REVIEW: Butley

  • Presented by Harry H. Miller Productions at the Metro Bourke Street Theatre, Melbourne, Australia. April 1971

Character: Ben Butley


⇐PETER as Ben Butley

When ‘Butley’ began its run in Melbourne, Australia, it was already enjoying great success thousands of miles away in London, and believed by many critics to be one of the most brilliant pieces of contemporary writing ever to hit the commercial stage. The entertaining skill of its author – Hampshire-born, Simon Gray – had already been recognized with a London Evening Standard Drama Award, and public response had confirmed the enthusiasm with which the critics had greeted it. For anyone who has never had the opportunity to see ‘Butley’ (Alan Bates took the lead role in the 1973 American Film Theatre Production), the only way to describe it is a bitingly funny observation of a very credible situation involving difficult and often abrasive human relationships.

The play, which is set in an office of the University of London, centers around the exploits of one Ben Butley – a lecturer and alcoholic – who succeeds in insulting just about anyone unfortunate enough to cross his path. Harry H. Miller, head of the theatre production company which staged the play at the Metro Theatre in Melbourne said at the time that he felt they were fortunate to have been able to secure PETER’s services in the lead role. “His television series have made him internationally popular, “ he said, “and anyone fortunate enough to have seen him perform in the theatre abroad will have no doubt of his gifts as a stage actor. My determination to cast him in a production of mine began when I met him during a brief visit he made to Australia little more than a year ago, and I am happy that the opportunity has occurred with this production of Butley.” In the play, PETER played a cantankerous man who shares both his office and flat with Joseph, his former star pupil, who is now a teacher himself.

On the day that the story is set, Ben faces both the breakdown of his marriage to Anna, and the reproductions of his intense relationship with Joseph. His painful discoveries are made against a backdrop of University politics and the instability of student unrest. Ben, of course, greets every twist and turn with a blistering torrent of expletives and rhetoric. What was so wonderful about PETER’s performance as the defeatist Butley, was his ability to be so funny in the face of such tragedy. His stark, unsentimental approach to Ben’s relationship with Anna and Joseph, and the cynical send-up of his academic life, coupled with his sceptical view of the teacher/pupil associations were truly stunning.


PETER WYNGARDE plays university lecturer, Ben Butley, who shares his office and his flat with a former star pupil, Joey, now also a teacher. On the day that the play is set, Butley faces both the ultimate breakdown of his marriage and of his intense friendship with Joey. Butley’s painful discoveries are made against a background of petty university politics and unease about student dissent. He greets them with a blistering torrent or repartee and rhetoric.

‘Butley’ could well join that distinguished gallery of human debris represented by Willie Loman, Jimmy Porter and Bill Maitland in post war drama. What is so wondrous about a play so basically defeatist and hurtful is its ability to be so funny. The stark, unsentimental approach to the homosexual relationships., the cynical send-up of academic life, the skeptical view of the teacher-pupil associations are all stunningly illuminated by continuous explosions of sardonic, needling, feline, vituperative and civilized lines.

Milton Shulman – The London Evening Standard

© Copyright The Hellfire Club: The OFFICIAL PETER WYNGARDE Appreciation Society:


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