Tuesday, 22 August 2000

Mervyn Peake: Peake's Progress (1978)

Edited by: Maeve Gilmore
Edition: Overlook Press, 1981
Review number: 582

A collection of Peake's writings (much of which is previously unpublished) and drawings put together by his widow, Peake's Progress seems to give a fuller picture of the man than can be seen in his best known work (his completed novels, especially the Gormenghast trilogy, and the illustrations not included here). By choosing the unknown and little known, Maeve Gilmore has created a volume which is of great interest to any fan.

The written works which make up most of Peake's Progress include poems, short stories, plays, and notes for a projected autobiography. Of these, the poems are perhaps the most accomplished, particularly The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb (whose powerful illustrations are among Peake's very last work) and the Poems of Love. Quite a number of nonsense poems are included, though I feel that Peake was not a master of this genre - it is the illustrations which delight, such as the pear-shaped fairies of O Here It Is, and There It Is.

There are three plays, one being an adaptation of the novel Mr Pye for radio, one a children's play never produced or published about a revolt of some of the animals on Noah's ark, and The Wit to Woo, a romantic comedy which received such disastrous notices when it was produced that Peake suffered a nervous breakdown.

The written work mostly has an unfinished quality, and gives the impression that Peake tended to get bored in the realisation of a good idea; this is perhaps particularly obvious in the plays. The Wit to Woo has a plot reminiscent of Joe Orton, in which a young man fakes suicide in order to show the woman he loves that he is serious; he then pretends to be his own cousin - forceful and brash where he himself is shy - to woo her again. It has a wonderful moment when the undertakers realise that the person they have come to bury is alive, and demand that he kill himself so that they won't have been wasting their time.

However, it is marred by three problems: discontinuities in plotting; a tendency to fall into awkward and artificial verse; and surreal interruptions (such as a head poking in at a window to ask "Is this Cloudyfold?"). This sort of play works better when it is more naturalistic, because otherwise it tends to become heavy handed rather than witty. The idea is good, but the play could have done with at least one more draft. The same is true of Noah's Ark, which would probably benefit from having the first act cut entirely.

Unless the Gormenghast trilogy has turned you into a real Peake fan, this collection will not seem to be terribly good; but to anyone who enjoyed that series and wants to know more about Peake and his work, it will be fascinating. It also has a very good biographical introduction, by John Watney.

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