Otherwise Engaged

by Simon Gray
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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 760

The question of theme in Otherwise Engaged depends on the interpretation of Simon’s character. If Simon is meant to be a victim, a man so pressed by the demands of others that he has no time for himself, then he could be considered the prototype of modern human, or at least of civilized human in a society which has lost its manners. On the other hand, if Simon is at fault, if through his coldness and self-centeredness he regularly gives pain to others, then he is the villain of the piece.

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The first interpretation is the most obvious. Although traditionally the Englishman’s home is said to be his castle, Simon has no retainers to guard his gate, and callers seem to wander in and out at will, disregarding his desire to be alone. At first, only the disreputable lodger Dave demands more than his attention. Dave seizes the opportunity for a kind of blackmail; to get rid of him, Simon offers an extension on the rent, money, and a bottle of sherry. Later, when Simon refuses the loan of his elaborate coffee-making equipment, Dave repays him with abuse.

If this kind of treatment might be expected from someone of Dave’s level, it is more surprising from Simon’s friends and his relatives. Unlike Dave, they begin politely, merely asking Simon to listen to their problems. As the play proceeds, however, they become as insulting as Dave. Whatever their problems, it is Simon who is blamed. For example, when Jeff returns, drunk, he falsely accuses Simon of betraying him to the police. Simon’s brother and his wife are no different. Even though Simon has attempted to build up Stephen’s confidence and then has rejoiced with him about his promotion, Stephen cannot forgive his brother for his greater worldly success, and he deliberately strikes out at him by reporting Beth’s affair.

Nowhere does Simon Hench appear to be the long-suffering victim more than in the final moments of the play. Instead of asking forgiveness for her deception, Beth casts all the blame for her actions on Simon. At this point, a sympathetic audience is ready for Simon to strike back; when he throws the drink on Jeff, the action seems long past due. If the play is viewed in this way, Simon can be seen as the victim of a society in which everyone demands that his own needs be met while ignoring the needs of others.

On the other hand, some critics see Simon himself as the prototype of a modern sickness: the selfish detachment from feeling. A careful reading of the play supports this interpretation as much as it does the sympathetic view. For example, Dave points out that Simon would not rent an apartment to unmarried mothers, who would have troublesome children, or to old people, who might become senile and even die. If this kind of avoidance of involvement in life is really Simon’s motive, then he deserves Dave.

Furthermore, there is evidence that despite his seeming benevolence toward others, Simon has no real compassion for them. To Wood, Simon admits that when he was in school, he profited—unintentionally, he insists—from the desire of other boys for him. In maturity, he still takes what he likes, as he took Wood’s young mistress, callously handing her some pills in case he has given her a sexually transmitted disease. When Simon switches on his answering machine and hears what seem to be Wood’s final words, he does not call the police. He simply hangs up.

It might be argued that such actions are the result of a real compassion, that Simon is retreating because he fears involvement in life, fears that he will feel too deeply. Beth does not agree. She attributes Simon’s detachment to a deliberate refusal to feel anything. Whatever his motivation, he consistently uses words either to mask his emotions or to substitute for emotions. Thus when Beth tells him of her affair, Simon avoids a real response by making his longest and most pointless speech of the play. Shortly after she tells him of her pregnancy, he makes another retreat, this time into music. At the end of the play, the audience is left wondering whether Simon is indeed simply a music lover with a new recording, kept from his music by the selfishness of others, or a selfish man who uses music, as well as words, to keep the needs and the concerns of others at a safe distance from his own life.

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