Simon Gray Gray, Simon (Vol. 9) - Essay

Gray, Simon (Vol. 9)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Gray, Simon 1936–

A British novelist, editor, short story writer, and playwright, Gray is a master of the double entendre and comic situation. Gray's dramas are often seemingly domestic, but they transcend domesticity to deal with the conflict between individual expression and repressive social institutions such as the church, government, and marriage. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.)

Ben Butley—tattered, battered super-anti-hero of Simon Gray's play "Butley"—is coming adrift at his moorings….

Butley is a very interesting man, and his tragedy is beautifully and crisply funny.

Mr. Gray has written about this half-baked academic with astonishing compassion. Butley goes around "spreading futility." He slouches like a lost soul, and yet uses his wit like a sledgehammer to ward off the world and reality. And despite his glorious and desperate faults, he remains oddly likable and strangely sympathetic. Even his pompousness and mad egotism have been made in some way attractive.

Mr. Gray has devised his comedy with considerable adroitness. Butley is caught at the very pinpoint moment of his final deflation. His life is subsiding around him. Where Mr. Gray has been particularly clever is to give his declining slob all the funny lines. He fights against all comers like a cornered Bugs Bunny full of wisecracks and with a splenetic humor. You can see the tarnished brilliance of the man, the fallen hopes, the eroding self-distrust that spews out a fine comic bitterness upon the world. Unfulfilled and unforgiving, Butley makes his last stand with style and venom.

What the play has caught is a specific mood and style. Here is the spiteful humor of a university common room combined with a rootlessness and lack of purpose that seem currently endemic among the foolishly wise. Even Butley's sexual leanings are, at the very least, ambivalent, and he rails at the world to no purpose. He hates himself in a very chilly climate….

"Butley" is no major contribution to dramatic literature, but it is that sadly rare thing—a literate and literary comedy with a heart.

Clive Barnes, in The New York Times (copyright © 1972 by the New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 1, 1972, p. 54.

Simon Gray has written novels as well as plays, but in the novels the playwright is always trying to get out. Descriptive commentaries turn into stage directions, scenes into scenarios, dialogue into a means of dramatic progression. What results is a curious fictional sterility, a coruscating way with words that cuts, amuses, and extends itself so long that it becomes as arid as it is acid, eloquently forgettable. The telescoped form of the drama, however, gives Gray the appropriate medium for his sharp tongue. There his social conscience comes alive and his bizarre picture of domesticity becomes an engrossing metaphor of contemporary life.

The novels read now like Robertson Davies reruns, sneering wittily at provinciality, but possessing no superior society very firmly as a substitute…. [The] structural double-entendre [displayed in Simple People], ironic but serious, was to become one of Gray's technical trademarks. His wit derives frequently from the clash between the stock responses we give a tired metaphor and the jolt we experience on recognizing its original exactness. But the resultant laughter seldom calms a problem or absolves anyone of his responsibilities; instead, it intensifies the underlying issues, forces an audience to realize the serious implications of the disparities that it has first perceived simply as amusing incongruities. The macabreness of Gray's wit contributes to the same effect…. (p. 163)

The novels distantly amused the mind; the humour of the plays sears it…. (p. 164)

More compassionate than Gray's earlier plays, Spoiled shows his increasingly relaxed command over the techniques of stage drama and the developing breadth of his social views. Domesticity is merely an immediate landscape in which to probe the limitations of love and the enervating effect of fear. The metaphor's implications reach far, into government, religion, and all other forms of social intercourse, where the ethics of action is brought face to face with the politics of belief. At the end of the play, in the long staring silences between Richard and Joanna, still nothing has been resolved. The society they typify has not found ways to forgive itself for being human, and the understandings that might illuminate, the perceptions that might explain, the sympathies that might relate, are all sacrificed to the gods of public propriety and private fear. Formulas always intervene to deaden language, and institutions to inhibit contact. All of the plays of Simon Gray work with this dilemma in mind. As Hawkins puts it in Dutch Uncle, "How can a city live, if a city's lost its faith, and has its horrors locked in its households?" But Hawkins himself is no answer. The law, the church, and the school alike have failed the private person in his striving to live. If their authority still wins out, it does so partly because the private person does hesitate to express himself. Paradoxically, that failure of expression also becomes an expression—of a selfishness that inhibits communication as much as the institution does, and so contributes to social malaise. The circle locks again. Gray does not—perhaps cannot—break it. All he can do as an accomplished playwright is invest the moral dilemma with life, involve his audience in his characters' choices, and mordantly, with genuine sympathy for the humanity of man, provoke them all into appreciating the ambivalence of what they do. (pp. 171-72)

William H. New, "Household Locks: The Plays of Simon Gray," in his Dramatists in Canada: Selected Essays (copyright © 1972 by The University of British Columbia), University of British Columbia Press, 1972, pp. 163-72.

[Simon Gray's Otherwise Engaged is] a wonderfully funny, incisively wise play, better even in impact and structure than his excellent Butley…. (p. 88)

What splendid writing, what elegant plotting and character-painting Mr. Gray has given us, what lovely compliments to the alert and intelligent among our theatergoers! His play discourses, with utmost insight and drollery, on a basic malaise of our time: the deceptive ease of communication that technology has placed at mankind's disposal, and the tragic ease with which we hurl words at one another without making contact. His protagonist, Simon Hench, sits surrounded by modern communication gadgets: his beloved hi-fi onto which he aches to plop his latest Wagner album, his telephone, his answering machine. These are his refuge, an electronic armor into which he can retreat. Words to him are like transistors on a circuit board. He is an editor and he has, therefore, learned to line up words neatly and solder them immaculately into place. His only distress comes when words are used on him with some of their connections loose. He chooses not to respond to verbiage, no matter how important, merely to fiddle with its grammar.

Simon is man en route to robot, yet the author portrays him triumphant. (p. 91)

Alan Rich, in New York Magazine (© 1977 by NYM Corp.; reprinted by permission of New York Magazine and Alan Rich), February 14, 1977.

Simon is something of an enigma—Simon Hench [the protagonist of Otherwise Engaged], that is, the character, though Simon Gray, the author, is something of an enigma too. Is he (Simon Hench) deliberately cruel, or is his indifference uncalculated and sincere? And more crucially, is he (Hench again) really undamaged by the damage he does to others, or is his continued impassivity at the end only a facade? Is it good or bad to be Simon Hench; is he truly serene, or just empty? When he finally sits down to listen to his Parsifal records at the end, is Parsifal really all he needs, or merely all he has left? Is this a play of the Triumph of Solipsism, or the Failure of Solipsism? Mr. Gray isn't saying, which is one reason why his play reverberates so in the mind.

Otherwise Engaged can be repetitive and predictable, but it is never boring; Mr. Gray is too clever for that. Simon Hench uses a gravely playful, subtly nasty sort of wit to keep people at a distance….

Mr. Gray clearly has a good deal in common with Harold Pinter. Otherwise Engaged is less elliptical, less disorienting, more accessible, less "heavy" than Mr. Pinter's plays, but both writers tend to see human relationships as power games, and both are skilled in the deploying of charged understatement….

The evening belongs firmly to Mr. Gray, whom I mistrust as being too much on Simon's side, looking down with condescending pity on the "plops" of the world. I reject the implication that "plops" at school are condemned to be "plops" forever; some people do graduate. Not, apparently, however, Mr. Gray. Otherwise Engaged has a smell about it of old boarding-school obsessions, erotic and otherwise (especially a faintly nasty psychic sadomasochism), as if the playwright shares with his characters the very upperclass-English trait of never having outgrown his schooldays. Mr. Gray fails the Holden Caulfield test for writers; it is hard to imagine anyone coming out of the theatre after a performance of Otherwise Engaged wanting to go call up the author. Still, he has written an entertaining play, and its enigmas did stir my feelings about feeling.

Julius Novick, "Looking Down on the Plops," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © by The Village Voice, Inc., 1977), February 14, 1977, p. 81.

Engagement, responsibility to one another, seems to be one of the principal motifs of Simon Gray's Otherwise Engaged, but this seeking among my fellow journalists for ulterior motives concerning the charming, amiable, middle-class Simon's civilized responses to the passions of his fellows strikes me as a bit too much of poking around in the woodpile. I see Simon not as "otherwise engaged" in the sense that he is turned off to responsibility, but rather as having, like Augie March or Mary Chase's Elwood Dowd in Harvey, the marvelous ability to accept people as they are. All around him are people "otherwise engaged," in ego-tripping, in strategies for cornering power or despair. I suppose the extent to which Simon (hero as opposed to author) denies the validity of Freud's pleasure principle makes him dangerous, or at least irritating to others, but he seems to me a treasure. (p. 69)

Arthur Sainer, in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © by The Village Voice, Inc., 1977), February 28, 1977.

Simon Gray, the author of Butley, reveals his identity in his play through literary allusions. He is, like Butley, a lecturer in English at Queen Mary College, London. Through Butley, Gray uses literature and its conventions to satirize his profession. In fact, signs of this profession permeate the play, even in its structure. Observing the classical unities, Gray presents the disintegration of Ben Butley's personal and academic life in one day. On that day, Butley sheds his wife, Anne, and their infant daughter, Marina; he pushes his colleague and former student, Joey, from him into a homosexual marriage, and he chooses to continue his professional career without students or scholarship. The action of the play is in one place—the office that Butley shares with Joey. All of the action revolves around Butley and his reactions to others who enter his office. (p. 374)

Ironically, Butley never leaves his profession; as he moves farther from contact with others, he becomes more literary. His control of symbols, his timing, and his epigrammatic wit at first serve to identify him as a neoclassical satirist. And, like Swift and Pope, Butley can be obscene or turn a phrase so that it becomes obscene. His literary references become double entendres…. Our inclination is to prefer Butley and to laugh with him, but he prevents us from getting too close just as he prevents others in the play from getting near him. We are distanced by his wit, by his literary allusions, and by his academic barbs. (pp. 375-76)

In a perverse manner, Butley demonstrates those qualities we believe essential to the English professor: sensitivity, kindness, perceptiveness, eloquence, but he uses them on this day to annihilate, destroy, or dismiss those around him and to reject and sever his professional ties. He may appear to be casual as he dismisses Edna, his colleague, because she "weighs on his spirit" … or run to locker-room obscenities as he asks about Joey's lover, Reg, but the laughter is shaded by our realization that we are part of Butley's target and that we are intimidated by him.

Gradually, we identify with his victims. We understand that Edna is mediocre; we recognize that she is much like us, that she is the establishment in all its pallid weight and that Butley alone sees her with contempt…. [Butley ends an exchange with Edna] with a misreading of Denham's line from "Of Prudence": "We may our ends by our beginnings know." The literary allusion assumes a silly sagacity that reflects Butley's view of Edna. Butley uses the allusion to ridicule Edna, whom he believes has subverted literature. (pp. 378-80)

After Edna leaves, Butley's rage bursts forth in one of the most compelling of misquoted literary allusions from Yeats' "Second Coming": he says of Edna, "She never did understand her role. Which is not to finish an unpublishable book on Byron. Now the centre cannot hold. Mere Edna is loosed upon the world."… He is surrounded with rubbish—Joey's, Edna's, Miss Heasman's [Butley's tutorial student]—and yet, ironically, the rubbish he sees is not only tolerated by his society but also rewarded. The work of his students, like Edna's and Joey's work, is uninspired, pedestrian. It is part of a ritual that has lost its meaning. Miss Heasman's persistence is to Butley a madness akin to Edna's tenacity. Both Edna and Miss Heasman are ambitious and competent, but they deaden rather than inspire. As Butley judges and rejects the students' papers, he is drawn to nursery rhymes that still have vitality…. His statements have continuity in the images and ideas that suggest the conceits of the metaphysical wits. The last cliche, "But then they took pride in their work …" is followed by a twisted literary allusion from Alexander Pope that retains its original meaning. With the identification of his life as a disease ["This hash, my life … this long disease, my …], Butley becomes more isolated, and the tone of the play becomes blacker.

His isolation intensifies as he searches for moments that must have been significant to him, but he cannot recapture them. He turns to his marriage and his daughter. Butley's recollections merge with his recollections of T. S. Eliot. His quotations are now accurate; there are no silly or barbed misquotations. Though the words have remained intact, his emotions have changed. Eliot is an ordered, neoclassicial poet of the twentieth century whose youthful despair and wit matched the sensibility of the younger Butley. Now, unlike the later Eliot, Butley finds no hope or redemption. Butley's recollections begin here with his infant daughter and Eliot's poem "Marina," which reflects Butley's past hope for regeneration, love, and peace…. The passage from "Marina" is broken by a brief passage from Eliot's "Lines to a Persian Cat" in "Five Finger Exercises." Butley stops short of the allusion to suicide implicit in, "O when will the creaking heart cease." However, he does mention his inability to relate to others. The Eliot poem bridges Butley's literary past with his literary present manifest in Cecily Parsley. The poem has the imagery and rhythm of a nursery rhyme, but it has the message of despair. (pp. 380-83)

Act II opens as Butley confers with Miss Heasman, who reads a dull, inept paper on A Winter's Tale. Her eagerness for the right words, however clumsy, leads Butley to new cruelties.

MISS HEASMAN. 'The central image is drawn from nature, to counterpoint the imagery of the first half of the play, with its stress on sickness and deformity. Paradoxically, A Winter's Tale of a frozen soul—'

BEN. Bit fish mongery, that….

Her comments obliquely define Butley's own state of being as it has been revealed in the first half of the play; he is isolated and detached. His soul is frozen. Butley's response is a quick dismissal. He identifies the student's easy platitudes and echoes Hamlet's response to Polonius' moral certainties…. (p. 384)

Earlier in Act II, Butley seemed to identify with Hamlet as he challenged Miss Heasman's turgid but morally regenerative analysis of A Winter's Tale. Here [in an exchange with his rival, Reg], Butley seems to identify with another Shakespearean tragic hero—Antony. Though the comment is witty, it is poignant as well. The lapse into self-pity does not last. Instead, the humor increases with one of Butley's final games…. Butley begins to lose control as he alienates us when he goes beyond our sense of evil and decorum and offends us as he offends Reg. The revelations continue, leaving Butley more and more isolated. With each, Butley responds with a rage that drives others even farther away. (pp. 385, 387)

The echoes of neoclassicism, the echoes of Prufrock suggest that once Butley had been a teacher; once he had seen in life something positive and redemptive.

Then, from Edna, Butley learns that Joey is leaving their office for one beside Edna's. As Edna leaves, she greets Gardner [Edna's tutorial student], the source of her vexation, with some grace, and Butley is left alone with Gardner, who, instead of wit, displays a kind of nastiness…. Butley finds the passage from Eliot's East Coker that Joey had read years before and he asks Gardner to read it. As Gardner reads, Joey walks in.

  GARDNER (reads). 'In that open field
    If you do not come too close, if you do not come too close,
  On a summer midnight, you can hear the music….

While Gardner reads, Joey completes the cruel task of gathering his books and papers; their relationship is ended. (p. 388)

The poetry of Eliot no longer functions for Butley as it once had. The evidence has mounted from the time the curtain rose and revealed, "on the wall a … blown-up picture (photograph) of T. S. Eliot, with a smear across it and one of its corners curled."… The picture is a relic, soiled and ignored. Eliot's poetry conjures memories but no longer inspires. At the end of Act I, Butley identified Marina and Anne with Eliot and rejected them. The poetry linked him with Joey as well, but Joey has gone, and Butley finds that he cannot begin again.

Like Eliot, Butley had been a teacher, though now he avoids teaching. Just as once poetry was vital to Butley, so, too, was teaching. The painful recognition that the vitality has gone causes Butley to turn from Gardner and Eliot to his nursery rhymes. (pp. 388-89)

The play concludes with an action, a visual metaphor, that italicizes the theme of Butley's wasteland:

GARDNER puts the Eliot down, goes out. BEN puts the book back, sits at the desk, turns off the desk lamp and tries feebly three times to turn it on again….

Butley has forgotten all but the words of literature, especially the words of Eliot. He has left himself in darkness. His efforts to illuminate his life through literature or relight his dying relationships with Anne, Joey, and Gardner were feeble and unsuccessful. At the end of the play, Butley is alone. He has noted wittily his relationship to tragic heroes. He has even alluded once to suicide. He recognizes his fall from the grace of husband, lover, and teacher to the state of pitiable, lonely man who baits and ridicules others mercilessly.

Butley has as much laughter as any comedy could evoke, but it is a laughter generated by literary allusions, by wit, and by skilled word play that were used as weapons of defense and attack. Butley's skill is verbal, and for a while his wit captures our sympathies and our admiration, yet he manages to create a distance so that ultimately he is isolated from us, too. The effect is at first baffling, confusing; we are invigorated by a man whose intellect and sensitivity lead him to see more in life and in literature than most of us but whose intellect and sensitivity turn sour. Where Butley once saw value in Eliot, Joey, Anne, he now sees nothing.

We are left with words that force laughter and distance; we are left alone with wit. Unlike Eliot who finally found his way out of the wasteland through a regenerative faith, Butley cannot or will not be redeemed and defies redemption despite the words of literature. The satire is black. If we admire Butley and his view of himself and those around him, we will see him as he sees himself—a Hamlet or an Antony beset by betrayal and mediocrity. If we see him as others in the play see him, we see an irresponsible, wasted man who is not tragic but pitiable. In either case, the disintegration of Ben Butley's personal and academic life is revealed adroitly and economically through a satiric tone that echoes the controlled, but furious, satires of the neoclassicists. Simon Gray has indeed effectively used allusions to literature to undermine the illusions of academe. (pp. 389-91)

Sophia B. Blaydes, "Literary Allusion as Satire in Simon Gray's 'Butley'," in The Midwest Quarterly (copyright, 1977, by The Midwest Quarterly, Kansas State College of Pittsburg), Summer, 1977, pp. 374-91.