• Off Broadway

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    Many readers
    will by now have seen either video footage or a newspaper transcript
    of the weird private conversation between President Bush and Prime
    Minister Blair during the so-called G8’s so-called summit meeting
    in St. Petersburg last week. They were unaware that a nearby microphone
    was switched on, and they were caught making various unguarded remarks.
    (If you haven’t, there is a
    transcript here
    and partial
    footage here

    I read the
    transcript first, some days before I saw it on video, and found
    it sufficiently fascinating that I kept returning to it. It seemed
    more bizarre each time I re-read it. In time, I started to read
    it as the script of a play — rather a bleak play by a writer probably
    influenced by Pinter or Beckett.

    In my mind’s
    eye I saw a dark stage — very bare, no scenery — with a single spotlight
    on two pathetic old drunks, shabbily dressed, sitting on cheap bentwood
    chairs and talking together.

    Bush: Yo, Blair.
    How are you doing?

    Blair: I’m
    just …

    Bush: You’re

    Blair: No,
    no, no not yet. On this trade thingy …

    The American
    drunk immediately assumes authority by using the British drunk’s
    surname only. Especially to British audiences, this strongly suggests
    a master-servant relationship.

    This reminds
    us of the frequently-mentioned “special relationship” between their
    two countries. We wonder: is the playwright saying that the US is
    master and Britain servant? Is the relationship actually no more
    special than the one between a dog and a lamp post?

    The two drunks
    blunder on. There is something oddly endearing in their repeated,
    pitiful attempts to communicate with one another, and in their repeated
    inability to construct even one coherent sentence. They fail again
    and again, but they keep trying.

    Bush: Who is
    introducing the trade?

    Blair: Angela.

    Bush: Tell
    her to call ’em.

    Blair: Yes.

    Bush: Tell
    her to put him on, them on the spot. Thanks for the sweater it’s
    awfully thoughtful of you.

    Neither of
    them can keep their thoughts on track. One moment the American drunk
    is talking about world trade, and then he suddenly veers off into
    a discussion of sweaters. Yet neither of them apparently notices
    any change of subject. It’s a stroke of genius that reminds me somehow
    of Ionesco, a surrealist playwright whose work also touched on the
    loneliness of being human.

    What is the
    playwright trying to tell us here? Is the American drunk a metaphor
    for the USA, perhaps? Or its bewildered people?

    This third
    and final excerpt is rather more grim and intense in tone. Note
    the lack of any rhythm in the speech, and the heartbreaking way
    that individual thoughts drift away to nothing:

    Blair: But
    that’s, that’s, that’s all that matters. But if you … you see
    it will take some time to get that together.

    Bush: Yeah,

    Blair: But
    at least it gives people …

    Bush: It’s
    a process, I agree. I told her your offer to …

    Blair: Well
    … it’s only if I mean … you know. If she’s got a … or if she
    needs the ground prepared as it were … Because obviously if she
    goes out, she’s got to succeed, if it were, whereas I can go out
    and just talk.

    Bush: You see,
    the … thing is what they need to do is to get Syria, to get Hizbollah
    to stop doing this s__t and it’s over.

    Some critics
    maintain that this passage shows the playwright’s contempt for higher
    education. We know that the British drunk was educated at Oxford
    and the American drunk at Yale and Harvard, and yet neither of them
    can articulate a single thought — even a puerile or elementary thought
    — or say anything worth listening to.

    It’s a tragi-comedy.
    We laugh at this hopeless pair even as we feel sorry for them. We
    think of the desperation, the panic they must both feel; the sense
    of futility as they trudge through yet another doomed attempt to
    establish contact with a fellow member of the human race. Whatever
    will become of them — or indeed of us, their audience?

    So I was a
    little disappointed to see that last week’s production of this masterpiece
    was set in a big conference room, with lunch about to be served
    by the look of it. The American drunk was sitting down in a fancy
    chair while the British drunk hovered around him nervously.

    It is an interesting
    interpretation, but in the end I found it unconvincing. For example,
    at the age of sixty, the American drunk still hadn’t learned not
    to speak with his mouth full, and further humiliated the British
    drunk by forcing him to watch bread and butter churning round in
    his mouth. This would hardly be likely to happen in the real world.

    For another
    thing, they were neatly dressed and were surrounded by world leaders.
    Again, it fails to convince. In the real world, these two bums would
    never have made it past security. Further, asking the audience to
    believe that national policy is made this way, in half-sentences
    interrupted by talk of s__t and sweaters, is overly ambitious.

    It was a brave
    effort but, in conclusion, a wasted opportunity. We must hope for
    a better production of this mysterious play at the next G8 summit,
    which will be in Germany in June 2007.

    24, 2006

    Irwin [send him mail] describes
    himself as “a sort of a buyer” who writes and edits in his spare
    time. He lives in Tokyo.

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