T.S. Eliot and “Butley”: A Deep Dive into Character

Simon Gray’s play “Butley”, first performed in 1971, is a searing character study of an academic’s unraveling both professionally and personally over the course of a single day. At the heart of this descent is Ben Butley, an English professor and the play’s titular character. Interestingly, Gray chooses to make T.S. Eliot the primary subject of Butley’s academic work. But why Eliot? This article explores the reasons behind Gray’s choice and how Eliot serves as a mirror to Butley’s own life and challenges.

1. Shared Themes of Alienation and Desolation

T.S. Eliot’s works, notably “The Waste Land” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, delve deep into themes of alienation, desolation, and the challenges of modern life. Similarly, Butley’s life in the play is marked by estrangement – from his wife, his male lover, his profession, and even himself. By having Butley specialize in Eliot, Gray draws a parallel between the disillusionment seen in Eliot’s characters and Butley’s own existential despair.

2. Modernist Dissection of the Self

Eliot’s Modernist inclinations often involve a dissection of the self, and a quest for meaning amidst the chaos of the modern world. Butley’s own life mirrors this disarray. As he confronts his failing relationships and the changing landscape of academia, Butley’s journey can be seen as a Modernist exploration, akin to the introspective journeys Eliot’s characters undertake.

3. Intellectual Pedigree

Making Butley an expert on Eliot immediately establishes his intellectual pedigree. T.S. Eliot, a titan of 20th-century literature, is no lightweight subject. This choice reinforces Butley’s stature in the academic world, making his subsequent fall from grace all the more poignant.

4. The Irony of Faith

One of the fascinating arcs in Eliot’s life was his conversion to Anglicanism and his exploration of Christian faith, especially in later works like “Four Quartets”. Butley, on the other hand, is experiencing a crisis of faith – not in a religious sense, but faith in his relationships, his work, and his place in the world. This juxtaposition underscores Butley’s struggle to find meaning and purpose.

5. The Personal Connection

Simon Gray, like Butley, was an academic. He taught at the University of London and had a profound understanding of the academic world, its politics, and its unique pressures. Gray’s choice of Eliot might have been influenced by his own personal interests and academic inclinations, offering a layer of authenticity to Butley’s character.

T.S. Eliot’s work and themes offer a rich tapestry against which Ben Butley’s life can be contrasted and compared. The choice is not merely an arbitrary one to lend intellectual weight to the character. Instead, Eliot’s work serves as a backdrop, a mirror, and at times, an ironic counterpoint to Butley’s unraveling. Through this lens, Gray provides audiences with a deeper understanding of his protagonist’s turmoil and, in the process, offers a masterclass in character development and thematic resonance.

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