Simon Gray’s protagonists are usually men, who are often sexually ambivalent and who are trapped in difficult situations by the persistence of their companions and by their own personality defects. In Gray’s early plays, the situations were treated farcically. In Wise Child (pr. 1967, pb. 1968), for example, a criminal who is masquerading as a woman cannot escape from his male lover, and in Dutch Uncle (pr., pb. 1969), a husband, who has fallen in love with a male police officer, fails again and again in efforts to murder the wife who stands in his way. It is Dutch Uncle, with its continual interruptions, which most clearly foreshadows Otherwise Engaged; similarly, inept protagonists reappear in Butley (pr., pb. 1971) and in Quartermaine’s Terms (pr., pb. 1981).
With Butley, his first major hit, Gray established the pattern of his later plays, which concentrate on intellectuals whose confusion and frustration is reflected in their indulgence in word games. Ben Butley is a university professor who detaches himself from others, especially from his young homosexual office mate, by the use of language; at the end of the play, unlike Simon Hench, he realizes that his troubles are of his own making. Gray’s next professor, St. John Quartermaine, is one of his most sympathetic protagonists. As anxious to become a part of others’ lives as Hench and Butley are to distance themselves, Quartermaine drives people away because of his dullness and his banal conversation. Despite his real kindness, he is used, snubbed, and finally fired. Probably he is as close to a tragic character as any of Gray’s protagonists.
A later play, The Common Pursuit (pr., pb. 1984), brings together a group of college friends, five men and one woman; fifteen years after graduation they have attained some measure of success but have lost their reasons for living. Like Butley, Otherwise Engaged, and Quartermaine’s Terms, it focuses on the pervasive sense of alienation and purposelessness in society, which is the stuff of tragedy. Critics generally praise Gray’s skill in turning such materials to comic uses, pointing out that in masterful plotting, in verbal subtlety, and in psychological insight, he excels among contemporary playwrights.