Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 481

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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 out nursery rhymes into every corner of this department, it seems to me.

Gray chooses the academic world as the target for much of Ben’s cynicism. As Ben views it, academia is riddled with pretensions and pedantry. When he learns that a stuffy mediocrity such as Edna will finally publish her study of George Gordon, Lord Byron after twenty years of research, his envy and disgust boil over into a parody of William Butler Yeats’s “The Second Coming” (1922): “She never did understand her role. Which is not to finish an unpublishable book on Byron. Now the centre cannot hold. Mere Edna is loosed upon the world.”

Joey, in moving into the office adjoining Edna’s to complete his book on Robert Herrick, is following in her path, just as the insipid Miss Heasman queues up for her place in the parade of mediocre students. Ben’s answer, to the chagrin and confusion of those around him, is to retreat into nursery rhymes, rhymes that he now finds more telling than the works of the literary masters.

As the opening and closing scenes of darkness and solitude suggest, Ben occupies a position of intellectual and social alienation. Surrounded by mediocrity and duplicity, his only response is to lash out; however, his assaults leave no lasting impact on the objects of his scorn. Ironically, the more strongly he resists entrapment in his vapid world, the more surely he is separated from any vital relationships.