An extract from an article by Simon Gray written for the programme of the production of Otherwise Engaged at the Criterion Theatre, London, in 2005.
In the five years after Butley, I was working on three stage plays and two television plays, and had completed none of them when I wrote, very quickly, Otherwise Engaged. This, as I’ve already hinted, was probably written as a briskly snubbing answer to the problems I hadn’t yet been able to formulate properly in Dog Days. While the hero of Dog Days is unable to stop talking, the hero of Otherwise Engaged only prefers brevity when he can’t have complete silence – or rather a silence filled with music. Everything in the play flows from that simple fact, which can be confusing on the page unless the reader remembers that, though not uttering, the hero would be visible – highly visible, I like to think, on the stage. This treacherous relationship between stage presence and page absence can be illustrated by the response of the play’s producer who, on first reading it nearly rejected it on the grounds that there was no main part. What lines the hero had I pared down in rehearsal, then to the bone in Oxford. In previews in London I chipped away at the bone, until we were left with what I fondly assumed was the merest, if not the purest, marrow.
Again it was suspected in some quarters that (as I’d given the hero my Christian name), I’d based his character on my own. The truth here, however, is that, out of a combination of laziness and a desire to get on with the writing, I stuck down the first name that came into my head, with the intention of changing it when I got to the last draft. The reason I didn’t finally change it was that, by the end of the writing, Simon Hench seemed to me to have as much right to his name as I to mine.
Now, as to whether Otherwise Engaged, or any play I've written, come to that, is any good - there's a passage in my new diary (The Year of the Jouncer) that says pretty well all I have to say on the subject:
'There have been a few occasions when I've finished a play - there's been a sort of click that goes right through me, a click of everything, with the last line written, falling into place, of everything being absolutely right, no, perfect is the word, of the play being perfect - it's not a question of it therefore being perfect for other people, audiences and critics, might in fact hate it when it's put before them in its perfection, but that isn't the point, whether it's liked or not, the point is that there it is, inviolable, intact, unchangeable, quite distinctly itself and quite apart from me - I've had this clicking experience four times - with all the other plays I've sometimes had the echo of a click, which is really, I suppose, merely the memory of the experience, and which signifies that though it isn't perfect I can no longer make it any better, time to let go before I begin to make it worse, knowing that I'll always be attached to it in an unhappy sort of way, it'll have the status and future of a partial orphan.'
Otherwise Engaged is one of the four plays that clicked. And what still clicks for me is the memory of that first production, thirty years ago. Five years earlier, Michael Codron had produced, Harold Pinter had directed, Alan Bates had starred in my play Butley, and here the four of us were again, all of us an age - somewhere between our mid-thirties and our prime, though we all probably assumed that our prime was really just around the corner, there for the taking when the time was right. From the beginning everything went well, the casting was done in no time, and the rehearsals in London, in the hall of the Chelsea Old Church, were only threatened by the sometimes too much pleasure we all took from them - for instance there was a moment in the first act which Alan, Nigel Hawthorne and Julian Glover seemed unable to get past without collapsing with laughter; Harold and I and the four other actors, Jacky Pearce, Mary Miller, Benjamin Whitrow, Ian Charleson (straight from drama school, I think) and everyone else in the room joining in- actually hanging on to each other, shrieking and shaking, as if we were in our teens and back at school. Eventually this moment - it was a sentence spoken by Nigel, responded to by Julian - became a genuine obstacle, seemingly insurmountable. Harold became anxious at so much time lost, then impatient, then commanding, then ferocious. The three actors, jittery as the moment approached, kept straining for gravity. One of them, usually Alan or Nigel, would break, the other two would go off, first imploding and then exploding, and then the rest of us, one after the other. It really became quite unbearable for a day or so but, of course, being professionals etc, they finally managed to play the scene with the complete seriousness that might make it funny to an audience, indeed came to forget all about their collapses until the first night at Oxford, when the audience behaved as they themselves had once behaved in the rehearsal room - but now, on stage, locked in their parts and concentrating on each other, they stood in increasingly stiff bewilderment, waiting for the audience to control themselves, for God's sake! so that they could get on with their proper business of being at each other's throats.
At Oxford, for the try-out, Alan's wife, Victoria, came down for a week with the twins, Ben and Tristan who were about three or four, hyperactive and good-natured, an unusual combination, I think. Antonia Fraser came for part of the second week, and she and Harold made their first public appearance as a couple - they were in the process of leaving their marriages - at a party given by I can't remember which member of the cast, who arranged two large chairs for them in the centre of the room. They had to sit in them for a time out of politeness, looking rather like royals in exile, to be viewed rather than mingled with, until dancing broke out, and Harold began to sing Irish songs in a menacing, gravelly voice. I remember, among many delightful things, the presence of a famous young actress who arrived bra-less in a see-through blouse, and talked, boldly - rather like Davina in the play - on serious political subjects that I couldn't keep my eyes on. There were also lots of people there that evening who had come from London for the night, agents, actors, writers, backers, hangers-on, who'd just got wind of the Harold-Antonia situation. There were small, impromptu parties most nights, rehearsals in the mornings, afternoons on punts or swimming in the river, and best and most importantly, full and responsive houses in the evenings. It seems to me now rather like the sort of picnic described somewhere in Scott Fitzgerald, full of the promise of happiness that you subsequently realise is happiness itself.
From Oxford we went to Richmond for a week. All I really remember of it is standing on the balcony of the theatre bar in the evenings and watching the cricket on the green, when I should have been in the theatre, watching the actors and listening to my text. It really was that sort of summer, for me the summer of summers, when nothing could go wrong - although they did, in fact, go slightly wrong when we moved to the Queen's Theatre in London and gave three previews, none of which Harold could attend as he and Antonia were now front page news, and were being hounded and harried by the press. At the dress rehearsal we stumbled across photographers crouching behind the seats, or lurking behind pillars in the circle, hoping, I suppose, to take snaps of some impossible image - of Harold with Antonia on his lap, directing a half-naked actress in the seduction scene with Alan Bates. Harold realised that if we wanted the play to take centre stage, he'd have to quit the production for a while, so he slipped away after a dress rehearsal to a secret address in the country, where Antonia joined him. In due course the press stopped hiding in the theatre and following the actors, although a man from one of the tabloids turned up at my home in Highgate; he was small and middle-aged, and he had a clubbed foot, possibly fake, which he shoved between the door and the jamb, refusing to move it until I'd given him a paragraph or so of nonsense about Harold's whereabouts. I took on directorial duties for the previews - mainly a matter of reminding the cast of Harold's notes - and we proceeded comparatively unmolested to the opening. At the first night party I phoned Harold and told him that, as far as I could judge, the performance had gone very well. He told me that Antonia had cooked a stew for their supper, the first stew she'd ever cooked, and it was good. That was on the night of 30 July 1975.
On the night of 1 July of last year, The Old Masters opened at the Comedy Theatre in London. At the first night party a producer I knew, Mark Rubinstein, came up to me, and discussed the possibility of a revival of Otherwise Engaged - this revival, in fact. As we began to consider casting, I felt an odd blurring sensation - of the original cast of seven Alan is dead, Ian Charleson is dead, Nigel Hawthorne is dead; furthermore Alan's wife Victoria is dead, and one of his twins, Tristan, is dead and furthermore... furthermore I suddenly find myself thinking, as I write this, that for the playwright, much more that a play is revived, when one of his older plays is revived.