Simon Gray Essay - Gray, Simon (Vol. 14)

Gray, Simon (Vol. 14)


Gray, Simon 1936–

A British novelist, editor, short story writer, and playwright, Gray is a master of the double entendre and comic situation. Gray's dramas are often seemingly domestic, but they transcend domesticity to deal with the conflict between individual expression and such repressive social institutions as the church, government, and marriage. (See also CLC, Vol. 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.)

Edith Oliver

["Molly"]—not a comedy but often funny—is about a woman who allows herself to become overwhelmed by feeling…. Molly is an Englishwoman, presumably still in her thirties, who has just moved back to England from Canada with her elderly, deaf Canadian husband…. There is quite a lot of action. They hire a local boy—a pimply adolescent—as gardener and chauffeur, and before long Molly seduces him. The plot is concerned with that seduction and its consequences, yet the drama is primarily one of character and mood. When we first see Molly, she is distracted and half out of her mind with boredom and sexual frustration, trying to conceal her irritation with her bumbling, impotent husband…. Her sharp, witty lines need no muffling, since they fall on literally deaf ears…. The play is also about casual double-dealing with deaf people and its consequences. In the climactic scene, the husband talks of the bored, contemptuous expression he always sees on the faces of those around him, and how it is belied by their foolish, cheerful words, and then, revealing his awareness of what has been going on, furiously spits at the boy….

"Molly" ends with a burst of melodrama that I wouldn't dream of revealing (the play is based on an actual event in England in 1936), and while it is not a flawless work, it adds up to a generally accomplished evening.

Edith Oliver, "The Theatre: 'Molly'," in The New Yorker (© 1978 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LIII, No. 51, February 6, 1978, p. 68.

John Simon

If you look to The Rear Column for philosophical illumination, you will not find it exceptionally enlightening or original. But it is a highly intelligent piece of craftsmanship, with shrewd command of dramatic strategy, blessed with sharp but not unduly clever dialogue (Gray has displayed that skill elsewhere; here he is after other things)—and firm control over character development and interaction. (p. 148)

John Simon, "Oh, Dad, Poor Dad," in New York Magazine (copyright © 1978 by News Group Publications, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of New York Magazine), Vol. 11, No. 49, December 4, 1978, pp. 146, 148.∗

Edith Oliver

["The Rear Column"] is based on a historical episode. In the late eighteen-eighties, Henry M. Stanley, the explorer of the Congo, led an expedition to relieve one Emin Pasha … in the Sudan. Stanley's officers were British volunteers, and he left a column commanded by two of them—a Major Barttelot and a civilian named Jameson—behind at a camp in the Congo jungle, to wait for a promised contingent of porters. Three other officers, on their way to join Stanley … stopped off at the camp for supplies, as they had been instructed to do, but Barttelot was so furious at Stanley for abandoning him that he refused to give them any without specific written permission; unable to go forward, they were forced to remain at the camp. I set forth all this history and name all these characters, who actually lived, to demonstrate that, although it rarely occurs, a play—a powerful play, at that—can be written about real people who happen not to be Henry IV, Part II…. [The] play tells the story (as imagined by Mr. Gray) of that terrible year and of a misunderstanding so profound that it becomes lethal.

"The Rear Column" is essentially a play of character, ironic and tragic—of English gentlemen bearing up, or appearing to bear up, under unbearable circumstances, and of the demoralization of all of them as their reserves of physical and mental and nervous strength are eroded….

Each of these characters is written with admirable subtlety and clarity…. (p. 84)

Edith Oliver, "The Theatre: 'The Rear Column'," in The New Yorker (© 1978 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LIV. No. 42, December 4, 1978, pp. 84-5.

Terry Curtis Fox

Simon Gray's The Rear Column, an anti-adventure of Stanley's years after the discovery of Livingstone, is pure revisionism. Gray goes into Africa with modern eyes; Stanley has marched off to a year-long diversion and his rear guard—five on-stage British officers and several thousand offstage natives—is left behind to degenerate at will. The play is the progress of falling apart.

It is a curious work, written in the language of the adventure movie with all the romantic myth removed…. The exceptional has been banished in favor of the ordinary; Gray, anxious to dwell upon that modern cliche, the banality of evil, robs his characters of the values of their own time.

The story of The Rear Column is one of men who fail not only in the judgment of history but also by the standards they set for themselves, and, as such, it should have provided material for a fascinating work. Jameson [the British gentleman-dilettante who is second in command] in particular shows how great the moral dilemma in the play should have been. He, alone of the quintet, is fascinated by the African continent…. There is no largeness of purpose possible in this play, and that, ultimately, is what belittles the script.

For as the characters' integrity diminishes, peripheral issues outdistance fundamental ones. The relationship between the younger men and Major Barttelot, the lunatic commander who constantly threatens to turn himself into Captain Queeg, becomes more compelling than their relationship to imperialism…. Their attachments to Barttelot are literally unnatural…. (pp. 121-22)

Something is badly wrong here. In a world in which private London societies would conspire with the entrepreneurial King Leopold to enslave a continent, the worst evil does not come from being gay. (p. 122)

Terry Curtis Fox, "Heart of Grayness," in The Village Voice (copyright © 1978; reprinted by permission), Vol. 23, No. 49, December 4, 1978, pp. 121-22.∗

Peter Jenkins

In the course of one Sunday afternoon we encounter drunkenness, homosexuality, dishonesty, adultery, abortion, and more besides, until the stage [for Close of Play] is knee-deep in skeletons…. The point, I think, is that [the members of the family] have all destroyed each other. In an embarrassing moment they chant, Eliot-like, 'The door is open, we'll send them towards it', i.e. the door of death yawns from the moment of birth.

Simon Gray tries to solve the problem of the family play by the device of sitting [the father] down in an armchair and having him speak not a word till the end. It is not quite clear whether he dies at the end, is dead throughout, or whether the whole play is intended to take place at his moment of dying. Whichever it is his silent presence serves as an excuse for the family to expose themselves, relentlessly and at times indecently, to us outsiders.

Peter Jenkins, "Two for Tea," in The Spectator (© 1979 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 242, No. 7874, June 9, 1979, p. 30.∗

Harold Hobson

Before the ending there are two parts of Close of Play which are entirely successful. The first is a brief conversation between the mercurial Marianne and the controlled Margaret, on the subject of the reviews of Margaret's latest novel. The faux pas of the not altogether unmalicious Marianne will be familiar to everyone who has friends and has written a book. This brief episode is both amusing and authentic. The second incident is not at all funny, but it is very brilliant…. [Henry] in his story showing how a doctor may without realising it until it is too late become a seducer of one of his patients, and unable to rescue himself from the sequel of his mistake, passes with enviable ease from confident...

(The entire section is 300 words.)