by Simon Gray
Duchess Theatre, London, 2011
starring Dominic West

Is Butley an autobiographical play? 'Up to a point, Lord Copper' is the only rational answer to that one. Simon Gray dedicated the play to 'The staff and students, past, present and future, of the English Department, Queen Mary College, London'. It is set in the English Department of a university; Gray taught in the English Department of Queen Mary College from 1965, for nearly 20 years. Butley is a heavy smoker; Gray was a famously heavy smoker. Butley drinks; Gray drank. Butley deploys a glittering armoury of words in his ongoing battle against boredom and routine; Gray did the same, both in conversation and on the page. But, so what? What Gray did as a playwright was to draw on his own experiences and transmute them, spin them into finely wrought, brilliantly observed fictional constructs that dazzle the mind and engage the emotions.

Gray's plays are not politically driven, heavily interpretative state-of-the-nation polemics, they are shrewd and compassionate, closely observed analyses of the human condition. Few writers possess the bravery and honesty to reveal how the constant fear of loneliness and failure that life can bring is only exceeded by the terror of what may come after it. His characters teeter on the edge of the abyss, using every weapon at their disposal to keep that fear at bay - sex, drink, cigarettes and, above all, wildly articulate, indiscriminately lashing humour.

Ben Butley is a needy and unreliable slob, a bully, a profligate, shambolic mess but - gloriously and redeemingly - he is funny. Even at its bleakest, Gray found life agonisingly laughable. There is a video clip of him reading a passage of his own recollections of his eighth or ninth birthday when his mother gave him a pair of football boots that he could hardly bear to look at, never mind wear, because they were, in the way that children mind so acutely, wrong. Not the wrong size, not the wrong colour, just horribly, glaringly wrong. As he nears the end of the passage, his face crumples and he starts to laugh, wheezing and gasping uncontrollably. His laughter is irresistibly infectious.

Simon Gray had a good old-fashioned well-trained brain, that he exercised well and kept in considerably better nick than his much-abused body. It was trained in part at Westminster School and at Cambridge University, although he spent five years of his childhood in Canada, during the Second World War, and another period there in his late teens, studying at Dalhousie University in Novia Scotia. These periods away from Britain may have helped develop his objectivity, his outsider's eye. By his own account, the years he spent in Montreal from the age of three were notable for his learning how to smoke (ten a day by the age of eight) and steal (to support the smoking habit). At Dalhousie he grew his hair, talked about girls but failed to attract them, watched Westerns and gangster movies, for which he retained an abiding passion, and read a great deal of philosophy, from Aristotle and Plato to Heidegger and Sartre.

It was when he left Canada for France, to be a teaching assistant in Clermont-Ferrand, that he belatedly discovered and devoured English literature. A fellow teacher introduced him to the novels of D.H. Lawrence and the 'critical writings of some Cambridge don called Leavis'. As a result he spent the next two months lying on his bed reading 'Lawrence, and then Leavis on Lawrence, and then Leavis on George Eliot, Henry James and Conrad...and then George Eliot, and then Henry James, and then Conrad, and then Leavis on all of them, all over again.' After that he decided he had better try and get into Cambridge to study with Leavis himself.

Of course at Cambridge he was an outsider again but he took a perverse relish in that status, attended every lecture and seminar given by Leavis (but nobody else), and acquired a first-class degree with what he considered to be a 'fraudulent fluency' of intellectual technique.

Butley devotes considerable energy to avoiding the teaching of his students - 'Oh no, I can't give tutorials during the first week after the break I'm afraid; too much administration' - but Gray became a dedicated and imaginative teacher. In An Unnatural Pursuit he describes giving a Shakespeare seminar at Queen Mary during which 'we read bits of plays and examine them as if they were being rehearsed for production, so that students begin to get the idea that there's a lot of (frequently very interesting) life going on among the characters who aren't speaking'. He also wrote, and kept on writing: essays, opinions, reviews, stories, novels and, eventually, plays, first for radio, then television and the stage.

Gray not only wrote with deep understanding about male friendship, he also enjoyed close friendships with other men throughout his life. The original production of Butley, in 1971, starred Alan Bates and was directed by Harold Pinter, signalling the start of deeply valued relationships with both men on a personal and a professional level. Years later, Gray was amused by a woman journalist who 'concluded, or pretended to conclude the interview' then bent down to gather up her belongings and posed 'a last question: "Are you by any chance," she asked into her capacious handbag, "gay?"' He wasn't, but he certainly loved men. And he loved, with a delight that shines through his writing, actors. He loved the alchemy they could perform on the raw material he presented them with, and he noticed every nuance and subtlety of the actor's work. Felicity Kendall was so 'fragile and full of hope' in Hidden Laughter, which he wrote and directed, that she moved him and made him love the final scene so that he enjoyed it 'as if it had been written and directed by someone better than me'; Simon Callow in The Holy Terror was 'exhilarating' and had a 'sheer exuberance and a conspiratorial relationship with the audience' that he adored; Edward Fox and Peter Bowles were 'utterly convincing' in The Old Masters and endeared themselves to him during rehearsals by always turning up immaculately dressed, with knife-edge creases to their trousers and handkerchiefs neatly folded in the breast pockets of their jackets; Barbara Jefford was 'a great actress, and yet I can only define this greatness by negatives...the simplest of which is that she doesn't appear to act'.

When Simon Hattenstone of The Guardian talked to Gray in 2007 his chief complaint was 'that modern film actors don't know how to smoke properly' (he would probably have enjoyed watching Mad Men for its numerous bravura displays of that particular skill) and claimed that for him, smoking was 'an art, an occupation and a curse'. Rehearsals for this revival of Butley will no doubt have concentrated on reaching the required levels of naturalness in cigarette-wielding and deeply appreciative smoke inhalation.

It was during the period leading up to the first performance of Butley that Gray really immersed himself in theatre, to such an extent that he was, luckily for us, never to emerge. He remembered 'the intensely companionable summer of 1970 in which we took Butley through rehearsals in London, previews in Oxford, and into the West End, as one of the happiest of my life. Harold [Pinter] insisted that I attend all the casting sessions, all the rehearsals, all the previews and so he released in me the obsessive, which I suspect from time to time he has had reason to regret.'