Friday, 12 August 2011

Simon Gray 1936-2008. In Other Words.

(Published in Contemporary Theatre Review Volume 18/4, 2008)

BETH. In other words, you do know.
SIMON. In other words, can’t we confine ourselves
to the other words.
(Otherwise Engaged, 1975)

The sadness of the recent death of the playwright
Simon Gray has been lightened by the unexpectedly
sensitive and thoughtful reappraisal of his work
that his passing has encouraged. Had he died ten
years ago when his critical standing was at rock bottom,
the response would likely have been much
more dismissive. There are several reasons for this
improved standing: public knowledge of anybody’s
mortal illness is always likely to encourage the
realisation of their value; the continued patronage
of Harold Pinter and Peter Hall; a few high-profile
and successful revivals (Otherwise Engaged in the
West End, Butley on Broadway); and the unexpected
appearance and production of new plays,
some – notably The Late Middle Classes (1999) and
Little Nell (2007) – of the first rank.

Above all, the renewed interest in Simon Gray
in the twenty-first century has been due to the
publication of four volumes of stream-of consciousness
memoirs; The Smoking Diaries
(2004), The Year Of The Jouncer (2006), The Last
Cigarette and Coda (both 2008), following on
from four earlier volumes of theatrical diaries.
These memoirs give a real sense of the distinctiveness
of Gray’s voice and intelligence, an original
quality that they share with the plays; a seemingly
artless (but actually extremely precise) sense of wit
that works by setting up a reasonable premise, then
to then test it, unravel it, look at it from unexpected
angles, using seeming logic and reason to demonstrate
the constant oddity of life and thought, as in
this passage that combines two recurring preoccupations,
Harold Pinter and smoking;

To come back to Harold’s problems with smoking.
I probably make things more difficult, being a
chain-smoker. In previous rehearsals, we’ve chain smoked
together. This time, he chews away at his
nicotine gum, with the smoke of his cigarettes
leaking reminiscently up his nostrils, down into his
lungs. On top of that he used to use his cigarettes in
rehearsals, taking one deliberately out of the black
box (Sobranies) putting it in his mouth, lighting it
with a swift gesture, inhaling it deeply, as often as
not walking a few paces away to take the cigarette
out, study it, put it back in his mouth, inhale. It was
a pantomime, an enactment of thought, he was
making it clear to everyone that he was thinking,
making it clear to himself that he had taken the time
to think. Now, without a cigarette to resort to, he
finds a lacuna between a question and its answer,
which he can only fill with a baffled silence, which
leads to further silence and further bafflement as the
need to answer looms larger and larger, the people
waiting for his answer no doubt seeming to do
likewise. He hasn’t yet found an alternative ritual to
accompany thought, and I doubt if he’ll find it in his
chewing gum. You can’t do much more with
chewing gum than put it in your mouth and chew
it. At least not without disgusting everybody.
(An Unnatural Pursuit & Other Pieces, Faber,
1985, pp. 95–6)

Gray applies this technique to his own life and
personal failings with alarming candour: the guilt of
adultery and alcoholism, the harshness of his mother,
the betrayal of a boyhood friend who went on to
commit suicide in adult life. Although the memoirs
are consistently funny, they are too frank and honest
to be shelved under humour, and it is their emotional
effect that remains with the reader.

This application of humour, rather than jokes
for their own sake, is also how Gray’s plays work.
Although a surface response to his plays might be
the impression of a sparkling theatrical wit, this wit
is always used to serve a deeper purpose of
characterisation and insight into the human condition.
Where the wit may appear to take the form of
smooth and allusive phrase-making, such as Simon
Hench informing an acquaintance incapacitated by
unrequited love that he is ‘obviously in the grip of a
passion almost Dante-esque in the purity of its
hopelessness’, the reference actually serves its comic
effect by demonstrating Hench’s awareness of the
self-pity and quotidian haplessness of the acquaintance,
rather than serving to flatter the audience’s
knowledge of Dante. The line is funny not because
of the allusion to a classical source, but because the
allusion fits and complements the audience’s
understanding of the scene’s power dynamics.

How Gray structures this wit makes his jokes
deeper than they need to be to elicit laughter, and
always work on the level of subtext. In The
Common Pursuit (1984), Humphrey replies to a
rambling explanation of a mutual friend’s infidelities
from Martin (a confused description that is
suffixed with a pleading ‘If you follow?’) by saying;

HUMPHREY. Of course I follow. Merely because
you can’t speak properly doesn’t mean I can’t understand
you. Generally well before you’ve finished.

The devastating precision of Humphrey’s correction
of Martin’s inarticulacy might be the part of
the speech that initially makes the audience laugh,
but it is the extension of the thought (‘Generally
well before you’ve finished’) that adds depth to the
joke, intimating the wider truth that Humphrey
can see and understand that Martin also is having an
affair with a different, closer, mutual friend. These
are the phantom ‘other words’ of unsayable truth,
masked by Gray’s characters who choose to talk in
anecdotes or spiraling and freewheeling digression
instead (see especially Ben Butley’s sly insults and
pastiches). Except that, in Gray’s plays, the inferences
and hidden knowledge of the masking other
words do always eventually hit home, normally
prefacing an event that irrevocably changes circumstances
(a pregnancy, an abortion, a departure) making
the appalling pain and mess of life unavoidable,
however elegant or funny the characters’ coping
strategies have been up to that point.

It is this use of language as a mask, and Gray’s
depiction of life being governed by betrayal and deceit
(often not even deliberately) that must have formed
part of the attraction of these works for Harold
Pinter, who went on to direct eight of Gray’s plays.
Certainly, the works of the two dramatists to seem to
be inextricably linked together for a few years in the
1970s, each writer exploring the ideas of adultery,
publishing and professional rivalry from a different
perspective that is informed by the other’s plays.

Gray was a very prolific author, and perhaps too
prolific for the good of his reputation which, with
the exception of the shabby-genteel Quartermaine’s
Terms (1981), tends to rest on the more
metropolitan adultery plays; Butley (1971), Otherwise
Engaged and The Common Pursuit. Dig deeper
into his body of work (and most of it is usually out
of print, to say nothing of the junked television
plays), and this impression is soon complicated;
Spoiled (1970) a modest and unshowy – but quietly
devastating – study of a pederast (insanely produced
as a glittering commercial prospect at the Haymarket
at the heart of the West End!), the lurid – and
possibly unperformable – black farces Wise Child
(1967) and Dutch Uncle (1969), and the long cherished
project of a play about Dickens, Little
Nell. These plays are characterised by phantasmagorical
elements when reality seems suddenly to
become stranger and less negotiable, an aspect of
Gray’s work that tends to be neglected, but is always
present as a possibility, and can be found in the
sudden and unnerving breakdowns of characters in
more ostensibly conventional plays, as in Quartermaine’s
Terms and Japes (2000).

Most surprising and exciting of all, though, is The
Rear Column (1978). In this remarkable play,
Gray’s skills at depicting collegiate rivalry, and
emotional detachment and dislocation are placed
in the unexpected place and time of the Congo in
1887, when Major Barttelot’s colonial expedition
eventually degenerates into a terrifying nightmare of
violence and cannibalism (the same series of events
which inspired Heart Of Darkness). This was clearly
too far a breach from what West End audiences
expected from Simon Gray thirty years ago, and the
play has laid totally neglected since, awaiting the
more sympathetic hearing that is surely its due.

Even without revivals, though, Simon Gray is very
likely to be remembered by future generations
through his memoirs and diaries. These will serve
an important purpose of showing what life was like
for the last generation of serious playwrights to have
worked in the West End, rather than the subsidised
theatre (although he did have one original play
produced by the RSC, and one at the National).
Something that makes Gray’s memoirs of his
theatrical career so compelling for the reader is the
combination of tremendous strokes of luck (such as
Alec Guinness unexpectedly deciding that he wanted
to appear in the West End in drag, or the continual
enthusiasmof Pinter and Alan Bates) with calamitous
and unexpected misfortunes.

Unsparingly recounted in Gray’s diaries and
memoirs, these misfortunes become, in the telling,
both very funny and instructive and enlightening. It
is chastening to follow him through such unhappy
experiences as: knowing that the play that you have
heading for the West End is going to be a terrible
flop, the self-deception amongst the company that it
can be improved, and the appalling afterlife of the
production achieving a posthumous infamy (culminating
in the ultimate humiliation of its providing
the basis for a Daily Mail campaign to reintroduce
booing to the theatre); or having an exciting new
play blocked from transferring into the West End by
the presence of an indifferent revival of one of your
old plays; or the backers of your play stabbing you in
the back by abandoning the West End transfer of
your play while refusing to inform the company; or,
most notoriously, hitching the commercial success
of your play to a wholly unsuitable star comedian
who then has a very public breakdown and suicide
attempt; or, as recently as 2007, nobody having the
courage to be unkind and sack an insufficiently
talented young actor from their Broadway debut
until it’s too late.

Gray’s theatrical memoirs illustrate the unexpected
vicissitudes and disappointments of life, while
the life memoirs tell us much about guilt, betrayal
and humiliation. It is a source of hope and wonder
that they manage to achieve this while remaining
amusing and entertaining. It is to be hoped that
Gray’s likely survival in the canon as a memoirist and
diarist will keep interest in the plays themselves alive,
plays which share the qualities and insights of the
autobiographical writing. As Lyn Gardner wrote in
Gray’s Guardian obituary (8 August 2008);

Gray bridged the gulf between intellectual and
popular drama. Along the way, he provided the
West End with some robustly funny and darkly
melancholic plays about the failure of hope over
experience. Most people can relate to that.

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