The characteristics of ‘The Theatre of the Absurd' in The Caretaker
‘The Theatre of the Absurd' is a term coined by the theatre critic and scholar Martin Esslin for the work of many dramatists, mainly written in the 1950s and 1960s. The concept absurd originally means that something is out of harmony, for instance, in the music, whereas in everyday speech it merely means that something is ridiculous. However, according to Eugene Ionesco, 'the Absurd' refers to something purposeless. ‘Cut off from his religious, metaphysical and transcendent roots, man is lost; all his actions become senseless, absurd, useless'. This philosophical principle originates from Albert Camus, a French novelist and dramatist. He claimed, ‘in a universe that is suddenly deprived of illusions and of light, man feels a stranger.' The Theatre of the Absurd was strongly influenced by the inhuman, destroying events of the World War II. With writing down actions or the characters' mental, physical features in an absurd way and emphasizing how mechanical people's existence is, playwrights intended to amaze people in order to restore the importance of myth or religion to our age.
They used several methods to gain something absurd, but the use of the language has seemed to be the most important one. The role of the language can be perfectly pointed out in the famous dramatist, actor, scenarist and director Harold Pinter's dramas. First of all, he rarely uses dialogues which are, by the way, mixed with many pauses and silences. These breaks can be marked in three ways on the printed pages: a speech can be interrupted by three dots, or either the stage direction ‘Pause' or ‘Silence'.
ASTON: I…I didn't have a very good night again.
DAVIES: I slept terrible.
ASTON: You were making….
DAVIES: Terrible. Had a bit of rain in the night, didn't it?
ASTON: Just a bit.
[He goes to his bed, picks up a small plank and begins to sandpaper it.]
DAVIES: Thought so. Come in on my head.
Draught's blowing right on my head, anyway.
Can't you close that window behind that sack?
The dialogue is also hesitant, incoherent, banal, it often verbalizes the self-evident. The speech always seems to mean more or (completely) other or surprisingly less than it actually says. It is very similar to poetry: the rhythms, resonances and repetitions have their adequate, essential functions in the whole work; therefore they lift the particular to the universal. As Esslin claims, ‘The spectator's sense of reality gets sharpened to the point when he suddenly perceives ordinary and everyday events with such intensity of insight that they transcend themselves and become symbolic of a whole category of experience.'
The lack of explanations is another relevant feature in plays which are concerned to be absurd; the dominant form of communication is made through the absence of direct explanation. Pinter does not seem to be didactic, rather he expresses the experience of man in ‘being'; he expressed man in fear, joy, humour, stupidity and ambition. Therefore people should not ask what his plays ‘mean'. He is not concerned with making general statements, he claimed that he can sum up none of his plays, the only thing he can do is that he writes down in details what he experienced when watching and listening to his characters.
From the beginning of The Caretaker, the use of realistic elements is a striking characteristic. The setting is far from the elegant country-house one. In the attic room every object can be easily identifiable. However, most of these objects and also the clothing are mainly used in order to achieve dramatic effects with them. Significant points of character development can be expressed with these ordinary, unremarkable objects, for example, handing over the door key to Davies points out Aston's kindness and unselfishness, or Mick by sharing his cheese sandwich with Davies deceives him into a false sense of safety. And it is also important that the room with its objects leads Davies to be ambitious (he could be the caretaker or simply help in the redecoration) but, on the other hand, it causes his downfall, as well. Another realistic feature is the continuous use of place-names or other local landmarks, which can keep the characters in an actual world which is in the play the 1950s urban London: Shoreditch, Aldgate, Sidcup, Camden Town, Finsbury Park, etc. In connection with the setting it is also relevant that there is no exposition at the beginning of the play, when Aston and Davies enter the room, instead they are introduced in a completely realistic way:
ASTON: Sit down.
DAVIES: Thanks. [Looking about.] Uuh…
ASTON: Just a minute.
[Aston looks around for a chair, sees one lying on its side by the rolled carpet at the fireplace, and starts to get it out.]
DAVIES: Sit down: Huh … I haven't had a good sit down … I haven't had a proper sit down … well, I couldn't tell you …
ASTON: [placing the chair] Here you are.
Nevertheless, Pinter acknowledged that he was influenced by Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, although, according to Esslin, Pinter can be regarded ‘realistic' and linked with the new writers who dealt seriously with the working class; whereas Samuel Beckett rejected the naturalistic forms since he regarded them as inappropriate to transmit their insight into the human status. However, although Pinter is included in Esslin's book, it can be misleading to associate him with the other playwrights because Pinter's plays do have naturalistic and psychological realistic features, which is not true in the case of other Absurdists.
Writing a play in an absurd way may also include the mixing of comedy and serious stress. Pinter once said, ‘Everything is funny, the greatest earnestness is funny; even tragedy is funny … Life is funny because it is arbitrary, based on illusions and self-deceptions'. In The Caretaker the funniest character is perhaps Davies; for instance, when he tries on the shoes and the smoking-jacket he gets from Aston: Davies speaks about the shoes so eloquently that his praise about them is almost like a joke, because people hardly can imagine that a pair of shoes can be blessed in such an eloquent way. Besides several situations in the play, Davies's personality and the way he speaks also seem to be comic elements. He has no understanding of and towards other people and this leads to comic responses when he cannot follow exactly what is being said: He is given the suggestion that his turbulence in the night was due to the unfamiliar bed, and he replies, ‘There's nothing unfamiliar about me with beds. I slept in beds'. The tragic or serious regard in the play is generally the characters' suffering. Although they all have plans, purposes they do not achieve them, they do not make an effort in order to complete them. So this simple vain daydream, the paralysis and the hopelessness gives the serious stress for the play.
Another characteristic of the ‘absurd' dramas is the lack of verification about the past and future. It is a mastery technique that in every play the curtain comes down when it is least of all expected, when the given situation is not completed at all. Actually, the characters frequently refer to the past or the future, however, the future that they imagine is rather beyond their grasp. Their beliefs and visions are influenced by their actions, whereas their actions are often determined by their past. The most interesting point of this dramatic technique is the way in which Pinter leads his readers - unconsciously - to think or notice that the characters do not have hope any more. “The menacing atmosphere of the plays is a product of the way in which the spectator is left prey to the pity and terror naturally associated with an unexpected visit to the inhabitants of inferno.” Although the audience is, of course, able to think like the characters do, or even imagine a future where all their plans were completed, but in order to do so they would need to forget, or simply neglect everything they have noticed and observed about the characters during the play. On the contrary, the audience is capable to predict appropriately what these individuals will do next when the curtain has already come down. In fact, the audience knows the characters better than they know themselves and therefore can forecast their future with a greater accuracy.
Among the major dramatists of the Absurd, Harold Pinter represents the most original combination of avant-garde and traditional elements. He was a permanent ‘visitor' of the theatre, equally proficient as an actor, director and playwright. Pinter's work can be summed up with the quote of James Stobaugh, “The Absurdist abandoned all hope of finding meaning in life and embraced a sort of nihilism. The Absurdist was convinced that everything was meaningless and absurd. The subjectivity of a Romantic was appealing to the Absurdist. However, even that implied that something was transcendent - a desire - and the Absurdist would have nothing to do with that.”
Eugéne Ionesco, 'Dans les armes de la ville', Cahiers de la Compagnie Madeleine Renaud-Jean-Louis Barrault (Paris, no. 20, October 1957)
Harold Pinter: The birthday party, The caretaker, The homecoming: a casebook / edited by Michael Scott (Hampshire, Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1986)
Harold Pinter, The Caretaker / Harold Pinter; with a commentary and notes by Patricia Hern (London: Methuen, 1962)
James P. Stobaugh, World Literature Student Book (Nashville: Broadman Press, Jul 30, 2005)
Martin J. Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd / Martin Esslin (London: Methuen, 2001)
Vol. 1, The plays of the sixties (London: Methuen, 1985-1986)
William Naismith, Harold Pinter: The birthday party, The caretaker, The homecoming / Bill Naismith (London: Faber and Faber, 2000)
 Eugéne Ionesco, 'Dans les armes de la ville', Cahiers de la Compagnie Madeleine Renaud-Jean-Louis Barrault, Paris, no. 20, October 1957.
 William Naismith, Harold Pinter: The birthday party, The caretaker, The homecoming / Bill Naismith (London: Faber and Faber, 2000) 30.
 Harold Pinter, The Caretaker / Harold Pinter; with a commentary and notes by Patricia Hern (London: Methuen, 1962) 52.
 Vol. 1, The plays of the sixties (London: Methuen, 1985-1986) 197.
 Harold Pinter, The Caretaker / Harold Pinter; with a commentary and notes by Patricia Hern (London: Methuen, 1962) 7-8.
 Martin J. Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd / Martin Esslin (London: Methuen, 2001) 242.
 William Naismith, Harold Pinter: The birthday party, The caretaker, The homecoming / Bill Naismith (London: Faber and Faber, 2000) 96.
 Harold Pinter: The birthday party, The caretaker, The homecoming: a casebook / edited by Michael Scott (Hampshire, Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1986) 39-40.
 James P. Stobaugh, World Literature Student Book (Nashville: Broadman Press, Jul 30, 2005)