Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 754
Butley opens with the eponymous character entering the office he shares with his former student and colleague, Joey. The room is a study in contrasts—Ben Butley’s desk and bookcase a disheveled mess and Joey’s accommodations spartan but impeccably ordered. After tossing his raincoat on his colleague’s desk, Ben fiddles with each desk’s reading lamp, neither of which works.
Ben is soon interrupted by a student seeking a tutorial on William Wordsworth; Ben, however, offers the excuse that he has too many administrative duties. When Joey enters, he notices that Ben has cut himself shaving, and the audience soon learns that Ben’s wife has left him and that he and Joey have been sharing a flat. Much of the first act is taken up with Ben’s prying for details of Joey’s visit to the home of his new lover’s parents over the past weekend.
Ben is clearly annoyed, even hurt, that Joey neither telephoned nor returned to their flat and has made arrangements to have dinner at Reg’s place that evening. Ben continually threatens to invite himself for dinner rather than spend another evening alone. Another central topic of discussion involves Joey’s imminent promotion, with Ben continually hinting that all may not progress smoothly unless Joey curries his mentor’s favor.
Throughout their verbal jockeying, they are repeatedly interrupted—by James, the department chair, whom Ben continually puts off with the excuse that he has students present; by Miss Heasman, an eager new student seeking an appointment for her tutorial with Ben; and by Edna Shaft, an elderly, pedantic colleague who is annoyed by a lazy student who is attempting to transfer from her class into Ben’s tutorials.
While on the surface uneventful, these scenes are charged with Ben’s inexhaustible humor and wit, as he avoids contact by playing off administrative duties against educational ones. Eventually Miss Heasman manages to trap him for an appointment later that day to read a paper she has prepared.
Unexpectedly, near the end of act 1, Anne, Ben’s estranged wife, appears and asks if she and their daughter should return to him. She tops his glib refusal by asking for a divorce in order to marry a mutual friend, Tom Weatherley, a person she once called “the most boring man in London.” More shocking than this news is the fact that Joey has known of her plans for some time and never informed Ben.
Act 2 opens after lunch, with Miss Heasman reading an especially turgid essay on William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (pr. c. 1610-1611, pb. 1623) to a snoozing Ben, who awakens to question her frequently sloppy syntax and eventually to plead that she jump ahead to the conclusion. After learning that Miss Heasman plans to become a teacher herself, he dismisses her; Ben then pretends to vomit over her manuscript, only to discover that she has slipped back into the office.
When Joey returns, Ben questions him about his knowledge of Anne’s marriage and, with dramatic irony, suggests that Joey has not been forthcoming in his recent dealings with Ben. Edna enters, enraged that Ben has promised to relieve the lazy Mr. Gardner from the boredom of her seminar, and she accuses both men of despising her.
After Joey leaves in a huff, Reg, toward whom Ben is contemptuous, appears, and the two begin a protracted duel of insinuation and veiled insults. As Ben continues to needle Reg over his sexual orientation, other surprising revelations surface. The first of these are plans for Reg’s publishing firm to bring out Tom’s novel, which Ben has avoided reading in manuscript. The second major revelation is that Joey is planning to leave Ben to move in with Reg.
Ben continues to bait Reg about his sexual preferences, until Reg knocks him to the floor with a blow to the stomach. Just when Ben thinks that he has won Joey back through sympathy, he learns that Joey has lied to him about Reg’s background and that he is planning on moving out of their office as well.
At this moment, the controversial Gardner enters for his tutorial on T. S. Eliot, and in a repetition of his first meeting with Joey, Ben has Gardner read from Eliot’s “East Coker.” After a few verses, when Ben has collected himself, he dismisses Gardner as abruptly as he did Miss Heasman. The play ends, Ben alone and shrouded in darkness, fiddling with his broken lamp.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 507
Butley’s most significant dramatic device is its rich linguistic humor. Ben’s sardonic wit and verbal play are the potent weapons he wields in his war upon the world. Language both protects him from and exposes the aridity of his world. Turned as it is against others, this language becomes, like his shaving accident, a source of self-laceration.
One of the most persistent and hilarious forms of verbal play springs from the grammatical imprecisions of other characters. Thus, for example, when Miss Heasman tells Ben that she is taking the place of one of his students from the last term, she says, “I’m replacing Mrs. Grainger. . . . said she didn’t get to see you often, owing to administrative tangles.” A teasing Ben responds, “Mrs. Grainger got into administrative tangles?”
Even Joey, a university lecturer, gives way to sloppy syntax when cornering Ben: “It was Gardner you told me about then? The boy who complained about Edna’s seminars in a pub.” Ben answers, “Edna holds her seminars in a pub? I shall have to report this.”
Ben is furthermore a master of the double entendre, which he employs repeatedly in his jousts with each of his antagonists. He relies upon an old chestnut when discussing with Edna the new breed of students who have no respect for the classics. She huffs, “I had one or two last term who were mutinous about The Faery Queen.” Ben answers, “You mean the Principal [department chair]? He really should learn discretion.”
In spite of all of his verbal feinting and attempts to shield himself from others, Ben does occasionally reveal himself in terms of startling honesty. For example, when discussing the fact that Tom Weatherley has not phoned in weeks, Ben acknowledges, “one likes people to be consistent, otherwise one will start coming adrift. At least this one will.” Later, when Joey questions why Ben would encourage Gardner, he responds, “Perhaps I had a sense of vacancies opening in my life. I needed to fill them perhaps.”
Simon Gray also sprinkles literary allusions liberally to express indirectly what Ben often cannot admit. There are numerous references to Eliot, from “Marina” (1930), “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1917), and “Lines to a Persian Cat” (1922). Besides the references to Yeats, there are acknowledgments of Alexander Pope, Sir John Denham, and Shakespeare. In spite of Ben’s preference for nursery rhymes, all these allusions suggest that literature is a potent device for coping imaginatively with the contingencies of human existence.
The play’s structure is as meticulous as its numerous allusions. Each act is balanced by the interplay between Joey and Ben, and each is interrupted by a visit from an unappreciated student and a loved one. This symmetrical structure is supported by the fact that both Anne and Reg offer shocking revelations that further shatter Ben’s crumbling world. Thus a sense of rising action brought to significant climax is presented in each act, and what initially appears to be a randomly organized series of encounters actually reveals careful construction.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 141
Sources for Further Study
Blaydes, Sophia B. “Literary Allusion as Satire in Simon Gray’s Butley.” Midwest Quarterly 18 (1977): 374-391.
Burkman, Katherine H. “The Fool as Hero: Simon Gray’s Butley and Otherwise Engaged.” Theatre Journal 33 (1981): 163-172.
Gray, Simon. Interview by Ian Hamilton. The New Review 3, nos. 34-35 (1977): 39-46.
Imhof, Rudiger. “Simon Gray.” In Essays on Contemporary British Drama, edited by Hedwig Bock and Albert Wertheim. Munich: M. Hueber, 1981.
Kerensky, Oleg. The New British Drama: Fourteen Playwrights Since Osborne and Pinter. London: Hamilton, 1977.
Kidd, Timothy. “Light Heavy-weight? The Plays of Simon Gray.” Encounter (January/February, 1990): 42-46.
Smith, Carolyn H. “Simon Gray and the Grotesque.” In Within the Dramatic Spectrum, edited by Karelisa V. Hartigan. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1986.
Stafford, Tony. “Simon Gray.” In British Playwrights, 1956-1995: A Research and Production Sourcebook, edited by William W. Demastes. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996.