[kw]Caretaker Opens in London, Pinter’s The (Apr. 27, 1960)
Caretaker, The (Pinter)
Theater;avant-garde[avant garde]
[g]Europe;Apr. 27, 1960: Pinter’s The Caretaker Opens in London[06490]
[g]United Kingdom;Apr. 27, 1960: Pinter’s The Caretaker Opens in London[06490]
[c]Theater;Apr. 27, 1960: Pinter’s The Caretaker Opens in London[06490]
Pinter, Harold
Bates, Alan
Pleasence, Donald
Woodthorpe, Peter
McWhinnie, Donald[Macwhinnie, Donald]

The Caretaker (pr., pb. 1960) would change all that when it opened at London’s Arts Theatre on April 27, 1960. Pinter’s inspiration for the drama came from a conversation the author had shared with a British panhandler. The man and his milieu became the nucleus of the drama, a curious ménage à trois that relates to psychological and physical acts of violence that permeate humankind’s impulses for power and dominance. Pinter was quick to affirm that he followed no prescriptive ideology in writing his drama and that he was not a political theorist in any way. The characters presented, however, proclaim a disengagement that renders them ineffectual as they relate to the common occurrences of life. Brilliantly, Pinter projects T. S. Eliot’s image of the modern person “Like a patient etherized upon a table.”

Aston, one of the three major characters of the play, is a former mental patient whose paranoia caused his incarceration in a mental institution; he has received shock treatments that have left him generally ineffective. He is the caretaker of a flat owned by his brother Mick. Aston serves as a symbol of the sterility imposed by psychological victimization. The angst imposed by two world wars manifests itself significantly in Aston, whose life is played out among objects indicative of depersonalization and displacement: a leaking roof, a gas stove that does not work, a pond without fish, an electrical plug that needs mending, a vase of screws, paint buckets that stand idle, a statue of Buddha that Aston has acquired from a shopkeeper. He is constantly in the act of fixing or repairing something. The plug, on which he works incessantly, perhaps symbolizes his inadequacies and his inability to connect himself to life’s situations. He is isolated and remote, occupying a flat of which only one room is habitable.

Davies, the second character, is a bum whom Aston saves from a beating at a local pub and brings home. Davies has two identities, his true one, Mac Davies, and an assumed one, Bernard Jenkins. Davies cannot remember where he was born, and his identity is suffused with shadows of unreality. He is plagued by shoes that do not fit, and he repeatedly speaks of his need to visit Sidcup, a suburb of London with an army pay office where, Davies claims, he has left important papers. He makes vague references to the war as his point of demarcation from what society considers usual. He is full of bigotry and prejudice, referring pejoratively to blacks, Poles, Indians, and Greeks. Ironically, he calls them “aliens,” further heightening his own sense of alienation.

Davies remarks that he left his wife because he found a pile of her unwashed underclothing in the vegetable pan. He is fired from his job of cleaning a pub because he refuses to take a bucket of rubbish out back, a chore he believes to be outside his job description. He is quite discriminating; he asserts that he can drink his beer only from a thin glass, not the thick mug in which it is served. He complains about the heat, the noise, and the other conditions in the apartment, even though he is freeloading. He is, nevertheless, asked by both Aston and Mick to be caretaker of the building.

Mick, Aston’s brother, is the owner of a van, the flat, and his own business. Mick is aggressive; he forces Davies to the floor upon their first meeting. Mick’s interaction is the total projection of crass commercialism. He speaks to Davies of renting the flat to him, and his language is filled with the terminology of business. He speaks incessantly of insurance, shares, benefit schemes, banks, and so forth. Mick’s actions culminate when he smashes Aston’s Buddha (representing enlightenment). He is concerned only with building his business and protecting, increasing, and projecting his interests.

The play’s title speaks to the nature of the relationships in the drama, literally and symbolically. Aston asks Davies to be caretaker of the flat, as does Mick. Mick has also been Aston’s caretaker since Aston’s experience with psychological evaluation and treatment. All these characters, therefore, are victims who, in turn, try to victimize one another. Davies’s point of demarcation is his military service. He has become disoriented and fragmented as a result of this activity. His constant allusions to Sidcup, an army pay station where he says his papers and references are, reflect his purported desire to ascertain his identity; however, he finds excuses not to make his way there.

Aston reflects the plight of the individual who is denuded of identity through psychological evaluation and scientific experimentation. The sources of his victimization are others’ cruelties; his mother gave consent to the doctors at the psychiatric hospital for the treatment that has rendered him vague and dispossessed. His paranoia has its origins in some sort of persecution that is not specified, and he is reduced to listless wandering, even picking up and bringing home bums.

Harold Pinter.

(R. Jones)

The objects of the flat heighten and symbolize his emotional and physical sterility, painfully reflecting the plight of those displaced through labeling and archaic and primitive treatment. Thus, he is made caretaker of a flat filled with meaningless objects that symbolize modern humanity’s attempt to find meaning after scientific experimentation has displaced ingenuity and skill. The secondhand Buddha, a symbol of enlightenment and Aston’s single hope, is smashed by Mick. This icon, perhaps representative of regenerative impulses, perishes, as have humanity’s hopes for spirituality.

Mick embodies crass commercialism, the impulse to satisfy one’s sense of self through capital gain. He constantly refers to business, and his language reflects the primary emphasis of his thoughts and interests. His continual references to “rateable value,” insurance, interest, deposits, payments, bonus schemes, shares, benefits, compensation, comprehensive indemnity, and banking profoundly detail his obsession. His aggressive neuroses manifest themselves in interesting ways and contribute to his role not only as caretaker but also as one who seeks the comfort of a caretaker.

The Caretaker reflects many of the characteristics of the Theater of the Absurd Theater of the Absurd in its distortion of the characters, whose environments displace them even further because of the lack of attendant value judgments and meaningful interactions. More important, however, the play is a projection of modern humankind’s disintegration in the face of the increasing violence, both physical and psychological, of the modern world.

Pinter’s characters are prototypical in their interactions and their attempts to place themselves in a society that long ago relegated them to these acts of meaninglessness and futility. They cower, dispossessed, invested by powers outside themselves, reaping the interest of disassociation, displacement, and futility—a twentieth century pietà. Just as they are the perfect victims, so, too, do they become victimizers. Mick attempts to victimize Davies, who attempts to victimize Aston with threats of further shock treatments; Davies even threatens Aston with a knife. Thus, each character also illustrates the dysfunctional sterility of aggression.


The Caretaker brought Pinter the success that had hitherto eluded him. After receiving broadly favorable reviews, the production was moved to the Duchess Theatre in London’s West End in late May. The Evening Standard chose the play as the best London production of 1960; some critics went so far as to call The Caretaker the most important British drama since World War II. An American production opened in New York City in October of 1961 and also earned praise; a 1963 film version (retitled The Guest for American release) won prizes at film festivals in Berlin and Edinburgh.

The Caretaker inspired numerous interpretations from drama critics and academicians. The play was seen as an allegory of the relationship between humanity (Davies), God (Aston), and Satan (Mick); as a symbolic dramatization of Oedipal conflict; as a condemnation of twentieth century imperialism; and in numerous other ways. Puzzled critics attempted to classify the work as an experiment in such familiar avant-garde genres as the Theater of the Absurd and the Theater of Cruelty; some used the term “comedy of menace” to describe Pinter’s drama. At a loss for clearly appropriate labels for such a work, however, many commentators simply chose to refer to the author’s style as “Pinteresque.” Pinter steadfastly refused to comment on the many attempts to find meaning in the play, but some general truths are clear. Whatever its deeper meaning, The Caretaker presents twentieth century victims who have been rendered mentally, psychologically, and emotionally impotent by such dehumanizing processes as military activity, crass commercialism, and scientific experimentation.

The play definitively secured Pinter’s reputation. Such subsequent successes as The Homecoming
Homecoming, The (Pinter) (pr., pb. 1965) and Old Times (pr., pb. 1971) confirmed him as the leading British dramatist of his time, and he was soon in demand as a writer of radio, television, and film scripts. In 1966, he was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire; in 1967, a New York production of The Homecoming earned him both a Tony Award Tony Awards and a New York Drama Critics Circle Award New York Drama Critics Circle Awards .

Beginning with Landscape
Landscape (Pinter) (pb. 1968, pr. on radio 1968, pr. on stage 1969), Pinter abandoned the often squalid settings of his early plays to explore the lives of the middle and upper classes, but his work retained its characteristic pauses, naturalistic dialogue, and explorations of psychology. His effect on contemporary British drama has been considerable; the works of such younger playwrights as Tom Stoppard, John Orton, and Simon Gray contain unmistakable “Pinteresque” touches. Although Pinter’s influence stemmed largely from his early plays, he continued to produce acclaimed drama, a fact testified to by his 1980 receipt of a second New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Betrayal (pr., pb. 1978), and ultimately by his receipt of the Nobel Prize in Literature Nobel Prize in Literature;Harold Pinter[Pinter] in 2005. Caretaker, The (Pinter)
Theater;avant-garde[avant garde]

Further Reading

  • Batty, Mark. About Pinter: The Playwright and the Work. London: Faber and Faber, 2005. Collection of interviews with Pinter himself (conducted between 1959 and 2004), as well as with his colleagues and collaborators, who discuss him. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Burkman, Katherine H. The Dramatic World of Harold Pinter: Its Basis in Ritual. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1971. Interesting assessment of Pinter’s plays from the standpoint of myth and ritual. Burkman asserts that a scapegoat of ancient ritual or tragedy is the center of action of most Pinter plays. Provocative chapter on “Pinter in Production” that discusses technical aspects of the plays from the standpoint of producers and actors.
  • Esslin, Martin. The Peopled Wound: The Work of Harold Pinter. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1970. Biographical data of significance are presented in Esslin’s psychoanalytical approach to the subject matter and themes of Pinter’s plays. Good coverage of the plays, with interesting references to playwrights usually associated with the Theater of the Absurd. The weakness of the study is its almost overzealous attempt to find historical perspective.
  • Gabbard, Lucina Paquet. The Dream Structure of Pinter’s Plays. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1976. Fascinating explication of Pinter’s plays from the standpoint of Sigmund Freud’s work on dreams. Discusses plays in groups. The first group centers on fear and guilt, the second on the desire to kill, the third on the Oedipal wish, and a fourth on the fulfillment of the Oedipal fantasy.
  • Gale, Steven H. Butter’s Going Up: A Critical Analysis of Harold Pinter’s Plays. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1977. Sees Pinter’s childhood as a Jew in London during World War II and the fear generated by the situation as cause for the development of the plays, the key concept of which is menace or threat. Themes are love, loneliness, menace, communication, and verification. Strong chapter on technique, with emphasis on language and revision. Section on production data of the plays. Extensive bibliography.
  • Hinchliffe, Arnold P. Harold Pinter. Boston: Twayne, 1981. Overview of criticism and detailed plot summary of dramas. Uses clichés employed by earlier critics for categorization and explication—comedies of menace and comedies of manners. Good detail on Pinter as actor, director, and adapter. Cursory look at material of and about Pinter. Good for a quick overview.
  • Merritt, Susan Hollis. Pinter in Play. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1990. Brilliant assessment of Pinter criticism, with superb chapter on the bases for literary criticism. Definitive examination of material about Pinter, with provocative material on gender. The bibliography is extensive and comprehensive. Traces the shifting emphasis of Pinter critics with perceptive insight. Best scholarly approach to the playwright.
  • Quigley, Austin E. The Pinter Problem. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1975. Linguistic analysis of Pinter’s plays. Explores the origin of Pinter’s use of language in his menacing childhood experiences; sees his dialogue as the result of threats to identity.

“Angry Young Men” Express Working-Class Views

Waiting for Godot Expresses the Existential Theme of Absurdity

Osborne’s Look Back in Anger Opens in London

A Man for All Seasons Premieres

Esslin Publishes The Theatre of the Absurd

Weiss’s Absurdist Drama Marat/Sade Is Produced