Triumph of misunderstanding

Tonight, 40 years after its debut, a play about two brothers and a tramp will beguile and perplex a new West End audience. It was the breakthrough play by a man who would change the theatre for ever. Here, Thomas Sutcliffe raises the curtain on the first night of <i>The Caretaker </i>by Harold Pinter and our theatre critic offers an <FONT>irreverent homage</FONT> to the master
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When The Caretaker opened at the Arts Theatre in Soho on the evening of 27 April 1960, its author already knew what it was like to brush his fingertips against theatrical triumph. What he didn't know yet - but would in only a matter of hours - was what it was like to hold it firmly in his grasp.

When The Caretaker opened at the Arts Theatre in Soho on the evening of 27 April 1960, its author already knew what it was like to brush his fingertips against theatrical triumph. What he didn't know yet - but would in only a matter of hours - was what it was like to hold it firmly in his grasp.

Almost two years earlier his play The Birthday Party had opened at the Lyric Hammersmith after an out-of-town tour murmurous with praise. A hit seemed assured but when the London reviews appeared next morning they were universally confused and universally damning. By the time Harold Hobson, the most influential critic of the day, published a sensational eulogy on Sunday morning, it was too late. The play had been pulled the previous night to make way for a popular thriller. "Oh you poor thing," exclaimed an usherette, after discovering that she had shown the play's author to a seat in the dress circle.

So although the atmosphere was just as full of expectation two years later, Pinter must have felt he had been here before - tense with the same hopes, queasy with the same premature congratulations. The intervening months had not exactly been a wilderness of neglect - Hobson's review had at least alerted people to the fact that an injustice had taken place and Pinter had several commissions for radio plays. But the playwright's reputation among the cognoscenti was not matched by any wider fame.

The Caretaker was the play that changed that. Pinter's account of two brothers who take a tramp under their roof - and the enigmatic struggle for power that unfolds between all three men - was received with a wild enthusiasm that was in part an act of reparation.

Its success turned Pinter into a trophy for newspaper interviewers and a pugnacious figurehead for a new generation. Richard Eyre, who saw the original production after its transfer to the Duchess Theatre recalls its breathtaking novelty: "It was the first really modern play that I'd seen in a theatre and it seemed to me that the author had a way of looking at the world that was completely singular... partly that it was about working-class people, partly that the play didn't seek to explain itself... It was as original and striking as when I first saw a Francis Bacon."

It was original enough, certainly, to throw off the radar of even the most astute critics. Kenneth Tynan, who loved the play, praised Pinter for exposing "the vague, repetitive silliness of lower-class conversation. One laughs in recognition but one's laughter is tinged with snobbism."

Forty years on it's probably easier to see that The Caretaker hasn't an ounce of snobbery to it - that Tynan was trying to get a fix on the unprecedented emulsion of bathos and anxiety and pity that Pinter had created. Trying to get a fix too on a play that didn't obey any existing Shaftesbury Avenue rules about the proper place for a belly laugh. The writer himself famously once said of the play that it is "funny, up to a point. Beyond that point it ceases to be funny, and it was because of that point that I wrote it."

And this point can't be fixed to a particular line - it is an invisible fulcrum that allows the play to teeter unnervingly long after other works might have rusted into immobility. This is a balance that any successful production must calibrate finely - Alan Strachan, who was working at the Mermaid Theatre when the play was revived there, with Leonard Rossiter playing the tramp, recalls an atmosphere of "almost cathedral-like holiness", effectively dispersed by Rossiter's performance. "People did come with a strange sense of obeisance but partly because of Leonard's brilliant comic instincts they relaxed."

Only, of course, to have their relaxation taken away by Pinter's disturbing ellipses, which recognise that language can a blunt weapon as much as a form of communication. "I went to a Jewish club," Pinter once said recalling his youth, "and there were quite a lot of people often waiting with broken bottles. We didn't have any milk-bottles. The best way was to talk to them, you know, sort of 'Are you all right?' 'Yes, I'm all right.' 'Well, that's all right then, isn't it?' and all the time keep walking towards the lights of the main road." That sense of probing, nervous assay is exactly what The Caretaker's first cast offered to their audience and it was a sound most of them hadn't heard before.

Early audiences weren't entirely sure, either, whether they were watching a masterpiece of realism or an unusually parochial allegory. For Tynan this was writing founded in precise and specific observation: "London is unique in the déclassée decrepitude of its Western suburbs," he wrote in his review, "with their floating populations, their indoor dustbins, their desolate bed-sitters, their prevalent dry-rot - moral as well as structural and their frequent casual suicides. Mr Pinter captures all this with the most chilling economy."

Mr Pinter knew what he was talking about. He told his biographer, Michael Billington, that the origin of the play lay in specific image - two men seen through an open door in the Chiswick flat where he was living at the time he wrote the play, and where a tramp had temporarily been the guest of his landlord and his landlord's brother. "I was very close to this old derelict's world, in a way," Pinter said.

But one of the reasons for The Caretaker's classic status in the repertoire is that this landscape is not geographically limited at all. What Tynan saw as its brilliant local detail has transferred effortlessly to Tokyo and Bucharest and Cape Town. Every capital city in the world, it seems, has its Sidcup - the distant suburb where Davies is convinced he can put his life together again.

Every culture is susceptible to the power of a three-hander too - a structure which, in The Caretaker, is employed like the ancient game of Paper, Scissors, Stone. This is a play in which weaknesses suddenly become strengths, and power is suddenly exposed as vulnerability. As the two brothers, Mick and Aston, and the tramp Davies switch allegiances and play their strategic games it's never possible to predict who will win the next encounter.

For Richard Eyre, the presence of just three characters gives the play "a mythic or folkloric element", but it's not one, he points out, that should ever be explicitly subtitled. The Caretaker was unusual in provoking admiration in an older generation of playwrights - Noël Coward overlooked his usual bêtes noires ("squalor, repetition, lack of action") in favour of the work's compelling self-assurance.

Less sympathetically, Terence Rattigan, another veteran admirer, tried to recover it for an older, more familiar kind of experimentation. "It's the Old Testament God and the New Testament God with the caretaker as humanity - that's what it's all about, isn't it?" he notoriously told Pinter, who gravely replied: "It's about two brothers and a caretaker."

That refusal to offer any handhold for placating explanations is another source of the play's continuing power - it's adaptability to people who don't have two testaments to rub together, but who can fill its eloquent blanks with their own dilemmas.

Oscar Wilde once wrote to Whistler warning him against "explaining himself away". "Remain, as I do, incomprehensible," he admonished, "to be great is to be misunderstood." It's a lesson The Caretaker brilliantly exemplifies.


'The Caretaker' opens tonight at the Comedy Theatre, Panton Street, London SW1, 020-7369 1731