Post Number: 147
|Posted on Sunday, April 08, 2012 - 01:14 pm: ||
PINTER AT THE CURRAN
DAVIES. What do you do...when that bucket’s full?
ASTON. Empty it.
Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker, first produced in 1960, is currently playing at the Curran Theater in San Francisco. Directed by Christopher Morahan, the production is beautifully presented, full of exquisite touches and subtle, shudder-inducing ambiguities. It stars Jonathan Pryce as the old man, Mac Davies (a.k.a. Bernard Jenkins: “That’s not my real name”) and Alan Cox and Alex Hassell as the two odd brothers, Aston and Mick. All three explode all over the stage. The room the characters inhabit is a chaos of miscellaneous stuff in which almost anything can be found—“a kitchen sink, a step-ladder, a coal bucket, a lawn-mower, a shopping trolley, boxes, sideboard drawers, a statue of Buddha”—and throughout, there is the rattly, disturbing roar of a nearby railroad train and a downpour of rain.
Two years before The Caretaker was produced, Harold Pinter (who signed his early poems “Harold Pinta” and who acted under the stage name “David Baron”) wrote, “There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false: it can be both true and false.” In 2005 he added, “Truth in drama is forever elusive. You never quite find it but the search for it is compulsive. The search is clearly what drives the endeavour. The search is your task”:
"But the real truth is that there never is any such thing as one truth to be found in dramatic art. There are many. These truths challenge each other, recoil from each other, reflect each other, ignore each other, tease each other, are blind to each other. Sometimes you feel you have the truth of a moment in your hand, then it slips through your fingers and is lost."
One might observe that perhaps the most fundamental insight of the late, unlamented twentieth century is the perception that some parts of the mind don’t know what other parts of the mind are doing—that at its base “mind” is not a realm of clarity but a realm of darkness and ambiguity. For twentieth-century artists and philosophers, mind constantly manifests as multiple, chaotic, in motion, full of exactly the kind of reality/unreality/truth/falseness of which Pinter writes. What is absolutely “true” in one context may be completely “false” in another: Newtonian theories work wonderfully well—unless you are someplace where they don’t work at all. What Mick tells Davies—meaning it as an insult—is not unlike the situation of the play itself:
I can take nothing you say at face value. Every word you speak is open to any number of different interpretations. Most of what you say is lies. You’re violent, you’re erratic, you’re just completely unpredictable. You’re nothing else but a wild animal....
Here is some of Pinter’s astonishing, wild, unpredictable dialogue. Mick—who appears to be physically threatening, dangerous, here and elsewhere—is speaking to Davies. The speech was beautifully delivered by Alex Hassell:
A drip sounds in the bucket. DAVIES looks up.
You remind me of my uncle’s brother. He was always on the move, that man. Never without his passport. Had 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.
Mick’s uncle is less a person than he is a collection of ill-fitting odds and ends: is someone “chucked out of the Salvation Army” also likely to be given a Gold Medal—for his “long-jump” specialties? “Married a Chinaman” even though he “had an eye for the girls”? One remembers Lucky’s even madder monologue in Waiting for Godot.
As Davies, Jonathan Pryce gives a marvelous, bravura, over-the-top performance in a variety of Welsh accents. He is an immensely watchable, roaring, dominant, groveling, physical presence. No mistaking that he’s there—as his groans and cries prevent Aston from sleeping during the night. He is like the body itself—and is perhaps in a way a representation of the body’s constant, annoying presence: an immense fart, a stench (he is constantly accused of “stinking”). Pryce mimes, gesticulates, even tap dances a bit as he delivers his lines; he is in everybody’s face—the “withness” of the body. Indeed, as Aston’s encounter with a woman at a café suggests, “the body” seems to have been very much on Pinter’s mind in this play:
Anyway, we were just sitting there, having this bit of a conversation...then suddenly she put her hand over to mine...and she said, how would you like me to have a look at your body.
Aston’s final dismissal of Davies, You make too much noise, is perhaps also Pinter’s judgment on his own physical presence, his own body. There is little love and no sex in The Caretaker:
DAVIES. 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 it? 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 Aston, Alan Cox is fully up to the demands of what is perhaps the most extraordinary speech of the play: Aston’s monologue at the conclusion of the second act:
The trouble was, I used to have kind of hallucinations. They weren’t hallucinations, they...I used to get the feeling I could see things...very clearly...everything...was so clear...everything used...everything used to get very quiet...everything got very quiet...all this ...quiet...and...this clear sight...it was...but maybe I was wrong.
Then one day they took me to a hospital, right outside London. They...got me there. I didn’t want to go.
The speech is a riveting recollection of the horrors of being brought to a mental hospital and of being “operated on,” being given electroshock therapy:
He called me in. He said...he told me I had something. He said they’d concluded their examination...he said, we’re going to do something to your brain. He said...if we don’t, you’ll be in here for the rest of your life, but if we do, you stand a chance. You can go out, he said, and live like the others.
They used to come round with these...I don’t know what they were...they looked like big pincers, with wires on, the wires were attached to a little machine. It was...the chief doctor, used to fit the pincers, something like earphones, he used to fit them on either side of the man’s skull. There was a man holding the machine, you see, and he’d...There was a man holding the machine, you see, and he’d turn it on....
Aston’s speech is one of those moments in the theater in which our awareness of “acting,” of “pretense,” utterly falls away and we are taken up by the truth of a deep encounter with another: it is the only point in a play whose entire subtext is the possibility of madness when we look deeply and compassionately into the consciousness of a person who may be mad. The speech is immensely moving and seems utterly sincere as the lights slowly fade around everything except the actor speaking the lines. Yet even here Pinter’s truth/falsehood is present. At the very conclusion of the speech, Aston says, “I don’t talk to people now. I steer clear of places like that café. I never go into them now. I don’t talk to anyone....” But he is talking to someone now. And we know from other speeches that he still spends time in “places like that café.” (It was in such a café that he met Davies in the first place.) Yet isn’t theater itself—isn’t acting—a mixture of truth and falsehood?
These are the concluding lines of Harold Pinter’s poem, “Afternoon.” A “guardian” is not unlike a “caretaker”:
One blind man they gave
A demented dog to sniff,
A bitch that had eaten the loot,
The dog, bare to his thought,
Became his mastiff at night,
His guardian the thief of his blood.
Is your “guardian” also “the thief of your blood”? In Harold Pinter’s world they may well be the very same creature—just as a “caretaker” may well be the person who most disturbs the thing he has been asked to care for. At its deepest, The Caretaker is not an exercise in the theater of the absurd but a cri de coeur: the roar of language constantly skating on the thin ice of its awareness of utter chaos:
What am I going to do?
What shall I do?
Where am I going to go?
You can see it all at the Curran Theater, 445 Geary Street, San Francisco.
Post Number: 9
|Posted on Monday, April 16, 2012 - 04:24 am: ||
Reading your review I thought immediately of a more elaborate version of Beckett. But Pinter doesn't move to those kind of extremes philosophically either, at least not in the excerpts you've quoted here. We must ask, as Hillman did after classic psychoanalysis, pharmaceutical and shock therapy had done so much damage, what is madness? What is normal? Should we all really aspire to be normal or fear madness? Here are these characters, obviously tattered rags of various identities, still getting through life, telling stories, improvising on memories, themselves an improvisation on the past. Are these people mad? Or are they what normal looks like when it is exposed. Consider all the people you've met. As you get to know them, their friends and families you may perhaps come to love them deeply, but you also discover that these people are made up of all the people from which they came. And that group of people is, at least in my experience, functional, most of the time, but quite mad. They are chaos functioning as a unit, progressing in time, limping along, like an old man walking down the road alone, but talking aloud to all those people he carries around inside. The performance of the play sounds exceptional. Jonathan Pryce is always good and was apparently in the company of fellows of equal talent and dedication.
Post Number: 148
|Posted on Sunday, May 20, 2012 - 11:31 am: ||
Thank you for this eloquent comment, Jake.
It was a wonderful production, and all the questions you raise here are deeply relevant: "obviously tattered rags of various identities, still getting through life, tell stories, improvision on memories, themselves an improvisation on the past." Dead on!