You remind me of my uncle’s brother. He was always on the move, that man. Never without his passport. Has 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 marvelous 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.
I hope you slept well last night.
I’m becoming a bit of a Pinter fan. I avoided him for years, having it on good authority that he didn’t make any sense and that I wouldn’t like him. The first Pinter I saw was a production of two one-acts – The Collection and A Kind of Alaska - under the auspices of the Atlantic Theatre Company in New York, followed quickly by the magnificent production of The Homecoming that the Stratford Shakespeare Festival put on last summer in Stratford, Ontario (which I discussed here). And this past weekend I took in the current production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music of Pinter’s The Caretaker, starring Jonathan Pryce as the tramp, Jenkins (or Davies – the latter is his real name,the former merely assumed); Alan Cox as Aston, the older and milder of a pair of brothers; and Alex Hassell as the younger brother of the pair, Mick. So far, the streak is holding.
The plot of The Caretaker is simple, if (as they always say about Pinter) enigmatic. Aston, for reasons known only to him, brings home a tramp, saving him from a possible beating, and offers, even more bizarrely, to let him stay in his room. The room in question is bizarrely decrepit, filled with brac-a-brac and outright junk, covered in dust, without a functional kitchen; but initially it impresses the tramp as certainly superior to life on the road. Particularly given the pathetic state of his shoes. When Aston leaves the flat, Davies rummages through his things, looking for money, until he is accosted by Mick, who delivers the speech above, one among many that alternate with acts of violence (nearly breaking Davies’s arm) or kindness (giving him a cheese sandwich). Having now introduced us to all three participants, the drama puts them through their paces, such as they are. Davies gets comfortable – he’s offered the job of caretaker of the building by each brother separately at different points in the play – then grows cranky, complaining of drafts and of being woken from sleep (because he makes noises at night that wake Aston). He turns on his benefactor in favor of his younger and more commanding brother, eventually even trying to get Aston evicted, only to be evicted himself at the end of the play.
The play owes an obvious and enormous debt to Beckett, and to Godot specifically. It’s not just the presence of the tramp. It’s the fact that, though he acknowledges his shoes are shot, no other shoes fit properly, in his view. It’s the “papers” Davies has in Sidcup that he believes will solve his problems if only he can get down there (which we know he never will. It’s the weird, run-on speeches by Mick (such as the quote above), and the weird combination of sadism and tenderness he demonstrates toward both his brother and the tramp. It’s the bizarre, junk-filled room. It’s the profound sense of isolation that all three characters exhibit. At one point, appealing to Mick to, effectively, allow him to usurp Aston’s place, Davies says:
Couple of week ago . . . he sat there, he give me a long chat . . . about a couple of week ago. A long chat he give me. Since then he ain’t said hardly a word. He went on talking there . . . I don’t know what he was . . . he wasn’t looking at me, he wasn’t talking to me, he don’t care about me. He was talking to himself! That’s all he worries about.
He could be talking about himself, or about Mick, as easily as about Aston. The characters all talk, sometimes at great length, and they all relate to each other, sometimes with great pathos. But they do not talk to each other. Their speeches are solipsistic, relating only to themselves.
The speech Davies refers to, Aston’s “long chat,” is the least-Beckett-esque, and also, in my opinion, the weakest moment in the play, when Aston relates his experiences in a mental institution where he was treated with electro-shock therapy. This is the one point when the play feels a bit dated, and also the one point where it feels like Pinter is making a kind of direct appeal to the audience’s sympathy. I thought it was wholly unnecessary, and if anything detracted from the pathos of the sweet but lost Aston, harmlessly hoping to help somebody with his junk – find Davies a pair of shoes, give him a roof over his head – but accomplishing nothing in terms of building any kind of life for himself, living a life that, in truth, is only a little better than the tramp’s.
The speech that actually jumped out at me, and felt like it was giving me a key to the drama, was Mick’s speech quoted above. “My uncle’s brother” is a funny phrase. Your uncle is your father’s brother or your mother’s brother. His brother is, in turn, just another uncle. Unless he’s your father. Calling someone your “uncle’s brother” sounds like a roundabout, intentionally distancing way of calling him your father. Which is precisely what I thought Mick – and Pinter – was doing. I don’t think it’s an accident that we learn what their mother called their “uncle’s brother,” but not what their father called him. That, in fact, we hear about the mother a couple of other times in the play, but never about the father.
Pinter never works as a paint-by-numbers allegory – and thank God for that – but I did feel a bit of an allegory was opening up here, the tramp representing a kind of British past, the broken vessel of tradition and continuity, the two brothers, Mick and Aston, representing two different relations to that broken vessel, Aston collecting the broken bits of junk, Mick talking a big talk about clearing the junk out and renovating:
I’d have teal-blue, copper and parchment linoleum squares. I’d have those colours re-echoed in the walls. I’d offset the kitchen units with charcoal-grey worktops. Plenty of room for cupboards for the crockery. We’d have a small wall cupboard, a large wall cupboard, a corner wall cupboard with revolving shelves. You wouldn’t be short of cupboards. You could put the dining-room across the landing, see? Yes. Venetian blinds on the window, cork floor, cork tiles. You could have an off-white pile linen rug, a table in . . . in afromosia teak veneer, sideboard with matt black drawers, curved chairs with cushioned seats, armchairs win oatmeal tweed, a beech frame setee with a woven sea-grass seat, white-topped heat-resistant coffee table, white tile surround. Yes. Then the bedroom. What’s a bedroom? It’s a retreat. It’s a place to go for rest and peace. So you want quiet decoration. The lighting functional. Furniture . . . mahogany and rosewood. Deep azure-blue carpet, unglazed blue and white curtains, a bedspread with a pattern of small blue roses on a white ground, dressing-table with a lift-up top containing a plastic tray, table lamp of white raffia . . . [Mick sits up] it wouldn’t be a flat it’d be a palace.
Gentrification, the march of progress! I’m actually amazed Pinter wrote this in 1960; it sounds like something that should have been written in the Thatcher years.
Of course, Mick doesn’t do anything to bring this vision to reality. He seems to think that Davies, of all people, is the man to do it, an experienced interior decorator, as he puts it, a man of the world. There’s a longing expressed here, a longing for somebody who knows how to do things, how to make things, how to restore . . . something. Dare I say, a fallen seat of empire? Somebody who can replace the ineffectual Aston, who, wholly civilized, consumed, in fact, with the routines of civilization (putting on his tie and suspenders, suit and sweater vest every morning with precision), is good for nothing but puttering around in the junkheap left by a civilization fallen from its height.
Again, I don’t want to suggest a paint-by-numbers allegory is at work. But this reading did help me make sense of why Aston brings the tramp home – he’s another bit of English bric-a-brac – and why he brings him home an antique smoking jacket to wear. Why Mick wants Davies to be the caretaker of the flat, and why he can barely speak to his brother and but also can’t simply move on and renovate the place as he talks about. Mick’s paralyzed by the past as much as Aston is, just in a different way.
And Davies? Though he’s the funniest of the bunch – and this is a very funny play; I appreciate that people are playing Pinter for the laughs that plainly are there; I can’t imagine how awful he would be if done with lugubrious seriousness – Pryce is really playing the straight man, the (relatively) sane one trapped with a pair of lunatics. But he doesn’t belong. He has no place. He has no function. He isn’t, actually, an experienced interior decorator – he can’t actually do anything at all, not even the minimal task of watching the flat. “I ain’t never done no caretaking,” he admits.
What does his reverend age, the great and glorious history of the Empire, amount to if that’s the case?