The initial review of Harold Pinter's The Caretaker generally followed a pattern: the brilliance of the actors was celebrated and the questions of influence, primarily Beckett's, were linked to discussions of the relationship between the comic and serious elements in the play. Interpretations of the 'meaning' varied from the literal to the fully allegorical, by way of generalized abstract tags. Subsequent academic criticism, deriving from textual study rather than stage performance, has early always followed the serio-tragical-symbolical-abstract line- what we might call Modern Man in Search of His Insurance Cards, or, I stink. Therefore I am. The comedy of The Caretaker is not a dispensable palliative. To discuss 'meaning without taking this into account is to distort the play as a whole and devalue its achievement. The combination of the comic and the serious, laughter and silence, is often deeply disturbing for art audience: but only in confronting it can we begin to understand the play. For one member of the audience, at least, the relationship between the comic and the serious elements was unacceptable. Leonard Russell, the Sunday Times book reviewer, recorded his impressions of a performance at the Duchess Theatre in an open letter to Harold Pinter: I will go so far as to admit that I found it a strangely menacing and disturbing evening. It was also a highly puzzling evening; and here I refer not to the play but to the behaviour of the audience. On the evening I was present a large majority had no doubt at all that your special contribution to the theatre is to take a heartbreaking themes and treat it facially. Gales of happy, persistent, and, it seemed to me, totally indiscriminate laughter greeted a play which I lake to be, for all its funny moments, a tragic reading of life. May, I ask this question—are you yourself happy with the atmosphere of rollicking good fun? Pinter's reply is such crucial importance for an understanding of the play: Your question is not an easy one to answer. Certainly I laughed myself while writing The Caretaker, but not all the time, not 'indiscriminately'. An element of the absurd is, I think, one of the features of the play, but at the same time I did not intend it to be merely a laughable force. If there hadn't been other issues at stake the play would not have been written. Audience reaction can't be regulated, and no one would want it to be; nor is it easy to analyses. But where the comic and tragic (for want of a better word) are closely interwoven, certain members of an audience will always give emphasis to the comic as opposed to the other, for by so doing they rationalize the other out of existence. On most evenings at the Duchess there is a sensible balance of laughter and silence. Where, though, this indiscriminate mirth is found. I feel it represents a cheerful patronage of the characters on the part of the merrymakers, and thus participating is avoided. This laughter is in fact a mode of precaution, a smoke-screen, a refusal to accept what is happening as recognizable (which I think it is) and instead to view the actors (a) as actors always and not as characters and (b) as chimpanzees. From this kind of neasy jollification I must, of cause, dissociate myself, thought I do think you were unfortunate in your choice of evening. As far as I'm concerned, The Caretaker 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. Pinter's letter is an essential starting point for discussion of the play. Adequate criticism must be based on a recognition of both the comic and 'tragic' elements compounded in the paralleled process of stage performance and audience response. Out emotional reaction of laughter or silence complements what happens on stage. Both actors and audience create a structure of feeling that the play has in its 'living moment', as Pinter puts it. The 'point' where The Caretaker 'ceases to be funny' must be...
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