Davies, an old tramp, is the protagonist in The Caretaker. His portrayal, says Ruby Cohen, is “a bitter commentary on the human condition”. In their attitudes towards the old man, the human derelict, the two brothers present only surfaces contrasts. Mick begins by knocking him down, whereas Aston, instead of allowing him to die in despair, rescues him, shares his room with him and opens up home to him. Bother the brothers name the old man as caretaker, offer him a kind of scrutiny, which they both subsequently withdraw.
Mick turns his back on the old man for failing to fulfil a role to which he never aspired, but Aston rejects him for what he is cantankerous, self-deluded and desperate. Of all Pinter’s plays, The Caretaker makes the most bitter commentary on the human condition; instead of allowing an old man to die beaten in a pub brawl, “the System” wisest on tantalising him with faint hope, thereby immeasurably increasing his final desperate anguish. There is perhaps a pun contained in the title: The Caretaker is twisted into taker on of care, for care is the human destiny. Davies-Aston Relationship
The Davies-Aston relationship begins with Aston apparently in command of the situation as both hos and rescuer of the itinerant Davies. His calm, quiet acceptance of the uneasy guest seems a natural posture of superiority, and Davies at first accepts it as such. As both guest and rescued, Davies, in contrast to Aston, is noisy, repetitive and insecure. The evident aim of his early initiatives is to locate a potential common ground and probably one that will be seen his degree of dependency in the relationship. Ironically, his insecurity is increased by the very means that he adopts to diminish it.
The fact that it is he, and not Aston, who feels compelled to talk undermines his position at the same time that his verbal manoeuvres seek to strengthen it. Davies: Sit down’ Huh… I haven’t had a good sit down…. I haven ‘I had a proper sit down… well, I could tell you… Aston: (placing the chair): Here you are. Davies: Ten minutes off for a tea-break in the middle of the night in that place and I couldn’t find a seal, not one. All them Greeks had it, Poles, Greeks, Blacks, the lot of them, all them aliens had it. And they had me working there…
All them Blacks had it, Blacks, Greeks, Poles, the lot of them, that’s what doing me out of a seat, treating me like dirt. When he come at me tonight. I told him. (Pause. ) Aston: Take a seat. That Davies should invoke in rapid succession a sense of injury, a major prejudice, and a defiant self-reliance gives us a quick resume of the potential roles he might adopt relative to Aston. That Aston ignores all there… providing sympathy for the first, reinforcement for the second, nor admiration for the third gives us an immediate indication of the likelihood of their success. Incoherent Speech
Aston’s seeming refusal to encourage any of Davies’s tentative roles provides Davies with major problems. In the face of Aston’s taciturnity he is forced to thresh arourd desperately for some means of altering the situation. It soon becomes apparent that his large supply of words is not matched by a similar supply of verbal strategies. As the conversation progresses he simply resorts to repeated use of the tactics implicit in his first speech. Appeals to Aston’s sympathy and to his prejudices recur repeatedly, though Davies is smart enough to defend himself against becoming a victim of the kinds of prejudice to which he feels vulnerable.
All them toe-rags, mate, got the manners of pigs, I might have been on the food a few years but you can take it from me I’m clean. I keep myself up. That’s why I left my wife. Fortnight after I married her, no, not so much as that, no more than a week. I took the lid off a saucepan, you know what was in pan. A pile of her underclothing, unwashed. The pan for vegetables, it was. The vegetable pan. That’s when I left her and I haven’t seen her since. As he finishes speaking he finds himself to face to face with a “statue of Buddha standing on the gas stove”.
The mutual incompatibility of the stone face and that of the tramp comments directly on the success of these efforts to manipulate Aston’s attitudes and concerns. The silent inscrutable Buddha, incongruously perched on the gas stove, is as much beyond Davies’s comprehension as the taciturn Aston surrounded by the diverse objects collected in his room. Efforts at Self-Reliance Davies’s other category of approaches involves attempts to assert a degree of independence from Aston. But his efforts to create an image of self-reliance are even less successful than his previous moves and not entirely compatible with them.
His appeals for sympathy for his age and health mingle uneasily with assertions that he intends revenge for his misuse at the cafe: “I’ll get him. One night I’ll get him. When I find myself around that direction. ” The strength of this commitment is clearly undermined by Davies’s vague reference to when it will occur and by his admission that this would not be his primary reason for going there. In spite of these repeated failures, Davies’s stock of variations on his manoeuvres is not yet exhausted. Indeed he has yet to play his trump card.
Unsuccessful as the heroic survivor of the cafe incident, unsung as the virtuous rejecter of an unhygienic wife, and un-sympathised with as a downtrodden, exploited old man, he invokes a new image of one on the verge of self-sufficiency and success. The tack is circuitous, involving shoes, the weather, a false name, and papers that will “prove everything”. But, in essence, the theme is that of a journey to Sidcup which will solve all problems and structure his life anew. Once the journey is made all difficies will disappear, and Davies will once more be a man to be reckoned with. Davies: If only I could get down to Sidcup!
I’ve been waiting for the weather to break. He’s got my papers, this man I left them with, it’s got it all down there. I could prove everything. Aston: How long’s he had them? Davies: What? Aston: How long’s he had them? Davies: Oh, must be… it was in the war… must be… about near on fifteen years ago. But this manoeuvre, too, is thwarted by Aston’s reactions to it. Clearly, Davies does not match his emphasis on the importance of the journey with a similar commitment to getting there. The time lag he admits to makes nonsense of the value he places on the journey, as Aston’s puzzlement is evident.
Once again the haphazard dialogue is matched revealingly with an item of junk that is eminently visible but obliquely connected to its surroundings. Abuses Aston’s Kindness and Generosity At this point, Aston’s contribution to the ‘conversation’ seems rather unfriendly, to say the least. Whatever Davies does to try to improve the connection between himself and Aston is neutralised by his inability to elicit from Aston the responses he needs. To Davies it seems that Aston’s posture of quiet superiority is a consistent strategic imperviousness to his needs and wiles.
But Aston’s behaviour seems peculiarly inconsistent. His apparent unconcern for Davies’s psychological needs is sharply contrasted with an evident concern for his physical needs. Aston’s initial generosity toward Davies in the cafe is extended by offers of cigarettes, shoes and money, and by a willingness to go and retrieve Davies’s belongings for him. This inconsistency, this apparent lack of connection between two aspects of Aston’s behaviour, is another manifestation of juxtaposed but unclearly linked data in the play.
But its effect on the relationship is by no means unclear; this inconsistency disorients Davies and maintains his subservience as effectively as Mick’s later inconsistent conversation. As this section progresses, however, it gradually becomes apparent that Aston’s efforts (unlike Mick’s) are not deliberately aimed at this goal. Indeed, it is very difficult at this point to perceive a deliberate aim in any of Aston’s behavior. It does seem clear, however, that he does not share Davies’s urgent need for a verbally explicit rapport. The problem the audience has in understanding Aston is obviously shared by Davies.
Sensing the failure of his efforts to impose on Aston any of the relationship roles he has in mind, Davies eventually switches to trying to draw out of Aston information that might guide him to more successful manoeuvres. Feeding him topics dealing with The Room and its contents, Davies once more finds himself making little headway: Davies: You got any more rooms then, have you? Aston: Where? Davies: I mean, along the landing here… up the landing there… Aston: They’re out of commission. Davies: Get away. Aston: They need a lot of doing to. (Slight Pause. ) Davies: What about downstairs?
Aston: That’s closed up. Needs seeing to… The floors… (Pause. ) Aston’s Reticence Aston’s unwillingness to discuss any of these more neutral topics suggests that his reluctance to converse with Davies is motivated by something more than mere resistance to Davies’s wiles; the reluctance seems to proceed from a general antipathy toward any kind of conversation. But, paradoxically, he is not entirely unwilling to talk. While evasive about the house and his legal relationship to it, he does venture the information that he “might build” a shed in the back garden.
This willingness to talk is further indicated by a sudden longer statement on the drinking of Guinness—a topic that he discusses with a seriousness that does little to calm the puzzled, uneasy Davies. I went into the pub the other day. Ordered a Guinness. They gave it to me in a thick mug. I sat down but I couldn’t drink it. I can’t drink Guinness from a thick mug. I only like it out of a thin glass. I had a few sips but I couldn’t finish it. This relates to nothing previously discussed, and whatever significance it has for Aston is not shared by Davies, who resorts to a quick change of subject.
The short speech is undoubtedly odd, but the kind of oddity it represents provides the first clear indication of the basic difficulty confronting the pair. If Davies fails to respond to or follow up on this topic because he is unable to locate its significance, perhaps this is also the reason for Aston’s similar reactions to Davies’s conversation topics. The speech itself, while specifying nothing precisely undermines Davies’s operating assumption that Aston’s taciturnity is simply a manifestation of superiority and disinterest.
Such an assumption has already been brought into question by Aston’s non-verbal generosity to Davies, and this speech suggests that Aston, in spite of his general silence, also has a need to talk. The section ends with Aston, as he has done extensively during this opening scene, devoting his attention to a faulty plug on an old electric toaster. His persistent concern for this faulty connection characterises the activity of the opening section: potential links between the characters remain uncertain because the means of establishing appropriate connections has gone awry.
Davies: I used to know a bootmaker in Action. He was a good mate to me. (Pause) You know what that bastard monk said to me? (Pause) How many more Blacks you got around here then? Plays One Brother Against the Other That is when Davies turns to Mick, who plays a cat-and-mouse game with him. Davies tries to play one brother against the other in order to keep a roof over his head. He has been out on the road most of his life and he would like to cling to the crumbs he is offered. But his efforts are futile.
Mick calls him “a fibber” who stinks the place out and Aston, in spite of all his earlier generosity, turns his back upon him. Davies’s final image that we have, despite his desperate, pitiable condition is that of an old tramp who is ungrateful, self-deluded and cantankerous as he finally pleads with Aston: But… lost… look… listen… listen here … I mean…. what am I going to do?… What shall I do?… Where am I going to go?… Listen… If I got down… If I was to… get my papers… would you… would you let… would you… if I got down… got my….