American writer (The Minds of Billy Milligan), awarded the Hugo Award for the short story Flowers for Algernon, given the Author Emeritus honour by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America in 2000, Professor of English and Creative Writing at Ohio University.
Flowers for Algernon, first published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, April 1959
This is the first story in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny of Diary Narration. This is how they begin their description of this method: “Like monologists and correspondents, the diarists of the next two stories are reacting to events almost as they happen; like correspondents, they write on successive dates. But as diarists they are not writing to anyone in particular: “Dear Diary” suggests a curious image of an audience that is somehow close to the writer, and yet rather general; the imaginary listener or correspondent does not respond at all.”
Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now!
Flowers for Algernon
Charlie Gordon, aged 37, with an IQ of 68, a student at Miss Alice Kinnian’s remedial reading evening classes, and a general helper at Mr Donnegan’s factory, is approached by two doctors, Nemur and Strauss, to be the subject of an experiment. A little white mouse, Algernon by name, is part of the same experiment, to see if they can artificially raise his intelligence. So far, Algernon’s intelligence has increased extraordinarily. Can the experiment work the same way for a man?
At first, the success (or otherwise) of the experiment is reflected in Charlie’s regular progress reports that he writes for Nemur and Strauss; as the weeks go by, his understanding of language, grammar, spelling and so on all improve by leaps and bounds. At the same time, Charlie and Algernon have been competing in how quickly they can escape from a maze; at first Algernon wins easily, but after a while Charlie starts to beat Algernon. In the end they dispense with the maze races.
But it’s not just Charlie’s intelligence and dexterity that improve. He undergoes an emotional development too, realising to enormous shame that he has been the butt of jokes at the factory as they have been laughing at his stupidity, rather than with him. He also realises he is falling in love with Miss Kinnian. It’s not long before Charlie’s intelligence outshines those of the two doctor scientists and his English teacher; and he realises that he needs to take charge of the experiment himself and starts to write reports and undergo research that will all make the experiment much more easily and dynamically understood.
And then Algernon starts to get irascible, unpredictable, and within a few days he dies. It was always a danger that any intelligence growth by Charlie might be temporary, and that he might regress again – or worse. As time runs out, Charlie tries to complete as much of the research and science as he possibly can; but he’s facing a losing battle. He goes back to sweeping the floors at the factory; refuses to see Alice Kinnian; and in the end is a shadow of his former self, with just the occasional flash of memory. His last words, in his last diary entry, are: “Please, if you get the chanse put some flowrs on Algernons grave in the bak yard”.
This is not my idea of a typical Science Fiction story. No zombies, no galaxies far far away; just an exploration of what could happen if a certain type of scientific research were to grow and be applied to a man. You might say that the experiment should never have been tried on a human being until they had done much more research with mice; Algernon’s death would surely have put paid to Nemur and Strauss’ dream. But that would have deprived Charlie of the pleasure of intelligence – of reading great books, of working out scientific theories, of falling in love. Would it have been fairer not to have involved him, or did it give him the chance of a brilliant life? There are all sorts of ethical questions that this story throws up, and I’m not sure there is a right or wrong answer to any of them.
Massively successful as a short story, in 1966, Keyes expanded it into a full scale novel of the same name, which was the joint winner of the Nebula Award for Best Novel. It became a film, a play, a musical; it has been adapted into all sorts of media all around the world. My own personal link to the story was seeing the West End musical (called Charlie and Algernon when it was shown in the US) and being completely overwhelmed by it, emphasising the emotional side by concentrating more on the love affair between Charlie and Alice. However, I truly admire the original short story for its brevity and simplicity; Keyes’ fantastic concept, which is only a small step away from reality, captures the imagination and the heart with huge power and immediacy.
The diary technique works extremely well with this story as we see at first hand how Charlie’s understanding of basic grammar and literacy gradually improves through the treatment up until the time when Algernon dies and then it all starts to go badly wrong; and there isn’t a dry eye in the bookshop or library when you get to the end.
It’s an outstanding read, an absolute classic of the genre, and it’s a testament to the strength of the original that it could be adapted into so many other art forms, in so many cultures. Completely appropriate that Keyes should have been so significantly lauded for it.
The next story in the anthology is the second of the two diary narration stories, Nikolai Gogol’s Diary of a Madman. I’ve read some Gogol and he’s a brilliant, exciting and witty writer, so this should be very good!
Lots of Student productions here so I’ve doubled up this selection to twenty shows!
Vandaleur’s Folly – 7:84 Theatre Company at the Oxford Playhouse, 17th November 1978.
7:84 was an influential and creative socialist theatre company whose name derived from the fact that 7% of the population owned 84% of its worth – or at least did in 1966, I expect it’s even less evenly distributed today. This touring production came under the 7:84 England banner, the company ceasing in 1984 after it lost its Arts Council grant, although 7:84 Scotland continued for another 20 odd years. Vandaleur’s Folly was written by John Arden and Margaretta D’Arcy and was based on the Ralahine Co-operative Commune set up in Ireland in the 1830s, but also propounded arguments for the British withdrawal from Ireland. I can remember very little about it, apart from the fact that it made me feel very trendy and studenty.
Night and Day – Phoenix Theatre, London, 25th November 1978.
During that first university term, my friend Rob and I decided to take some of our new friends, Mike, Kevin and Doug, into London for the weekend, and part of the treat was to see this new play by Tom Stoppard. It was a satire on the British News Media (some things never go away) mixed with the concerns of a post-colonial era. I remember it being very clever, very funny and very erudite – Stoppard at his best. It starred Diana Rigg and John Thaw, who were both superb; the cast also included Upstairs Downstairs’ very own Lord Bellamy, David Langton. I’d like to revisit this play some time when the theatres are allowed to reopen!
The Death of Cuchulain and Shadowy Waters – St Hugh’s Players, Oxford, 26th November 1978.
Included in my list here because a) I’m still very friendly with some of the production team and b) this was the one and only time that I’ve seen a production that used Japanese Noh masks. One of these cast members is currently the UK Ambassador to Turkey! I never did get on with W B Yeats and this was all very difficult to fathom.
Aubrey’s Brief Lives – Oxford Playhouse, 28th November 1978.
Aubrey’s Brief Lives is a wonderful opportunity for a character actor to indulge in some Elizabethan gossip, and this was a superb one-man performance from a young chap who I knew would go on to greater things – and so he did. Nigel le Vaillant was in the year above me at university and we met on the night I went up for interview the previous December – and what a charismatic and fascinating chap he was (and I’m sure still is). He’s primarily known for his TV appearances as Dangerfield.
The Skin of our Teeth – Burton Taylor Studio, Oxford, December 1978.
I’m including this OUDS (Oxford University Dramatic Society) production in my list because I’m still close friends with one of the cast! But it’s not a play I particularly relished if I’m honest. A few members of this cast have gone on to do amazing things with their lives!
The Millionairess – Theatre Royal Haymarket, London, January 1979.
I saw this with my friend Rob as we were both Penelope Keith fans (see Donkeys Years a couple of years previously) and she played the central character with natural authority and charm. Better known as the film where Peter Sellers played the Indian Doctor alongside Sophia Loren, this production also featured Nigel Hawthorne, Ian Ogilvy, Angharad Rees and Charles Kay as the Doctor – this time, Egyptian, as Shaw had intended. Enjoyable and traditional, as everything at the Haymarket always was!
A Night with Dame Edna – Piccadilly Theatre, London, 15th January 1979.
Again I went with Rob and also our friend Wayne (see Oh Calcutta a few years previously) to see Barry Humphries in his most inimitable role, as the irrepressible Dame Edna Everage. He/she was at the height of the character’s prowess, and it was a memorable night of non-stop near-the-knuckle laughter. The first half started with Sir Les Patterson, Australian cultural attaché, at his most repulsively hilarious. I do remember him spotting a couple of latecomers, welcoming them in, getting their names and saying, “I must tell my friend Dame Edna Everage about you” to an audience that exploded half in hysterics and half in sheer sympathy. It was a great show, and I caught Dame Edna again later in the year when she visited Oxford. A comedy legend at his best.
Class Enemy – Oxford Playhouse, 3rd February 1979.
Anvil Productions’ version of Nigel Williams’ Class Enemy, that had recently enjoyed a successful run at the Royal Court Theatre. Six students in search of a teacher, I remember this as being a fascinating and strong play given an excellent performance by some very talented young actors. The cast included Peter Lovstrom, who has continued to have a solid acting career, Keith Jayne, who entered financial services, Gary Shail, who has combined acting with a recording career, and Mark Wingett who appeared in The Bill for twelve years. Interesting to note that this play was adapted much later in Bosnia and set in Sarajevo in 2007, with the young adults emerging from the horrors of war.
Bedroom Farce – Oxford Playhouse, February 1979.
I’d only seen the National Theatre production a little over a year earlier, but it’s a fun play and it was on locally, so why not? This production was directed by Richard (I don’t believe it) Wilson. I note that among the talented cast was John Alkin, who left acting in the 1980s to set up a spiritual healing centre with his wife Lee Everett Alkin (Kenny Everett’s former wife).
Measure for Measure/Occupations – Oxford Playhouse, 7th & 8th March 1979.
These two plays, produced by OUDS, ran in repertory for the week, and very strong productions they were too. It was my first time seeing Measure for Measure and I found it really engrossing, and Occupations is the Trevor Griffiths’ play about the Fiat factory occupations in 1920s Italy. I’m sure the works of Griffiths are due a retrospective. Measure for Measure was the first production that I ever officially reviewed; I was working for student newspaper Tributary at the time.
Nigel le Vaillant led both casts. But I was really impressed by a young chap from Wadham who played the foppish Lucio, and I gave him a glowing review. His name was Tim McInnerny – and his Lucio was the forerunner of his characterisation of Lord Percy in Blackadder II. Also in the cast was Radio Active’s very own Helen Atkinson-Wood, Mark Saban (now a psychologist, but for many years a successful actor), Martin Hatfull (one time UK Ambassador to Indonesia), Neal Swettenham (lecturer in Drama at Loughborough University), and a young Helen Fielding, without whom none of us would have heard of Bridget Jones and her diary.
A Chorus Line – Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London, 31st March 1979.
OK I admit I wasn’t going to write about any more of the Chorus Line productions I saw, but this was the last night of the production’s two-and-three-quarter years’ run and it was my 8th time of seeing it, this time with some friends from university. A very moving experience, as the audience was full of ACL aficionados, and we gave it a stonking reception. My main memory is of Miss Diane Langton unable to leave the stage at the end of What I Did for Love because of its huge reception, her standing there with grateful tears in her eyes. An unforgettable night. However, I have to say, we were very reserved in comparison with the last night of A Chorus Line at the Palladium in 2014. Now THAT was a humdinger!
Deathtrap – Garrick Theatre, London, 5th April 1979.
Now always known as Ira Levin’s Deathtrap for copyright reasons, this comedy thriller had been packing them in for a few months and it was a show you either loved or you hated. Personally, I loved it, with its awkward twists, false ending, lies and scoundrelly behaviours; one of those plays where almost nothing is as it seems. A fantastic central performance by Denis Quilley as Sidney Bruhl, but with terrific support from everyone else. Very enjoyable.
Joking Apart – Globe Theatre, London, 11th April 1979.
Alan Ayckbourn’s latest comedy had been open for just a month or so, and had a formidable cast including Alison Steadman, Christopher Cazenove, Julian Fellowes and that master (mistress) of the befuddled old lady act, Marcia Warren. It centres on a happy couple who unwittingly cause havoc amongst their friends and relatives. Every bit as enjoyable as you would have expected it to be.
Chicago – Cambridge Theatre, London, 14th April 1979.
Yes indeed, this was the West End premiere of that musical that refuses to die and just keeps on coming. I went with my friends Sue and Nigel because she had heard it was sensational. If you see a production of Chicago today, it’s full of showbiz and glamour, all that Fosse choreography and vicious manipulation. But the original Chicago, which had transferred from Sheffield, was a much quieter affair, with choreography by Gillian Gregory and a thoroughly British cast including Jenny Logan as Velma, Antonia Ellis as Roxie, Don Fellows as Amos and Ben Cross (indeed) as Billy Flynn. I’ve always had a problem with Chicago – I hate how it celebrates cruelty and crime; from that point of view it’s the complete opposite of A Chorus Line which celebrates everything that’s good about people. It ran for 600 performances, but when it came back next time round, it was a much more erotic and scintillating affair.
The Observer Oxford Festival of Theatre 1979 at the Oxford Playhouse, 1st, 7th, 8th and 11th May 1979.
I saw four of the productions in this festival; one is on the shortlist for the worst thing I’ve ever seen, one was absolutely brilliant, and the other two I can’t remember at all. Alas I have no recollection of The Fool’s Theatre Company’s production of The Fall of the House of Atreus, or of the Experimental Theatre Club (of which I was a member)’s Princess Ivona. I loved – and reviewed – the Fool’s Company’s double bill of Salome and Steven Berkoff’s East (I had dropped into a rehearsal a couple of weeks previously and interviewed the director) – I think East is one of the funniest and most inventive plays ever. Kim Wall and Mark Heap have gone on to have sterling acting careers.
Vying for the biggest disaster ever was the Sherman Theatre Company’s production of Othello, with Edwin Kandiwiya Manda, Artistic Director of the National Dance Theatre of Zambia, in the title role. Mr Manda enunciated the part beautifully throughout, but with exactly the same intonation and expression for every line. When Othello sends Desdemona off so that he can agonise over her fidelity, he says the line: “Farewell, my Desdemona. I’ll come to thee straight.” With Mr Manda’s execution (and I use the word advisedly) of this line, it became “I’ll COME to thee…… STRAIGHT” as if explaining the direction and velocity with which his private parts will invade hers. One of those plays were you were literally shaking with suppressed hilarity from the start but you had to leave at the interval in order to protect your own self-esteem.
Hamlet – Oxford Playhouse, 24th May 1979.
Another student production, Claudius was played by Dougal Lee, from my college, and who is still a mainstay of the Pitlochry Theatre Company, Hamlet was Simon Taylor, that chap Tim McInnerny was First Gravedigger and Fortinbras, and there are other names there I recognise from other student productions.
Every Good Boy Deserves Favour – Oxford Playhouse, 31st May 1979.
A different production from the show I’d seen the previous year in London, directed by Gordon McDougall, amongst whose claims to fame is co-selecting the children in the long-running TV documentary Seven Up. The cast included John Bown, Graham Lines and Mark Penfold, all of whom frequently appeared in TV plays.
Songbook – Oxford Playhouse, 4th June 1979.
On its pre-West End tryout tour, this fantastic musical lives on in my mind as one of the best shows I’ve seen. Written by Monty Norman (yes the man who wrote the James Bond theme) and Julian More, this show acts as a kind of Side by Side by Sondheim about the songwriting genius, and totally fictional, Moony Shapiro. It traces his career from his early days of East River Rhapsody, through the Second World War where he wrote Bumpity Bump for the very posh-voiced Cicely Courtneidge (although she’s never mentioned), plus the musical Happy Hickory (Finian’s Rainbow by any other name) and various other musical gems. One of my favourite songs is the extremely unPC Nazi Party Pooper sung by a furious Hitler at his piano, annoyed that his Berlin Olympics have been ruined by the success of Jesse Owens. Inappropriate for today for all sorts of reasons, but it’s a very clever song. The cast of Anton Rodgers, Gemma Craven, Bob Hoskins, Diane Langton and Andrew C Wadsworth (whom I told 25 years later that I had enjoyed this show so much) were all on brilliant form. I’d love this to be revived.
She Would if She Could – Oxford Playhouse, 15th June 1979.
George Etherege’s Restoration Comedy was given a masterful production directed by Jonathan Miller and starring Paul Eddington and David Firth. Crammed with brilliant performances and marvellous comic business this was a top class show from start to finish. I absolutely loved it.
Flowers for Algernon – Queen’s Theatre, London, 5th July 1979.
For the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle’s birthday, we went to see this short-lived show (the introduction of VAT to the price of theatre tickets knocked a few productions into financial chaos) but it was sensational, and is probably still my second favourite production of all time after A Chorus Line. Daniel Keyes’ famous story about the young man treated with a drug to bring him out of his learning difficulties into the realms of a high achiever, only for the drug to fail and for him to revert to his previous state, was turned into a most moving musical by David Rogers and Charles Strouse, and gave Michael Crawford his (in my humble opinion) best role ever as Charlie. Cheryl Kennedy was also magnificent as the doctor who enters into a relationship with him. I defy you to listen to the song Whatever Time There Is and not blurt out into uncontrollable tears. But the whole score is terrific. This is another fantastic show that I’d love to see again.
Thanks for accompanying me on this rather lengthy theatrical reminiscence. Tomorrow it’s back to the holiday snaps, and I is for Iceland and a chilly trip in March 1998. Stay safe!