A game with a knife and a gun: Pinter’s “Sleuth”

A park, an overpass, and a Pinteresque dialogue in a Melbourne suburb: a humorous failure of communication turns into a brief comedy of menace in this poetic short story by Dean Kyte.

—Look, you either have it or you don’t.  If you don’t have it, that’s O.K.  We can take it out in trade.

—In trade?  What trade?  I don’t have that either.

—You don’t have what?

—Anything to trade.  I told you; I haven’t got it.

—You haven’t got it.

—No, I haven’t got it.

—Well, it’s no big deal.  Spag is not unreasonable.  If you haven’t got it, you haven’t got it.  If it can’t be gotten one way, it can be gotten another.  We’ll take it out in trade.

—But I haven’t got a trade.

—Look, I think we’ve got a failure of communication here.  You say you haven’t got a trade.

—That’s right.  Can’t you give me more time?

—Look, we’ll come to that in a minute.  I just want to be sure we’ve got each other.  You say you haven’t got a trade.

—Yes, I haven’t got anything to trade.

—Right.  That’s where we’re not getting each other.  If you’ve got nothing to trade, we can’t get it from you.

—But if you give me more time; a week, say—

—Look, we’ll come to the time element in a minute.  Where we’re failing to get each other is on the trade issue.  Now look, Spag’s not an unreasonable fellow.  If you haven’t got it to give and we can’t get it from you, we can get it another way.  We’ll take it out in trade.

—But I don’t have a trade—

—You don’t have a trade, but I do.

He showed the other the pistol.

—You’re out of time.  Spag told me to get it from you.  You haven’t got it, so now I’m going to give it to you.

—Dean Kyte, “The Trade”

The Architecture of my secret planet

In The Life and Work of Harold Pinter (1996), theatre critic Michael Billington quotes G. K. Chesterton: ‘There is at the back of every artist’s mind, something like a pattern or type of architecture. It is a thing like the landscape of his dreams; the sort of world he would wish to make or in which he would wish to wander; the strange flora and fauna of his own secret planet.’

On The Melbourne Flâneur vlog, in the ‘flânography’ of my videos, films, and photographs, I have given you, chers lecteurs, more than intimate access to my ‘secret planet’. As a flâneurial writer and filmmaker, in my dreamy dérives around Melbourne, I’ve shown even those readers who know the city as well as I another side of it, hitherto unsuspected—a dark, bleak world of urban ruin.

It’s the sinister vision of ‘friendly menace’ featured in the “Melbournoir” spread of The Melbourne Flâneur zine; it’s equally the vision of absolute nihilism and despair which pervades the black-and-white photographs I’ve chosen to illustrate The Spleen of Melbourne CD.

You can get an intimate sense, therefore, of ‘the strange flora’ (for there is no fauna, nothing living in these post-diluvial liminal spaces) on my secret planet: as a flâneurial artist who finds his heaven in the hell of the city, I live in an arid, calciferous, petrified forest, a mental desert of shattered crystals, the standing stones of an urban wasteland.

Is the desert so very bad? It is no worse than our cultural deserts, which we call cities.

—C. G. Jung, Black Books, Vol. III, January 1914

The kind of world I would wish to make, or in which I would wish to flâneurially wander, is, as the dream-Melbourne of my videos, films and photographs gives ample evidence, an Eliotian Waste Land.

Like David Lynch, who claims to love factories and nude women about equally, as an artist working in words and images, two obsessions seem to cut across my writing and image-making in every medium: I love architecture, and I used to love, but now have a distinctly ambivalent relationship to women.

The flâneurial investigation of urban landscape as much as the interrogation of the shifting sands of women’s moods and appearances seem equally to have a hold on my psyche. In those mysteries, the calamity of our times appears most evident to me.

The video above is in the first category, and certainly “The Trade” will feature in the next iteration of The Spleen of Melbourne project, when it takes on its second incarnation as a collection of short videos and Super 8 films.

As my good friend—and a good friend of this vlog—Hermetrix once observed on our Bellingenian jaunt last year, architecture means a great deal to me. The subjects of my photographs, the ‘actors’ in my films and videos are buildings and bits of shabby urban architecture, like the florid pedestrian underpass in Watsonia North which provided me with a photogenic subject for what would become “The Trade”.

Tripping past this cavernous maw, with its three teeth and its concrete face totemically tattooed with graffiti, shortly after we were released from our epic second lockdown in 2020, the Aragonian frisson de photogénie was activated in me and I knew I had a videographic subject for a future entry in The Spleen of Melbourne project.

The affinity I have for architecture is obvious in my visual œuvre. What is less obvious is that ‘the first art-form’—(for the necessity to construct a formally functional shelter is even more fundamental to human beings than their ability to communicate with each other through language)—should be deeply linked to my writing.

The knot between them is Gordian and can’t be separated. You could cut out the obsession with women more easily from my literary œuvre than the love of architecture.

Track 11 of The Spleen of Melbourne CD, the ficción “Office at night”, which I discussed in my post on Edward Hopper’s flâneurial art, is entirely a ludic jeu de perspectives architecturales in which I play a game with the listener, setting them the puzzle, à la Robbe-Grillet, of determining where they are in space with respect to a ‘verbal blueprint’ of Block Court and its immediate environs.

In the material symbol of the concrete architectural form, therefore, I see the analogue in space for my own intellectual concetti.

In the grisly face of this unremarked coin of the Greensborough Bypass I perceived something which excited me, some symbolic structure of thought, some reef in my unconscious against which my intuition instinctively barked itself, recognizing another clue to the æsthetic mystery of life I am tracking and trailing through the streets of Melbourne, and which, some eighteen months later, would slowly resolve itself, as the waters gradually receded, into the ambiguous ‘image’ of the video and the dialogue of “The Trade”.

It follows “Office at night” as another development in the literary crime I am plotting. The Godot-like ‘Spag’ referred to in “The Trade” is actually a character in one of the ficciones on The Spleen of Melbourne CD, although I’ll leave it to you, chers lecteurs, to determine which one.

As a sub-project of The Spleen of Melbourne, while I delineate the lineaments of the literary mystery that is slowly being carved, as an architecture of thought, out of the fog of my unconscious, when I find myself in a vicolo cieco of that imaginary Melbourne which maps to the actual one of my flâneuristic experience, I find it a useful activity to occasionally write a ficción exploring some aspect of the labyrinthine intellectual architecture I am groping my way blindly through.

And in “The Trade”, I was interested in exploring the voices of two characters who have lately come to extrude themselves, buttress-like, from the stony mass of Melburnian mystery as salient excroissances in that abstract cathedral of my thought—and at least one of whom is speaking in the short story. I was interested in learning how these characters speak, and my intuition (which is my only guide in mapping out this postmodern mystery of contemporary Melbourne life I will set before your ears in due course) eventually told me that there was a ‘Pinteresque’ quality to their speech—one that was, ambiguously, both humorous and menacing at the same time.

Pinteresque, adj. (and n.): Of or relating to Harold Pinter; resembling or characteristic of his plays….

Pinter’s plays are typically characterized by implications of threat and strong feeling produced through colloquial language, apparent triviality, and long pauses.

—Oxford English Dictionary

And a shout-out to another good friend of The Melbourne Flâneur vlog, Mr. Glen Available of Scenic Writers Shack in Brisbane, who, upon listening to the soundtrack of the video on Bandcamp, was kind enough to drop me a line and say that it both intrigued him and gave him a few chuckles. This was unexpected feedback gratefully received;—for although I thought I had probably got the atmosphere of ambiguity and menace I saw in the image of the underpass right, I wasn’t so sure about the humour.

The fact is, although your Melbourne Flâneur has a sense of humour, chers lecteurs, I don’t think I’m a ‘funny person’. With my saturnine nature, I’m quite dour. I live on the dark side of life. I’m exceedingly comfortable with ambiguity, obscurity, veiled threat. In the puzzling dark, I see the rending horrors of our time vaguely sketched.

I’ve since read the dialogue of “The Trade” at the Alternatives Bookshop in Bellingen, with the public health warning attached that I’m not at all certain, despite Mr. Glen’s good will, that the piece is ‘funny’. It did, however, gouge ‘a few chuckles’ out of the audience, and if there’s any humour at all in the ficción, it’s a kind of ‘technical’, poetic humour that relies on the constant emphasis and rhythmic repetition of a few simple words—‘give’, ‘got’, and, of course, ‘trade’, the ambiguous double meaning of which, as both verb and noun, supplies whatever ‘punchline’ there is.

I think I was perhaps influenced by Mr. Pinter’s short revue sketches, written in 1959, when the exotic name of ‘Pinter’ was first sending a frisson of apprehension through the British theatrical establishment. This was the year before Messrs. Bennett, Cook, Miller and Moore revolutionized British comedy with Beyond the Fringe, and as Mr. Billington tells us in his biographical study of the Pinter vie et œuvre:

Revue, in those pre-Beyond the Fringe days, tended to come in two sorts: the glitzy kind, which invariably seemed to feature an Apache dance outside some ill-lit Parisian boîte, and the more intimate variety specialising in inbred, sophisticated camp. But the form was subtly changing under the influence of writers like Peter Cook … and was leaning towards cryptic studies of the irrationality and inconsequentiality of human behaviour. Indeed, Cook … and Pinter … have always struck me … as artistic blood brothers.

What is striking about Pinter’s revue-sketches is the way they examine the same kinds of themes as his plays: the strangeness and solitude of the human animal, the subjectivity of memory, the use of language as a weapon of domination or a means of maintaining contact…. As he himself told The Times in November 1959:

In both [revue-sketches and plays] I am primarily interested in people… In many British plays I find myself put off by the spectre of the author looming above his characters, telling them [the audience] at every stage just what they are to think about them. I want as far as possible to leave comment to the audience; let them decide whether the characters and situations are funny or sad.

—Michael Billington, The Life and Work of Harold Pinter, p. 107

I agree with this intention, for certainly with “The Trade”, I was not seeking to write anything that was either funny or threatening. I was just trying to get an amiable conversation down, the most banal and unenlightening conversation possible, the kind of unilluminating snippet of conversation you might catch a snatch of walking through a suburban underpass. It would be up to the viewers to decide what they made of it, since I had no more information about the characters than that both of them are well-acquainted with the mythical Spag.

In that technical focus on the ‘mechanics of language’, how the ‘machine’ of a dialogue moves, with the escalating, accented repetition of key words acting like cogs and gears to advance a very simple, vestigial plot, I might have been thinking of Mr. Pinter’s sketch “Trouble in the Works”. As a parody of technical language, with its highly suggestive names for obscure machine parts, it escalates to a pitch of hilarity ending in a single word with a punning double sense. And in its overtly comic intent, of all Mr. Pinter’s revue sketches, “Trouble in the Works” is probably the most in-line with traditional English music-hall comedy pre-Beyond the Fringe.

The music of language and silence

But more characteristic of his style (and more interesting to me as a writer who takes a rather grim view of life) are short duets like “The Black and White” and “Last to Go”, which are not really ‘funny’ as such, but rather ‘wry’, and even melancholy. We know from the report of Mr. Pinter’s friends and girlfriends that he was great flâneur of London in his youth, that he loved ‘the caffs’, like the Black and White Milk Bar in Fleet Street, that he felt a great affinity for tramps and other gentlemen of the street, and in a way that is sui generis to Mr. Pinter as one of the foremost comic playwrights in modern English, these short, poetic sketches of la vie londonienne scribbled in muted tones possess a kind of dry, wry humour which is derived from two characters sadly singing a duet in the music of language and silence.

Sir Jeremy Isaacs: There’s words and there’s silence between words.

[Pause]

Harold Pinter: Yes.

Mr. Isaacs: And is there silence within the words?

[Long pause]

Mr. Pinter: Oh yes, I think so; I think that… there’s a silence… beneath the words very, very often. In other words, our words—it seems to me—quite often… hide… are actually… performing a rôle, a function, which is to… hide or tarnish, or to tarnish upon the silence that exists. I mean this silence, I’d like to be more precise about what I mean by that word silence in this particular connection, which is … I understand, a silence of fear, a fear of being known, a fear of knowledge, really. Fear of not only being known, but of knowing other people; that fear of intimacy.

Mr. Isaacs: And we use words to protect ourselves from that—

Mr. Pinter: —To cover it—to protect ourselves; yes, that’s the word I was actually looking for. To protect ourselves, yes.

Face to Face: “Harold Pinter”, 21 January, 1997

And as you can see in this Pinterish transcription of the grilling he underwent on the BBC’s Face to Face program, that ‘music of language and silence’ I’m referring to was not a literary affectation on Mr. Pinter’s part designed to confound and infuriate critics, or to bore and bamboozle audiences, but an eminent characteristic of his own speech patterns, full of smug evasion, groping hesitation towards the truth, awkward constructions of sentences and clumsy, colloquial Anglicisms.

Unique among English writers, he had an ear, as has been tirelessly reiterated, for ‘the way people talk’—the way they really talk; which is to say, how they say nothing.

As Mr. Pinter said in “Writing for the Theatre”, his famous address to the National Student Drama Festival in Bristol in 1962, ‘It is in the silence—[the place where the characters are silent and in hiding]—that they are most evident to me,’ and he went to make the distinction between two kinds of silence:—‘[o]ne when no word is spoken’, and the other ‘when perhaps a torrent of language is being employed’ to tarnish upon this void.

It is the chief characteristic of Modernism to find the Void in all the art-forms—the blankness in painting, the silence in music, the emptiness in architecture, the invisibility in photography, the stillness in cinema. Where that Void is, God is absent, and the modern artist in the West seeks to raise the alarm to his fellows, to point, to gesture towards the God-shaped hole, to scream out in halting, garbled tongues and alert the masses that we have murdered our Highest Value—the Source of all our values—and are dancing, revelling in His blood.

In the theatre, Mr. Pinter found the silence between the words spoken by human beings confronted with this implacable and terrifying Void; the silence within the very words we speak to tarnish over the Abyss; the silence beneath that very sound and fury signifying Nothing.

The celebrated ‘Pinter pause’, that unnerving ventilation of his plays, that silence and stasis between the lines spoken the actors, is itself actually a crucial line of dialogue, the hiding place where, for Mr. Pinter, human beings are most evident, most naked in their fear.

It was for this reason that he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005;—for his revolutionary apprehension that silence itself is a major term in the English language—as in all human language—that we, as writers, the scientists and explorers of human speech, are yet to come adequately to grips with and incorporate into our literary lexicon; for his experiments on the stage in ‘uncover[ing] the precipice under everyday prattle’, and his penetrating investigations, ‘forc[ing] entry into oppression’s closed rooms’.

Mr. Pinter’s utterly unique, therefore, among comic writers, whether for the theatre or more generally in English letters, in that there is nothing ‘comedic’ in his lines—nor, for that matter, is there anything ‘menacing’ in them, despite his early and lasting reputation as the writer of ‘comedies of menace’.

The Pinter line, broken, clichéd, grossly banal, both pregnant with meaning and utterly devoid of it, simply is as everyday English speech is. And into this void of ambiguity, in the face of this uncomfortable confrontation with the fractured poetry of our own tongue, we are forced to bark out a nervous laugh and let off a shiver simultaneously as we recognize our own tics and foibles and foolish verbal strategies in singing over this gulf of silence that separates us from the person in the next seat.

The desire for verification on the part of all of us, with regard to our own experience and the experience of others, is understandable but cannot always be satisfied. I suggest there can be no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily true or false; it can be both true and false. A character on the stage who can present no convincing argument or information as to his past experience, his present behaviour or his aspirations, nor give a comprehensive analysis of his motives is as legitimate and as worthy of attention as one who, alarmingly, can do all these things. The more acute the experience the less articulate its expression.

—Harold Pinter, “Writing for the Theatre”, Plays One, p. 11

The literary architecture of Sleuth

The rôle of architecture, and its relevance to literature, is pertinent here. As a thoroughgoing homme du théâtre, the most influential actor-dramatist in English letters since William Shakespeare, architecture, both concrete and abstract, is as relevant, I will contend, to Mr. Pinter’s art as it is to mine.

The architecture of a stage as the setting for a drama; the architecture of a room, that battlefield of verbal violence, power and domination in his comedies of menace; and the asymmetric, pyramidal architecture of power itself as manifested in domestic space: this is, to revert to Mr. Chesterton, ‘the pattern or type of architecture’ on Mr. Pinter’s secret planet, ‘the landscape of his dreams; the sort of world he would wish to make or in which he would wish to wander….’ And as Mr. Billington goes on to say:

That makes it sound romantic-idealist, but Pinter’s own secret planet turned out to be a cratered paradise destroyed by the serpent of sexuality and the desire for domination.

—Billington (1996, p. 26)

He neatly summarizes for us the key motifs of the Pinter world we find time and again repeated in his plays and screenplays—‘a room, a space, a territorial battle, a triangular encounter between two men and a woman, a reversal of power.’

That summary not only sets the stage, but it tells us in one sentence the entire plot of almost every Pinter play and screenplay. And curiously, it’s the motif, startlingly present and clearly delineated, as Mr. Billington tells us, in Mr. Pinter’s first surviving piece, written in 1949, when he just nineteen, and his last script, for the film Sleuth (2007), nearly sixty years later. It shows how much his work was of a piece.

But despite the award of the Nobel Prize two years before the release of Sleuth, I suspect that by 2007 Mr. Pinter had become somewhat of a ‘fabled figure’, one of those writers of the 1960’s, like his contemporary M. Robbe-Grillet, whose truly revolutionary impact on literature and film had been so thoroughly absorbed and digested by the popular culture that subsequent generations, X-ers and Millennials, could no longer truly appreciate how unique and original literary stylist he was, and what a gift it was to have this final film, written virtually on his deathbed, from the hand of one of the great writers of the previous century in our own.

Given that it recapitulates in a postmodern form the lifelong themes, motifs, concerns and abstract architecture of one of the landmark dramatists of high, literary modernism, Sleuth seems to me an elegant demonstration as much as it is a culmination and a summation of Pinter, the man and his world.

Anthony Shaffer’s play Sleuth (1970) is, without putting it pejoratively, the absolute opposite of Mr. Pinter’s theatre. It’s theatre as spectacle, an absolutely first-rate entertainment, as is the 1972 film adaptation written by Mr. Shaffer himself and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz.

And with respect to the two film versions of Sleuth, I don’t think the usual criticism about the original being better than the remake obtains in this instance: the original Sleuth is an absolutely first-rate entertainment, but the remake, directed by Sir Kenneth Branagh, transcends the original material and improves considerably upon it.

This is largely thanks to Mr. Pinter’s script, which shears away ‘the fat’ of theatrical spectacle, the convolutions of the plot which give Sleuth I its scopic pleasures as both play and movie. Sleuth II is slightly more half the length of the original, and at less than eighty minutes, is considerably shorter than most movies made even in 2007, when the taste for bloated two-and-a-half-hour spectacles had not yet quite taken hold of commercial cinema.

As we will see further on in this section, this ‘stripping away’ of the commercial ‘fat’ of theatrical spectacle to reveal the lean essence of human drama is eminently characteristic of Mr. Pinter’s approach to screen adaptation and central to his conception of the ‘architecture’ of a piece, both abstractly, as a written blueprint on a page, and concretely, as enacted theatre.

In spite of Mr. Branagh’s bristlingly cinematic treatment of the Pinter script, Sleuth II is even more of a ‘play’ than the original Shaffer script; which is to say that Sleuth I is a theatrical entertainment, while Sleuth II is theatre: it is Art.

As a point of comparison, note the architecture in Sleuth I. The baronial estate belonging to mystery writer Andrew Wyke (Sir Laurence Olivier) is a space of intrigue reflective of the man: we—and Sir Michael Caine’s Milo Tindle—discover Wyke dictating his latest locked-room mystery in the cosy midst of a labyrinth beside his mock-Gothic pile.

The space of his Wiltshire manor (designed by the great Ken Adam, so we know this ‘bad interior design’ is no mistake) is ‘busy’ with gewgaws, automata, and all manner of mechanical gadgets and games. This overwhelming and unsettling baroque encombrement of the frame is but itself a busy frame for the similarly baroque performance of Lord Olivier. As Mr. Caine said of his performance, Lord Olivier plays Wyke as a ‘dangerous English eccentric’: his mania for games and puzzles, theatre and play-acting sets us immediately at a remove. Consummate stage actor that he is, we ‘enjoy’ Lord Olivier’s performance, and thus the piece as theatrical spectacle.

Even the film’s title sequence, zooming in on a diorama, alludes to its origins on the stage as a ‘play’, a game of counterfeit appearances into which we, the audience, willingly enter, and self-consciously sets up a mise en abyme effect: house, hedge-maze, game, puzzle—all elaborate visual metaphors for a nested, ludic text, a casse-tête of multiple layers, like sliding panels, the pleasure of which, for the viewer, resides in rearranging the overlapping surfaces of recursive lies until they lock into place and this rebus forms ‘the picture’ of what is really going on—the ‘truth’, the ‘solution’ to Sleuth’s game of theatrical Cluedo.

This is why I say that Mr. Shaffer’s original conception of Sleuth is an absolutely first-rate ‘entertainment’. We are not plunged too deeply into the eccentric nightmare Milo finds himself in as he must navigate and extricate himself from the labyrinthine toils of Wyke’s dangerous game, but remain at a remove, entertained and not involved.

We know, since the detective story is a genre of fiction whose commercial value, as entertainment, is strictly linked to technocratic capitalism’s assumption of a rational symbolic order, that there must be a rational ‘solution’ to Wyke’s apparently irrational game, and only rationality can get Tindle out of his predicament.

These are the capitalistic assumptions of crime as a genre of commercial entertainment, and the concrete architecture of Sleuth I reflects a rational order beneath the surface disorder of apparent ‘busyness’, a belief that the foundations of reality are as firm as an English country house, the lineaments of which can be eventually divined beneath the ivy-covered walls.

Compare this architectural vision to Mr. Pinter’s in Sleuth II. I’ve already quoted Mr. Pinter’s famous credo given at Bristol, that he believes ‘there can be no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false’, and that, moreover, a thing ‘can be both true and false.’

This radical scepticism about reality, apart from being another key feature of modernism in art, is incompatible with the capitalistic assumptions of the commercial crime genre. Mr. Pinter, in his early comedies of menace, as in his end-of-life adaptation of Sleuth, is writing what I call ‘literary crime’: As an artist, as a researcher who is earnestly investigating, through the medium of written words, our modern confrontation with an existential Void that lies beneath our language, Mr. Pinter is not possessed of any received assumptions, any commercial certainties about a ‘solution’ to our global problems, about what is real and what is unreal, about what is true or what is false.

In that world of ambiguity and radical scepticism which is Mr. Pinter’s secret planet, the concrete and the abstract architecture of his interpretation of the Sleuth plot strips away the baroque busyness of Mr. Shaffer’s play to its essence: ‘a game with a knife and a gun’, a contest, a competition between two men, a naked power play between Andrew Wyke (now played by Michael Caine, graduating to the Olivier rôle) and Milo Tindle (now played by Jude Law).

Michelangelo, great sculptor, but equally a great architect, said that sculpture (which I would contend is directly derivative of architecture) is unique among the art-forms in that is an art of subtraction rather than addition: the sculptor reveals the form within the stone by taking away.

Non ha l’ottimo artista alcun concetto
c’un marmo solo in sé non circonscriva
col suo superchio, e solo a quello arriva
la man che ubbidisce all’intelletto.

The greatest artist hath not any idea
Which the rude block, circumscribed by its excess,
Does not first contain in itself; to free the captive
Is all the hand which obeys the intellect can do.

—Michelangelo Buonarroti, “Non ha l’ottimo artista alcun concetto” (my translation)

Compare this to Pauline Kael’s remark that, in contradistinction to most screenwriters, who add (often infuriatingly) what is not there to the material they adapt, ‘Pinter’s art is the art of taking away.’ Dirk Bogarde, who had the benefit of interpreting two Pinter scripts for the screen, The Servant (1963) and Accident (1967), co-signs Ms. Kael’s statement, saying that ‘addition was a very rare event because you just don’t find writers of his calibre in cinema.’

There’s a reason why we call artists like Mr. Pinter ‘playwrights’ in English rather than ‘playwriters’: like a shipwright, or a naval architect, he maps and constructs a form—abstract in his case—that must, despite its great ventilation and airiness, nevertheless be solid and serviceable, that must ‘float’ when given to a crew of actors and their captain, the director.

With Mr. Pinter, the written form, the wrighted form, must be ‘right’.

Mr. Pinter finds the sculptural, the essential architectural form beneath and within Mr. Shaffer’s busy, baroque script, and the coincidence of it is that, when you strip out all the commercial set decoration, the wheezing, steam-driven mechanics of mystery and suspense, the hard, naked architectural ‘form’ of the Sleuth plot maps precisely to the one artistic apprehension Mr. Pinter has about life, the one thing in the whole calamitous mystery of the modern world he’s absolutely sure about and can write with authority on—the concrete architecture of dramatic space, and its relationship to the abstract architecture of power.

The Sleuth plot is, au fond, about two men standing before us, naked in their humanity, and locked in a gladiatorial duel to the death.

The minimalist approach to mise-en-scène in Sleuth II not only reflects the architecture of Mr. Pinter’s writing, his ‘ventilated style’, but a different conception of ‘the game’ and game-playing, which is also architecturally structured by ‘rules of combat’, as the central conceit of the plot. Whereas Mr. Shaffer favours a labyrinthine thriller, ‘full of twists and turns’, Mr. Pinter strips the game back to a primitive struggle for power, a hierarchical ‘game of positions’.

Games people play

Detective Inspector Black: So what did you two do when you got together?

[Pause]

Wyke: We played a game.

Black: A game…

Wyke: A game with a knife and a gun.

Black: A lethal game?

Wyke: No. Just a bit of fun, that’s all.

—Harold Pinter, Sleuth

Games, as rules-based architectures modelling social relations, figure very significantly in the Pinter œuvre, which is not surprising given that this poet and playwright was also a fanatical cricketer and, by all accounts, an extremely competitive sportsman. Mr. Billington detects a deep link between dangerous masculine competitions and the sacredness of male friendship chez Pinter.

The vector of connection, as Davood Gozli observes in his Transactional Analysis of Sleuth II, is obviously homoerotic, but we should be careful about stopping here. To say that Mr. Pinter, with his stripping away of architectural excess, raises to the surface a subterranean homosexuality which is implicit in the Wyke/Tindle rapport of Mr. Shaffer’s plot, that their relationship in Sleuth II is simply the adventitious manifestation of a latent sexual deviance the two men discover in each other is, as I will show further on, too superficial an analysis, and fails to adequately describe the truly depraved nature of the game that Wyke and Tindle are playing in its deepest, and final, iteration.

The potentially lethal ‘game of positions’ between two men who are simultaneously perverse friends and deadly rivals has its most archetypal and architectural expression as a dramatic and cinematic image in Mr. Pinter’s first film, The Servant. I’m talking about the famous scene on the staircase in the ‘chic’ but claustrophobic London flat belonging to Tony (James Fox), where he and his manservant Barrett (Dirk Bogarde) viciously peg a tennis ball up- and down-stairs at each other.

There are evidently rules to this obscure game and an object to it, though I cannot, for the life of me, work out what the object is. Are they trying to defend the two bibelots set in niches at either end of the staircase? Then too, there is clearly a ‘strategy’ to the game that reveals its atavistic nature as an archetypal (as well as architectonic) ‘game of positions’, as evidenced by the servant Barrett’s complaint that the advantage lies with the master, Tony, for he himself is ‘in the inferior position of playing uphill.’

This archetypal image from The Servant literalizes the hierarchical game of positioning for dominance that is the chief architectural pattern of social relations on Mr. Pinter’s secret planet. The ball, an inoffensive symbol of co-operative play, is literally weaponized as an injurious projectile. And where we have weapons, we have crime.

The situation of our time
Surrounds us like a baffling crime.

...

Yet our equipment all the time
Extends the area of the crime
Until the guilt is everywhere.


—W. H. Auden, “New Year’s Letter (January 1, 1940)”

On Mr. Pinter’s secret planet, there is no solution: only the crime remains.

This is the distinction between what I am calling ‘literary crime’ and crime fiction as a commercial genre of entertainment. For the serious artist who is necessarily a researcher into ‘the situation of our time’, as Mr. Pinter is, there can be no comforting, rational ‘solutions’ to the existential problems of modernity, as technocratic capitalism assumes, but merely the acknowledgment that ‘our equipment’—the technological equipment of modernity—is the very weaponry we have used to commit our ‘Original Sin’ as Faustian men:—the murder of our God with the golden calf of Science, the murder of our Highest Value, and the Source of all our values.

The modern equipment of technocratic capitalism, the exponentially smarter shovels we iteratively design to dig ourselves out of the mess we are in, spreading the crotte even further afield, is the Cluedo arsenal of ‘smartknives’ and ‘iGuns’ which implicates us all in a game of mutually assured destruction.

Banished from the architecture of Mr. Pinter’s Sleuth is the mechanical gadgetry whose complicated and occult workings are concrete metaphors for the meshes of Wyke’s intellectual game in Sleuth I. With a kind of ‘Lord of the Flies’-style atavism, Mr. Pinter strips out the machinery of the commercial crime entertainment to its most fundamental ‘equipment’—a simple knife and gun, the primitive fulcrums by which men leverage elemental power over each other.

Behind the façade of the eighteenth-century villa in which Mr. Caine’s Wyke resides, we—and Mr. Law’s Tindle—are confronted with an eminently gladiatorial space: an über-masculine, über-brutalist concrete cube that resembles an art gallery or a stage set, a place for ‘performance art’.

Both characters claim that the house has been designed by Wyke’s wife, Maggie, the ostensible object of their contest, but it hasn’t a feminine touch at all: even the absurd and uncomfortable chairs don’t match.

Wyke: Like the house?

Tindle: Extraordinary!

Wyke: You know who designed it, who the ‘interior decorator’ was?

Tindle: Yes; your wife.

Wyke: You knew?

Tindle: Yes, I knew.

—Harold Pinter, Sleuth

If, indeed, this arena has has been architecturally designed by a woman, it’s is a Spartan space designed for men: it’s a boxing ring, a field of battle in which Wyke and Tindle are going to verbally beat each other to a pulp for possession of Maggie, the third term in their triangular territorial contest, and who, despite never being seen, can still be regarded as an active competitor in this game of mutual attrition.

At a meta-level, the game between Wyke and Tindle is an example of what Eric Berne, in his famous bestseller Games People Play (1964), terms a ‘Sexual Game’. More specifically, it’s a game he calls “Let’s You and Him Fight”, in a which a feminine player engineers a duel between two masculine players for sexual possession of her.

As Rick Baer says in his video essay comparing the two Sleuths, the design of the house in Mr. Pinter’s ruggedly skeletal and architectonic version of the script is not merely ‘uncomfortable’, but ‘downright hostile’. It’s not a home at all, but a ludic space that has been deliberately designed to unsettle, to arouse and agitate two men to an outcome, rather than to relax and soothe them. Neither the audience nor Milo are ever at ease in the place, and Wyke’s uncanny ability to remain unflappably comfortable and in charge of his abode—which, as Mr. Baer says, ‘seems to telepathically understand Wyke and do his bidding’—suggests a spider in its web, capable of making its home in the most precarious places and circumstances.

Analysing Mr. Pinter’s take on the Sleuth plot through Dr. Berne’s lens of psychological games, I’ve detected at least seven distinct phases to the ‘meta-game’ played by Wyke and Tindle across the two acts of the film:

Act I
  1. English Gentleman: a game of verbal badminton
  2. Caper 1: Robbers
  3. The Real Game: humiliation (emasculation) through masculine force.
Act II
  1. Caper 2: Cops
  2. Caper 3: Robbers
  3. Reprise of English Gentleman
  4. The Real Game: humiliation (emasculation) through feminine seduction.

As you can see, I’ve identified at least three distinct psychological games in operation in Sleuth II, each of which is played at least twice. When all three games are cycled through so that both Wyke and Tindle have had an opportunity to assume the ‘superior position’ over each other, we have the ‘meta-game’ that is Sleuth II.

Playing at ‘being English Gentlemen’

The game I’m calling “English Gentleman” is the fundamental Pinter game, and one which we encounter at some point in almost every play and script. “English Gentleman” is not a ‘gendered’ game: it can be played by two men, or by a man and a woman. I don’t know of an instance in Mr. Pinter’s œuvre where it’s played by two women. Gender is not salient to the game; I merely use the word ‘gentleman’ to qualify the archetypal nature of ‘Englishness’ I’m perceiving in Wyke’s and Tindle’s initial interaction, the pattern of which, on reflection, I see repeated in the architecture of all Mr. Pinter’s plays and films.

In their first meeting on the steps of Wyke’s house, Andrew draws attention to the size of both his and Tindle’s cars. You might say that “English Gentleman” is a game of ‘Mine is Bigger Than Yours’, only in reverse:—the object of being a true ‘English Gentleman’ is to deprecate oneself, to minimize oneself, to make oneself appear more modest, more polite, more civil, more civilized than one’s opponent—to make him appear to be the ‘bigger’, more gauche, more vulgar man.

This is the nature of the game that Wyke and Tindle enter into for the first quarter of an hour, the first half of Act I. “English Gentleman” is a game of passive-aggressive politeness—a parody, in effect, of what it is to be both ‘English’ and a ‘gentleman’. And if there is any ‘comedy’ at all in Mr. Pinter’s comedies of menace, it lies precisely in these games of “English Gentleman”, where characters pass a veil of insincere colloquial Anglicism over a verbal badminton match where they are batting poisoned darts at each other.

It’s obviously a class-based game, but we have to remember where Mr. Pinter ‘comes from’—temporally speaking: He’s a playwright who emerges in the late 1950’s and comes to dominate the British theatre in the early 1960’s, a period when the structural integrity of the British class system was being deeply challenged—not least by the voice and ear of this Cockney son of a Jewish tailor.

There is, therefore, in the game of “English Gentleman” a pretence of equality, of egalitarianism, the nervous sense, post-Suez, that if the sun is setting on the Empire at a rapid clip, then at least ‘we are all English together’, all united by a culture and a language that, in its irregular verbiage and often perverse idiomatic expressions, can at least keep the foreigners ‘out’.

That is really what it means to play the game of “English Gentleman” chez Pinter: In a British society where aristocracy is suddenly devalued, to be ‘English’ is suddenly to be part of a ‘common aristocracy’—the common patrimony of culture and language. And the English language being notoriously difficult to master, we see how, for a singular playwright like Mr. Pinter, that ‘musician of language and silence’, the arcane formulæ of colloquial English, that glossary of clumsy Anglicisms which suddenly ring tinny to his extraordinary ear, becomes as hermetic and exclusionary as jargon or terms of art.

Are you in or are you out? Can you mouth the coded platitudes of an English gentleman? Which is to say, given the embarrassing situation in which Wyke and Tindle find themselves in at the beginning of the Sleuth plot, can both men pretend not to notice the awkwardness of sharing a woman and wear the mask of vacuous English civility with each other to the hilt—a mask that becomes eminently Pinterian when the torrential silence of English colloquialism is poured over the Void between them? And more to the point, in this verbal badminton match, can either Wyke or Tindle play the game of passive-aggressive politeness so well that is the other is rattled into an unforced error?

Wyke: I understand you’re fucking my wife.

Tindle: That’s right.

Wyke: Right. Yes, right. So we’ve cleared that up?

Tindle: We have.

Wyke: I thought you might have denied it.

Tindle: Why would I deny it?

Wyke: Well, she is my wife.

Tindle: Yes, but she’s fucking me—

Wyke: Oh, she’s fucking you too, huh? Well, I’ll be buggered! [Guffaws, coquettishly half-covers his mouth.] Sorry.

Tindle: Yes, it’s mutual.

Wyke: You take turns.

Tindle: We fuck each other, that’s what people do.

Wyke [shortly]: Yeh, yeh… I follow.

—Harold Pinter, Sleuth

One can say, not unfairly to Mr. Pinter, that the quintessentially ‘English’ dialogue of Sleuth II, this game of “English Gentleman” is a little dated. That’s not a criticism; it’s what gives the film its charm. For the last time, we’re hearing the brittle, brutal dialogue that made Mr. Pinter such a revolutionary force in the sixties.

The British class system having effectively collapsed, and incivility having taken over public discourse in our century, people ‘don’t talk like that any more’:—they haven’t the ‘class’ to wear a mask of civility over their emotions the way ‘English gentlemen’ of the old, Pinterian school, like Wyke and Tindle, do.

The object of the game is to get the other man’s mask of politeness to slip, to get him to acknowledge, through an unforced error, the outrageousness of the situation—sitting across the table from the man who is (as Inspector Black will later put it) giving your wife ‘a good going-over’ and making amiable, drawing-room chit-chat with him. And as the dialogue above shows, the advantage goes, initially, to Milo: as the present possessor of Maggie, he is playing ‘in the superior position’.

But I said above that “English Gentleman” is, chez Pinter, a necessarily exclusionary game, one designed to ‘keep out’ the foreigner, the one who is ‘passing’ for an English gentleman in this radically democratized society rendered ambiguous by a putative ‘equality’.

In Sleuth I, Mr. Shaffer makes much of class, and of Milo Tindle’s dubious background. In the original conception of the Sleuth plot, Milo is a hairdresser, the owner of two salons, and the son of a poor Italian watchmaker, a certain Tindolini. In Sleuth II, Mr. Pinter jettisons much of this obvious social commentary, but what he retains is telling about how he conceptualizes the game between the two men.

In Sleuth II, Mr. Law’s Tindle is now an actor, mostly out of work, a specialist in killers and sex maniacs. He’s still got the Italian papà sullo sfondo, though Wyke, in a typical Pinter manœuvre, ignores this information and high-handedly attempts to tell him that his father might actually be Hungarian.

More pointedly, in an even more aggressive version of this gambit of calculated rudeness, it is Wyke who brings up what vestigially remains of the ‘hairdresser’ backstory and tells Tindle that he ‘thought Maggie said that you were a hairdresser.’

It is a customary gambit in Mr. Pinter’s plays for a character to take some piece of information which is flatly denied or contradicted by another character into his head and never let it go, stubbornly insisting on this self-invented falsehood or deliberate misunderstanding as a point of fact.

This is the essence of the game of “English Gentleman” which Mick, for instance, insists on playing with Davies in Mr. Pinter’s most famous play, The Caretaker (1960), refusing to believe that this scurrilous tramp isn’t ‘an experienced first-class professional interior and exterior decorator’, despite having made this elaborate ruse up out of his own head in order to trap Davies and evict him from his house.

In Sleuth II, the factitious fact of Tindle being an ‘Italian hairdresser’ becomes a running gag throughout the piece. In attributing the misapprehension to Maggie, Wyke places a veneer of plausible deniability on what is frankly a ruse to embarrass Milo and put him at a positional disadvantage.

The point of the gambit is that if Wyke can get Tindle to inhabit his frame, getting him to admit the validity of Wyke’s invented falsehood that Milo’s father is actually Hungarian, that he’s not English at all but really Italian, or that he’s not an actor but in fact a hairdresser, then he gains the superior position over him by dictating to his opponent the identity he has invented for this (as Wyke sees it) pathetic interloper in his house and his marital bed, and thus disposing of Tindle as a challenge to his masculinity.

These latter two intersections of identity—nationality and occupation—become particularly weaponized as fulcrums of power: To be ‘Italian’ (a ‘funny lot’, according to Wyke, who don’t go in much for ‘culture’) is to be distinctly ‘un-English’, and to be (of all things) a ‘hairdresser’ is to be distinctly ‘not a gentleman’. Worst of all is to be both Italian and a hairdresser, for, in the mordantly dubious construction Wyke places on these two things together, is to be, in the game of coded language that is “English Gentleman”, una specie di culattone.

And the Cockney Caine/Wyke of Sleuth II is not, I think, sans raison in pressing with leaden-footed heaviness on the triggering peddle of Law/Tindle’s dubious ‘passing’ as an English gentleman. I said above that the kind sub-Coward subversion of drawing-room comedy dialogue with which Mr. Pinter first came to the stage is ‘just not done anymore, old boy’; that young Brits of today just don’t talk like that.

For all the heaviness of his Cockney accent, Mr. Caine is more convincing as an English gentleman of the old school than Mr. Law, but that disconcerting ‘falsity’ of Mr. Pinter’s version of Tindle as being a product of the public school system, and thus on terms of equality with Wyke in that ‘easy grace’, the affected sprezzatura with which both men approach an embarrassing personal matter, is rendered with a beautifully studied ‘foreignness’ in Mr. Law’s interpretation of the rôle.

As a Gen-X’er, Jude Law is really too young to be well-acquainted, as Mr. Caine is, with the ambiguous codes of English speech in the collapsing class system that Mr. Pinter made his special field of research during the 1950’s and ’60’s. When Mr. Law’s Tindle, therefore, attempts to speak like a creature of the drawing room, those clumsy Anglicisms, those elaborate colloquial forms for saying nothing at all which ring so tinny to the ear when rendered by Mr. Pinter, sound actually as though they are being spoken by a foreigner.

When Mr. Law’s Tindle suggests that he and Wyke ‘get down to “brass tacks”’; when he greets Wyke’s criminal proposition with the ultimate in English clichés, that he is ‘all ears’; or, most especially, when he calls the older man ‘old boy’, he speaks almost as I write, with such dripping sarcasm and such bitter satire that neither Jamesian quotation marks nor Flaubertian italicization are enough in themselves to frame and underscore the freezing irony with which he is employing these empty bourgeois terms of polite art.

He speaks the colloquial English of the game of “English Gentleman” like a foreigner, an outsider, uno straniero to the environment of the drawing room—like an Italian, in fine, aping English manners and mores.

Wyke: … I’ve never heard of an Italian called Tindle.

Tindle [sotto voce]: My father’s name is Tindolini.

Wyke [bitterly]: Now that’s lovely. That’s like a little bell. Why don’t you go back to Tindolini? It suits you.

Tindle: You think so?

Wyke: Yes. So if and when you marry Maggie, she’ll be ‘Maggie… Tindolini’. She’ll get a kick out of that.

[Pause]

Wyke: What name do you act under, Tindle or Tindolini?

Tindle: Tindle.

Wyke: Why have I never heard of you—?

Tindle [quietly]: You will, before long.

Wyke: Really?

Tindle [quietly]: In spades.

Wyke: That sounds threatening—

Tindle: Does it—?

Wyke: Doesn’t it?

—Harold Pinter, Sleuth

The big store

The game I am calling “Caper” is really the only game that Mr. Pinter retains from the original plot of Sleuth. “Caper” is that ‘movement’ in both acts of the drama where the commercial mechanics of the crime entertainment are thrown into some vestigial and perfunctory operation, a kind of dramatic bridging device designed to sweeten the transition between the two atavistic games that interest Mr. Pinter, “English Gentleman” and “The Real Game”, the former being a more civilized version of the latter.

Moreover, “Caper” is the only Pinter game in Sleuth II that maps more or less neatly onto the psychological games taxonomized by Dr. Berne. It’s in the genus of games he calls ‘Underworld Games’, and fractionates into two variants—“Robbers” and “Cops”.

“Robbers” maps to Dr. Berne’s “Cops and Robbers”, which, as he explains, is not like the children’s game of cops and robbers at all, but rather like hide-and-seek, ‘in which the essential element is the chagrin of being found.’ Wyke and Tindle’s hunt for the safe in which the jewels are hidden represents the sub-game of “Robbers”, and since Wyke, in the first iteration of the game, knows where the safe is, and both players know where it is in the second, the pleasure of the game, as Dr. Berne says, lies in Wyke’s feigned defence of the jewels (which are indeed well-hidden) while all the while betraying their location as he aids and abets Milo in finding the safe.

If father finds [the child] too easily, the chagrin is there without much fun. But father, if he is a good player, knows what to do: he holds off, whereupon the little boy gives him a clue by calling out, dropping something or banging. Thus, he forces father to find him, but still shows chagrin; this time he has had more fun because of the increased suspense. If father gives up, the boy usually feels disappointed rather than victorious. Since the fun of being hidden was there, evidently that is not where the trouble lies. What he is disappointed about is not being caught. When his turn comes to hide, father knows he is not supposed to outwit the child for very long, just long enough to make it fun; and he is wise enough to look chagrined when he is caught. It soon becomes clear that being found is the necessary payoff.

… At the social level [“Cops and Robbers”] is a battle of wits, and is most satisfying when the Adult of each player does his best…. Not being caught is actually the antithesis. Among older children, one who finds an insoluble hiding place is regarded as not being a good sport, since he has spoiled the game. He has eliminated the Child element and turned the whole thing into an Adult procedure. He is no longer playing for fun.

—Eric Berne, Games People Play, “Cops and Robbers”

In some sense, while Wyke is the nominal Parent in the first iteration of “Robbers”, helping Milo, in the Child position, to find the safe like the good father of Dr. Berne’s example, both men, I would contend, enter into the Child position to some extent. From Wyke’s perspective, knowing that the safe really is in an ‘insoluble hiding place’, he nobly declines to turn the sub-game of “Robbers” into ‘an Adult procedure’, a sporting contest of wits between equals, but enters with Tindle into ‘the Child element’ of the game, ransacking his bedroom in simulated search of the safe with even more gusto than Milo.

In the second iteration, the presence of the revolver as a salient element in the game-play puts Milo in the Parent position. But he reciprocates the ‘sporting chance’ that Wyke gave him in the first iteration of “Robbers” and insists (albeit with irony; that is to say, at gun-point) that Wyke—who is now very obviously in the Child position—help him to find the safe, the location of which he pretends to be in ignorance of.

Thus I would say that, in contradistinction to Dr. Berne’s contention that there must be a ‘complementarity’ in the ego-states of players of psychological games, in “Robbers”, both men adopt the Child position to some extent, insofar as they both enter with gusto into the darkest aspect of children’s play—its savagery, its malevolence, its destructiveness. They share this savagery, malevolence and destructiveness more or less equally, and the sub-game of “Robbers” is (in its first iteration at least) the only time in Sleuth II we really see Wyke and Tindle on something like a genuine footing of equality.

The sub-game of “Cops”, on the other hand, reflects the classic dynamic identified by Dr. Berne: one player must take the Parent position, the rôle of authority, and the other, the complementary Child position. “Cops” maps to Dr. Berne’s Underworld Game “Let’s Pull a Fast One on Joey”, which, as he says, is the prototypical psychological game that forms the basis for the ‘Big Store’—the multi-iteration caper of the long con game, the architectural mechanics of which are described by David W. Maurer in one of my favourite books, the classic treatise on the subject, The Big Con (1940).

The confidence game, the social game of verisimilar appearances and strategic dissimulation, is the ‘crime of our time’ identified by Mr. Auden as the salient feature of technological, capitalistic modernity. The confidence game as an architecture of ambiguous, plausible, but ultimately fake appearances—an utterly abstract architecture, totally platonic—is, to my mind, the chief poetic metaphor for the situation of our time—the ‘meta-crisis’ of the sensemaking crisis, the impossibility, despite our technological ‘equipment’, of discovering ‘Truth’ with it:—For the knife of Science with which we ‘cut through’ reality, with which we have algorithmically engineered the ‘world of fakeness’, the labyrinthine galerie des glaces narcissiques in which we now find ourselves trapped and lost, is the same knife we have plunged—and daily plunge in our mutually implicating games of (self)-deception—into the side of God, murdering our Highest Value, and the Source of all our meaning.

And knowing my fascination with con games and other Machiavellian social games of strategic deception, dear readers, you will perhaps begin to appreciate why I admire the abstract architecture of Mr. Pinter’s version of the Sleuth plot as a serious literary investigation of ‘the crime of our time’, for he abstracts the literalized labyrinth of Mr. Shaffer’s original conception and gives the metaphor a further twist: The concrete architecture of Wyke’s house, full of the airy blankness of the Void, becomes a Borgesian maze of the mind where the ‘twists and turns’ are the abrupt and jarring incongruencies of character as each man reveals a different ‘facet’ of himself to the other, and the reversals in social positioning between them.

Moreover, in its industrial brutalism, like those empty spaces con artists rent out and deck out in the décor of a stock exchange or a private gambling parlour, and in his wholesale transference of the concrete architecture of ‘the Game’ of Mr. Shaffer’s Sleuth into the abstract arena of the mind, Mr. Pinter makes of Chez Wyke a ‘Big Store’, a protean conceptual space, like the caja blanca of a gallery, for the bravura performance of ‘the Art of the Big Con’.

“Capers” 2 and 3, the con game engineered by Tindle, together comprise a ‘short con’ and is played as an end in itself: true to his Italian heritage, he merely wants to get revenge on Wyke by ‘pulling a fast one’ on him. Once he has both deceived and humiliated Wyke, the score is settled, and the meta-game, from his perspective, cycles back to the parodic civility of “English Gentleman”.

This is his strategic error in the meta-game, the error of an impatient youth when pitted against the cunning of old age; for as I said above, “English Gentleman” and “The Real Game” are, in fact, one and the same game, the only difference being that, in “The Real Game”, Mr. Pinter removes the mask, the veneer of civility and civilization altogether.

“The Real Game” is essentially ‘the real Pinter game’, the game of Silence and the Void that lies beneath the characteristic game of “English Gentleman” which is a feature of all his plays.

Hence, when I said that the “Caper” is a bridging device in the architecture of Sleuth II between “English Gentleman” and “The Real Game”, we can see how Wyke approaches the long con, how he architecturally ‘orchestrates’ the game-play of Act I, versus how Tindle orchestrates the short con in Act II, and consequently where Milo’s fatal error lies.

“English Gentleman” must end in “The Real Game”: “English Gentleman” is ‘the set-up’ of “The Real Game”—which is, in turn, ‘the pay-off’ to the meta-game that is Mr. Pinter’s Sleuth. You cannot play the “Caper”—even a fractionated version of it—as Tindle does merely as an end in itself and then go back to the civilized sniping of passive-aggressive politeness.

As Wyke tells Inspector Black, ‘it’s not worth playing a game unless you play it to the hilt.’ And where ‘the real game’, as he admits, is a game of humiliation between two men, you cannot merely reduce the other to ‘a shivering, frightened, fucking wreck in front you,’ and then give him ‘a drink and a pat on the bum’ and let it go at that, as Tindle does.

The “Caper” is, as Wyke very well understands, a form, a gambit, ‘the convincer’ that serves an essential function in the overall architecture of the con game. Only a child, like Milo, would think that the “Caper” is the con game itself.

The object of the “Caper” is not simply to deceive your opponent and humiliate him with your deception, to ‘take off’ the other player in a short, smash-and-grab con of one iteration. It is to ‘frame the gaff’, to ‘bill the mark in’ to the Big Store of the long con, iterated over several turns of play; it is to take him off repeatedly until the mark is completely played out.

Thus we come back to the architecture of the house as ‘Big Store’. If we are to believe the report of the two characters and accept that Maggie is responsible for the design of the house, she has ‘framed the gaff’ in which the long con of Wyke’s “Real Game” is set to take place. In this reading of the architecture of the Pinterian meta-game, she is the ‘roper’ who has ‘mitted in’ the mark, Milo, introducing him to the ‘inside man’—Wyke—who manages the Big Store she has designed as a game for Tindle.

In other words, Maggie and Wyke are in on the “Caper” together, which is why I say that, despite the fact that we never see Maggie in the film, we can consider her to be a competitor in the triangulated game of “Let’s You and Him Fight”. A careful viewing of Sleuth II yields several clues in support of this hypothesis. Though it’s assumed, in this version, that the game is a perverse sexual conspiracy between Maggie and Wyke to destroy Milo, a variation on the game Mr. Pinter plays in The Comfort of Strangers (1990), such a dangerous caper could easily go awry—in which case I see the femme fatale Maggie very readily giving herself to Tindle, having dispatched, through him, a husband who has nothing to recommend him but his money.

This interpretation of the meta-game sees Maggie as the final iteration of the enigmatic Pinter woman we encounter so many times, particularly in his string of plays in the early 1960’s which deal, as Mr. Billington says, with ‘sexual politics’—The Collection (1961), The Lover (1963), and, most particularly, his masterpiece, The Homecoming (1964)—all plays in which a woman, despite her passivity, emerges as the only victor in an attritional sexual contest between men, rising above their claims to possess her even as she submits to being ‘the spoils of war’.

But in another, more intellectually delicious conceptualization, I see Wyke as being the roper for himself. He is both roper and inside man, and in the recursive, nested game of Act I, in which “English Gentleman” frames the simulated “Caper” of stealing the jewels, and this farce in turn frames the gaff for “The Real Game” which is the pay-off of “English Gentleman”, he mitts Milo in by introducing him to successive versions of himself, facets which are distinct from each other and thus mark the iterations of the game-play.

The ‘roper’, as he says, is the ‘crooked exterior’ of the Big Store/house which extends its hand to Milo on the steps in the first scene and ‘mitts him in’ to the big con. Under this is the inside man, the ‘simple, honest man’ Wyke claims to be, and as every inside man knows, you can only convince a mark to play a con game by appealing to his ‘honesty’—the truly larcenous nature behind his front as an upstanding citizen—and by giving the appearance of respectable probity yourself.

In the long con, each time you play a mark, you must let him win ‘the convincer’, that turn in the game-play that gives him the confidence to go on and greedily redouble his stake. You must let him win a couple of substantial hands off you before you lower the gaff and play him for the big block—everything he’s brought to the table. And this is what Wyke, the master manipulator, does in the games of “English Gentleman” and “Caper” in Act I: he lets Milo best him in the first two games, lets him get the girl and the jewels off him.

And once Tindle is ‘all in’, once he has bought into the ruse of the “Caper”, Wyke lowers the gaff on Milo, revealing the ‘jewellery story’ to have been but a blind, a Big Store for “The Real Game”:

Tindle [laughing nervously]: Listen—will you put that gun down?

Wyke [quietly, curiously]: Why?

Tindle [still laughing]: It’s pointing directly at me; I’m not very happy about it.

Wyke [curiously]: Why not?

Tindle: Look, is this a game?

Wyke: This is a real game.

[Pause]

Wyke [grimly]: The real game has just begun.

Tindle [laughing, ironically]: What’s ‘the real game’?

Wyke: You and me.

—Harold Pinter, Sleuth

Men without women

When the mask of civility is lifted, when the veneer of civilization comes off, the game of “English Gentleman” reveals “The Real Game”, the game of Silence and the Void, that is beneath all of Mr. Pinter’s plays and films. “The Real Game” is ‘the weasel under the cocktail cabinet’, which he facetiously claimed was what his plays were, au fond, all about.

“The Real Game” is what is beneath the game of blind man’s bluff that Goldberg and McCann employ as a tactic to terrorize Stanley with in The Birthday Party (1958). It’s beneath the blague with the vacuum cleaner and the farcical rings about ‘interior decoration’ that Mick runs round the crafty but outclassed Davies in The Caretaker. It’s in back of the jockeying for position close to Hirst between Spooner and Foster and Briggs in No Man’s Land (1974).

In Sleuth II we see the final, brilliant iteration of ‘the real Pinter game’ when those two silences—a torrent of words and no words at all—are deployed as desperate, last-ditch, murderous measures between two men to tarnish over the existential Void between them.

In the long con game, a gun is a conspicuous prop in the play that is enacted for the benefit of the mark. A gun is also a form of convincer that is used to ‘cool out’ the mark once he has been ‘taken off’: the inside man, who has formed a conspiracy with the mark to keep an eye on the mark’s handler, the roper, typically ‘shoots’ the roper in outrage when the ‘sure thing’ he had with the mark goes awry. Being bound together as two ‘honest’ men, the mark is implicated as a witness to the inside man’s ‘crime’, and is convinced to take a run-out powder and cool off—sans all his cash.

In his version of “The Real Game”, Wyke uses the pistol he produces in the “Caper” to convince Tindle of his verisimilar intent to murder him. More specifically, he fires two live rounds—these are the convincers in the game-play—followed by a blank cartridge.

Wyke: I’ll tell you exactly what I did. I pretended to kill him. I shot him with a blank, I frightened the shit out of him. Your man was right, your spy, whoever he was. There were three shots: the first two were real, the third one was blank. He was terrified. When I shot him he fainted. When he came round, I gave a drink, pat on the bum, he left the house, his tail, if you want to call it that, between his legs – and I haven’t seen him since.

Black [incredulously]: You gave him ‘a pat on the bum’?

Wyke: Metaphorically.

Black [with growing outrage]: You gave him a metaphorical ‘pat on the bum’?

Wyke: Sure.

Black: How did he take it?

Wyke: What?

Black: The pat!

Wyke: He was fine, he told me that it was game, set, and match to me.

Black: So this guy had a sense of humour, is that what you’re saying?

Wyke: Oh yes, he left the house with a ‘twinkle in his eye’.

Black: So tell me, what was the point of all this—?

Wyke: Humiliation! It’s nice to see your wife’s lover a shivering, frightened, fucking wreck in front of you! As a matter of fact, I liked him; I thought he was attractive. I thought we could’ve become good friends. The shortest way to a man’s heart, as I’m sure you know, is humiliation. It binds you together.

—Harold Pinter, Sleuth

“The Real Game” at the heart of Sleuth II, therefore, is humiliation, but two distinct variations on the game are played in the two acts of the drama.

In Act I, Wyke avails himself, through the convincing prop of the pistol, of masculine force to humiliate Milo, and in embarrassing him, emasculating him. He reduces him to the condition of being a mere ‘Italian hairdresser’ of a man, placing him firmly in the ‘inferior position’, the identity he has constructed for him with that phrase, of being una specie di culattone.

But as Robert Greene tells us in the preface to his book The Art of Seduction (2001), there are two distinct strategies to obtaining power. One of them is through masculine force, and the other is through feminine seduction.

In “The Real Game” of Act II, both men engage in a game of mutual humiliation, mutual emasculation not through force, but via a strategy of feminine seduction.

Seduction requires the player to ‘adopt’ the inferior position as a ruse for eventual dominance through submission. One gives up a lot of the immediate, hard power one can exercise through force in order to gain a more subtle and enduring ‘soft power’, the power of persuasion, but also the power to withhold sexual rewards, and to blackmail or extort compliance in exchange for sexual rewards.

This is ultimately the power that Stella, in The Collection, exercises not only over her husband James, but also over the homosexual couple of Harry and Bill; that Sarah exercises over her husband Richard in The Lover, cuckolding him with himself; and that Ruth, in the most complex articulation of this essential architecture of power chez Pinter, exercises over her husband Teddy and all her male in-laws in The Homecoming.

I said above that there is an obvious homoerotic dimension to the Wyke/Tindle rapport in the Sleuth plot, one which is more or less latent in Mr. Shaffer’s original conception, but which it pleases Mr. Pinter, ‘the supposed trader in mystery and ambiguity’, as Mr. Billington calls him, to raise to salience through his excision of the commercial plot dynamics.

But I said also that we should be careful about falling too quickly on the facile conclusion that, au fond, the plot of Sleuth II is merely about ‘discovering’ this latent homoeroticism in the two characters, ‘outing them’, as it were.

That would be to do a fundamental disservice to Mr. Pinter as a dramatist for whom the Nobel Prize was an acknowledgment that he was a serious social scientist, a serious researcher into the physics and the chemistry of human relations, in the laboratory of the theatre.

The nature of “The Real Game” of modern human relations chez Pinter, of men stripped down to their primitive humanity and locked in these atavistic sexual contests for possession of a woman, a hierarchical ‘game of positions’ to determine who is ‘top’ and who is ‘bottom’, doesn’t reduce to an unambiguous homosexuality, but instead reduces to the ambiguity of the Void beneath our ‘social costumes’, the noisy game of “English Gentleman” we play with each other as a civilized version of this real, silent, gladiatorial contest to the death for personal power—the origins of political power in what Mr. Billington calls the ‘sexual fascism’ at the heart of Mr. Pinter’s plays.

But any intelligent men [sic] with a passionate commitment to male friendship, such as Pinter has, is bound to ask himself at some point whether male bonding carries with it implications of homosexuality. It is also intriguing how often Pinter returns to the subject of what René Girard calls ‘triangular desire’, in which two men are drawn together by their urge to possess the same woman.

—Billington (1996, p. 138)

There’s some confusion where “Caper” 3 ends and the reprise of “English Gentleman” begins in Act II. Having got the safe open and the jewels out of it, Milo oscillates between joking good-naturedly with Wyke and sadistically torturing him. This is because he is a younger man, impetuous, impatient, and inexperienced at this kind of calculated brinkmanship.

He plays the game with (as Dr. Berne says with respect to “Cops and Robbers”) the Child’s sense of fun. He doesn’t realize that Wyke is playing the meta-game from the Adult ego-state, that ‘[h]e is in the same class as the owner of a casino, or some professional criminals, who are really out for money rather than sport.’

Even when he’s caught off-balance by Tindle’s abrupt switches of mood, you can distinctly see in Wyke’s eyes that he is quickly clocking to where they are in the meta-game and pacing Milo. You can also see the point at which he perceives Tindle’s fundamental weakness as a callow, egotistical, impetuous youth, and resumes the lead by adopting ‘the inferior position’, the feminine position, with respect to him.

Wyke: You like games, don’t you?

Tindle: Some. Not all.

Wyke: But you like being in charge – of the game?

[Pause]

Tindle [somewhat uncertainly, as if sensing a trap]: Oh yes; sure.

[Slight pause]

Wyke: I like a man who wants to be in charge of things.

Tindle: Do you?

Wyke: Yes, I do.

[]

Wyke: You know something, I – I like your mind.

Tindle [rather luxuriantly, as if used to being complimented]: Do you really?

Wyke: It excites me. I like the way you go about things.

Tindle: You mean… you like my ‘style’.

Wyke [pensively]: Oh, I-I like your style. I like it very much.

—Harold Pinter, Sleuth

Tindle has the typical vanity—and the insecurity—of the actor, and Wyke seeks to place him permanently in the inferior, feminine position he has designated for him by the subtle ruse of first adopting the feminine position himself. He pretends to be dominated by Milo’s mind (which Tindle interprets, vaingloriously, as his ‘style’ at game-play), by a mind that is equal in its Machiavellian intricacy to Wyke’s own.

He also seeks to put this Italian hairdresser ‘in his place’—in the ‘little boy’s room’ of the guest suite.

In Mr. Pinter’s plays dating all the way back to his first, The Room (1957), the conquest of a room by an invader who dislocates and ejects the inhabitant from it is the central motif, the essential pattern of the architecture on his secret planet. Finally, in his last work, the game involves putting one’s opponent in a room, inviting the invader into one’s space, and containing him in a corner of one’s domain and empire.

In Sleuth II, introjecting the invader into oneself—like a woman—swallowing and suffocating him in the claustrophobic room of one’s choosing, becomes the winning move in “The Real Game”.

Wyke [quietly]: I’m a rich man. What do you want to do? I can subsidise anything you want. You want to open a bookshop in the village? An art gallery? Or, of course – a little theatre! You’re a wonderful actor, you could choose all the plays and play all the leading parts.

[Pause]

But — this would be your home.

[Long pause]

And this would be your bedroom.

—Harold Pinter, Sleuth

In a deliberately ambiguous Pinterism designed to raise, in the unsubtle, the suspicion that Wyke, beneath all the violence with which he has competed for Maggie, is merely an ‘old queen’, he tells Tindle that he is ‘my kind of person’, and Tindle, although taken aback, is clearly moved by this confidence.

Very few people have ever liked Milo ‘for his mind’;—plenty have admired him for his body, of course, but no one except Wyke has ever appreciated his lively wit and his child-like sprezzatura at play. And sensing an advantage over Wyke—that he has at last found his weakness—Tindle, the actor who can turn on a dime, begins to play up the ‘Italian hairdresser’ rôle for the old man—the occulted ‘queerness’ that Wyke has suspected in him from the start—as he entertains the idea of becoming the old man’s catamite.

Thus, you see, dear readers, there is not, as appears on first view, an uncomplicated sexual deviance adventitiously discovered at the heart of the Wyke/Tindle rapport in Sleuth II. Instead, having spent most of the film competing for the ‘superior position’ over each other, in the final iteration of the game-play, each man having truly met his match in the other, and having exhausted all the strategies of emasculation through force, both men now jockey to adopt and occupy the inferior, feminine position in the short-term as a strategy to ultimately dominate the other in the long-term.

“The Real Game”, in its ultimate iteration, is a game of mutual humiliation, mutual emasculation through the castrating tyranny of feminine seduction. The game, in its deepest iteration, is far more depraved than superficial sexual deviance: for, like scorpions crouching down so as to raise the stinging tail higher over the other, or crocodiles locked in a death roll, both men are going to debase themselves—cut off their own cojones, albeit momentarily—so as to seduce the other into an inferior position he can never escape from.

What gives feminine seduction its longer-lasting, though unstable, power when it is obviously the ‘weaker’ of the two strategies, lies in the ‘feminine prerogative’, that irrational inconstancy we men find so fatiguing and frustrating to deal with.

The superior, masculine position being the position of ‘conscious control’, it demands rational predictability. The inferior, feminine position, while complying submissively with the masculine, ceding willingly to its attractive display of force, reserves for itself the arm of irrationality, the right to perversely ‘change its mind’ on a dime, to be ‘owned’, ‘possessed’, but never ‘controlled’—for that would be to make itself ‘predictable’, and thus subject to masculine control.

Having been ‘boxed in’ to the guest suite, having been played into a corner by Wyke’s verisimilar pretence at being seduced, Tindle senses his predicament. The only strategy open to him from this square is to embrace submission to the hilt and to obtain a lasting dominance over Wyke through strategic deployment of irrational inconstancy—blackmailing and extorting submission to him by what he sees as Wyke’s secret sexual weakness.

Tindle: … [P]erhaps I am ‘your kind of person’, who knows?

[Slight pause]

Tindle: But you would have to be very – nice – to me; for instance, just at this moment, I need a drink.

[Silence]

Wyke [quietly]: You can get your own drink.

Tindle: No, you get it for me and I might be ‘nice’ to you.

Wyke: Nice to me?

Tindle: That’s what I said. [Snapping his fingers] Whisky, please!

[Long silence]

—Harold Pinter, Sleuth

The ‘feminine position’, as this dialogue demonstrates, is truly to be playing the game from Dr. Berne’s Child ego-state: the last weapon that is available to the feminine player is the impetuous tyranny of the ‘tantrum’, that nuclear option that women know they can threaten to deploy at any time, and the fear of which is usually sufficient to extort compliance from weak men, those, that is to say, who have insufficient will to access to their funds of force in a nuclear confrontation.

It’s a dangerous strategy, which is why I say that seduction is a longer lasting iterative strategy for obtaining and maintaining power than force, but an unstable one. While the feminine player can obtain and maintain an advantage over a weak masculine player almost indefinitely through the tyranny of seduction, it’s a calculated bet, and at some point, when the coercive nudging and tantrums finally becomes too fatiguing and frustrating, a weak man generally snaps, accessing all his supply of force, seeing and raising the nuclear option in a way the women can’t match, going ‘all in’.

This is the dangerous situation that Tindle is in. Like a needling woman, he doesn’t know how close he actually is to the button he is flirting with, cannot calculate or calibrate himself to the supply of force occulted by Wyke’s poker-faced silence. To paraphrase M. de Sade, in Wyke Milo ‘ne connait pas le monstre auquel il a à faire’: he does not perceive to what extent crime has been enthroned in the ‘dank and deep architecture’ of that perverse soul.

Tindle is playing from the Child’s position, but Wyke, a professional underworld gamesman as a crime writer and a past-master at these long strategies of slow strangulation, is playing from the Adult position: he is, as Dr. Berne says, ‘no longer playing for fun. He is in the same class as … some professional criminals, who are really out for money rather than sport.’

And as Mr. Caine revealed, while in Sleuth I Lord Olivier was constrained by the commercial architecture of Mr. Shaffer’s plot to play Wyke as a ‘dangerous English eccentric’, he and Mr. Branagh decided to base their interpretation of the Pinter Wyke on a psychological treatise they discovered on morbid jealousy—a condition which has often led to the murder of lovers by aggrieved spouses.

Thus, ‘the game’, “The Real Game”, from Wyke’s, the professional crime writer’s, perspective, is The Most Dangerous Game—the deliberate, calculated hunting of a human being as sport.

And yet it’s clear there is some genuine and mutual attraction between Wyke and Tindle that is more than merely platonic: the strategy of mutual emasculation through seduction couldn’t be effective if they weren’t actually seduced by something in the other. The woman is no longer salient: as a field of contest over which they have fought, as a token of palpable possession in the conceptual game-space, Maggie has been exhausted of her relevance and her value as the object of the game:—they have, as Wyke says, ‘cut her out’, ‘let her rot.’

She is ‘nowhere’, and as Milo admits, ultimately, ‘This is a game between us, “old boy”, between you and me.’

My kind of person

In Wyke and Tindle, these two figures of commercial ‘fun’ adopted and adapted from another playwright, we have the two sides of Harold Pinter himself, the writer and the actor, the master in charge of the game and the great counterfeiter. They come together in the deadly symbiosis of a final reconciliation, the final statement of a great artist on the concerns of his life—the concrete architecture of domestic space—of houses, of rooms—and how the private, personal sphere gives rise to the abstract architecture of political power.

Mr. Pinter is ‘my kind of person’. I like his mind; it excites me. I like the way he ‘goes about things’. I like his ‘style’ very much.

In the outback town where I grew up, I was a member of the local theatrical society as a teenager. In the first year of my membership, a season of four one-act plays was staged. Les gosses, the junior thespians, had their chance first up to ‘put on a show’, and then, after the dress rehearsals, and later, when the season was in full swing, I would slip around and sit front of house, anxious to watch the third play on the bill.

I had become fascinated by a play which featured two men in a room, one lying on a bed reading a newspaper, the other sitting on another bed, tying his shoe. It was Mr. Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter (1958). I had never heard such dialogue—unfunnily funny, banally menacing. And I had never heard such prolonged silence on a stage, like the continual, suspenseful build-up to a gag which never comes, or if it came, was not funny, was not a release in tension but a tightening of it.

Over about two months of watching the dress rehearsals, and then the play before an audience, it slowly dawned on my young brain who and what Ben and Gus, the two men in the room, were, and I became obsessed by the puzzle of trying to figure out how they move from their first positions through their weird iterated game-play, like a pair of music-hall comedians kibbitzing with increasing momentum through a routine where the laughter slowly dies, to the final tableau of the play, their final, silent confrontation with each other across the Void.

Having read the play many times, nearly thirty years later, I’m still not quite sure how he does it, how Mr. Pinter pulls off ‘the prestige’ of his magic trick, and yet the image of two men in a room at the end of that play has endured for me as one of the key æsthetic experiences of my life.

In the way the artistic soul inchoately senses, even in its youth, here was an image that had ‘high signal’ for me, that confirmed what I had already intuited about life—that the modern world is an absurd ‘black comedy’.

Then, when I was fifteen and sixteen, I had a go at our local eisteddfod and tried my hand at something I think was called a ‘Character Study’ or something like that—an ambitious competition, often the preserve of serious drama students, gosses who imagined they would go on to study drama at uni, and which involved performing a monologue of your choice, in costume, with appropriate props.

In the first year, I chose Pete’s revelation of his dream in Mr. Pinter’s The Dwarfs (1960):

Pete’s monologue from The Dwarfs by Harold Pinter, read by Dean Kyte

Pete: The apprehension of experience must obviously be dependent upon discrimination if it’s to be considered valuable. That’s what you lack. You’ve got no idea how to preserve a distance between what you smell and what you think about it. You haven’t got the faculty for making a simple distinction between one thing and another. Every time you walk out of this door you go straight over a cliff. What you’ve got to do is nourish the power of assessment. How can you hope to assess and verify anything if you walk about with your nose stuck between your feet all day long? You knock around with Mark too much. He can’t do you any good. I know how to handle him. But I don’t think he’s your sort. Between you and me, I sometimes think he’s a man of weeds. Sometimes I think he’s just playing a game. But what game? I like him all right when you come down to it. We’re old pals. But you look at him and what do you see? An attitude. Has it substance or is it barren? Sometimes I think it’s as barren as a bombed site. He’ll be a spent force in no time if he doesn’t watch his step. [Pause.] I’ll tell you a dream I had last night. I was with a girl in a tube station, on the platform. People were rushing about. There was some sort of panic. When I looked round I saw everyone’s faces were peeling, blotched, blistered. People were screaming, booming down the tunnels. There was a fire bell clanging. When I looked at the girl I saw that her face was coming off in slabs too, like plaster. Black scabs and stains. The skin was dropping off like lumps of cat’s meat. I could hear it sizzling on the electric rails. I pulled her by the arm to get her out of there. She wouldn’t budge. Stood there, with half a face, staring at me. I screamed at her to come away. Then I thought, Christ, what’s my face look like? Is that why she’s staring? Is that rotting too?

—Harold Pinter, The Dwarfs, Plays Two, pp. 89-90

An ambitious choice. I came runner-up. I just lost my claim to the medallion with on the narrowest margin of points through an unforced error: in rehearsals, I had decided to start off the monologue facing away from the audience, a calculated gamble on my part. It’s a difficult opening from a standing start, particularly when taken out of the context of the scene, and I knew I would have to really project to get the first sentence or two out to compensate for that risky choice. On the night, in the auditorium, I didn’t quite have the power in my lungs I needed.

Having learnt my lesson, I came back the following year, determined to claim the medallion. This time I interpreted Len’s closing monologue:

Len’s closing monologue from The Dwarfs by Harold Pinter, read by Dean Kyte

Len: They’ve stopped eating. It’ll be a quick get out when the whistle blows. All their belongings are stacked in piles. They’ve doused the fire. But I’ve heard nothing. What is the cause for alarm? Why is everything packed? Why are they ready for the off? But they say nothing. They’ve cut me off without a penny. And now they’ve settled down to a wide-eyed kip, crosslegged by the fire. It’s insupportable. I’m left in the lurch. Not even a stale frankfurter, a slice of bacon rind, a leaf of cabbage, not even a mouldy piece of salami, like they used to sling me in the days when we told old tales by suntime. They sit, chock-full. But I smell a rat. They seem to be anticipating a rarer dish, a choicer spread. And this change. All about me the change. The yard as I know it is littered with scraps of cat’s meat, pig bollocks, tin cans, bird brains, spare parts of all the little animals, a squelching, squealing carpet, all the dwarfs’ leavings spittled in the muck, worms stuck in the poisoned shit heaps, the alleys a whirlpool of piss, slime, blood, and fruit juice. Now all is bare. All is clean. All is scrubbed. There is a lawn. There is a shrub. There is a flower.

—Harold Pinter, The Dwarfs, Plays Two, pp. 104-5

I won the medallion.

I didn’t go on to study drama. Unlike Mr. Pinter, as a writer I’ve found my calling to be an actor on ‘the stage of the page’, one of those introverted souls who give their private performance in the rehearsal of deep ideation undertaken in the backstage of life.

But I admire Mr. Pinter’s style comme homme du théâtre. As a dour, splenetic soul not much given to mirth, but with a liver that is a veritable and prodigious factory producing the black bile of bleak satire, I like his ‘comedies of menace’ very much. I howl with laughter at Sleuth: I like a joke that feels like a knife against my throat. His comedies of menace—The Room, The Birthday Party, The Dumb Waiter, even, to some extent, The Caretaker—fall under that rubric I am calling ‘literary crime’.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in the era, that is, of modernity, it somehow became the writer’s dubious rôle and still more dubious responsibility to be ‘the conscience of his society’.

It’s a rôle and responsibility I sneer at, which I think is a misapprehension, a conflation of logical premises, but which I recognize as an inevitable consequence, just the same, of the faulty, scientistic, capitalistic logic of modernity: Conscience and conscience—the French ‘consciousness’—being one, the writer, the literate artist who is the guardian and custodian of his society’s language (and thus its historian and its prophet) is charged with performing that ‘deep ideation’, working through the problems of his time with what I call ‘the algebra of human language’—words, that abstract symbology which is the conceptual architecture of human consciousness.

Mr. Pinter did just that. He perceived ‘the crime of our time’, the crisis in meaning that is the result of technocratic, capitalistic modernity, the way we have murdered all our values with the knife of Science, and how it has alienated us from the world and from ourselves.

He wasn’t an entertainer; he did not treat the serious subject of crime trivially, as commercial entertainment. He was a literary artist, and the ambiguity of his plays, their banality, their irresolution, are the bane of those who seek ‘entertainment’ in the theatre, comforting distraction from the networked problems which, in the course of the last 100 years, have mounted to such a point that we cannot, in our lifetimes, now see around them.

The baffling crime of our time is all around us, and we are all implicated in the game of our mutually assured destruction. We commit it every day, haul the Void closer to ourselves with the nihilistic criminality of our own ambiguous banality.

We’ve all got our hands on the roulette wheel, and everything we do is a ‘move’ that, in externalizing the costs of individual rent-seeking, our vain grasping for personal ‘influence’, to the collective, iterates us all towards a mutually assured, universal holocaust.

As an artist, Mr. Pinter was comfortable to remain in a state of ‘negative capability’, not drawing any conclusions, for the networked problem is so vast that its variety confounds the algebra of human language. We have not the abstract symbology to sculpt the conceptual architecture of the hell that is now all around us. A thorough model of the problem is yet to be articulated in writing, and without a model that compasses the scope of the variety, a networked solution cannot be ideated.

In fine, we have not the language—the words—to even know what the reality is that is around us.

We have not described it; we have not yet modelled it, and we cannot—yet—but we must try.

I tire of that species of writer who, as Mr. Pinter says in “Writing for the Theatre”, ‘clearly trusts words absolutely,’ those souls who still labour under the naïve commercial assumptions of entertainment, believing that there is a direct ratio between words and their referents, that they unproblematically compass the variety of reality, that the world is ‘known’ by the words we use, ‘conquered’ by human language, and ‘knowable’, ‘conquerable’ through them.

Le monde lui-même n’est plus cette propriété privée, héréditaire et monnayable, cette sorte de proie, qu’il s’agissait moins de connaître que de conquérir…

Notre monde, aujourd’hui, est moins sûr de lui-même, plus modest peut-être puisqu’il a renoncé à la toute-puissance de la personne, mais plus ambitieux aussi puisqu’il regarde au-delà.

The world itself is no longer a private property, inheritable and vendible, a species of prey, of which it is a less a matter of understanding it than of conquering it….

Today, our world is less sure of itself, possibly more modest, since it has renounced the all-powerfulness of the human being, but also more ambitious, since it looks beyond it.

—Alain Robbe-Grillet, “Sur quelques notions périmées”, Pour un nouveau roman (1961, p. 28, my translation)

The ‘radical scepticism’ about the world of verisimilar appearances evinced by Mr. Pinter should be a salutary example to us as writers.

It’s time to ‘buck your ideas up’, as he says in Sleuth. The time for entertainment is over. It’s time for us, as writers, to ‘get down to “brass tacks”’, to begin to map the dimensions of the meta-crisis, to articulate the architecture of the networked hell that is all around us, and we only do that through the earnest modelling of actuality that is serious Art.

The network of impressions and intuitions that come from serious artists like Mr. Pinter, writers who use the algebra of human language to scope what they see—to report ‘high signal’ to the collective—is, I think, the only, but probably insufficient, means we having of compassing the variety, the only way we can bring the human dimension accurately and faithfully to the equation unbalanced by Science.

The Spleen of Melbourne project is my attempt to do just that, to present impressions from the field of my flâneuristic researches, through my prose poetry and ficciones, such as “The Trade”.

So too is that ‘literary crime’ I’ve been plotting since lockdown, and of which “The Trade” is a further experiment, a further attempt to articulate what I think is really going on in the world, the great ‘crime of our time’, the global confidence game of ambiguous appearances, of fakeness and personal grasping for ‘influence’, we engage in daily, the problem to which there is not yet a solution, since our language, as Mr. Pinter showed, is yet too weak to map accurately the reality of it.

If you find value in my ideation and would like to support me in my research, consider purchasing the soundtrack to “The Trade” below for $A2.

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