Interviews With Alan Ayckbourn

This is an extract from an interview by Philip Oakes published in Cosmopolitan magazine during June 1974.

In And Out Of The Wedding Ring

Can love co-exist with domesticity? Is infidelity essential? Can marriage survive at all, asks Philip Oakes, and, even more important, can we survive without it?
Few writers today would, in fact, dare to ordain how men and women should arrange their lives - either together or as separate individuals. But Alan Ayckbourn, whose fifteen plays - most notably Absurd Person Singular - deal with couples joined willingly or otherwise in some form of alliance, has no doubt why he finds marriage the most absorbing of all subjects. "Writing about a man and a woman who are not married is so limiting. Within marriage there's the stuff of limitless drama." Ayckbourn himself was married at nineteen.

"It was an appallingly cynical start. My wife Christine and I were both acting in rep and one week we were playing in Leicester where the bookings were very thin. The company manager had this bright idea. 'We need a good publicity stunt,' he said. 'Now, we've seen you two in the back of the van a few times, so why not announce your engagement. It would be wonderful for the papers.' So we duly got engaged and there was this lovely photo on the front page of the local rag saying 'Actors find love in Leicester'. The plan was that we should get 'disengaged' when we got to Newcastle, but somehow we never got round to it. We got married instead."

He's now 35 and still married, but his wife lives in Scarborough with their two sons while Ayckbourn works and lives most of the time in London. It is a loving and practical relationship.
[1] But, without doubt, distance helps to sustain the enchantment. It's only recently, says Ayckbourn, that he has started to write auto-biographically. "At the start I was too insecure and nervous to let my private life start shining in public. But lately I've been digging back and my plays are becoming more and more personal."

What Ayckbourn finds fascinating are the patterns which survive the violence of time and circumstances. I quoted to him a passage from
The Unquiet Grave, a book by the critic Cyril Connolly in which he writes: "The greatest charm of marriage, in fact that which renders it irresistible to those who have once tasted it, is the duologue, the permanent conversation between two people which talks over everything and everyone until death breaks the record."

Entirely true, says Ayckbourn: "I'm certain that this, above all, is what holds a marriage together. It sounds ridiculous to reduce it to the word 'familiarity', but that's what it is; something commonplace and marvellous. Occasionally - and sometimes more often than that - one is tempted to go off and start again with a new woman or a new man. But you're faced with the sheer effort of having to create a brand new relationship, and all this domestic shorthand you've absorbed - when you can actually grunt across a room and your partner knows what you mean and can grunt back - is immensely satisfying. It can be nauseating to an outsider I'll admit. But it's like what you try to create in the theatre, a bond between you and somebody else that is unbreakable. And one of its consequences is that the poor Other Woman or Other Man never stands a chance because they can never quite catch the dialogue."

Very few writers, claims Ayckbourn, have dared to explore the true comic potential of marriage. But in the present climate, he thinks, the moment may be approaching. "For example, I would love to write a comedy about married sex. Not 'knickers off in the cupboard' sort of thing, but the real sex traumas that every married couple goes through."

Website Notes:
[1] Whilst Alan's relationship with Christine was undoubtedly cordial, he was also by this point living with his long-term partner Heather Stoney, whom he married in 1997.

Copyright: Cosmopolitan. This edited transcription and the end-notes have been compiled and researched by Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.