[DWJ] The Terrible Fisk Machine (was: Question about DWJ Kirkus article)

Joe oddenda at gmail.com
Thu May 5 17:23:46 EDT 2011

I had a slow morning at work, and my mind turned to the question of DWJ’s
plays, raised on this list a month ago. So I spent a happy hour rootling
through catalogues and Google books, and can now shed a little bit more
light on the matter.

As Deborah mentioned, the titles are as follows (although I suspect your
dates may be off slightly, Deborah, but the Writers’ Who’s Whos and
Yearbooks all disagree too):

The Batterpool Business (1968 – also cited as 1965 and 1967)
The King’s Things (1969 – also 1970)
The Terrible Fisk Machine (1970 – generally cited as 1971)

That’s as far as I got with the first two. But for the Terrible Fisk
Machine, I found the cast listing reproduced in the 1972 Who’s who in the
theatre (15th edition – for a wonder one of two carried by my library),
which has a section entitled ‘London Playbills’ that lists everything in
every London theatre for the year. Here it is:

7 November, 1970
Presented by the Unicorn Theatre

Mr Wilberforce....................Richard Jacques
Miss Fisk..............................Matyelok Gibbs
Johnny................................David Troughton
Jerry Mander.......................Laurence Keane
Veronica Tradgett................Rosemary Blake
The Mouse.........................Rosalind Speight
Miss Mimosa Jarndice..................Jan Breton
Mr. Sidney Bluett...................Henry Manning

Directed by CARYL JENNER

Do any of those names mean anything to anyone?

Then I uncovered a review (yeah!), buried in an article by Virginia Koste in
the Children’s Theatre Review  (volumes 19-21 pp.56-57, I think). The
article is actually about Caryl Jenner’s Unicorn Theatre, but DWJ’s play was
the one she saw. This I found in Google books, and stitched together from
snippet views (I suppose it’s not really kosher to do this, but with
patience it can work). Here’s the bit we’re interested in:

“The Unicorn plays to steadily full houses of regularly returning playgoers,
so that a varied repertory is an actual necessity. The performance that I
saw at the Arts Theatre was of The Terrible Fisk Machine, by Diana Wynn
Jones; a bit of science fiction exploring human values in an essentially
comic spirit. The staging entailed imaginative shifts of perspective: the
second curtain, for instance, opened to reveal an enormous ",here
representing a pea fallen from a table in the first act, and the gasps of
recognition— that the actors so small in relation to that green pea had been
maliciously miniaturized by the terrible Miss Fisk's machine— fused the
audience in delighted discovery. Skillfully directed by Miss Jenner, the
actors were energetic and accomplished, attuned by experience to their
responsive audience, so that the performance's rhythm was easy and alive
with collaboration. Matyelok Gibbs (playing Miss Fisk) is an actress of such
electric and subtle power that she could magnetize any stage; her devotion
over many years to Unicorn's is further evidence that this company has
chosen its purpose, in contrast to some less fortunate groups both here and
in England for which children's theatre is the only resort of undeveloped or
inferior talents on their way in or out of the profession. The Terrible Fisk
Machine is by no means an extraordinary play. Some of the best scripts that
I have come across, however, have been engendered and produced by the
Unicorn. For example, Mary Melwood's The Tingalary Bird (the first play for
young people to be awarded a "limited guarantee against loss through the
Arts Council of Great Britain's New Play scheme") is a rare and beautiful
work by any standard, and her Five Minutes To Morning is almost as good
(both now available in this country by arrangement with New Plays For

I’m not too sure from this what, exactly, the second curtain opened to
reveal – an enormous speech mark in the shape of a pea? This could be a flaw
with the scan – I couldn’t pull up an actual image of this part to check.
But then again it could be a “, I suppose – or maybe a pair of inverted
commas to create a yin-yang effect. And I’m afraid I can’t be totally clear
of the title of this article. It may be ‘Of the Unicorn: a personal view’,
but ‘Of the Unicorn’ could be the truncated end of a longer title. I haven’t
been able to find it cited anywhere. And (obviously) I haven’t really seen
the full text – so if anyone’s institution does subscribe to this journal,
perhaps you’d have a look (unless I’m the only one worrying about the
question of the pea – quite likely I suppose).

I found this rather terser (but equally detailed) summary of the play in The
best plays of 1970-71, Ed. Otis L. Guernsey Jr.:

“THE TERRIBLE FISK MACHINE by Diana Wynne-Jones. Female scientist diminishes
human beings with her Fisk machine. With the Caryl Jenner Productions
Company. (16)”

It sounds to me reminiscent of the Four Grannies / Chair Person type of
story, or some of the Warlock at the Wheel ones. But that name Jerry Mander
could easily have appeared in Changeover too. It's a tantalising little
glimpse. Perhaps there are more reviews out there, and some information on
the earlier two as well - would newspapers and theatre rags have carried
reviews of children's plays in the 60s? Solid performance dates would help
there, but for that we'll need earlier editions of  Who's Who in the Theatre
or similar. Who knows, maybe there is even a text or two somewhere...


---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Mon, Apr 4, 2011 at 5:36 AM
Subject: Re: [DWJ] Question about DWJ Kirkus article
To: Diana Wynne Jones discussion <dwj at suberic.net>

At the very beginning of her career, she wrote three plays:

"The Batterpool Business". First produced at Arts Theatre, London, 1968 "The
King's Things". First produced at Arts Theatre, London, 1970
"The Terrible Fisk Machine". First produced at Arts Theatre, London, 1972

That is absolutely all I know about them. Does anyone else (Farah, Minnow,
Charlie, perhaps?) know any more?


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