Not with a Bang, but a Tinkle: NF Simpson

Prayer: Let us throw back our heads and laugh at reality:
Response: Which is an illusion caused by mescalin deficiency.
(from A Resounding Tinkle)

NF Simpson, perhaps Britain’s most influential absurdist playwright, suffered a fatal underdose of mescalin at the end of August.
Before I start, a confession: I have not seen any of Simpson’s plays. My appreciation of him is therefore necessarily more limited than might be ideal. There is an argument that the best way to judge a playwright is by the words on the page, avoiding the risk of any actors, directors or other interested parties making it look better than it actually is. Tempting though this thought may be, I think it must be dismissed. Judging a play in this fashion is like judging a painter only by examining the oils in their bottles. Nevertheless, after reading Simpson’s two most famous works, I have formed an impression which is hopefully worth a blog post at any rate.

Reading A Resounding Tinkle and One-Way Pendulum, I was struck by somewhat contradictory thoughts. Each script was fiercely inventive, but each relied heavily on a particular comic approach which I feel would not work nearly as well nowadays. Humour can date to much the same degree as anything else. There must have been a time, perhaps between the evolution of the opposable thumb and the cultivation of fire, when stories finishing with ‘...and that was just the men!’ were cutting edge stuff. Simpson’s humour was of a much more individual kind, mixing absurdism, farcical events and a recognisably English whimsy which litters both scripts (the playwright complaining that most of his work came to him in Portuguese; the judge asking whether the defendant has any “negro blood”, and being told that he might have one or two bottles of it in his room).

What does not work so well is Simpson’s use of the satiric/absurdist set-piece, in which characters in a recognisable setting earnestly debate or work through some Big Idea, in the process reducing it to something smaller: comedians discussing the purpose of the universe; the spoof radio service quoted from above; the trial which takes up almost half of One-Way Pendulum. These came across as clunky, at times didactic. The hand of the author is too readily discerned in them, carefully positioning his mannequins for maximum effect; the point of the exercise is too obvious. One feels as though each such scene should finish with the author emerging from the wings (as happens in A Resounding Tinkle – another rather creaky device) to triumphantly declare ‘QED!’

I suspect the absurdism which runs through Simpson’s writing might be the root of the problem. The great strength and limitation of the Theatre of the Absurd was the sweeping assumptions it was premised upon. If your claim is that society or the family or middle-class certainties are not just wrong or need to be revised, but are meaningless through-and-through, the temptation will be to present them in as dismissive a manner as possible.  The result tended to be plays which made strong, even thrilling claims, but which had little subtlety to reward closer inspection. Kenneth Tynan, a staunch defender of Simpson, noted that few plays by Eugene Ionesco survived a second hearing. I fear this may also be true of Simpson’s work.

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