Off Broadway

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 leaving?

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, 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.

July 24, 2006