In the scene at the right, Mr. Pleasence plays a scabrous derelict who alienates his benefactors and Robert Shaw depicts one of two mentally unbalanced brothers in The Caretaker. At the Lyceum.
INTERVIEW BY THOMAS LASK
Every night on the stage at the Lyceum, where Harold Pinter's play The Caretaker is firmly ensconced, the character of a puling old derelict is exposed to the scrunity of the audience. The derelict, Davies by name, is a queasy mixture of bristling gamecock and cringing sycophant. Filthy in person and habit, he maintains in his mind an ideal of exquisite gentillity; full of self-pity he pours out a sour stream of hatred against his fellow man; a beggar and cadger by temperament, he possesses the ineffectual but latent violence of a man who has slept in a thousand strange beds and endured the hostile glances of unnumbered eyes. He is, in short, a thoroughly repellent figure, a paradigm of spiritual and physical degradation.
Yet so compellingly is this part played and with so much insight that, at the end of the evening, a tremor of sympathy runs through the audience; his plight touches the playgoer in spite of himself.
The man who plays Davies and who brings off this minor miracle is Donald Pleasence, an English actor of medium height, slight frame and contained manner, and---judging by the apartment on East End Avenue in mid-Manhattan where this interrogator spoke with him---no mendicant.
Bearded and bald, dressed in corduroys and walking shoes, Mr. Pleasence looked like a university professor caught in his lounging hours. In fact, so different was he in gait, age and general tone from the flaccid old man he had seen the night before that the visitor peered intently at Mr. Pleasence to make sure that it was, after all, the same man.
How does an actor prepare for a part so alien to him in manner, language and behavior? How is it built up? The answer did not come easily. Mr. Pleasence is not inarticulate and not cautious about answering, but he is reluctant to let any sentence go that does not carry with it the qualification and nuance that his thought demands. More than that he had no easy pat answer.
"I do not use any set methods, not even The Method," he said evenly. "The character after all is in the lines." (Mr. Pleasence thinks the Pinter script a "masterpiece.")
"All the real work is done in the rehearsal period. The play is on top of me all the time and I am constantly thinking about it. Even when I leave the theatre, I'll mumble the lines to myself or think about the way the character walks or holds himself. The process of creation goes on all the time. When I get through I feel I know what the character will do in every situation. But the building up of the part is not mechanical or deliberate. It grows out of the text."
"However," he was quick to add, "I am not one of those actors who believes he has to live the part he is playing. I can turn it on and off and I do. I might take a few minutes before going onstage to settle into the part, but even then if someone should come up and speak to me that would be all right."
Getting back to the instinctive building up of a part, the visitor pointed out that in The Caretaker the old man's voice is pitched higher than the actor's own pleasant baritone, and that Davies has a habit of starting a soundless sentence and closing his mouth midway without uttering a syllable. This last gesture is most effective in suggesting the creaky machinery of the old man's thought. Were both of these theatrical bits arrived at unconsciously?
"They were," Mr. Pleasence said flatly, "they emerged with the part." But, he pointed out, once they were established in the role, the technician in him took over and used consciously what had come to the actor by other means.
As an actor Mr. Pleasence learned by doing. A "north country" boy from Sheffield, he won a scholarship to the Royal Academy, which he could not use for economic reasons, and got into acting by first accepting a job as an assistant stage manager at a small local theatre. A variety of parts with repertory companies in the English provinces brought little money but lots of opportunity to practice his craft.
Four and one half years in the Royal Air Force followed, one of which was spent as a prisoner of war. After the war there were jobs in London's West End and long sessions with the Birmingham Repertory and the Bristol Old Vic.
Sticking closely to television, Mr. Pleasence was absent from the live theatre for four years---an exile self-imposed. He had decided not to accept a role unless he liked it. When he did choose he chose well. The Caretaker ran for fourteen months in London before crossing the Atlantic.
Having lived with audiences on both sides of the water and in the same play, it is his judgement that New Yorkers are more attentive. True, they come in late and cough frequently, but he feels that they follow the play with an absorption not quite true of the British. The London playgoers vary in their reaction to the play. They will laugh steadily one night and be deathly silent the next one. New Yorkers are more consistent; they all laugh at the same places and are silent in the same places.
Except for some small cuts, no changes were made in the script for American production. Nonetheless, the performance is not exactly the same, Mr. Pleasence said. "In the last act, when Aston returns with the planks, I played Davies as a beaten man. Now I play him with more optimism, more hope. It's better, I think. It makes the ending more effective. It also shows that the process of building a part doesn't really stop."