Simon Gray, British Playwright of Wit and Intelligence, Dies at 71

Obituaries   Simon Gray, British Playwright of Wit and Intelligence, Dies at 71
Simon Gray, the British playwright who for four decades chronicled with sardonic wit and a cerebral style the mores of English literary and academic circles, died Aug. 7, the Guardian reported. He was diagnosed with lung cancer last year and had been in failing health.
Simon Gray
Simon Gray

Mr. Gray wrote more than 30 plays, including Quartermaine's Terms, Melon, The Common Pursuit, Otherwise Engaged, The Holy Terror, The Late Middle Classes and Wise Child. He was nominated for Tony Awards for Butley and Otherwise Engaged. Butley, arguably his most famous play, was revived on Broadway last year, with Nathan Lane starring as the title character, a dyspeptic, alcoholic, cynical professor who discovers he is losing both his wife and his lover on the same day. “What’s so wonderful about Mr. Gray’s script,” wrote Ben Brantley in the New York Times, “is how naturally the unities fall into place and how inevitably yet stealthily self-knowledge descends upon its protagonist.”

In its initial London and Broadway outings, Butley starred Alan Bates, an actor who would appear in many of Mr. Gray’s works. He also frequently collaborated with director Harold Pinter, the playwright.

Additionally, The Menier Chocolate Factory recently concluded a revival or present a revival of the 1984 play, The Common Pursuit, about the lives and disappointments of a group of Cambridge chums with high ambitions. The play was one of Mr. Gray’s biggest New York hits, enjoying a long Off-Broadway run at the Promenade Theatre.

Born Simon James Holliday Gray Oct 21, 1936, on Hayling Island, Hampshire, he was educated in private schools and at Cambridge. During World War II, he lived with his grandparents in Canada. He had a brother, Piers, who died of alcoholism in 1996. Mr. Gray was for many years a lecturer in English at Queen Mary, University of London—an experience which fed into many of his later plays.

Gray’s characters—of which he was both highly critical and extremely sympathetic—were often over-educated, bitter and at loose ends, emotionally and socially. Ben Butley dealt with the unraveling of his life by pouring endless amounts of salty comments into the wounds of everyone who passed his way, including himself. The young literary hopefuls in The Common Pursuit are bewildered and angry, yet never less than clever, as they encounter unforeseen bumps along the road that was to have been their glorious careers. In Otherwise Engaged, a seemingly accomplished and confident publisher named Simon Hench is revealed to be a selfish, solitary figure as his quiet afternoon is interrupted by a series of unexpected visits by colleagues, supplicants and his wife. In touch with their flaws, Mr. Gray’s self-absorbed protagonists nevertheless seem tragically incapable of emotionally connecting with their fellow beings. Their wives leave them. Their friends abandon them. And at the end of the day, they find themselves alone. In recent years, Mr. Gray had published a series of acclaimed, highly confessional diaries, including “The Smoking Diaries,” in which he talked candidly about his turbulent life—his smoking (he lit up 60 times a day), excessive drinking and ill health, his chaotic finances and his general pessimism, all discussed with great humor.

Reading them, one got the impression of a reckless man living life as he pleased, with little thought for the future or the consequences of his actions. He finally kicked his alcoholism in 1997, a habit which for some time had him consuming several bottles of Champagne a day, and a good deal of whiskey. He quit after passing out during a dinner with Alan Bates, ending up in hospital for three weeks. Sober, he still didn’t condemn his drinking day. “I wrote a lot of my plays drunk,” he said. “It liberated me.”

His debts were such, that income from his many copyrights had to be shared with his creditors. “A playwright's life is a very precarious one,” he said. “One sometimes has great pockets of good luck. [My next play] might be a success. If it is, then I will be OK again.” He also published five novels. In 2005, he was awarded the C.B.E. (Commander of the order of the British Empire) for his services to literature.

He was married twice, first to Beryl Mary Kevern and then to Victoria Rothschild, the youngest daughter of Victor Rothschild, 3rd Baron Rothschild, with whom he carried on an affair for eight years before marrying her. He had two children by Kevern.

Simon Gray with <i>Butley</i> revival star Nathan Lane.
Simon Gray with Butley revival star Nathan Lane. Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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