Study Guide

Butley

by Simon Gray

Butley Essay - Critical Essays

Critical Context

Although Simon Gray had seen numerous of his plays produced for television and the stage, it was the overwhelming success of Butley and, later, Otherwise Engaged (pr., pb. 1975) that established his reputation as a new voice in British drama. These successes did not come, however, without some controversy, as many critics have shunned his work because they consider it lacking in depth. Much of this attitude stems from the fact that Gray has scored his successes in theaters in London’s West End, theaters that often produce entertainments with few or no literary pretensions.

What such critics fail to acknowledge, however, is that a critically acclaimed playwright such as Harold Pinter was eager to direct Butley. Indeed, Gray does not work to produce obvious social or moral messages in his plays; in interviews, he vigorously disdains such blatant appeals to critics. Instead, his metier is human behavior, and his first responsibility is to his audience.

As Butley amply illustrates, Gray’s vision is richly sardonic, and his world is full of ambushes and small betrayals. Like many of his contemporaries, Gray depicts characters who are isolated and lonely and whose last resources are linguistic ones. His works in the 1990’s—including Cell Mates (pr., pb. 1995), Life Support (pr., pb. 1997), and Just the Three of Us (pr. 1997, pb. 1999)—continue this characterization. Gray’s perspective is as meaningful a view of contemporary life as any overtly didactic play might present, and his wit and subtle craftsmanship further distinguish his best work.