20 Questions WithÖSimon Gray
Date: 26 April 2004
Playwright Simon Gray - whose transfer of The Holy Terror precedes publication of his latest book, The Smoking Diaries, & the world premiere of The Old Masters - talks about Harold Pinter, memoirs & the oddness of revivals.
Educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, Simon Gray is the author of more than 30 plays, amongst them: Butley, Otherwise Engaged, Quartermaineís Terms, Cell Mates, The Common Pursuit, Hidden Laughter, Wise Child, Melon, Old Flames, After Pilkington, The Late Middle Classes and Life Support, many of which have been presented in the West End.
Grayís last play in the West End was Japes, starring Jasper Britton and Toby Stephens, at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in 2001. Heís returned this month with Laurence Boswellís fresh mounting of The Holy Terror, which stars Simon Callow and is a rewrite of an earlier piece entitled Melon.
In June, Grayís latest play, The Old Masters, will receive its world premiere at Birmingham Rep. The production will feature Edward Fox, Peter Bowles, Sally Dexter, Barbara Jefford and Steven Pacey and will be directed by fellow playwright Harold Pinter, whoís directed eight of Grayís plays to date.
Gray is also the author of several memoirs and books about theatre, including An Unnatural Pursuit and Howís That for Telling ĎEm, Fat Lady?. His latest book, The Smoking Diaries, a frank private journal which he began when he turned 65, has just been published by Granta Books.
Date & place of birth
Born 21 October 1936 on Hayling Island, Hampshire.
Lives now inÖ
Notting Hill, West London.
First big break
Butley - well, it was a success, wasnít it? I suppose my first break was Wise Child which was my first play, with Alec Guinness in the West End, and the first big success was Butley (1971), which I suppose meant that, after that, my plays got read properly by producers.
Career highlights to date
Working with Jasper Britton and Toby Stephens on Japes (in 2000/2001) was a great pleasure. Thatís probably the last time Iíll be involved intimately in productions of plays because Iím feeling a bit too old for that really any more. So that, therefore, was a great pleasure and Iíll remember it.
All of them. Alan Bates, of course, because he was in ten of my plays and he was a great friend. But, I mean, I like actors, all of them, and I think most are very good at what they do.
Well, Harold Pinter has directed eight of my plays so heís inevitably my favourite director. Weíre going into rehearsal on 3 May with a new play called The Old Masters. Harold seems to be very inward with my plays very quickly. Often, when we start rehearsals, he seems to know more what they are about than I do.
What other playwrights do you most admire?
Harold, of course, Brian Friel Ö. I donít really want to go into that actually because then you leave out people and so forth.
What play by someone else would you most like to have written?
Brian Frielís Translations I think. Because if its decency, its very tender concern about the barriers between people, which ones are artificial and which ones are unnecessary. Itís a very moving play.
What's the best thing you've seen on stage recently?
I go to the theatre in bursts. I havenít been for a while, because weíve only just come back from the country and Iíve been involved in things so Iíve not had a chance to properly go. I thought Tom Stoppardís The Coast of Utopia was a tremendous piece of work. I didnít do it in one day. I liked seeing the three plays separately because I had time to ruminate on what Iíd seen, and it was nice seeing the actors in different roles, coming back after a week or so.
What would you advise the government to secure the future of British theatre?
The less the government is involved the better. Lay off, in other words. They seem to have done a very good job of ruining the British film industry so weíd better keep them out of the theatre industry.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
Roger Bannister, when he broke the four-minute mile. I ran as a boy for many many years.
The selected poetry of TS Eliot and of Philip Larkin.
Favourite holiday destinations
Anywhere really where thereís sun and sea and shade to read in.
If you hadnít become a writer, what would you have done professionally?
Iíd love to have been a sportsman of some sort. Nothing academic, though I was a lecturer for many years. Something what we used to call Ďusefulí would have been nice. Do I enjoy being a writer? Sometimes, when Iím writing. But with playwriting, youíve got to get the bloody play on, havenít you? Thatís what I donít enjoy. Writing a book is another matter. Theyíre two quite separate activities.
Is it correct that both The Holy Terror & The Old Masters are rewrites of earlier plays?
Well, The Holy Terror was rewritten 16 years ago, itís actually a very old play. Itís a deliberate rewriting of Melon, while The Old Masters was the next stage in the evolution of a play called The Pig Trade, thatís really one and the same. The Pig Trade was an unfinished draft, so The Old Masters is the finished version rather than a rewrite. I first completed The Pig Trade about two years ago and have been looking at it and thinking about it ever since. Just before Christmas, I went back to it and finished it in the New Year.
What compels you to revisit a piece?
With The Holy Terror, I always thought it required a specific audience whereas Melon was just the audience in the theatre. It struck me that it needed to be focused on a particular group of people (a Womenís Institute meeting) so I started again on that premise. The Pig Trade, what became The Old Masters, I felt just wasnít quite complete. I donít think Iíll return to any other earlier plays now. No, I think Iíve done enough of that.
What was your original inspiration for The Old Masters?
I was asked to do a film script about the relationship between Bernard Berenson and Joseph Duveen. Berenson was an art expert from the late 19th, early 20th century, and Duveen was an art dealer, and they had a very conspiratorial and dangerous relationship. Once I started writing it, it didnít seem to me to be a film, it seemed to be a stage play so thatís how it came out.
Do you have favourite lines from either play?
No, I canít remember them.
Major revivals of Japes & Otherwise Engaged are on the cards. How do you feel about your plays being revived?
I think Japes is going to be done somewhere in the States, I donít know where, and Otherwise Engaged, I believe there are plans to revive it, yes. How do I feel about revivals? It keeps the plays alive, I suppose thatís important. But itís very odd to have a play that isnít in oneís life any more coming back and making demands. I wrote Otherwise Engaged when I was 30 or so, 35 perhaps, and now Iím 67, so thereís been 32 years more life between me and it. Iím so out of touch with the man who wrote it, which feels strange. But itís also pleasing.
How involved do you get with productions of your plays?
With revivals, not very I donít think. Iíd perhaps look at a run-through and possibly say how I felt about the casting. With premieres like The Old Masters, I donít know, it would depend I think. I would like to leave it to them really, but if Iím needed obviously Iíll be at their disposal. I donít really like to be very involved any more, not like I used to. I donít have the energy.
Youíre also renowned for your frank behind-the-scenes production memoirs. What prompted you to begin these?
The first one arose out of a conversation with my editor at Faber. She asked if would I write a book about my experiences in theatre, and I said Iíd always wanted to write a book about a production of a play from finishing the writing to its first night so I did that. That was one called An Unnatural Pursuit. Then when they were going to do the play about which that was written, The Common Pursuit, in America, they said it seems like a good idea to write a companion, so thatís how I started.
Have you ever had any comeback about anything published in your memoirs?
Not that I know of. Who knows really? In life you can never say for certain, but not that I know of. I generally show the manuscript to all the principals in case of personal injury. With Unnatural Pursuit, every member of the cast knew it was going on. I told them all from the start that I was going to be keeping a diary. I think they forgot actually, but nevertheless they were warned. Nobodyís ever asked me not to include something.
How did your approach to writing The Smoking Diaries differ?
I didnít write it thinking of it as a book. It was really a private matter. Then the editor of Granta asked me if I had anything for his magazine. I said Iíd done this and he asked if he could see some. So he saw some and then asked me if he could publish it as a book. It really wasnít deliberate. Am I pleased with the outcome? I donít know Ö yes, I suppose. Itís a book.
What are your plans for the future?
There are no more books coming, nothing. Well, I have no plan to write another, which I suppose is a different thing. My plan is to get through this week really and then start again.
- Simon Gray was speaking to Terri Paddock
The Holy Terror is playing at the West Endís Duke of Yorkís Theatre, where it opened on 14 April 2004, following previews from 8 April and a regional tour. The Old Masters runs at Birmingham Rep from 4 to 19 June 2004, ahead of an anticipated West End transfer.
Released this month (April 2004), The Smoking Diaries is published by Granta Books (hardback, £12.99). For further information, visit the Granta website.