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
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
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.
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