Butley Themes

Themes and Meanings (Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Many critics have dismissed Simon Gray, and Butley in particular, as offering little more than literate entertainment; in their view, this play lacks the serious moral purpose to be found in the work of Tom Stoppard, for example. What these critics ignore, however, is Gray’s central intent—an exploration of the nuances and intricacies of human interaction. As Gray reveals them in this play, human relationships are fraught with problems, fragility, and vulnerability.

In Ben’s frenzied dealings with Joey, it is clear that for them friendship, rather than marriage, represents the greatest form of human intimacy. Ironically, though, even friendship is founded upon an unsteady desire for dominance and possession. Both Reg and Ben recognize Joey’s fundamental passivity, and each battles for position and authority.

Ben’s quest for dominance arises also out of a strong sense of loathing, loathing of others but, most important, loathing of himself. Overwhelmed by pain and depression, he slides increasingly beyond the affection of loved ones and the respect of colleagues and students. Joey expresses the situation at the close of the play with a scathing rebuke:But those were in the days when you still taught. Now you spread futility, Ben. It creeps in, like your dirty socks do, into my drawers. Or my clean ones, onto your feet. Or your cigarette butts everywhere. Or your stubble and shaving cream into our razor. Or your voice, booming...

(The entire section is 481 words.)