TWENTY-SIX years ago, Alan Bates, already a stage and film star,
created one of his most memorable roles: a signature role, in
fact. No one else can hope to play the irascible, impossible
Ben Butley with his delicacy and wit. Ben Butley is a manipulator,
a brilliant, self-hating loser, a chain-smoking, destructive
slob whose briefcase contains empty liquor bottles and mismatched
socks ... and yet, one finds an exasperated affection for him;
perhaps there's a touch of Butley lurking in all of us.
Simon Gray's greatest tragicomic anti-heroes, this lecturer in
English suffers, in the course of one afternoon, the loss of
his wife, Anne [Susan Engel], who leaves him to marry one of
his friends, taking with her their infant daughter, Marina; his
sometime pupil, roommate and lover, Joey [Richard O'Callaghan],
who, desperate to get away, moves in with successful
publisher Reg [Michael Byrne]. Everyone thrives but Butley: fellow
academic Edna Shaft [Jessica Tandy], who has been dawdling over
her Byron book for 20 years, finishes it and finds a publisher.
Anne's new lover, Tom, an old friend who Butley calls "the
most boring man in London," completes his novel about military
service and sells it to Reg. Butley is left utterly alone; we
are left trying to imagine what his next move might be.
While Butley is a virtuoso turn
for Bates, the supporting actors create a powerful ensemble.
In addition to those named above, Georgina Hale plays a prissy
student, Miss Heasman, who temporarily bests Butley at his own
game, by managing to schedule a tutorial (Butley is a past master
at avoiding student contact). But tutorial becomes torture as
Butley eviscerates Heasman's paper on The Winter's Tale.
Simon Rouse is Mr Gardner, a "plumed youth" who is
under scrutiny as Butley's next protege, to replace the departing
An "Acid-Coated Sugarplum"
1972 SHOW interview, Peter Buckley says, "In the title role
of the loud-mouthed, aggressive loser who refuses to give up,
[Bates] is on the attack mentally, verbally and physically for
over two hours. It is a demanding part, one of those acid-coated
sugarplums that only come along every so often, and Bates gives
it all it's worth, and then some, in a brilliant performance
that is totally exhausting for the audience and for the actor."
Alan Bates says:
"I find it much more tiring than even playing Hamlet. I
don't even get a breather. In old Hamlet now, there's
plenty of time all the way throughout to have a good rest. You
can even go off to sleep if you want -- not just the audience,
but Hamlet -- and even when he's onstage, and he is a lot, much
of that time he really isn't doing all that much; just lolling
about. But not Butley. No, he never gets a loll. He's up there
and at it for the whole time. I shed pounds every night from
the sheer hard slog of it all, but it really gets me up there
flying high, so high that it takes another three hours after
every performance just to get back to earth." It
must have been an especially challenging and exciting time since
Bates was also a new father of twin sons, born in 1971 (the play
opened 7/14/71 at the Criterion Theatre, West End).
Butley came to Broadway in 1972, New York Times critic
Clive Barnes called Bates' performance perhaps the single greatest
he had ever seen on stage. Later in 1972 producer Ely Landau,
who had created a premium film series called "American Film
Theatre," commissioned Simon Gray to create a screenplay
from the stage play, and Butley was captured on film.
This was the dawn of the videotape era, and the AFT films had
a limited video release. These tapes are now highly-prized collectors'
items; a few exist in academic libraries, inaccessible except
to academics. There are occasional tv screenings, most recently
in Canada, on Bravo (an email to the US Bravo programmer reveals
that they don't own US broadcast rights to the films). These
are notable films in their own right, as well as fascinating
records of great theatrical performances.
A Note on the Versions
funnier onstage than it is on film because of the live electricity
generated by Bates' sparring with his adversaries (i.e., everyone
in his life). The audiotape (taken from the film) captures some
of this energy. For that matter, so does the film, which is brilliant.
(While Simon Gray, who wrote his own screenplay, and director
Harold Pinter, opened up the play by adding a few external scenes,
the action takes place on one day, in one college office."We
are preserving the unities," Butley might say.) The difference
is our nearness to Butley himself: in a performance in which
several emotions often vie, in which life is a series of stratagems
and assaults, we see the wheels turning, the games being set
up. We see too, if fleetingly, crushing sadness and despair,
a cornered man, out of moves. When you eventually see the film,
watch Alan Bates closely in the final scene, as Gardner begins
to read the Eliot poem (probably the same words that Joey read
in a similar moment long ago). Ben's eyes meet Joey's with a
look that combines humor, pain, love, valediction.
A One-off Character
For anyone who has been lucky enough to encounter
the real Alan Bates -- easygoing, funny, polite and kind -- the
edgy monster he and Simon Gray created in Ben Butley is particularly
surreal. It's a good thing that he has never settled into stereotypical
roles: Butley remains a one-off character.
In a 1989 interview Bates says: "I
did quite like changing whatever image I had. A lot of film actors
do want to hold one image, and that is how they become perhaps
more hugely famous than I. They have this permanent identifiable
state. I don't want to be known for Butley or Guy Burgess. I
like them all to have had their full life. You keep trying to
push your range, and sometimes you fall down because you're not
quite right, physically or temperamentally. I like to go as wide
as it will go." |||
The films closely bracketing Butley -- A
Day in the Death of Joe Egg, directed by Peter Medak, and
Impossible objet (Story of a Love Story), directed by
John Frankenheimer -- though "golden age" Bates performances,
are little-known films. In these and others, he does "go
as wide as it will go;" his choice of projects is as brilliant
as his luck in distribution is bad. (The American studio was
afraid of the controversial nature of Joe Egg, and Impossible
objet never had a commercial release due to finances.)