Simon James Holliday Gray was born on October 21, 1936 on Hayling Island in Hampshire, England. His father, James Gray, was a physician, and his mother, Barbara Holliday Gray, was a bronze medalist in the standing long jump at the 1926 Women’s World Games. Gray had an older brother, Nigel, and a much younger brother, Piers. Gray’s father engaged in extramarital affairs, and Gray would return to the theme of adultery in many of his plays, including The Common Pursuit.
In 1940, Gray and Nigel were evacuated to Montreal, Canada, where they lived with their paternal grandparents and aunt for five years before returning to England in the final year of WWII. It was the scruffy, rationed, restrained world of post-war England that shaped young Gray’s worldview.
In 1949, Gray won a spot in the prestigious Westminster School, the same school attended by playwright Ben Jonson, composer Henry Purcell, actor and director John Gielgud and others. After graduating from Westminster, Gray matriculated to Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He then returned to England and read English at Trinity College, Cambridge, before publishing his first novel, Colmain, in 1963. Colmain, and Gray’s subsequent novels, Simple People and Little Portia, were well received. In 1965 he was appointed lecturer in English at Queen Mary college, University of London, a post he would hold for over twenty years. Gray married his first wife, Beryl Kevern, in 1965. They had two children, Benjamin and Lucy.
Gray was an accidental playwright. It began when he adapted one of his short stories, The Caramel Crisis, for television. He then wrote an original screenplay for television, Wise Child, but couldn’t get it produced because its subject matter—a criminal disguised as a woman—was deemed inappropriate. Gray turned Wise Child into a stage play, which opened on the West End in 1967 with Alec Guinness in the main role.
Gray hadn’t even seen many plays when Wise Child was produced—just a few Terence Rattigan-type matinees with his mother. He counted Dickens, Austen, and old Hollywood movies as his writing influences, drawing on his knowledge of film plots to help shape his well-made plays.
After Wise Child, Gray continued to write for both television and theatre, turning out over 40 plays during his life, including Butley (1971) and Quartermaine’s Terms (1981). His greatest American success was Otherwise Engaged, which ran on Broadway for 309 performances in 1977.
Most think of Gray’s work as tales of the lives of upper-middle-class English academics, characters unable to fully express themselves. But in fact, his work also concerned such varied subjects as cannibalism in the 19th-century Congo, criminal drag queens, garrulous madmen, shell-shocked World War I veterans, deranged lady novelists, pedophile piano teachers and more. Adultery pops up as a theme in many of Gray’s works and in his life. In 1990, the writer admitted to an eight-year affair with Victoria Rothschild, a fellow lecturer at Queen Mary, whom he married after divorcing his first wife.
During the first production of The Common Pursuit in 1985, Gray’s editor suggested he keep a diary of the process, which became An Unnatural Pursuit, the first of eight successful volumes of memoirs.
Although a teetotaler in his later years, Gray was a prolific drinker and smoker—he admitted to sixty cigarettes and several bottles of champagne or Scotch a day. He suffered from lung and prostate cancer, but died from an unrelated aneurysm on August 7, 2008.
The Common Pursuit plays at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre/Laura Pels Theatre through July 29, 2012. For more information, click here.
2011-2012 Season, Education @ Roundabout, The Common Pursuit, Upstage