N(orman) F(rederick) Simpson Essay - Critical Essays

Simpson, N(orman) F(rederick)


N(orman) F(rederick) Simpson 1919–

English dramatist, screenwriter, and novelist.

Simpson's plays fit into a comic tradition exemplified by The Goon Show, a popular British radio program of the 1950s that based its humor in unlikely places and circumstances and whose influence can be seen in the irreverent humor of Monty Python. Simpson has also been heavily influenced by the playwrights linked with the movement known as the Theater of the Absurd. In farces that are founded on the premise that much of life is simply meaningless, Simpson presents realistic settings in which conventional logic is overturned. Yet Simpson's work, like that of Lewis Carroll, offers a strict logic of its own, combining verbal non sequiturs with situations in which the bizarre becomes commonplace.

Simpson's first three plays, A Resounding Tinkle (1957), The Hole (1958), and One Way Pendulum (1959), were very popular among British theater patrons. Typical of his work, One Way Pendulum is set in a suburban middle-class home and begins with a farcical situation which, in keeping with Simpson's peculiar logic, ends in what would normally be judged to be sheer nonsense. The Hole is a satiric portrait of persons clinging fitfully to the forms and structures of a reality that they neither question nor understand. In subsequent plays, Simpson reworked similar themes in the same manner but with less success.

Critical reception to Simpson's work is mixed. While some critics maintain that his satires and farces are based on important social commentary, others find them pointless and insignificant; still others believe that Simpson's plays are intended only to entertain and should therefore be treated as such by critics. Perhaps because Simpson's humor is decidely "British," his work has been received more favorably in England than in the United States. Because most of his plays are entirely unpredictable and not formally structured, audiences seem to view them with a combination of puzzlement and amusement.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed. and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 13.)

Kenneth Tynan

About the highest tribute I can pay N. F. Simpson's A Resounding Tinkle … is to say that it does not belong in the English theatrical tradition at all. It derives from the best Benchley lectures, the wildest Thurber cartoons, and the cream of the Goon Shows. It has some affinities with the early revues of Robert Dhéry and many more with the plays of M. Ionesco. In English drama it is, as far as I know, unique. It is also astonishly funny…. (p. 198)

To sustain anarchic humour for a full evening is among the hardest things a playwright can attempt. Once having espoused the illogical, the irrelevant, the surreal, he is committed: a single lapse into logic, relevance, or reality, and he is undone. A playwright of Mr. Simpson's kind comes defenceless to the theatre. He has voluntarily discarded most of the dramatist's conventional weapons. He can have no plot, since plots demand logical development. Lacking a plot, he can make no use of suspense, that miraculous device which, by focusing our attention on what is going to happen next, prevents us from being intelligently critical of what is happening now. Mr. Simpson can never free-wheel like that. At every turn he must take us by surprise. His method must be a perpetual ambush. All playwrights must invent, but he must invent incessantly and unpredictably. It is the only weapon left him—he is otherwise naked. As naked, perhaps, as a British Foreign Secretary without an H-bomb; yet...

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Alan Brien

Mr. N. F. Simpson in [A Resounding Tinkle and The Hole] triumphantly demonstrates that it is possible to combine UNESCO and Ionesco, and juggle hilariously with hand grenades. In A Resounding Tinkle a prematurely middle-aged young couple tick away in their stuffy living-room isolated from each other like Victorian clocks under glass. For all they know their villa might be outside the gate of Belsen, inside the gate at Aldermaston, or on the slopes of Etna. Embalmed in habit, they interweave their wildly surrealist monologues as though they were the platitudes of Mrs. Dale's Diary. They bicker passionlessly about the right name for their elephant. The husband answers a knock at the door and discovers a man who wants him to form a Government. ('That's the Prime Minister's job,' complains the husband mildly. 'Anyway we don't know anybody.') A pretty relative drops in and livens up the dull domestic evening. ('Why, Uncle Ted, you've changed your sex,' gushes the wife. 'You look lovely.')…

The author, N. F. Simpson, and the director, William Gaskill, resist the temptation to inflate the farce to bursting point. They do not suddenly pull the rug from under their characters—they quietly and burglariously steal the furniture they are sitting on.

The Hole is more ambitious—it is a short history of philosophy as glimpsed by a variety of passers-by through an opening in the pavement. Once again it is laughter Simpson is after. But laughter involves recognition of impossible connections between opposite ideas. And as the electric spark of wit crackles across the semantic gap, we find ourselves accepting dangerous thoughts which we might reject in any logically argued speech. In The Hole Simpson sometimes overplays his hand and repeats the same comic devices too often. But both plays are brilliant intellectual comedy—head-splitting as well as side-splitting—and if they are not a box-office success then we do not deserve to have a drama in Britain.

Alan Brien, "Laughter in Court," in The Spectator (© 1958 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 200, No. 6772, April 11, 1958, p. 455.∗

J. G. Weightman

Mr Simpson has revealed in a newspaper interview that he was not aware of Ionesco when he wrote [A Resounding Tinkle]. If one did not know this, one would say that it is an application of the Ionesco shock technique to English suburbia. The absurd is being consistently used to explode the dreariness of the conventional world. The elephant [in the play represents], I suppose, love of animals carried to the extreme and also the animal part of human nature, which has been evacuated, leaving only a dried husk. The reading of poems, instead of having a drink, is a way of emphasizing by inversion the weakness of contemporary language. The wireless service is nonsense because these people live according to dead forms that they long ago ceased to understand. The wireless reflects their speech to show that they are not individuals but anonymous types. They don't really live; they repeat behaviour patterns. The uncle's change of sex is accepted at once, after a little coo of wonder, as if it were a new suit, because all sorts of changes can take place nowadays and leave the surface of prosiness unruffled.

The difficulty, as with Ionesco, is to decide whether the playwright is making a general poetic statement or just standing normal situations on their heads one after the other to produce a series of local effects. I think deductions can be made from the dottiness of A Resounding Tinkle, but I am not sure that all the details fit in or that there is any great dramatic body to the work. Madness, of course, is more difficult to evaluate at first sight than sense. Sense you can grasp by an immediate effort of will, but madness has to be left in the memory to see if it will endure. The play causes a titillation of amusement and a few good laughs, but my...

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Kenneth Tynan

On the strength of his double bill, A Resounding Tinkle and The Hole, I am ready to burn my boats and pronounce N. F. Simpson the most gifted comic writer the English stage has discovered since the war…. [In my review of A Resounding Tinkle (see excerpt above)] I tried to explain how and why it had convulsed me, this casual surrealist sketch of a suburban couple with an elephant at their front door. (p. 210)

But I wondered at the time how Mr. Simpson would follow his tour de force. Could he bring it off again without repeating himself? The Hole proved triumphantly that he could; that he was no mere flash in the pen, but a true lord of language, capable of using words with the sublime, outrageous authority of Humpty Dumpty.

People who believe with John Lehmann that English writers have lost interest in verbal and stylistic experiment should see Mr. Simpson's work and recant. Indeed, everyone should see it: for it is not a private highbrow joke, but pure farce, wild and liberated, on a level accessible to anyone who has ever enjoyed the radio Goons (Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan, especially) or treasured the memory of W. C. Fields. I suspect, in fact, that Goon-lovers, who are accustomed to verbal fire-work displays at which logic is burnt in effigy, may get more sheer pleasure out of Mr. Simpson than professional intellectuals, against whose habit of worrying about the meaning of...

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Alan Brien

N. F. Simpson's prose hardly ever deviates into sense. It is a palimpsest of non-sequiturs, a double acrostic of crossword clues. It is also true farce in that it aims to provoke laughter by deceiving us into admitting impossible connections between improbable opposites. But with Simpson, the opposites are ideas as well as persons. He provokes the head-laugh as well as the belly-laugh. His jokes are brain-splitting as well as side-splitting. Once we have made the electric connection between the two poles of his irony, we can no longer refuse to believe in the reality of the circuit. It is the Swiftian conjuring trick performed in the manner of Feydeau.

At least, that was my understanding of Mr....

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Louis Calta

Apparently, not all of Britain's young, angry and social-minded playwrights write in anger. At least one of them, N. F. Simpson, a London school teacher, regarded abroad as a new and original talent, can be downright amusing when directing shafts of satire at modern man.

On the evidence of "The Only Sense Is Nonsense," the collective title for two one-acters by Mr. Simpson ["A Resounding Tinkle and "The Hole"],… an author need not be resentful or wrathful to get his views across. A little humor, even if at times it becomes tangential, can go far.

Basically, Mr. Simpson is a serious writer, but his mood is nonsensical. His playlets … are not of the conventional type. They often...

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John Russell Taylor

Whether one likes or dislikes N. F. Simpson's work, it seems to me, there is very little to be said about it. It is uniquely all of a piece, all written in pretty well the same style, and all based on one principle, the non sequitur. This seems to link it with the Theatre of the Absurd (especially if we take au grand sérieux the pronouncement of the author-character in the first version of A Resounding Tinkle that 'The retreat from reason means precious little to anyone who has never caught up with reason in the first place; it takes a trained mind to relish a non sequitur'), but it also links it with such humbler native prototypes as Itma and The Goon Show, even without...

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George Wellwarth

Among the more remarkable results of the current so-called "renaissance" in the English drama has been the work of N. F. Simpson…. His three important plays are A Resounding Tinkle, The Hole, and One Way Pendulum; and, like Mr. Groomkirby in the last-named play, they reside in a world of their own. Like Alfred Jarry and his descendants, the 'Pataphysicians, Simpson has created a parallel reality that runs alongside our reality and clowns at it. Simpson's way of showing up what he considers the ridiculousness of the world is to create a special world in which reality is satirized by being placed in a new context. His plays, like 'Pataphysics, are a perversion of logic—the impossible carried out in...

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Martin Esslin

If Pinter's plays transmute realism into poetic fantasy, the work of Norman Frederick Simpson … is philosophical fantasy strongly based on reality…. Although Simpson's work is extravagant fantasy in the vein of Lewis Carroll, and is compared by the author himself to a regimental sergeant-major reciting 'Jabberwocky' over and over again through a megaphone, it is nevertheless firmly based in the English class system. If Pinter's world is one of tramps and junior clerks, Simpson's is unmistakably suburban. (p. 258)

Nonsense and satire [are] mingled with parody [in A Resounding Tinkle], but the serious philosophical intent is again and again brought into the open…. [Two] comedians learnedly...

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C. Z. Fothergill

One may approach Simpson's style through a subtitle of his own: farce in a new dimension…. Farce as a descriptive term is associated with stereotyped flat characters, intricate improbable situations and a well developed sense of the ridiculous. Laughter is its most essential ingredient.

The dividing line between comedy and farce has never been clear. In N. F. Simpson the plot is the stage action, the characters are certainly one-dimensional, and the milieu is a fantasy world with parallels to our own. The fantasy is based on reality. To locate Simpson's particular brand of farce one must precisely describe the nature of that relationship. Simpson insists that his characters are ordinary...

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