When ‘The Caretaker’ needs to be taken care of


Elliot Ziwira @The Book Store
I have walked this path before and I know where it ends; I am sure I have sung this song more than once to know its crescendos; oh Lord you know how much I have traversed and negotiated the terrains along the journey of life.

Yes, I am that man who has gone to hell and back again, and is ever ready to go again for the umpteenth time, for there seems to be no hope here anymore than there is sunshine to the Eskimo. Hope! The death of hope, what really happens when hope dies and dreams are set ablaze?

Gentle reader, you, like all of us mortals, have had a fair share of the hard knocks of life to appreciate the essence of a minute to one who has just survived a horrific accident. Things do not happen because you wish them to, or because others wish them to in their spiteful nature, or you do not wish them to; they simply happen because they are meant to.

Whatever befalls us has a bearing on our nature as fallible human beings who simply have to play their part in the drama of life; others capering to melancholy dirges, others getting carried away in the romantic cronies of the wayfarer, and others still playing God, prosecutor, judge, witness, attorney and complainant; all at the same time. Such is the nature of this “stage, where every man must play a part”, as William Shakespeare says in “The Merchant of Venice”.

This drama of life indeed has such funny characters, you and I included; funny in our different ways, but funny all the same. Maybe we should swap roles just for the fun of it, or maybe so much that you experience what I have gone through, or vice verse.

Silence has a certain way of echoing like it does in Alexander Kanengoni’s “Echoing Silences” (1997); it really says a lot without whispering anything. Silence is golden, the sages that inform our mores and values insist; but silence begets silence, an alien voice echoes somewhere where the sun sets.

I have read Harold Pinter’s “The Caretaker” (1959) several times, but each time I read it I always come up with different interpretations, depending on my mood and whatever experiences I would feel like evoking.

It boggles the mind how words, or lack of them, have a certain way of interpreting experiences. Though set in the British landscape of the 1950s, the play finds relevance in any part of the world at any given time because of the universality of suffering, deceit, hopelessness, hypocrisy and oppression.

The human psyche is colour blind; it is excited by trauma and suffering in the same way it derives satiation in scuttling others’ dreams. The socio-economical, socio-political, and socio-economical-political problems that burden society cannot be explored in a better way, than that which involves the reader, and Pinter is all too aware of that.

The playwright uses economy of words, characterisation, symbolism and setting to poke at the voyeuristic inclinations of mankind. The play is divided into three acts which tellingly examine the tribulations of three characters over a two-week period.

Two of the characters – Mick and Aston – are brothers, and the third one Mac Davies who is also known as Bernard Jenkins is an old tramp “who haven’t had a good sit down” and have “been left for dead more than once”. At face value the story can be your average sitcom, that is if you decide to see it that way, because not so much is said, but more is inferred through pauses and silence.

Though the characters do not seem to develop, as in expression, they learn more from the fictional experience, which of course they cannot put enough words to. The three characters are interesting in their own different ways as the reader is able to interpret the different thematic concerns raised.

The play opens with Mick sitting silently in a room, doing nothing. As he examines the room in its disorderly fashion, he doesn’t seem to have any emotional attachment to it, which is rather surprising as the reader learns in the subsequent acts that he is the owner of the apartment.

He is said to be “in the building trade” and “he is got his own van” but there is nothing constructive about his outlook. His apartment – one of which rooms is the main stage throughout the play – is in bad shape, hence he instructs his brother to give it a spruce up.

However, because there is no shared dream or any other ideological or psychological ties, the biological ties fail to bring their averse dreams to a cirque.

Looking closely at this, one cannot fail to realise the tragedy of political folly, as nepotism has never been known to build anything, neither does a dislocated interest help in the progress of a family, community or nation. Mick appears to be that absent landlord, farmer or politician who feeds on the gullibility of his constituents, and finds glory in mediocrity.

Aston, on the other hand, reminds one of Shimmer Chinodya’s “Chairman of Fools” (2005). Having been in an institution which is very much like Chinodya’s “Annex”, because of a mental or psychological condition because he “talked too much”, which he says ”was my mistake”, Aston is given an electric shock treatment which somehow upsets his psychological equilibrium. As a young factory worker he was fond of talk because he “could see things…very clearly…everything was so clear,” but then is clarity of vision is seen as an affront on the oppressive machinery behind the factory, he has to be silenced.

Tragically, hope is lost on the young visionaries he epitomises, his vision is blurred, his eloquence blunted, his pace slackened and his voice silenced. He can no longer say much even when he feels that he is being taken advantage of; he peremptorily works on simple tasks that he never finishes, like fixing a plug, clearing the backyard and building a shed. Naturally compassionate, he is taken advantage of by the parasitical Davies and the cunning Mick.

In Aston, one can see more than just a social problem, but the ruckus behind it, informed by the oppressive capitalistic and imperialistic apparatus, which find fodder in suffering, hopelessness, despondency and paralysis. He is the garbage collector who finds use in discarded things.

The third character, Davies, is more than a mouthful. As is the case with the other characters, he has foibles of his own, which can be interpreted in many ways, depending like I said, on what the reader brings in from his or her own interacts with the world. Because of his ungrateful, opportunistic and know-it-all nature because of his age; an old man, he does not solicit sympathy from the reader, which somehow maybe a bit harsh. He suffers an identity crisis as he does not appear to know who he is, and ferments antagonism between Mick and Aston, who somehow see through him, especially Mick.

They both offer him a job as a caretaker of the place, Aston genuinely, and Mick only to take him along the same path he has for so long travelled; the thorny one where deceit lurks in the woods. He may be all that one may call phony or the like but he brings the brothers together, as they become aware of their shortcomings.

His pleading in the end to be given a chance to prove himself hits a brick wall, but all the more makes him only human; prone to backlashes, folly and regret. Life has not been easy on him, because he has “never had a dream in (his) life”, but he has realised that one cannot always accept any one else’s shoes because they would not fit. Shoes are symbolic of life; so the idea that one size fits all is a fallacy.

So in the end one really wonders who or what needs to be taken care of in a society that drags its dirty linen in the market square, and seeks hope in the junk yard.

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