The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Otherwise Engaged begins in silence. In his luxurious London living room, whose expensive high-fidelity equipment and shelves of records attest his love of music, Simon Hench unwraps a new record, settles on a comfortable sofa, and begins to listen to Richard Wagner’s opera Parsifal (1882). Then the interruptions begin which will make up the substance of the play.

The first intruder is the upstairs tenant. Dave, who enters uninvited, makes it clear that he has no intention of paying his rent and complains because Beth Hench was not present on the previous evening to supply food for his girlfriend. Desperate to get rid of him, Simon offers him a loan. Just as Dave is leaving, however, Simon’s brother Stephen Hench arrives, seeking sympathy because he is certain that he has failed in his application for the position of assistant headmaster at his school; perhaps, he speculates, because he has too many children, perhaps because he went to the wrong university, perhaps simply because he is a loser. When Simon mentions the possibility of his friend Jeff Golding coming by, Stephen rather proudly recounts an incident at a dinner party when he responded to one of Jeff’s insults with a physical attack on him. Unfortunately for Stephen’s sense of importance, Jeff then appears, obviously drunk, and it is clear that he does not remember Stephen at all, much less the episode at the party.

Unlike Stephen, Jeff needs no ego-building. His conversation consists of glib generalizations, boasts, and insults, delivered amid a steady stream of profanity. After Stephen leaves, indicating his anger with a slam of the door, Jeff reveals his reason for coming to Simon. He wants someone to listen to his problem: He thinks that he is in love with his former wife, Gwendoline, who is now married to a University of Cambridge don and even has a child, and whom he is meeting regularly twice a week in the rooms of a friend of the don. In mid-monologue, Jeff mentions another mistress, Davina Saunders, with whom he is angry for some reason; just then the doorbell rings and Davina appears.

Davina has followed Jeff to Simon’s place in order to express her own anger, to return her lover’s key, and in the nastiest terms to give him some news: Gwendoline’s husband has telephoned to report her attempted suicide and to threaten to assault Jeff. Throwing his drink at Davina, Jeff slams out. After Jeff’s exit, Davina admits that she has...

(The entire section is 1006 words.)

Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Otherwise Engaged is structured as a series of scenes, in each of which someone demands Simon’s attention and prevents him from listening to his new recording. His intentions are made clear in the first moments of the play. The set itself, the Hench living room, is filled with records. This is clearly a room for relaxing. As the curtain rises, Simon is unwrapping a new record. Obviously his next step is to sit down and listen to it. With Dave’s entrance, however, Simon Gray begins the series of interruptions upon which the development of the play is based. By the second interruption, the audience perceives the comic pattern. The suspense no longer depends on whether an interruption will occur, but instead on the form that it will take. Like a magician, Gray varies his tricks. Characters enter from the kitchen (stage right) or from the hallway (stage left); sometimes they simply barge in, sometimes they ring, then enter, sometimes they are actually admitted, as Wood is announced by Dave. As the play progresses, another variation is introduced: The callers begin to vilify Simon, and whether one considers their insults just or unjust, the result is hilarious. As they become angry with each other and then with Simon, the exits become stormier. Furious with Jeff, Stephen slams out; furious with Davina, Jeff slams out. The insults and the exits are the more amusing because Simon spends most of his time sitting down, as if he is waiting for the storm to spend...

(The entire section is 575 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Barnes, Clive. “London Likely to Be Otherwise Engaged.” New York Times, August 18, 1975, p. 33.

Burkman, Katherine H. Simon Gray: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1992.

Ellmann, Richard. “Simon Gray’s New Play Anatomizes a Likable Creep.” New York Times, August 17, 1975, sec. II, p. 5.

Jones, John Bush. “The Wit and the Wardrobe: Simon Gray’s Tragic (?) Comedies.” West Virginia University Philological Papers 25 (1979): 78-85.

Kerensky, Oleg. “Simon Gray.” In The New British Drama: Fourteen Playwrights Since Osborne and Pinter. London: Hamilton, 1977.

Nelson, Byron. “The Unhappy Man in Otherwise Engaged.” In Contemporary British Drama, 1970-1990, edited by Hersh Ziefman and Cynthia Zimmerman. Toronto, Ont.: University of Toronto Press, 1993.

Nothof, Anne. “Simon Gray’s Comedy of Bad Manners.” Essays in Theater (May, 1988): 109-112.

Novick, Julius. “Looking Down on the Plops.” Village Voice, February 14, 1977, p. 81.

Stafford, Tony. “Simon Gray.” In British Playwrights, 1956-1995: A Research and Production Sourcebook. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996.