At long last, I saw Butley. It’s a fairly early Simon Gray play, originally a hit with Alan Bates acting and Harold Pinter directing.

Ben Butley is an academic, specialising in avoiding students and trying not to write anything. His relationship with his wife foundering, as are his relationships with colleagues, and with Joey, the younger colleague with whom he shares an office and a house. In the course of the day, his marriage finally breaks up and Joey decides to move in with his gay lover. Butley brings these failures on himself, wilfully, drunkenly, seeming to find calamity a confirmation of his doomed personality and a welcome rush of intensity of experience for him and others. He begins and ends the play theatrically and personally alone.

I’d never seen this play before and read it once, fleetingly. What was so clear watching it was the way it exists in the wake of Osborne. Like Jimmy Porter or Bill Maitland, Ben Butley is a vicious comic monologist in company. His constant flows of eloquent vitriol, interspersed with aggressive punning (he persistently and deliberately misunderstands the phrase ‘in point of fact’ as ‘in Pontefract’), provoke reactions just like Jimmy’s ‘arias’ or Bill’s needling mockery. And like Jimmy Porter it seems to be about provoking other people into feeling, hatred, aggression, misery. Just as Jimmy relishes seeing Alison broken with misery at her miscarriage, Ben is thrilled when he has goaded Reg into angry violence.

Both Gray and Osborne are writing about themselves, in only slightly displaced forms. Dramaturgically, this produces plays that are very heavily centred on their protagonists: Butley dominates this play to the extent that if the ending had revealed he had hallucinated all the other characters, I wouldn’t have turned a hair. (Certainly, in this production, I felt the wonderful Penny Downie, good though she is, was rather wasted on the part of Edna.) The playmaking is perfunctory - entrances and exits obvious and over-neat, other characters brought on, as if by conveyor belt, to be vilified. The play is not shapely; it meanders. However, there is a compulsive verbal forward movement; the play stands and falls on the linguistic energy of its central figure.

Of course, Gray and Osborne are too good to let the plays simply stand as disguised monologues. Playwrights who have that fierce interior life use a number of techniques to open the plays up; think of Strindberg, a writer, I think, in this mould, who has his monologists destroyed by their nemeses (The Father, The Stronger) or pits two alpha-characters against each other and watches them tear each other apart (Miss Julie, The Dance of Death). In Osborne as here, the dramaturgical dilemma becomes the vision of the world; these plays are monodramas that are seeking desperately to become ensemble pieces. Ben and Jimmy goad and berate their inert interlocutors until they finally produce some kind of dramatic conflict, until the protagonist finds an antagonist, allowing for some perspective on the anti-hero, a view that does not entirely share his values. These are playwrights using drama to get out of their own heads.

That then becomes a slightly social vision. Ben spots an interesting, difficult student and contemplates stealing him from Edna, his colleague. Joey confronts him: ‘You mean he’ll have a relationship with you, don’t you? While all poor Edna can offer him is a relationship with Byron, in a properly conducted seminar’. In other words, Ben is just charismatic individuality, while Edna can actual provide an atmosphere of collective engagement. The play favours Ben’s charisma until it runs out of steam and is revealed as emptily self-defeating.

Jimmy’s great friend, his role model, is a gay man, Webster (based on John Dexter, I once read, though that seems very odd). Butley is drawn to homosexuality and contemptuous of it, in just the same way. It’s fascinating to see an early and very straightforward representation of a gay couple on stage, but Butley’s position is complicated. Some have suggested that he is obviously bisexual, though that seems over simple. It’s more that he is drawn to homosexuality as an opportunity for a misogynistic renunciation of women (Porter’s ‘Why, why, why, why do we let these women bleed us to death?’ / Butley’s bittersweet ‘I’m a one-woman man and I’ve had mine, thank God’) and for the elaboration of homosocial friendship which he prefers to sexual relationships. But at the same time, he seems to express contempt. He uses campery as a way of teasing the gay characters (implying that they are too boring and ought to be screaming queens) but at the same time relishes using terms of homophobic abuse to goad Reg (‘queen, fruit, fairy, poof or homosexual’ he parses mischievously). His deployment of homo- and heterosexual identities seems almost to be a contemptuous rising above sexuality as if it is sexual identity itself that is the target of his contempt.

But also, like Jimmy’s respect for Webster (‘Sometimes I almost envy old [Andre] Gide and the Greek Chorus boys ... they do seem to have a cause -- not a particularly good one, it's true. But plenty of them do seem to have a revolutionary fire about them, which is more than you can say for the rest of us’) there’s a longing there for a kind of radical disruption to the status quo; but here, in 1971, four years after the Sexual Offences Act, Butley prefers to regret that homosexuality has become normalised: ‘of course, they’ve almost vanished anyway, the old-style queens and queers, the poofs, the fairies. The very words seem to conjure up a magical world of naughty thrills, forbidden fruits - sorry - you know, I used to enjoy them enjoying themselves. Their varied performances contributed to my life’s varieties. But now the law, in making them safe, has made them drab’. In reality, Butley is institutionalised, a time-server, paddling to stay afloat, his resistance to the world impotently channelled into contemptuous wit, word-avoidance, and the nursery poetry of Beatrix Potter (who fulfils the same function here as Jimmy’s bears and squirrels).

I have little to compare this production to but I kept thinking how great Alan Bates must have been in the role. In this clip from the Pinter movie (talking to the Vivien Merchant-a-like Susan Engel as Ben’s estranged wife). Bates is a massive personality, chewing words like meat; Dominic West is a sinewy wordsmith, a play-actor. Good but in shadow. Of the others, Martin Hutson gave Joey some fierce, discontented seriousness, though the part, for all its stage time, is little more than (gay) straight man to Butley. Only Paul McGann, as the belligerent gay publisher, offers a real challenge, bringing a quite different energy onto the stage, a self-containment and surety that Butley is desperate to break down. Finally, he is the brick wall that Ben’s been longing to hit.