Thursday, September 15, 2011

An English original.

There's no shortage of Simpsons in American culture -- Homer, Jessica, OJ, Ashfordand -- but there's another thoroughly English Simpson whose fame didn't leap the Atlantic, probably because of that very uncompromising, incomprehensible Englishness. Alas, since I don't always check the British headlines, I'm a week or so late in hearing of the death, at the age of 92, of the original and influential playwright N.F. Simpson.

(It stood for Norman Frederick, but his friends called him "Wally," after Wallis, another American Simpson who did leap the Atlantic but in the opposite direction.)

His career and his creativity fluctuated, but he's best known for his extraordinary surrealist domestic dramas, which flourished at the avant-garde* Royal Court Theatre and on BBC radio and television in the late fifties and early sixties. Simpson was surprised when he was compared to "Theater of the Absurd" writers such as Ionesco and Beckett, preferring to acknowledge the influence of Lewis Carroll, James Thurber, and P.G. Wodehouse on his work. (Is it any wonder that I like him?)  Thriving at the same time as Spike Milligan's "The Goon Show" on the steam wireless -- and championed by the likes of Peter Cook -- he was a clear forerunner of the Monty Python school of surreal comedy.

One example. In his most famous play, One Way Pendulum, one character, Kirby Groomkirby -- played in the 1964 movie version by Cook's fellow Beyond the Fringe alumnus Dr. (and now Sir) Jonathan Miller -- likes to wear black. However, he cannot justify this sartorial choice unless he is in mourning, so he must go out and murder people on a regular basis. But before delivering the fatal blow, he makes sure he tells his victim a joke, so that he or she can die happy. Throughout the play, Kirby skulks in the attic of the Groomkirby's home, attempting to teach a hundred I-Speak-Your-Weight machines to sing the Hallelujah Chorus.

"Fifteen stone, ten pounds!"**

*Spellchecker doesn't recognize this word, but throws up the incorrect "avaunt-garde" as an alternative.

**220 pounds in U.S. currency.

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