Lately our research team has been endeavouring to build a complete publication record of Pinter’s works as part of the content of the database. This project happens to entail contending with lost and more recently discovered works. Perhaps fittingly, then, Pinter’s widow, Lady Antonia Fraser, has just discovered a never-before-seen sketch by her late husband, which she submitted to the Guardian for publication, accompanied by a few of her own remarks. Fraser relates that after Pinter’s passing she kept a few of the legal pads he customarily used for writing and placed them by the telephone for note taking. As she tore off a sheet one day Pinter’s distinctive handwriting appeared on the page, revealing an unfamiliar work that had been embedded in what appeared to be an unused pad. Her account of discovering the sketch reminded me of the odd occasion working in the Pinter Archive when I’ve flipped through those legal pads and have discovered material hiding in precisely the same way.
Published only a few weeks ago on 27 October, the title of the sketch is presented in two ways: first as ‘The Pres and the Officer’, in Fraser’s prefatory remarks, and then as ‘The Pres and an Officer’, in the presentation of the script. There is no formal list of dramatis personae; and the characters are described in the following way via a single stage direction: ‘Pres. ruminating. Officer reading Washington Post.’ ‘P’ and ‘O’ are the two main characters, the single capital letters suggesting the piece’s status as a working draft and making the men, respectively, eponymous characters. A third character, ‘Voice’, speaks with either man intermittently from the other end of P’s telephone line.
‘The Pres and the Officer’ is political satire top to bottom, and resonates with moments in Pinter’s overtly political drama, poetry and speeches inasmuch as ‘P’ is a hawkish leader who does not flinch in ordering up the destruction of an entire city and whose performance of violence only emboldens him to engage in more. The dialogue begins in an ironic mode as ‘P’ rings for the Commander of Strategic Air Command (Voice) and calls him ‘Charlie’, which is of course American military slang for communist forces, the Viet Cong especially. The reference does not suggest that P is the leader of a communist country so much as it performs that characteristic inversion of Pinter’s whereby leaders of democratic nations are framed as the real enemy of the people. After cursorily asking Voice/Charlie how he and his ‘folks’ are doing, ‘P’ delivers the terse, sober command: ‘Nuke London.’ Charlie’s apprehension is intimated as P exclaims ‘Fuck Congress’, asks ‘What International Community? Are you joking?’ and then reasserts that ‘this is a Presidential Decree.’
A few exchanges between P and O draw out the fact that the English are the allies of whatever country these men represent and that the strike was an oversight—Paris being the intended target. As P declares that ‘They’ve had it coming to them for a long time’ it appears that the leader was by no means hasty in his action but actually unable to distinguish between the two nations. (This circumstance was perhaps foreshadowed a moment earlier in P’s fleeting uncertainty about who Charlie was when initially getting him on the phone.) P seems a little surprised when O informs him that they have decimated the wrong city, and also that Paris is not the capital of England (!). His reaction, surprisingly or predictably, is to petition another strike – this time on Paris – as if such a course of action might somehow right the wrong done.
Although these political figures never announce their nationality or affiliation, the Wall Street Journal written in as stage prop codes them as American. So too does P’s admission, after ordering the first strike, that he would like a drink of Jack Daniels whiskey to help him wind down. Pinter’s location of this kind of behaviour and political problem in America of course fits with his tendency as a political poet and activist to focus on the history of American foreign policy after the war, particularly from the 1980s onward when globalisation and free-market fundamentalism inspired various American administrations to mediate the spread of socialism in parts of Europe and the Southern Cone.
The satirisation of P’s inability to tell the difference clearly functions to make the political figure look a fool, absurd even. Beyond the send up, however, the depiction of one man’s abuse of office, indeed an abuse of power, points readers to the nihilism of obliterating both friend and foe so casually and righteously. The fact of the nuclear fallout derived from P’s actions weighs heavy on the sketch, yet this reality is not detailed. This feature remains in keeping with Pinter’s style of representation across his entire body of work. P’s error in judgment also suggests a likely outcome in the long game of an on going arms race where Western nations claim to stand for peace and freedom while steadily investing billions in nuclear armament. Never mind accidents, it is only a matter of time before we turn our weapons on our selves, the sketch seems to be suggesting.
If the characters and the work speak to the political climate and individuals in office during the last decade Pinter was alive (the first decade of the 2000s), Fraser suggests the work’s prescience given how she discovered ‘The Pres’ at the same time television reports broadcast American president Donald Trump threatening nuclear action against North Korea. At the same time, the work’s indictment of an American president cannot but draw our attention to the growing public distrust of politicians and elites which in recent years has been overturning electoral trends and shifting the terms of debate in the public sphere, particularly in and around referendums and election campaigns. Pinter always mistrusted politicians, even more than a decade before he declared himself an activist and critic of Western foreign policy. As he related in an interview with the Paris Review in 1966, and in response to media coverage of politicians rationalising the Vietnam War, it was the suffering he saw politicians causing that disconcerted him.
‘The Pres and the Officer’ reminds us of this early sentiment, but also of how central this target and kind of discourse was to Pinter’s political project. The sketch takes a page from other moments in the political corpus, from the depiction of politically-inspired and eroticised violence in the abrasive poem ‘American Football: A reflection upon the Gulf War’ (1991) to Pinter’s own ironic enactments of political figures such as Bill Clinton and George W. Bush the Younger in several of his speeches, culminating in his 2005 Nobel lecture, Art, Truth & Politics. This latest find also squares a triumvirate of political sketches where Precisely (1983), God’s District (1997) and Press Conference (2002) enact and critique figures and voices that lay claim to specific kinds of authority and knowledge, and in this seek to reform society in line with their own values.
The political ‘critique’ levelled by ‘The Pres and the Officer’ will no doubt draw out admirers who find Pinter’s representation of politics timely and detractors who see Pinter’s political writing as failing to grasp the complexities of the political sphere. Then there is the aesthetic dimension, which will no doubt draw out similar for-and-against positions which either look for new ways to appreciate Pinter’s participation in the time-honoured tradition of writing in opposition to war or lobby that Pinter’s dramatisation of political reality is such that the message gets too far ahead of the art. On this matter, it is useful to recall the mixed reactions to Pinter’s early review sketches, Martin Esslin for example depicting them as ‘little more than limbering up exercises to try out characteristic innovations in dialogue technique’ (Pinter the Playwright: 224) and Michael Billington arguing that they constitute ‘much of [his] best early work’ (Harold Pinter: 387).
While Pinter wrote fewer sketches than he did plays, I think it’s useful to think of him as fundamentally a sketch writer. In saying this I don’t want to suggest that all Pinter’s work has the appearance of being the rough and unfinished version of what might have been more fully developed into a creative work (which is one definition of a sketch). My point is that all his writing is given to exploring a situation, character or concept—particularly the former. (This, by the way, also what distinguishes Pinter’s sketches from skits which, as a form or genre, are, the Merriam Webster Dictionary relates, chiefly a dramatized joke or ‘bit’.) The late Christopher Innes noted how Pinter’s plots can be summed up in a sentence or two; and, perhaps relatedly, I’ve always found that with Pinter’s writing there is frequently little in the way of stock or even visible character ‘development’. Routinely absent is the kind of backstory that provides a sense of knowing or understanding the individuals in the play world and, moreover, the opportunity to chart how they grow and change. Pinter uses the time other playwrights devote to revealing the ‘contents’ of the characters’ minds and emotions to create a sense of power moving between characters and around the room. This is not to suggest that Pinter’s characters are uninteresting or not whole, but to observe how what exists at the apron of the stage, as it were, is a clear and tangible picture of social space and relations being navigated. All this adds up to a style whereby the situation predominates. Beneath the indictment of the use of political and military might and the caricature of the politician, ‘The Pres and the Officer’ returns to that early and long-running form where Pinter places two individuals in conversation only to draw out a conflict between them.
It is difficult to be precise about how many Pinter sketches there are because some prose works have been staged a sketches (‘Tess’), some sketches have been lost (‘Getting Acquainted’), some remain unpublished and perhaps more have yet to surface in the fashion of this recent example. Nevertheless, from what our database is showing me ‘The Pres and the Officer’ puts the number of sketches at roughly eighteen. While this work remains undated, as far as Fraser’s and the Guardian’s presentation indicates, the appearance of only one draft and the fact that Pinter never added it to the holdings in the Pinter Archive tempt me to estimate that this was a very late work, perhaps the last sketch he ever wrote and maybe even one of Pinter’s last bits of writing.
Read ‘The Pres and the Officer’ here: https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2017/oct/27/the-us-president-nukes-the-world-harold-pinter-antonia-fraser-newly-discovered-play-trump-nuclear