Last night I went to see a performance of The Cave by Mervyn Peake, in its world premiere run at the Blue Elephant Theatre.
In attendance, and in conversation afterwards with Neil Norman, was Peake’s eldest child, Sebastian, who explained how after the death of their mother, he came into the possession of a suitcase of his father’s effects. Understandably sorrowful after losing his mother, he didn’t feel like rummaging around in the case. It was therefore over ten years later that he properly investigated its contents, and discovered bundles of unpublished writing by his father, including ten plays.
The Cave is the first of these plays to receive a production, selected as much as anything we were told, because it would suit the forces of the Blue Elephant Theatre. It’s a short but powerful piece about a family across thousands of years, and deals with many things – conformity, rebellion, belief, love, I could go on here. I won’t.
I really enjoyed it, the end in particular was genuinely chilling, and it’s exciting to think there is more ‘new’ Peake material coming, for all the plays will be published by Methuen over the next three years. What was as fascinating for me, however, was the discussion afterwards.
Peake has always remained something of an acquired taste, on the fringes, a cult writer perhaps, maybe a writer’s writer. I’ve got my own ideas why this may be, but last night I got the chance to ask Sebastian if he had an explanation for why his father, unlike his contemporary Tolkein say, never achieved the fame, success and to be blunt, money, that his work deserved. Sebastian’s answer was the one his father’s publisher once gave to the same question; he was too good.
He finished with a lovely quote I would like to reproduce here: It was once said that the difference between Tolkein and Peake is this: Tolkein stood on the top of the mountain, and he directed his forces from there. Peake was down in the valley, alongside his troops.
If you think of the difference between the Lord of the Rings and Gormenghast, I think that’s true, and that unsettling, uncomfortable feeling you sometimes get when reading Peake is maybe another explanation for why he never fully entered the mainstream.