Simon Gray Essay - Critical Essays


Two important elements in Simon Gray’s playwriting career evolved directly from his educational background. The Cambridge experience was clearly an important one. In a sense, when Gray reports, “I went to university when I was seventeen and I never left,” he is speaking metaphorically as well as literally. His postgraduate life has been spent in academia, but it is obvious that there are symbolic connections with his everyday life that reappear in his plays. During Gray’s tenure at Cambridge, there was an extraordinarily gifted group of other students also in attendance. The intellectual atmosphere was stimulating; a number of undergraduates wrote and acted in satiric revues on campus and then moved on to the London stage immediately afterward (and sometimes even while still pursuing their studies). Peter Cook, a contributor to the immensely successful Beyond the Fringe (1959), was one such. Novelist Margaret Drabble, television personality David Frost, actor Derek Jacobi, and Christopher Booker, a cofounder of Private Eye magazine, were among Gray’s contemporaries. Furthermore, director John Barton was a don at King’s College and poet Sylvia Plath lived in the town of Cambridge.

Besides the literary climate of the present and the long line of literati connected with the university in the past, Gray was also exposed to literary and dramatic traditions in his course work. Many of his characters, settings, and plot situations derive from this aspect of his life. The numerous literary allusions that are characteristic of his style are direct outgrowths of Gray’s Cambridge experience. Finally, the many references to Cambridge, typically related to the concept of class distinctions, are similarly attributable to this period in his life.

The second element is Gray’s experience as a teacher. A number of the aspects of his writing that can be traced to his university days extend to his professional career as well; the origins of several of Gray’s dramatic works reflect the attitude of an academic mind.

Unlike many contemporary playwrights who began writing dramas while in college, Gray actually became a dramatist as a young man after he was graduated and while he was trying to write short stories and novels. He had already published two prose volumes, Colmain in 1963 and Simple People in 1965, when he adapted a short story that was primarily dialogue and sold it as a television script. The piece, entitled The Caramel Crisis, was televised in 1966, and within a year Death of a Teddy Bear, A Way with the Ladies, and Sleeping Dog were also televised. Death of a Teddy Bear was an award-winning script, and Sleeping Dog was well received for its examination of the elements of domination and submission in the British national character (represented by Sir Herbert, a retired colonial administrator, who imprisons Claud, a black homosexual, in the basement of his manor house—the theme of ambiguous sexuality is also introduced).

Gray’s plays are interesting, witty, and well structured, and his characters are believably drawn. Furthermore, he uses language well, and it is clear that the use of language in his later works has been influenced by Harold Pinter’s dramaturgy, improving an already good product. If Gray’s plays lack profound timely significance, they nevertheless excel in stagecraft and technique, and his works have entertained audiences at home in England and abroad. He does not contend that his plays are meant to convey a message, but he does work at his writing rigorously; Otherwise Engaged, for example, required thirty-five drafts. Combining this attention to craftsmanship with a flair for witty dialogue, Gray has achieved both critical acclaim and popular acceptance.

Gray has had his difficulties with the theater establishment, despite the abiding commitment that director Pinter and actor Bates have invested in his work. He documents these difficulties in books such as Fat Chance (1995), which chronicles his exasperating experience with his play Cell Mates when the star actor, Stephen Fry, walked off the cast after the first week of its run in the West End and doomed the play just as it was gaining momentum. In 2001, he published Enter a Fox, which details the journey and problems associated with the production of his play The Late Middle Classes, killed in out-of-town tryouts. Gray speaks of Japes, produced in 2000, as perhaps his last play. He has always moved on to a new play before, but, he says, the drive seems to have gone out of him. Beyond such difficulties, Gray’s commitment to a theater rich in language, realistic in style, and highly structured in linear fashion runs counter to trends of the last decades of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, his characters are stunningly spectacular. They are riveting and memorable because of their obsessions, their abuse of one another, their wit, and ultimately their own self-destructive natures.

Wise Child

Wise Child was written for television, too, but it was reportedly considered “too bizarre for home viewing,” and it became Gray’s first play to be staged in the theater (at the Wyndham on October 10, 1967). The play is usually considered Gray’s best early effort, and it has been favorably compared with the work of Joe Orton. The plot revolves around a criminal who is wanted for a brutal mail robbery and is hiding from the police by disguising himself as a woman (creating a sort of black comedy version of Brandon Thomas’ 1896 farce Charley’s Aunt) while his accomplice poses as his son. After the pair murder their homosexual landlord, the older man reverts to wearing men’s clothing, and the younger man dons the maid’s clothes. Gray was fortunate that one of the finest actors of all time, Sir Alec Guinness, took the lead role. The “son’s” part was played by Simon Ward, who would appear in later plays by Gray. Harold Hobson, drama critic for the London Sunday Times, was impressed by the piece.

Dutch Uncle

Dutch Uncle followed Wise Child and was considerably less successful. Mounted by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Old Vic in London, the drama shows the academic turn of mind characteristic of Gray’s later works. The play was inspired by the case of police constable Reginald Christie, a mass murderer who did away with his wife, the wife of his upstairs lodger, and several other women. (Christie walled up the corpses in his kitchen. Gray’s play Death of a Teddy Bear, written a few years earlier, was similarly based on an actual murder case.) In Dutch Uncle, the main character, Mr. Godboy, tries to murder his wife to attract the attention of Inspector “Manly” Hawkins. His motivation is a homosexual obsession for the police officer. Unfortunately for Godboy, he proves ineffectual as a murderer—his wife blissfully and unknowingly avoids his trap—and when the inspector finally becomes interested in the household, it is because the upstairs tenant is the Merritt Street rapist. The play was not well received, and Gray himself described it as a failure “as witless as it was macabre. . . . [It] would goad an audience into an irritated restlessness.” He goes on to claim that the London opening was “the worst night in the British theatre.” Nevertheless, the husband’s distaste for his role as a husband and the dramatist’s exploration of the themes of domination and submission (also dealt with in Wise Child) mark the play as a contemporary work. It was probably these elements that attracted Harold Pinter to Gray’s work.


Next came Spoiled, a realistic domestic drama that was televised in 1968 and adapted for the stage in 1970. The play, which premiered at the Close Theatre Club in Glasgow, Scotland, on February 4, moved to London’s Haymarket Theatre on October 31 of the following year. It is about the relationships among a high school French instructor, his pregnant wife, and a young male student. While tutoring the teenager, the teacher seduces him, and the play evolves into a straightforward study of the “unthinking abuse of trust and power.” Spoiled also serves as a companion piece to Butley; both plays involve student-teacher relationships in an academic setting as well as failed marriages and homosexual activities. There are also some parallels with Otherwise Engaged. In contrast with the latter play, however, in which Simon Hench is too detached to be able to maintain a human relationship, Howarth, the teacher in Spoiled, falls tragically because he is too emotionally involved.


Butley, one of Gray’s most successful dramas, premiered at the Oxford Playhouse on July 7, 1971, and then moved to the Criterion Theatre in London exactly one week later. The first of Gray’s works to be directed by Pinter, it starred Alan Bates in the title role. Subsequently the play moved to the Morosco Theatre in New York City, on October 31, 1972.

All the action in the two-act play takes place in Ben Butley’s office in a college of London University. Act 1 opens at ten o’clock in the morning on the first day after the midterm break, and the second act begins about two hours later, “shortly after lunch.”

Butley is an English teacher at the university. He shares an office with Joseph Keyston, whom he calls Joey. Joey is also an English instructor,...

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