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Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Spring Cleaning with Harold Pinter

By Robert Wood

Let’s be clear: there are better reasons to see a Pinter play than needing inspiration to clean one’s apartment. But given that this is that veritable season of cathartic, curbside purging, and given that the characters in The Caretaker (running through June 17) would all do well to let go of a few things, the reason wouldn’t be a bad one. After all, few plays have more to say about our complex relationship to our things, and why we might have so much trouble throwing them away.

The curtain opens on a garage sale waiting to happen—a drafty London flat with all manner of crestfallen objects piled on its floor. As it turns out, almost every one of them—including the kitchen sink—is of Pinter’s own choosing:

A room. A window in the back wall, the bottom half covered by a sack. An iron bed along the left wall. Above it a small cupboard, paint buckets, boxes containing nuts, screws, etc. More boxes, vases, by the side of the bed. A door, U.R. To the right of the window, a mound: a kitchen sink, a step-ladder, a coal bucket, a lawn-mower, a shopping trolley, boxes, sideboard drawers. Under this mound an iron bed. In front of it a gas stove. On the gas stove a statue of Buddha. D.R., a fireplace. Around it a couple of suitcases, a rolled carpet, a blow-lamp, a wooden chair on its side, boxes, a number of ornaments, a clothes hors, a few short planks of wood, a small electric fire and a very old electric toaster. Below this a pile of old newspapers…

The owner of these things is Aston, one of the play’s three characters, who has amassed them with the hopes that someday, in some situation, perhaps in another life entirely, they’d be useful. But the right moment has yet to come. He’s also waiting to build a shed outside so that he can finally begin renovations on his brother’s apartment. But the right moment has yet to come for that either. Things have become like so many prosthetic limbs: necessary for action, no matter how ill-defined those actions might be.

Or maybe it's better put this way: inaction justified in the name of past things that have yet to deliver on their promises, and future things that cannot yet be realized to deliver theirs. Jonathan Pryce’s character Davies, for example, could do everything if he could just get downtown to pick up some papers, but he can’t do anything because it’s raining. Insufficient footwear—yet another indispensable thing—doesn’t help: “The weather’s so blasted bloody awful, how can I get down to Sidcup in these shoes?”

It gets more complicated of course. As the play goes on, one instance of paralysis gets placed within another. When the homeless Davies (waiting on his shoes) is offered a job as caretaker of the building that Aston (waiting on his shed) has yet to remodel, it’s again a lack of things that justifies his inaction:
DAVIES. But it'd be a matter . . . wouldn't it . . . it'd be a matter of a broom
. . . isn't it?
ASTON. You could have a duster....
DAVIES. Oh, I know I could have that . . . but I couldn't manage without a
. . . without a broom . . . could I ?
ASTON. You'd have to have a broom....
DAVIES. That's it ... that's just what I was thinking....
ASTON. I'd be able to pick one up for you, without much trouble . . . and of
course, you'd ... you'd need a few brushes....
DAVIES. You'd need implements . . . you see . . . you'd need a good few
ASTON. I could teach you how to use the Electrolux, if you . . . wanted to
Uttered from the piles of cast-off implements that already litter Aston’s apartment, the exchange drips with irony. We hear about dreamt-of things that can hold their messianic promise precisely because they aren’t yet possessed, even as possessed things lay like so many piles of bones at his feet—allegories, all of them, of promises held in limbo or expired.

Did Pinter intend this to be some sort of cautionary tale for lonely souls living in a commodity-obsessed age? Or about the way things end up being treated like people and people like things? Who knows. What we do know is that, inside the play text itself, Pinter himself did a little spring cleaning, removing a few things of his own. The passage above is from the original version of The Caretaker. In the later edition, he cut it to this:
DAVIES. Ah, that'd be....
DAVIES.  But it'd be a matter . . . wouldn't it . . . it'd be a matter of a broom
. . . isn't it?
ASTON. Yes, and of course, you'd need a few brushes.
DAVIES. You'd need implements . . . you see . . . you'd need a good few

The Caretaker stars Jonathan Pryce and runs until June 17 in the BAM Harvey Theater.

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