Oddly Enough

Centenary to show more to Peake than Gormenghast

LONDON (Reuters) - British writer and illustrator Mervyn Peake, famed for a series of Gothic fantasies that earned him an international cult following, would have been 100 years old next year.

To mark the occasion, more than 20 new publications are planned as well as exhibitions.

But first, his little-known play “The Cave,” written in 1961, will receive its world premiere in October this year, not on the West End or on Broadway, but at a small-scale theatre hidden away in a southeast London council estate.

Peake’s son Sebastian, who lives a 15-minute walk away from the Blue Elephant Theatre in Camberwell, put forward the idea.

He says the play tells of “family dynamics, politics and managing of art and life.”

“They are profound questions being summarised through the prism of very different periods within history, going back to cavemen and then the Middle Ages and then up to the 1960s, which was then the present,” he told Reuters.

He’d love the play to move on to a larger stage, but says the community theatre setting of the Blue Elephant is a good place to start publicising his father’s stage works, which are much less established than his novels, poems, illustrations and work as a war artist.


In all Peake wrote eight plays, which Methuen will begin publishing next year as part of the centenary events. He also provided illustrations for such classic novels as “Treasure Island” and “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”

The Cave was only discovered after Peake’s death in 1968 from Parkinson’s disease and until now had been all-but forgotten, although his son believes it will achieve critical acclaim.

“It’s timeless like Gormenghast. It taps into the Zeitgeist. It has an exciting denouement,” he said.

Jasmine Cullingford, artistic director of the Blue Elephant, is also an enthusiast.

“It’s set over thousands of years and, in my opinion, has a message that is as strong today as when it was written,” she said.

The Gormenghast Trilogy -- “Titus Groan,” “Gormenghast” and “Titus Alone” -- was a way of dealing with the horrors of World War Two and Peake’s experience as a war artist in which he visited Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

The first of the trilogy, Titus Groan was published in 1946, a year after Peake had visited the camp on a journalistic assignment for The Leader magazine.

“He (Mervyn Peake) saw the world from that moment onwards in a totally different light,” said Peake of his father’s reaction to Bergen-Belsen.

The Gormenghast trilogy tells the story of Titus, 77th earl of Groan, who lives in the crumbling castle of Gormenghast surrounded by colourful characters including Fuschia, Dr Prunesquallor and the melancholy Muzzlehatch. Sebastian Peake’s admiration for his father is huge, even if growing up with a genius could be emotionally “tough-going.” He tackles the subject in his book “In the Shadow of Genius,” which he has completed after working on it intermittently for roughly 30 years, and is in the hands of his agent.

His own career was in selling.

“I was top salesman in the world for a big wine company. I thought as I won all these competitions, really I would have preferred to be able to do one of his (Mervyn Peake’s) portraits for (Robert Louis Stevenson’s) Treasure Island,” he said. “I’m mesmerised by his talent, by the range of his competencies.”

Editing by Paul Casciato