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The Caretaker, Citizens Theatre

Posted: October 27th, 2008, by Stan Tontas

If you win the Nobel Prize for Literature, you generally have to be pretty good at writing (this is not the case with the Peace Prize). The 3 novels I’ve read by Prize winners have all been pretty good but poetry and theatre aren’t so much my thing. Harold Pinter was the 2005 Laureate and his The Caretaker is currently running at the Citizens Theatre.

It’s a good production but I was left feeling cold. Never having seen any Pinter before, it still seemed quite familiar, perhaps showing the large influence his work has had in the nearly 50 years since this play launched him. The words aren’t really dialogue; often it seems that the characters on stage are talking to themselves more than each other. The 3 performances are affecting and funny by turns, so why was I so unmoved?

I think there’s a lack of humanity in the play.

I get the feeling that Harold Pinter just doesn’t like people very much. I’m not arguing for unrealistic, Hollywood-ised views of relationships, but making things look bleak is no more realistic than making them look bright. You can find a chink of light as easily as a shadow in any scenario. I’m not interested in being made to feel that human contact and friendship is impossible, that hell is other people, or any of that nihilistic, existentialist “angry young man” stuff that seems common in post-WW2 theatre. If you want to eavesdrop on misery, that’s what Eastenders is for. I came away feeling like I had been manipulated into feeling bad. And not in a good way, but in a “no sympathy between people” way.

The humour seems to come from mocking the characters’ aspirations. When we’re told about the shed that clearly isn’t likely to get built, are we being invited to mock that character’s failure to achieve even that modest ambition? No thanks. That’s on the level of forum trolling.

So yeah: performances excellent, obviously an important and influential play, but did I enjoy it? No.



Stan Tontas

Stan lives in Glasgow.

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5 Responses to The Caretaker, Citizens Theatre

  1. Dave S

    Welcome to Pinter Stan, it’s all like this. I saw a production of The Caretaker a couple of years ago and came out with fairly similar feelings.

    However, I think Pinter’s message is about people feeling alienation from each other and their inability to rise above themselves and their social strata. I think there’s a lot to be read into the play and perhaps it’s a little glib to dismiss it with a comparison to Eastenders. Then again, I wasn’t there, so who knows?

  2. denis

    Pinter is a master of rhythm and dialogue. Also his plays shouldn’t be viewed as relationships between real people; most of it is politically motivated. Common in all his work is an outside force upsetting a particular situation – the Caretaker is no different. For his best work, watch The birthday Party or even the tv play The Basement.

  3. Stan Tontas

    I can see the class thing. I was kicking around in my head the idea that the 3 characters were representative of one or another social class; it fits with what I know about Pinter’s politics. But this only heightened my irritation.
    He’s not saying (IMO) that people feel alienated, so much as denying the possibility of change altogether. All these folk are trapped by their characters (i.e. class, if we follow the analogy)

    The only political motivation I can see for that is to disempower people, hence the Eastenders reference. Without a glimmer of hope, all there seems to be is conflict and other peoples’ misery. (Maybe this was different when the play first opened; maybe the way this production was staged emphasises this.)

    Agree with you about the dialogue though Denis. The looping lines were good.

  4. denis

    To be honest, I am equally irritated by most modern adaptations of Pinter’s work. The original film versions of both Caretaker and The Birthday Party are the most complete productions (more so than the early BBC stuff).

    It seems, in this production, the ‘misery’ has replaced what I always considered ‘mystery’, ‘terror’ and the absurdity of the characters predicaments.

    I also believed the brothers were comfortable together (the brotherly mockery is there, whether people laugh at it or not) and it’s the outsider that evokes change. Similarly in the birthday party, it’s the two men that turn up and force ‘change’.

    I think this simple political idea of forcing change and territorial dominance is what Pinter is most preoccupied with; especially as a Jew, affected directly by the Blitz and Nazi Germany.

    His work isn’t about redemption and hope – it’s more about a misplaced gripping terror that can make you laugh…

  5. Jason Stern

    I saw this production and was mesmerised by it. Totally unobtrusive direction and flawless performances. Do not expect to come away with the warm glow that so much film and television supplies- but this is actually a play about love, fraternal love and there are glympses of humanity at a number of points in the play. The very act of one man taking a festering old tramp off the street and giving him a bed to sleep in is an image profoundly more humane that you would find in the modern world today. But no sooner has an altruistic gesture been made and the tramp bites the hand that feeds him. It’s an anology for countless scenarios played out in the modern world- mainly political and economic (a timely production!). This is also a play about power. The constant power struggles we encounter in relationships every single day in our lives. Pinter’s The Caretaker is a theatrical masterpiece and if you leave feeling not all that great about humanity then you got the message. Open any newspaper in any country in the world today and as we continue to murder, pillage and rob each other both legally and illegally then you might just come to the bleak but realistic conclusion that there is very little humanity left in the world. I advise anyone nomatter whether they like Pinter’s plays or not to go online and read his nobel prize acceptance speech. Pinter is a man dedicated to the preservation of the dignity of man. Read his poems, look at his campaigning work- if Pinter didn’t like people he would never have lifted a pen to write anything in the first place.