Bringing the House Down

The playwright Simon Gray died on August 7. Shortly before his death he shared his thoughts on the theatre and much else in a Standpoint Dialogue with The Daily Telegraph's theatre critic Charles Spencer and our editor Daniel Johnson

Daniel Johnson: Is the theatre, which is both your lives from completely different points of view, still an absolutely central part of civilisation and if so why?

Simon Gray: Has it ever been at the centre of civilisation?

DJ: Well, it’s an integral part of it. Why do we seem to need it? Every phase of history has produced some sort of theatrical legacy.

SG: The theatre is very much a social aspect of civilisation. I think it’s actually more to do with, or certainly it was, a middle-class social activity.

Charles Spencer: Yes, very much so. They used to have teas served at matinees. It’s always been a night out as much as anything.

SG: Yes, theatre and a dinner. And they would dress up for the occasion. But I’m not sure how central it ever was since the Greeks and then Shakespeare. I don’t feel it’s ever been a dynamo, so to speak, in our civilisation.

DJ: But is it a sort of mirror we hold up for ourselves? Is it a way in which society tries to understand itself?

CS: Well, certainly that’s what Nicholas Hytner suggested he wanted to do with the National Theatre – that he should be holding a mirror up to nature. And Michael Billington recently wrote a book called State of the Nation showing how the theatre has depicted British society since 1945. I think that’s one part of what the theatre does. By and large, I think the theatre is essentially a middle-class audience. I don’t think you can get away from that. But that’s what everyone wants to get away from, because it’s not perceived as correct. Why that should be the case – why the people who really like the theatre and have always supported it should now be regarded as inessential – I don’t know. But there is one place the theatre really does get young audiences – they do like going to really uncomfortable fringe theatres. Black box theatres do have an incredibly youthful audience. Sometimes at the Bush or the Royal Court I feel like a granddad. So it does have support among the young.

SG: I wonder who those young people are, actually. At the Menier Chocolate Factory there were a lot of young people there, but they also looked pretty middle-class to me.

DJ: Do you think people think going to the theatre is a demanding and possibly a frightening experience? Because, Simon, your plays are incredibly easy to watch and enjoy. They’re not like a sort of test that you have to pass. Because what you’re interested in are the lives of individuals, not necessarily ordinary people I suppose, but nonetheless people with whom it’s easy to identify.

SG: Well, most of my people speak grammatically, and they seem to take trouble with their speech, or at some point in their lives have had trouble taken with their speech, and it means that people really have to listen, I think. If the play’s going to survive the evening, it has to have a fairly listening or attentive audience. I don’t think they appeal, frankly, to anyone outside of a literate middleclass audience. I can’t imagine, for example, taking the play to the outskirts of Liverpool would be a bright move. It would be a disastrous move, actually.

CS: Well no, but actually there have been two revivals of Simon’s plays fairly recently, Quartermaine’s Terms and The Common Pursuit, both of which stand up really well. But particularly The Common Pursuit, which is almost a vanished world now, of people who think that literature is important and who are happy to spend their lives doing little arts magazines, and who are also ferociously clever, by and large. And it’s a terrible thing to say, but that sort of writing of educated middle-class people refl ecting their own lives and interests has gone out of fashion to a large extent.

SG: It was never really in fashion. Not with the intellectual Left, for example. As soon as these plays began to arrive they were yearning for working-class [productions], they would actually use that sort of phrase. And so I don’t think they’ve ever actually been very popular on either flank.

CS: But they’ve been commercial successes often. Which you couldn’t say of the leftwing plays. The hard Left plays that are much admired by some. Brenton, for instance, has never really had a hit with his hard-Left stuff, has he?

SG: No, but do you think that’s politics?

CS: (Laughing) Or do you think that’s the standard of the plays themselves?

SG: I think any play that sets out to do a “state of the nation” accounting is doomed to six weeks somewhere or other. Or ought to be.

CS: I quite agree. This is partly what you see theatre doing, I think. This book by Michael Billington seems to say that the main thing about a play isn’t that it’s got characters you’ll become concerned about, but that it has certain points to make. And I have great respect for him because he’s been doing the job for a long time but it’s absolutely not the way I’d do it.

SG: Why should you have respect just because he’s been doing it for a long time?

CS: (Laughing) Because he has got something, he’s got a kind of integrity and he’s got a vision. But for me, the idea that a play is about making points that you can enumerate seems to be the absolutely wrong way of looking at theatre. What I like about theatre is that it takes you by surprise and you find your sympathies engaged with arguments that you don’t agree with. Which goes right back to Richard III, really. What theatre can make you do, which is quite important about it, is identify and understand, even like and applaud people you would normally disapprove of. I don’t think there are many arts that do that.

SG: Well, the novel does that. And the novel does it actually better, I think, because you enter more fully into the consciousness of the character.

CS: Though I find, I don’t know if you find this, increasingly I don’t want to read fiction any more.

SG: That will be a matter of age. I find the same thing.

CS: I don’t mind it in the theatre but I don’t want to read novels any more. I’d rather read history books and biographies.

SG: I also find it very difficult to read. I find I read the old novels again and again rather than a new novel which generally sort of terrifies me.

DJ: Simon, can we talk about one of your plays: Quartermaine’s Terms? Quartermaine is not an instantly likeable or typical sort of person. A kind of public schoolmaster who is all washed up and whose life isn’t really going anywhere and yet by the end of the play you identify very much with him, he matters to you. That’s an extraordinary trick to pull off.

SG: Well, you have to get the right actor to begin with.

DJ: I remember Edward Fox doing it brilliantly.

SG: It is something that a playwright has to acknowledge; actors do make an enormous difference to a part.

CS: Yes, but don’t sell yourself short. It is there in the text as well. DJ: It’s just been successfully revived.

SG: Yes, very charmingly by Nathaniel Parker, but what I’m really saying is that part of it is to do with the actor who embodies, and I hope slightly more than that, the character that you write. I thought Edward was something extraordinary in Quartermaine’s Terms. I couldn’t have conceived of him having that kind of strange aura about him, of poignancy, loss and charm. It was something unique to Edward. People still remember the performance, which for a playwright is a great nuisance because it’s much harder to revive. Actors don’t want to do a part that a living actor has made their own or that they think has made their own.

CS: It’s an awfully corny question, but was Quartermaine someone in your imagination or was he based on someone you’d met?

SG: Well, I taught in language schools a lot in Cambridge and it was the spirit of the place, I thought. On the one hand there were the garrulous, rather hopeless, ambitious pushers. I never knew quite what they were pushing for, just more classes or whatever and there was always this sense of a lonely spirit somewhere. He came last in the writing of the play; all the other characters came first.

CS: So he wasn’t even pushing for attention in the creative [process]? SG: No, I don’t know how he happened. I’m very grateful to him for happening but he wasn’t there at the beginning. But as soon as he arrived everything else made sense.

CS: Was the beginning the two principals?

SG: No, the beginning was the blocked writer and all those people – Windscape, the natural pedagogue.

CS: Also a fascinatingly ambivalent character because part of the time I think “Oh God, this man’s such an awful know-it-all” and yet by the end you’ve gone a very long way with him in fact because of the daughter and the brilliant O-levels.

SG: I always thought he was anxious to share the intellectual life with people, and he has to do it in a language school where no one really wants to share the intellectual life. So I think he’s rather a forlorn figure even when he’s in full flight.

CS: Yes, Christopher Timothy was awfully good at that.

SG: Awfully good. I loved him. I thought he was wonderful.

CS: But that play also made me think of what Tom Stoppard said, that whatever a play is about, it’s about time, which I do think is very true. Even if it’s a play set in 90 minutes of real time something will have changed by the end of it. I do think plays that have quite a long arc of time get to truths about life in a way that others don’t.

SG: I think I agree, that theatre does time in a way better than almost anything, because you see the physical transformations. Oddly enough, people age better on the stage than they do on the screen – partly because you see it happening.

CS: Yes, they come on with a bit more crook.

SG: It’s a matter of walking, how they hold themselves, that sort of thing.

CS: Yes, and if you think about Falstaff in Henry IV Part 1 and Henry IV Part 2, he’s a sprightly pensioner in the first one and delightful and warm and full of life, and by the end he’s pathetic and he’s going to go into a home, isn’t he? Hal will put him into a twilight home, almost certainly, where there will be no sack.

SG: The prince’s favourites all go.

DJ: And what about death? You mention Shakespeare. More often at the end of a Shakespeare play you aren’t left to imagine their subsequent life because they’re already dead. Do you think the theatre is another way of people coming to terms with death? You’ve been actually very eloquent on the subject, Simon, in your Diaries.

SG: Can you remember – I don’t know any modern plays in which anyone actually dies on stage.

CS: I think the actual act of dying in Shakespeare is almost a relief for a tragic hero. The worst thing that could possibly happen to King Lear is that he goes on living in this gilded cage with Cordelia. It would be an absolute nightmare.

SG: Well, yes, he’s been dying throughout; rather noisily it seems to me. I wonder how Cordelia would have felt about it all, actually, given the chance. She might have settled for a few more years.

CS: Yes, but not necessarily with him.

SG: It’s not my favourite play, I have to say.

CS: No, I feel you have to gird your loins every time you go and see it.

SG: Yes, well it’s massively too long. And for much of it Lear does seem to be in the same state that he was half an hour ago. And you think, “well, we could have had that speech then as well as now”.

DJ: Do playwrights talk about even Shakespeare as it were in that way? Most of us are too in awe of great figures, but in a sense you playwrights are all colleagues.

CS: Well, I’m on the other side of the fence! I don’t think Simon would really describe me as a colleague. (Laughs.)

DJ: No, sorry – I meant [Simon] and Shakespeare.

SG: I don’t know. Shaw did it famously but on the whole I’m speaking as a member of the audience and not as a playwright. Simple physical endurance I find something of a problem with Shakespeare. And the fact is there are a lot of long passages, which, no matter how familiar one thinks one is with them, are still incomprehensible on the stage. They go by so quickly. They seem to have thought and spoken their thoughts much quicker. It’s amazing to think there were audiences who were with every word of the play because we’re not now. If you sit with an audience, attentive to the audience, at a Shakespeare play you will discover that most of them are comatose and they wake up at certain moments, moments they remember from their school days or something of that sort, and they come most of all to life when the curtain falls. This is true isn’t it? There’s an awful lot of phoniness about Shakespeare and “bringing Shakespeare to the children”, or the kids as we call them nowadays, could be quite disastrous.

CS: Though I have to say I took my son to Shakespeare when he was 10 and he’s been to Midsummer Night’s Dream, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Hamlet, Measure for Measure, and he loves it. I think the fallacy is that you do need to understand every word. For him, he’s in that lovely position where it’s a new story. He was absolutely bowled over by Hamlet and went twice. No one I think can understand everything that’s going on in Hamlet, it’s inexhaustible.

SG: The problem is that after a certain age you want to understand everything that’s going on though and you become impatient.

CS: Also I do find that what keeps me going in my job is going to Shakespeare 20 or 30 times a year, because it never wears out on you. Just as you were saying, there are always bits you’ve never heard before, great chunks, and I read them in great detail at university. When I first started reviewing I’d always read them again before I went to see them in a fit of excessive conscientiousness. And now, although I know them quite well, there are always new bits that you hear for the first time, I find.

SG: Well, that must be one of the benefits of your employment.

CS: Well it is. Although I’d be very, very happy never to see Love’s Labours Lost again ever, because it’s just so arid. The whole play’s just about waiting for death to arrive in the lastact. And King Lear is just too grim. But something like Hamlet I wouldn’t mind seeing every week.

SG: Of course we sit in a very different spirit through Shakespeare, don’t we? The audiences then roamed in and did lots of stuff, they peed and gobbled down food and they ate and they talked. Talked! So the play was almost an extension of their own activity.

CS: Well, actually, I was thinking about something slightly similar last night when I was at this rock festival, GuilFest, and the atmosphere at a rock festival is probably not unlike it was in a theatre in those days. Blondie came on, the 70s iconic new-wave band from New York, and people were chatting all the way through it and I was getting really angry, because I’d grown up with Debbie Harry and fancied her all my life and there she was in front of me, and people were talking. But that was part of the thing for them, talking about what she looked like, who this person was, did they want another beer, and it’s that kind of informal approach but it doesn’t mean they weren’t enjoying it. SG: No, I’m sure they were enjoying it.

CS: But if people started doing that in the theatre there would be huge “shushings” now and irritation. I get really cross because you see all these kids now texting all the way through the show.

SG: But what about critics writing all the way through the show?

CS: (Laughing) That’s our job! But I’ve often been told off. I remember sitting next to a critic in Edinburgh and he said “Who are you?” and I said who I was, and he said “Well, you’re an absolute disgrace. I’ve never known anyone with such a scratchy pen and who made such a noise turning over the pages.” And I felt sort of humbled by this man. But it’s my job.

SG: It’s not your job to have a scratchy pen, though.

CS: No, but I hadn’t looked for a scratchy pen! And then you get the ring-binders that scrape– you can be very aggressive with a notebook.

DJ: Simon, you used the phrase earlier “the intellectual life”. The idea of an intellectual life, having a life that is devoted to culture and ideas – is that something that has now become rather rare? Many of your characters seem to be groping towards something like it. They want to at least have a share of it.

SG: I think they have it.

CS: I think there’s an embarrassment about proclaiming yourself as an intellectual. I think that cleverness is now regarded as suspect.

SG: Well, I think it always was. It was always attributed to homosexuals and pinkos in one’s school days. Cleverness and sexual perversion and suspect politics all seemed to come together in one package. Also, the liberal intellectual, the New Statesman for example, had a very clear political form, and you eitherdisliked it or you didn’t. The Spectator was ebulliently philistine in those days. I remember Kingsley Amis writing wonderfully shocking reviews about how this was boring and that was unbearable and so forth. Orwell’s quite good on intellectuals. You can think of where intellectuals stood with Orwell in the 40s for example. Pacifism.

CS: Long shorts.

SG: And pansies.

CS: And sandals.

SG: Yes, all that. I don’t think the idea of the intellectual has ever flourished in this country.

DJ: No, I think that we’re getting stuck on the word intellectual though. What I was groping towards was something more than that.

SG: You’re thinking of something Platonic, aren’t you?

DJ: Well yes, I am a bit. I’m trying to get at what you, Simon, think life is worth living for. What is it that makes you get up in the morning and write? You are very interested as a playwright in individuals, in explaining what makes somebody tick rather than making points, advancing a theory.

SG: I don’t think I’m very interested in what makes people tick because I haven’t got the slightest idea. What they are is simply creatures of – I don’t know what word is the appropriate one – the imagination so to speak. And my imagination is clearly limited to people who seem to have an interior life, to some degree a life of the mind but that’s part of who they are and that’s all I know about them. I don’t know about what makes them tick just as I don’t know what the state of the nation is from one minute to the next. That’s certainly the case in my case. Certainly some playwrights represent points of view on the stage, they clearly embody that point of view. You have your vulnerable leftwinger or rightwing bully. What gets those playwrights out of bed in the morning is presumably having conversations like those we hear going on on the stage. Whether that’s worth getting out of bed for is another matter.

CS: What is it that makes you write, or want to write?

SG: God knows, I have no idea. It’s what I’ve been doing since I was very young. I started writing novels and stuff, as I thought seriously, when I was about 21 or 22 and I haven’t stopped. I have no idea what it is because I don’t think there’s any genetic predisposition. Nobody on either side of the family that I know of wrote.

CS: What does it feel like, is it like the desire for a drink, to write, or the desire for a cigarette?

DJ: Is it an addiction?

SG: It’s certainly an addiction of a sort. Though addiction covers everything – everything that you like is an addiction, one’s life is an addiction, if it comes to that.

CS: Is it like an itch though, that needs satisfying?

SG: I think when it’s going well, then it’s like an itch, and you can’t bear to be away from it. When you’re between things and you feel like you’re never going to do it again then it’s like a bereavement, a physical bereavement, like somebody who’s gone, whose company you had only yesterday.

CS: I remember that very strongly when we met that time. You felt as though you were bereaved.

SG: I feel it again actually. I’m back in that state. You wait for something to happen.

CS: I have to write, five times a week.

SG: I don’t know how you do it, actually. Daniel’s father does the same thing. Every week he turns out an extremely interesting [piece].

DJ: I was thinking about this apropos Dr Johnson the other day because he started amagazine, The Rambler, and had to produce his essay – actually beautiful essays which are still worth reading – every week without fail And yet at the same time he was a very creative writer, someone who could somehow manage to combine the life of a journalist and a writer. But it’s a rare thing to be able to do isn’t it?

SG: Well he said, famously, that you only did it for money.

CS: No one but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.

DJ: There’s some truth in that.

SG: Not in my case! I wish there were actually.

DJ: You would have written anyway, even if you’d never earned a living from it.

SG: Well, I have written anyway.

CS: But by and large most of your work has been published or produced.

SG: Yes, I think I’ve been very lucky.

DJ: That leads us on to the whole question of subsidised theatre. Johnson said nobody writes except for money, but there wasn’t much choice in his day unless you were a grandee of some sort. But nowadays, in a sense, there is a choice: you can either be part of the commercial world or, if you’re lucky, there is this alternative subsidised world, where you can somehow coast your way through without your work ever having to make any money for anyone.

SG: Except yourself – I think they make money. I think they’re probably guaranteed a slightly better income than those who write on spec.

DJ: Well, they make money, it’s true, but is this a good thing or a bad thing? Is it actually achieving anything for literature to have public money going into subsidies. Trying to pick winners really, trying to say this playwright is worthy of subsidy and this one is not.

CS: Well, my view is that all art has always [had patrons]. Dr Johnson would have loved it if Lord Chesterfield had sponsored his Dictionary.

SG: Would he have loved it if the government had sponsored it?

CS: That I don’t know. But take the National Theatre. I think the amount of money that goes into it is money well spent – Simon might disagree with this – and without it we probably wouldn’t have had Stoppard’s Arcadia, for instance. I can’t think that a commercial management would have put that play on. It was a largish cast, mathematics, landscape gardening, quantum mechanics, Byron.

SG: The thing about the National Theatre that I think is interesting, or one of the many things that’s interesting, is that it has its own audience and it’s not necessarily a theatregoing audience, it’s a National Theatre-going audience. And people who go to the National Theatre don’t necessarily go to what might bea good play in the West End because they think it hasn’t got the right provenance.

CS: Yes, I think that might well be the case.

SG: And this is what’s happened to the middle-class audience that has vanished from the West End, and people who go to the National Theatre don’t particularly want to go to [the West End]. The National Theatre is a very nice environment, the West End is no longer a nice environment, it’s very unpleasant, you step out into rubbish and so forth. And the National Theatre is a very pleasant place to go to, and the plays are always at a certain level of intelligence, professional acting and design and everything. It has rather killed the West End, but this is also [down to] economic circumstances and, probably, education.

DJ: Could someone starting out now have your career, Simon?

SG: No, absolutely not. I think I was very lucky – I was born, for me, at the right time. It was still alive, the West End, but it was coming to an end I think. The thing about the West End though, also, is that the producers demand stars. They may think a play is very much the sort of thing they want to put on, they may like it, but they won’t put it on unless they’ve got what they consider a star. And they don’t know quite what a star is, who really does? They don’t know really until they put the play on. And these things are very mysterious, one of the great mysteries in life is “why is a star [a star]?”

CS: Well, they say there are only two names now that can automatically fill a theatre, and they are Maggie Smith and Judi Dench. And Maggie Smith couldn’t fill it with that terrible [Edward] Albee play, The Lady from Dubuque, even she couldn’t fill it.

SG: I liked the Albee play actually, I have to say. She filled it as far as I was concerned. But she only came on in the second act, and the play got very rough treatment. It was said to be gloomy and her forte is of course comedy.

CS: You liked it, did you?

SG: I did, yes, I thought it was very sympathetic actually.

CS: Oh, I hated it.

DJ: Simon – you’ve just lit another cigarette – can I just ask you about your new play? Can, you tell us a little bit about it? When is it coming out?

SG: Well, if it comes out. It’s being cast at the moment, which may mean that it never comes out actually, but it’s really just taken from the Diaries. But mainly from the one that hasn’t been published yet. I don’t want to give away the plot!

DJ: But you can tell us a little bit. It is called The Last Cigarette, isn’t it?

SG: Yes, but it’s actually based more on [my next volume of diaries], Coda. It’s really about discovering I had cancer and what happened.

DJ: Are you onstage as it were? Is there a Simon Gray figure?

SG: There are three of me.

CS: Oh are there?

SG: Two men and a woman.

CS: Two men and a woman!

SG: One’s feminine side needs an airing now and then.

CS: You always said there was the famous photo of you, the “lesbian” photograph you used to talk about.

SG: Yes. Well, no I don’t think of myself – my feminine side isn’t lesbian, it’s very feminine.

CS: One area I don’t think we’ve covered, which perhaps we should, is the perennial [question] – and I haven’t got an answer to it – of why there are so few rightwing and so many leftwing plays.

SG: For one thing the atmosphere has never been conducive to rightwing plays. We are run by an orthodoxy aren’t we?

CS: I think there’s no doubt about that.

SG: And the National Theatre has an orthodoxy, which is the only thing I really dislike about it, I always feel that it’s got a stance or a tone. I remember Nick Hytner saying, very proudly, that they’d put on the Jerry Springer show, that they were fearless in attacking Christianity. But somehow you didn’t hear his voice when that play in Birmingham was taken off.

CS: Behzti, the Sikh play.

SG: Yes. I would have thought that a great move would have been for the National to have brought that in, if they really cared about such things. It seems to me a very easy sort of liberalism that allows [only] yourself, so to speak, to be beaten up.

CS: To criticise yourself, yes. He has said – in his defence, and he can defend himself – that he’s looking for a play that gives some look inside radical Islam. On the other hand I wouldn’t mind seeing a play from outside radical Islam, that gives it a good kicking. But no one will dare do that. There’s a very good new writer who I think you’d like called Richard Bean. I don’t want to say what his politics are because he’s never told me, but he’s written The English Game, a very good new play about cricket, and there’s a moment in this when a very sympathetic character talks about how he’s sick of England and one of the things that he hates about it is Islam and what it does to women, and blowing people up and so on. And it was shocking because I suddenly realised that this hasn’t actually been said in a play before. It’s what everyone thinks, but this is the first time it has been said. And there’s a liberal doctor who can’t stand what he’s saying, but it’s the doctor that’s emigrating to an agreeable region of Languedoc, because he can’t stand it in London any more. And in fact these two have been friends all their lives and they break up. Another play that I was shown the script of is an anonymous version of Aristophanes’s Lysistrata, about Islamic women going on sex strikes.

SG: Oh yes, this has been discussed somewhere. I’ve seen it written about.

CS: Has it? The author has stayed anonymous because it might be suicidal – literally suicidal – to put this play on. It’s really very filthy, and very funny in an almost Chaucerian way – except Chaucer largely isn’t funny.

SG: But if there’s going to be a play about “inside radical Islam” it’ll be a profoundly sympathetic, inquiring play, I’m sure, in which we see all sides of the story. I can’t imagine a play that’s violently opposed to Islam. You can’t be – publicly, so to speak, and certainly not at the National Theatre.

CS: But it is the great elephant in the room – I hate to use that phrase – isn’t it? Islam in the theatre – it’s not being discussed.

SG: It’s discussed almost everywhere else – in rather nervous voices, of course.

CS: Very nervously. Wouldn’t Ed Husain’s The Islamist be quite easily adapted to the stage?

SG: It’s said to be a very good book.

DJ: One problem is that the theatre is so vulnerable to disruption.

CS: To bombs in particular. Theatres have been blown up, or occupied

SG: But in effect you have to say that. It seems to me that you should say that the reason we didn’t bring that play in was because we didn’t want to be bombed. Which would be a very reasonable position to take up. I don’t think you should be so proud of putting on Jerry Springer – The Opera.

CS: Yes it’s very easy to knock fundamentalist Christianity, it’s fine.

DJ: That’s a good moment to stop.

CS: I don’t know quite what we’ve said, really.

SG: You’ll find out when you get your fatwa.

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