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Simon James Holliday Gray was one of the wittiest and most comically acerbic of modern English playwrights. As a child, he was sent to stay with relatives in Canada during World War II before returning to England to complete a public school education at Westminster. His family then returned to Canada, where Gray spent three years at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. Afterward, he returned to Europe, where he studied English literature at Clermont-Ferrand in France and also, for eight years, at Cambridge University. From 1963 to 1964, he spent more time in Canada as an instructor of English at the University of British Columbia. Gray’s sharp eye for the peculiar manners and idiosyncrasies of English social life has, therefore, been sharpened by lengthy stays in other countries. In 1964, he married Beryl Mary Kevern, and in 1965 he accepted a post as lecturer in English at the University of London, where he remained until 1985.{$S[A]Reade, Hamish;Gray, Simon}

Gray’s writing career started with a series of largely unmemorable novels, followed by his much more successful television plays. One of these, Death of a Teddy Bear, based upon the Alma Rattenbury murder case of the 1930’s (an oppressed wife murders her impotent husband), won Gray the British Writers Guild Award. Gray rewrote the play for the stage as Molly, but the stage version was, by Gray’s own admission, not as artistically successful.

Yet it was as a writer of stage plays that Gray made his name. His plays seem an amalgam of the thematic and stylistic dramatic trends of the new dramatic era that began in 1956 with John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. He has been frequently compared with Osborne, Joe Orton, Harold Pinter, and Tom Stoppard. Early plays such as Wise Child, Dutch Uncle, and Spoiled evoke the bizarreness of Orton’s black farce; the title character of Butley drew immediate critical comparison with the angry Jimmy Porter of Osborne’s history-making play; still other plays such as Quartermaine’s Terms, Close of Play, and Otherwise Engaged echo the silent battles of Pinter’s plays. If biting wit or difficulty of communication characterize these dramas, it is the brilliant dialogue of Stoppard’s high comedies of ideas that appears in still others, such as The Common Pursuit. Two distinctive features mark the development of Gray’s career: his concern with academia and the publishing world as frequent subjects for his plays, and his long association with Pinter as director and Alan Bates as lead actor.

Butley was Gray’s first big success, both on stage and in the film version that followed. It is the story of a sardonic university teacher of English literature who takes delight in taunting and patronizing his students, his colleagues, and his wife. Butley is a literary descendant of Osborne’s Jimmy Porter. Directly opposite Butley is Hench, a publisher and the main character in Otherwise Engaged. As passive as Butley is aggressive, Hench allows his emotional detachment from people to determine events in his life, to the extent that he prefers listening to classical music rather than troubling himself about his wife’s adultery or a friend’s suicide. Both stage productions featured Bates in the leading roles and Pinter as director.

Gray’s plays, although always well crafted, generally rely upon a minimum of plot. Instead, he concentrates upon complex characterizations and sharp, literate, psychologically aggressive, and humorous dialogue. Gray’s basic theme is the difficulty of personal relationships, the ways in which caustic intelligence can impede emotional communication. Quartermaine’s Terms is set in a language school; it shows how words can get in the...

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way of what people need to say. Gray also often writes about the unpredictable nature of sexuality, and how latent or repressed sexual eccentricities can bring about unexpected tensions within human relationships.

Critics of Gray’s work have charged that it is thematically repetitive and tends to focus upon a very narrow section of metropolitan society. Indeed, most of Gray’s plays are populated with middle-class figures from the worlds of publishing, journalism, and academic life. One play that moved radically away from this milieu was not a commercial success: The Rear Column, which features a band of British army officers stranded in the Congo in the wake of Henry Stanley’s advances into Africa in the late nineteenth century. The Rear Column is a fascinating exploration of the psychological tensions that build when one waits expectantly for events. The play demonstrates Gray’s affiliation with those worlds of ennui and frustration charted in a more abstract way by Pinter and Samuel Beckett.

Usually, however, Gray chose to represent these frustrations within a more comically recognizable (and therefore commercially viable) framework. In 1982, Gray wrote a version of Molière’s Tartuffe for the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. The shadow of Molière’s urbane bitterness can be seen lurking over Gray’s own dramas as well. The charges of frivolity and narrowness of scope have been leveled at Molière, and also at Henry James, whom Gray studied while a postgraduate student at Cambridge; like these more famous authors, Gray employed stylish intelligence and humor to compensate for any limitations of perspective.


Critical Essays