A Fond Farewell to the Molière of Our Day

‘Gray knew what it meant to speak in prose, in an era when it is not the love of money but contempt for honest language that is the root of all evil’

As we go to press, Standpoint mourns the death of the playwright and diarist Simon Gray. His Dialogue with Charles Spencer in the August issue was not only positively his final appearance in the public domain, but a characteristic example of the tone of voice – at once caustic and kind, imperative and tentative, amused and amusing – that he made his own. All he knew about the creatures of his imagination, he insisted, was that they had an interior life and that they spoke grammatically: “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.”

The Molière of our day, Gray knew what it meant to speak in prose, in an era when it is not the love of money but contempt for honest language that is the root of all evil. But he had no trace of snobbery, intellectual or social, and only gently mocked the bourgeois gentlemen and ladies who populated his plays and furnished his audiences. While sympathising with Molière’s Don Juan that a life without tobacco was not worth living, Gray’s Smoking Diaries managed to elevate the grim business of renouncing the poison that was shortening his life into an extended comedy of manners every bit as good as the classic novel about smoking last cigarettes, Italo Svevo’s The Confessions of Zeno.

He had no patience with cant of any kind. “The National Theatre has an orthodoxy, which is the only thing I really dislike about it,” he told us. The eagerness of the NT’s director, Nicholas Hytner, to attack Christianity but his utter failure to take on radical Islam in the same way drew his scorn: “It seems to me a very easy sort of liberalism that allows only yourself, so to speak, to be beaten up.” Gray had no problem with timidity – he thought it “very reasonable” for theatre managements to do anything in their power to avoid being bombed. But he thought it rank hypocrisy for them to deny that this was their real reason for avoiding a subject – Islam – that was being discussed “almost everywhere else – in rather nervous voices, of course”.

Many writers in the rest of the world must, needless to say, contend with repression far more severe than such covert self-censorship. In this issue, Robert Conquest evokes the late Alexander Solzhenitsyn and gives him his due – in stark contrast to Andrew O’Hagan, who sneered in The Daily Telegraph that “Solzhenitsyn’s writing fails to outlive its subject”. Well, who does O’Hagan suppose killed the subject – the evil empire – if not Solzhenitsyn and other writers like him? Solzhenitsyn’s Soviet citizenship was restored only in 1990; a year later, the Soviet Union ceased to exist. “The man recovered of the bite, the dog it was that died.”

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