The craft of … Simon Gray

You learn nothing from experience, at least in my experience”

Simon Gray died this week, just as, coincidentally, I was reading the latest (though not the last) volume of his brilliant Smoking Diaries, The Last Cigarette.

(Well, of course it was coincidentally, unless the very act of my picking up the book was in some way causally linked to his death, either through fate, circumstance or, indeed, deliberate planning. One of the pleasures — and dangers — of reading Gray is that his voice infects you for days afterwards)

Gray was a playwright in the best sense: a dramatic craftsman whose work is as beautifully constructed, and as tightly wound, as a Swiss pocket watch. Every beat of character adds to the story; every beat of story enhances our understanding of the characters; and every set-up pays off. He fell out of fashion for a while in favour of more obviously provocative work, but recent revivals of Otherwise Engaged and The Common Pursuit in London and Butley in New York brought him great success in his last years. 

He published a series of diaries throughout his working life, all of which are worth reading, particularly Fat Chance, his account of the abortive London production of Cell Mates, from which Stephen Fry fled mysteriously to Belgium (please add your own comma to that sentence for added effect, should you wish). Candid, funny and beautifully constructed despite their apparent artlessness, they are models of clear thinking and good writing. Here, for example, is his casually devastating demolition of the prose style of C.P.Snow, whose novel he is trying to read on an aeroplane:

[It’s] like fog, really, but an odd sort of fog, everything described so clearly, and yet everything important obscured, obscured by clarity in fact — he describes his world without seeing it, almost as if he thinks adjectives are in themselves full of detail and content — a girl is ‘passionate, generous, capable and free’ — and that’s it, it’s no good your wanting this passion, generosity, freedom and capability in action because there’s no girl to act … All his adjectives come in in threes or fours as if he has to fill a quota, it’s like reading P.G.Wodehouse without the jokes.

Ouch. On the other hand, here he is on the work of his best friend (and frequent director) Harold Pinter: 

… in some ways they are more like people than works, you feel you might bump into them in a pub or in a dream, you see them living from moment to moment, impulse to impulse, but you don’t quite understand how the moments and impulses connect, which is why you’re never sure, even if you’ve seen one many times, how it’s going to end, or whether you’re safe in your seat while it’s happening, it might come down from the stage and beat you up.

If you’ve ever read a better description of Pinter, do send it in; in the meantime, whether it’s to raise a glass, smoke a cigarette or just smile in recognition of great writing, please think of Simon Gray today.

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