In Praise of Sacred Cows

Simon Gray: seriously funny artist of angst

An author of seriously funny plays

This article is taken from the April 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

In his “bleakly comic” 1975 play Otherwise Engaged, the dramatist Simon Gray sets up a moment which must be one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen on stage.

The drama revolves around the publisher Simon Hench, who wishes to spend an evening by himself listening to Parsifal, but is constantly interrupted by family, friends and nemeses, including his brother, the schoolmaster Stephen, who bears a grudge against Hench’s acquaintance, a louche, hard-drinking writer named Jeff Golding. The hack informed him on a previous meeting that “people — he meant me, of course — only went into teaching because they were latent pederasts.” 

Asked to retract his statement, it is said of Golding “he offered to take back the latent, and congratulated me on my luck.” And when the writer and the pedagogue encounter each other again, Stephen stiffly says to Jeff, who has forgotten him, “Would you like me to remind you? I’m the latent pederast.” 

Alas, he is no match for the dissolute litterateur, who, “after a pause”, replies “Then you’re in the right job.” When I saw a revival in 2005, with Richard E Grant as Hench, David Bamber as the schoolmaster and Anthony Head as Golding, the moment brought the house down. I feared that I would have to be taken away by the men in white coats, so dizzy and giddy was my laughter.

As luck would have it, I interviewed Gray at his home in Holland Park a few months later, and was able to tell him how much I’d enjoyed the revival. He gingerly expressed his thanks to the over-eager young man before him — I was a kind of Roland Maude character, I fear — but it seemed to strike him as surprising that the scene had reduced the audience to helpless laughter. “Does it still hold up then?” I remember him asking, and when I assured him that it did, he smiled, wistfully. “Oh good. I’m never sure that people are going to find these things funny after the fact.” 

Gray died around two and a half years later, at the age of 71, and since then his standing as one of Britain’s greatest and most perceptive playwrights of middle-class, bookish mores has taken an almighty tumble. 

His work has been revived, occasionally;  there was an excellent 2013 production of his play Quartermaine’s Terms, a tragi-comedy of manners about a language school in Cambridge, a new staging of perhaps his best-known play Butley in 2011, with Dominic West as a philandering, hard-drinking academic with a range of personal crises all coming to the boil, and the Hampstead Theatre occasionally attempts to bring his work back, most recently reviving his 1995 play, Cell Mates, about the spy George Blake. 

Its initial staging descended into chaos

Its initial staging descended into chaos when its star, Stephen Fry, despondent after bad reviews, left the production and fled to Belgium in a suicidal state. Gray, furious at what he saw as both a professional and personal betrayal, announced that “It is disgraceful that so much media attention has been devoted to this squalid little story … I confess my own failure as a director was to have cast Stephen Fry in the first place, and in the second place, not to have acknowledged my error by requesting his departure after his (self-proclaimed) inadequacies were abundantly clear to me.” 

He wrote a rueful memoir about his experience, Fat Chance, in which he blamed himself as much as Fry. But this self-deprecation was a feature of Gray’s life and work: over the course of wittily mournful diaries and memoirs that included The Smoking Diaries, The Last Cigarette and the appropriately named final instalment Coda, he laid bare his insecurity, his health issues (revolving, in large part, from his consumption of four bottles of Champagne a day) and his fear of looming literary obsolescence. 

This, alas, has been mostly vindicated in the 15 years since Gray died, although not because his work isn’t as good as that of his peers; when he was on song, he was as witty as Stoppard, as capable of rueful poignancy as Rattigan and far more perceptive about the state of the British character than his fellow public school and Cambridge playwright David Hare. And although he was seen as a naturalistic, small ‘c’ conservative playwright, rather than an experimental or angrily political one, he formed a close working relationship with none other than Harold Pinter, who often directed his plays; the two men could be seen together most Sunday evenings dining at the then-modish Kensington Place restaurant near their Holland Park homes, although the fiery Pinter severed the friendship for a while in the Nineties, angered by his satirical guying in Gray’s television play Unnatural Pursuits

The enduring appeal of Gray’s work for people who visit the theatre to be entertained, rather than be bludgeoned with agitprop, is that the characters within his plays are recognisable middle-class figures, albeit considerably more anguished and self-aware than the norm. Academics, publishers, schoolmasters and journalists were his stock in trade, but, as Lyn Gardner said in a perceptive Guardian obituary, “his plays are full of highly educated, highly literate, professional people who find that words fail them and retreat into irony as a defence.” 

Gray’s plays are incredibly funny, but also heartbreakingly sad, because he established himself as a purveyor of that now fiercely unfashionable thing, the well-made drama that revolves around the suffering of the human heart. 

For many of his characters, there is no happy outcome, but rather than rage against the dying of the light (as they might have in, say, Hare or John Osborne), take refuge in witty paradox (Stoppard) or shrug bleakly in despair (Beckett), they find themselves reduced to spluttering, inarticulate incomprehension, which they deal with, as Gardner remarked, by wielding irony as a weapon. 

Gray’s writing was never fully of its time — he would have been happier alongside Coward and Rattigan — but now, it’s disappearing from the canon entirely. And that is a bleak pity, for any lover of seriously funny plays. 

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