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Not-So-Simple Simon and Edward

Simon Gray's memoirs and a book of essays by Edward Albee provide fascinating glimpses into the minds of these singular playwrights. logo
The Smoking Diaries, just out in the U.S. from Carroll & Graf (though published earlier in the U.K.), is occasioned by playwright Simon Gray turning 65. "So here I am, two hours into my sixty-sixth year," Gray begins. "From tomorrow on I'm entitled to various benefits, or so I gather -- a state pension of so many pounds a week, free travel on public transport, reduced fees on the railways." All well and good, it seems. But Gray's ruminations quickly re-focus on the ways that advancing age counterbalances all these perquisites.

Gray is an accomplished though never groundbreaking dramatist, best known for his 1971 comedy-drama Butley. His Diaries have an urbane voice and neurotic swagger that will be recognizable to anyone familiar with the dialogue of his plays. At once witty, grumpy, and melancholy, his prose exudes a sense of off-the-cuff desultoriness. Yet the narrative moves ineluctably from casual recollection of quotidian annoyances and bedeviling memories to descriptions -- sometimes harrowing -- of the internal gauntlet that Gray runs to cope with bad news and ward off reminders of his mortality. His daily notations lead to mental associations about the past. What appears at first to be a journal turns into a memoir and, ultimately, the memoir becomes a secular Kaddish for Gray's beloved younger brother, Piers, who died from the effects of alcoholism.

For the most part, Gray's work reflects the solidly middle to upper-middle class environment in which he was born and raised. In this respect, it stands in contrast to much of contemporary British drama, influenced as it has been by John Osborne, the iconoclastic playwright who attacked the complacency and class-consciousness of both theater and society. Osborne was only seven years older than Gray, but like the characters of his Look Back in Anger -- which originally starred Alan Bates, as did Butley -- Osborne experienced post-war England as an adult and reacted to it with adult disillusionment. Gray, young enough to have been dispatched to Canada for most of World War II, had the good fortune of perceiving bomb-scarred Britain from the protective quadrangles of Cambridge University. Osborne and his protagonists were angry; Gray is merely cross.

Placed just before Chapter One of The Smoking Diaries is a recent photograph of Gray, looking solemn and seated with his spare tire of a belly thrust toward the camera. This less-than-flattering image is an apt introduction in that every page of Gray's journal seems similarly unretouched. The author doesn't shrink from describing unappealing aspects of his late-life physiology: paunch, wrinkles, wattles, liver spots, a tendency to flatulence and unreliable bowels. He also catalogues his less noble psychic attributes: envy, self-indulgence, delight in ridiculing others, and his willingness to nurse grievances. At times, he's consumed by nostalgia for the erstwhile champagne habit -- four bottles a day, supposedly -- that he only relinquished for dire medical reasons. He broods upon the messiness of his past, especially his adultery (Gray's word, not this reviewer's). He suffers periodically from scary hallucinations. By his own account, Gray is as beleaguered as Simon, the protagonist of his Otherwise Engaged (also played by Alan Bates).

The chaos of The Smoking Diaries isn't all in the writer's head. While keeping his journal, Gray is diagnosed with prostate cancer. He grapples with the recent death of a close comrade, poet Ian Hamilton, and learns that another friend, Harold Pinter, has esophageal cancer. He tries unsuccessfully to kick his cigarette addiction. And, always there's the specter of his brother, who "collapsed with a burst liver, burst kidneys, burst everything, really." Despite its lugubrious aspects, the book is vivid and emotionally charged, and there's an unsinkable quality to Gray's persona. Life may be brutish and too brief, but the aging dramatist is enjoying his second marriage -- to a Rothschild, no less! He's surrounded by engaging company, like Pinter and Lady Antonia Fraser. And, for the dark night of the soul, he has writing to do and cigarettes to smoke.

At the end of The Smoking Diaries, Gray includes a photograph of himself at 10 with his two siblings, elder brother Nigel and Piers as a beautiful, smiling infant. All of them are the picture of trusting innocence. The placement of this photo as a companion bookend to the image of advanced years at the beginning suggests that in these journals -- and perhaps in all his writing -- Gray has been struggling, consciously or unconsciously, not only to come to terms with a perplexing world but also to recapture the sense of belonging that he felt in the bourgeois niche to which he was born.

Edward Albee, who has never shown much patience for the comforts of the bourgeoisie, also has a new book out from Carroll & Graf: Stretching My Mind consists of 42 essays (and a foreword) written over the course of nearly half a century. Albee was born the same year as John Osborne and played an even more iconoclastic role in American theater than Osborne did in British drama. So it's striking that, in some of his essays, Albee looks back more in peevishness than in anger. But if his critical perspective is sometimes glib and, yes, peevish, it's more often sage and incisive.

These pieces, most of them quite brief, lay out precise aesthetic judgments in clear, measured sentences and simple, well-structured paragraphs. The topics include Theatre of the Absurd, a movement with which critics associated Albee early in his career; other writers, notably Carson McCullers and James Purdy, who wrote novels that Albee adapted for the stage; and the graphic and plastic arts (Albee is an art collector and warns playwriting students that "if they remain ignorant of or unreceptive to the visual arts and music, they are hobbling their craft muscles"). There are also admiring but unemotional pieces on Alan Schneider, who directed the first productions of several Albee plays, and Uta Hagen, who created the role of Martha in the original Broadway production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Four interviews with Albee, conducted on various occasions, fill out what would otherwise be a small yet diverse collection.

In one of his essays, Albee writes, "People often ask me how long it takes me to write a play, and I tell them 'all of my life.' " That would be a most appropriate answer as a description of the time during which Gray's Smoking Diaries and Albee's Stretching My Mind have been gestating. These dissimilar playwrights, writing in non-dramatic form, address existential conflicts that are familiar to any adult reader, though in very different ways. Gray recalls his whole life while recreating with apparent candor his recent struggles with disappointment, loss, infirmity, and the mysteries of mortality. Albee, writing at various stages of his career, responds to life's deepest questions through art -- his own and that of others. These are nourishing books, one highly emotional and the other cerebral, drawn in different ways from the drama of their authors' long lives. One hopes that these veterans are just getting their second wind and can be counted on to keep delivering more of the same.

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