The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 754 words.)

Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 507 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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.