Interviews with Alan Ayckbourn

This interview with Alan Ayckbourn was published in the New York Times on 20 October 1974. It marked the first time the New York Times had interviewed the playwright.

Interview With Alan Ayckbourn

"The very structure of laughter is caught in Alan Ayckbourn’s range finder” is the way Walter Kerr describes in the adjacent column Absurd Person Singular, which opened October 8 at the Music Box to a chorus of chuckles from Mr Kerr and other members of the generally delighted critical fraternity. Mr Ayckbourn, the British author of Absurd Person Singular, has boldly put pen in hand and tongue in cheek to answer some question submitted by the editors, as follows”

Do you like being called ‘The British Neil Simon’?
No more than he’d like being called an American Alan Ayckbourn. We’re both ourselves. The only thing we have in common is that we both write comedies. And we both, in our respective countries, do pretty well at it. But it would be hard to get us confused. His characters are often very funny verbally. None of my characters ever made a good joke in his life.

Is it possible there's such a thing as British humour?
Possibly. The British often distinguish themselves from other races by claiming that they have the unique ability to laugh at themselves. But the majority of their jokes are about foreigners, whom they consider, when they're not actually at war with them, quite hilarious. They laugh at all foreign accents, customs and food with ill-disguised mirth. All things considered, the British are very lucky to be around today. If I were a foreigner I would have invaded them long ago and shut them up permanently. But then, I'm not; I'm an Englishman and am allowed to laugh at myself and my fellow countrymen.

Do your plays have a message?
Yes. But it's very, very secret. If you read the first letter of every third page of one of my plays they make up the words NYAX GNOV CSA.

Are you a funny person?
Not to me, I'm not. But I have observed people snickering as I walked away from them.

Is sex funny?
It depends on whom you're doing it with. With me, it's hilarious.

How deep are the characters in your plays?
They sink pretty low at times.

Do you ever put yourself in your plays?
Bits and pieces. I'm not particularly aware of doing so, but if I write a character with a particularly infuriating mannerism or characteristic my friends are always quick to point out that this is based on me. (They always assume the nicer characters are based on them.)

Who are your favorite playwrights?
Chekhov, Pinter, Feydeau, Chekhov, Arthur Miller, Peter Nichols, Giles Cooper, Chekhov, Neil Simon (the American one), Peter Shaffer, Coward and, of course, Anton Chekhov.

Have you ever written or will you ever write a so-called serious play?
It may sound paradoxical, but comedy is quite serious enough for me. As a writer, I am happy enough to remain in this meĢtier. There's nothing that I want to say, at least to date, that I can't say - and would not prefer to say - in comic terms. One can deal with fairly serious human issues nonetheless. My latest play, Absent Friends, contains the double theme of death and the death of love. It also has a woman having a nervous breakdown. It's a comedy and people are laughing at it. Not, I believe, in a cruel and heartless way, but with the laughter of understanding. Laughter in the theatre can be an amazing bridge. It can persuade people to keep their minds open long after their inherent prejudices have told them to close them. There have been a lot of false claims made as to what theatre can or cannot do - that it can stop wars, or alter people's voting habits. I believe that the most theatre can hope to achieve is to ease, and then only infinitesimally, the problem of how to tolerate all those other obtuse, sometimes infuriating, individualists with whom we share this earth.

Copyright: The New York Times. 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.