The imposing frame of Dominic West bestrides the stage. Hard-drinking, philandering, playing futile and vaguely malicious games with colleagues in an institution under siege, a lot of us might feel we know this script. Et in Arcadia McNulty. Now Hogwarts is officially over and done with, let’s all enrol at the faculty of The Wire.
At this point, the comparisons come to a halt like a fanboy smacking full-tilt into the barrier at King’s Cross Station. Simon Gray’s bilious vision of a London university in the early seventies is terrifically enjoyable, but it feels very much of its time. Where West’s incarnation as Detective McNulty was part of a sprawling, panoramic vision of a social and political system in crisis, Butley hones in on one man frenetically working his own destruction in an academic office. Gestures are made towards student radicalism and changing mores, but Butley’s existential battle is conducted on viciously hand-to-hand terms.
Given the way higher education is being reformed (or wrecked, depending on how you feel) in Britain and the US, the idea of a sodden anti-hero don verges on the nostalgic. Poised somewhere between Lucky Jim and The History Man, Butley rages against students and recites nursery rhymes alongside T.S. Eliot in a way which looks very cosy to today’s Humanities adjuncts scraping around for their next assignment. Juxtaposing the two kinds of poetry might have been daringly elitist in the early seventies, but these days he’d risk being written off as a standard-issue postmodernist.
Luckily the play’s impact doesn’t depend on a social critique, but on the furious verbal invention which Butley directs at anyone who gets in what he perceives to be his way. The structure is old-school, the development isn’t very surprising, but good heavens, was Simon Gray ever good at what he did. Indeed, it probably feels familiar because so many writers who came later recognised a good thing when they ripped one off. Go see Butley, and let an old master show you how it’s done.
This article originally appeared in California Literary Review, August 2011