The Caretaker - Premiere

Programme Cover

First presented by the Arts Theatre Club at the Arts Theatre, London on 27 April 1960 and transferred totheDuchess Theatre, London 30 May 1960

Mick - Alan Bates
Aston - Peter Woodthorpe
Davies - Donald Pleasance

Directed by Donald McWhinnie
Set and Lighting - Brian Currah


Through the looking-glass
Alan Pryce-Jones
For some time past the Royal Court Theatre has been undergoing the pains of labour. Eugene IonescoÝs most ambitious play, Rhinoceros, with Sir Laurence Olivier in the principal part, was being prepared by Orson Welles for what was evidently to be the chief theatrical event of the week. Simultaneously, at the Arts Theatre, Harold PinterÝs The Caretaker, with a cast of three, awakened (to judge by the general absence of critics on the first night) no particular anticipation. In the event, Rhinoceros proved a sad disappointment, and The Caretaker the most dazzling evening to reach the London theatre this year.


Peter Woodthorpe, Donald Pleasance amd Alan Bates

The two plays can be discussed together, since both inhabit that looking-glass world of which Ionesco is a prime inventor. Logic, in this world, is of the first importance: but it is likely to be logic upside down. Dreams merge with reality; talk has the zany destructiveness of the scorpion turning inwards upon itself. Under a surface of laughter, this is a tragic world, lonely and terrified, and its basic problem is one of individuality. How can we keep our interior castle inviolate?

In IonescoÝs play the inhabitants of a city turn one by one into rhinoceroses (incidentally the pedant in me revolted at the dreadful recurrence of an impossible ŰrhinoceroiÝ as the true scholarly plural). All but B╚renger, the drunken, unassertive little clerk whose playing, by Olivier, justifies the evening. In PinterÝs The Caretaker an elderly tramp is given the job of watching over a tumble-down house. The theme of the play is his attempt to keep a small flame of personal life burning through the inability to communicate with the two brothers who employ him. At the end of each play, the central character is left utterly alone, but while the climax of The Caretaker is a rending experience, that of Rhinoceros leaves me (at any rate) coldly admiring.
The fault is not IonescoÝs and it is certainly not OlivierÝs. I suspect Orson Welles, since the play deviates a long way from IonescoÝs original concept. Instead of taking place in the open air, the first scene has been transferred to a pub. This is because the play has beenŢ brought across the Channel to England, and apparently set in about 1912. Instead of playing it straight, the actors have been encouraged to play for easy laughs, and since most of them do not do this very well, they give an overall impression of amateur theatricals dressed up at the last minute from the acting box in the old nursery. Then, it is the method of Ionesco to employ very rapid, deliberately flat dialogue. This has been slowed down in translation and production, to the point where it becomes a drag on the imagination. There is one splendid moment, in the first scene, when two independent conversations are woven together with hilarious effect; otherwise, they language has throughout been reduced to total indistinction.

Peter Woodthorpe and Donald Pleasance

There remains the plot, the acting, and the moral. The plot simply will not go round four scenes without leaving a starvation corner. There are inventive incidentals. The television screen shows nothing but rhinocerotes (just that), the air resounds with roaring, someone about to turn into a rhinoceros absently picks a leaf off a plant and eats it. But without Olivier the production would fall to pieces before the end. He sustains it by a feat of abnegation. No little man was ever littler; for a considerable time he blacks himself out behind the stronger lights of Miles Malleson, Duncan Macrae (badly cast, incidentally) and Joan Plowright. But all to a purpose: the final tirade which ties all the ends of the play together comes with high effect. Had IonescoÝs intentions been carried out precisely, and had all the acting been on OlivierÝs level, the evening would not have left a rather uncomfortable impression of ŰfumisterieÝ behind it.
The Caretaker, on the other hand, is quite superbly acted and produced. Donald Pleasence, as the tramp, gives a performance which made the audience catch its breath; and he is magnificently supported by Alan Bated and Peter Woodthorpe. Throughout this play, there is scarcely a misplaced eyelid; and I trust anyone who responds to strict professionalism at the service of an excellent play will hurry to the Arts Theatre.
Harold Pinter has been accused of a negative approach to the drama; he has been called obscure ˝ not without reason ˝ and tantalising (vide my colleague Maurice RichardsonÝs remarks on page 19). His latest play is not obscure in the least; it is excitingly original, and manages not only to be exceptionally funny but also to touch the heart. It is set in one of the daunting rooms in which his private world revolves: a room with two sagging beds, an old gas-cooker, and a quantity of junk on the shelves. The owner is a tough guy, with plans to redecorate the house which he will never execute. His brother, a neat and buttoned-up young man, brings back a tramp to share his room. All that happens is that they talk, fail to communicate with one another, and break into moments of violence which reflect the despair of the world. I do not want to make this play sound glum or too consciously intellectual. It convulsed its audience, and sent them away thoughtful as well. It also showed Mr. Pinter as a master of silence. There are repeated moments of the utmost eloquence in which nothing happened except that Alan Bates moves his pupils or a handbag is silently thrown from one hand to another. I repeat, this play is an event.
The Observer April 1960

Donald Pleasance and Alan Bates

Things are Looking Up
Harold Hobson
Even the most robust of faith in the theatre must have been shaken by the futile impropriety, the misplaced ingenuity, the adolescent obsessions and the incompetent playing that have been thrust on us in several first nights. Happily, Harold PinterÝs The Caretaker, which J.W.Lambert highly praised on its production at the Arts, has now moved into the Duchess Theatre to reassure us. Witt, violent, written with an infallible ear for the rhythm of language, menacing and compassionate, The Caretaker is visibly the product of the same disturbing mind that produced the Birthday Party, which is now recognised to be one of the major plays of our time.
Like The Birthday Party, The Caretaker brings us an intruder. As in The Birthday Party, the man whose house is invaded is slow in mind and speech. He is often bewildered, and at moments he feels an intense fear. He is outrageously put upon, and the dirty, disreputable tramp to whom he shows many kindnesses treats them all with a rasping, voluble ingratitude. And yet ˝ this is the first remarkable achievement of Mr. Pinter in this play ˝ this man Aston, who is not only slow in thought, but also gentle, generous, and good-tempered, is quite extraordinarily formidable. All the firing, all the attacks, all the display, all the ruthlessness come from the other side; but, except for a single moment, there is never any doubt who holds the stronger hand.
In the writing of the character, and in its masterly, still playing by Peter Woodthorpe, there is a latent implacability so powerful and so quiet that to attempt to assail it is like driving oneÝs bare fist into a wall.
Aston is admirable, likeable, and without guile. All justice is on his side. The tramp Davies remains to the end what he is at the beginning ˝ an impostor, cruel, selfish, belligerent, and unscrupulous. Yet ˝ and here is Mr. PinterÝs second outstanding dramatic achievement in The Caretaker ˝ when the curtain falls on DaviesÝs weak surrender, it is with the tramp that our sympathy lies: and this without our liking and admiration for Aston being in any way diminished.

Programme Cover

A great deal of the credit for this is owing to the skill of the blustering pitiful ness of Donald Pleasances performance. But it is owing to the fact, also, that Mr. Pinter can look with equal insight into the hearts o f men who are on opposite sides. There is another character in The Caretaker. Mick, AstonÝs brother, is as swift as Aston is slow. He is perhaps less important than the other tow, but his part is the most brilliant. It is he who says the wittiest and most fanciful things. He is a dazzling exponent of the art of letting an imminent threat peep through the gaps in a garment of highly amusing intellectual inconsequence, and Alan Bates plays him with both physical and metal agility.
The third most striking thing in The Caretaker is AstonÝs long monologue in the second act. It is the very reverse of sensational, and large part of it consists of half sentences and even omissions. In delivering it Mr. Woodthorpe never raises his voice, but his variations in tone are of infinite subtlety. No one can claim to know the best things in the English theatre who has not heard Mr. Woodthorpe deliver this speech.
Of course the setting of The Caretaker is sordid. Of course nobody in it wears clothes that please the eye. Of course its story ˝ of how a good man shows charity, and then withdraws it ˝ would not look exciting if compressed into a postcard. But I have already seen The Caretaker twice, and I shall see it again at the first opportunity; and after that I shall see it a fourth time, and a fifth.
,The Sunday Times 5 June 1960

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