Interviews with Alan Ayckbourn

This interview was published in the May 1978 issue of Municipal Entertainment magazine. It was written by Ian Watson, who would go on to write the first significant book about Alan Ayckbourn, Conversations With Ayckbourn, which was published in 1981.

Ayckbourn Of Scarborough

On Tuesday 15 November 1977, nerves were beginning to show at Scarborough's Theatre in the Round as it got deeper into its annual cliff-hanger, waiting for news of the new play by its director, Alan Ayckbourn, which was scheduled to open on 11 January 1978. At this moment, all that was known was the distribution of the cast: that was determined months ago by the theatre's budget.

"See if you can get a title out of him," the Company's publicity officer urged. "I've told him I've got to have it by tomorrow if I'm going to get the posters out in time." The following day, on cue, Ayckbourn announced to the company that his 21st play would be called
Joking Apart. Even so, a slight nervousness remained that, in ten days time, he might return from his retreat to Devon and Cornwall - where he was going to clear his mind for the writing onslaught - and change the title. It wasn't unknown: a play announced and advertised as The Silver Collection turned up at rehearsal as The Sparrow. To be fair, though, that was a long time ago, and there had since been the experience with Absurd Person Singular, when, according to his own account, he let the title stand but wrote a different play from the one intended.

The apprehensions of the company were edged with the fact that, since writing
Ten Times Table a year previously, Ayckbourn had given up smoking. Whilst no-one seriously suggested his creative abilities were dependent on a packet of fags, there was a distinct uneasiness that, without them, his nerves might give out under the pressure of the deadline and he would be unable to deliver.

"Alan did tell me," said Ken Boden, the theatre's General Manager, "that he might set it in a tennis court." Good news for the stage management crew, with visions of a simple tennis net for a set: with a gruelling tour of the West Country scheduled to follow the Scarborough opening, such lightweight portability would be a significant asset.

On the other side of Scarborough's North Bay, above the harbour, in the vicarage which previously belonged to
Stephen Joseph, the Theatre in the Round company's founding genius, after whom it has now named itself, Alan Ayckbourn was a touch irritated that Ken Boden should have released this confidence. The relationship between the two, both of whom have been involved in the Scarborough theatre since Stephen Joseph started it in the mid-1950s, is scattered with procedural tensions which are as full of comic potential for the observer as any relationship written by Ayckbourn onto a stage.

In the event,
Joking Apart was not exactly set in a tennis court, although one end of a court does feature in the set - along with a corner of a croquet lawn, variegated trees and foliage and a gazebo. Touring it was not quite the doddle which Ken Boden's rumour had seemed to promise.

The play, written like all Ayckbourn's plays only when its author was right up against his deadline, was actually delivered a few days late. Despite his apparently absolute confidence in allowing his plays to be scheduled before they are written, Ayckbourn claims to be terrified of the possibility of a writing block; and yet unable to advance his deadline to spare everyone's nerves.

"I think it has to be that way. Last year, I broke down in the middle. I actually got to a point in the play when I had to admit "I simply can't go on, I don't know where we are," 48 hours before we started reading it. And we turned back, to do my other trick. I was on page 46, or something, and I went back to page 23.
[1] That's 23 pages thrown away, which is a hell of a lot of play: it was a third or a quarter of the play. That will happen, but I've got confidence in that and I'd hate to turn in a substandard work. But I've got Me Times Me Times Me [2], I can do that. Or The Sparrow, with a new title! And only about eight people will say 'Hey, I've seen this before.' I'll say, Well it's based on an original Czech folk story!"

Me Times Me Times Me and The Sparrow are two Ayckbourn plays which did not hit the jackpot and have not yet been seen in London. Me Times Me Times Me is due for a revival later this year at Richmond's Orange Tree Theatre. The Sparrow is one of those plays which he will not allow to be performed, on the grounds that he may one day get around to re-writing them. Another of the possible re-writing jobs which he lists is Jeeves, the musical based on the P. G. Wodehouse stories which he wrote in conjunction with Andrew Lloyd Webber. It failed dismally as presented at Her Majesty's Theatre in 1975, despite vigorous championing by Harold Hobson. With a fresh look at the plotting - which was much obliterated by surgery and patching by the time the show reached town - and with a Scarborough production in place of Stigwood's grandiosity, there is little doubt that Jeeves could well enjoy a hearty stage life. [3]

"The trouble with theatre is it's so extreme. You either have a play like
Relatively Speaking that's done literally to death, practically, with millions of productions - which is very nice; or then you have a play that follows it, like The Sparrow, which obviously I don't believe, in retrospect, is as good a play, but it's only had three weeks in its life, those three weeks in Scarborough. It's probably worth a little more than that. At the time, the only reason it was suppressed was it was a bit like The Knack, somebody said. Since I hadn't seen The Knack I didn't realise. I've seen The Knack since. It's a bit like The Knack - it's got a girl in the lead, that's what it was. But so has Antony and Cleopatra, you know.''

Further back in his writing career, beyond
Standing Room Only - another play he feels he might one day re-write, about family life in the ultimate traffic jam - are the plays written at the encouragement of Stephen Joseph under the pseudonym of Roland Allen. These he would happily see expunged from the record.

"Really, pre-
Mr Whatnot they are pretty dark age. I think I was really very lucky, working with Stephen early on in the theatre here, that I got my first eight plays done at all. They are the sort of workshop. I've no objection to people reading them, if they can find a copy. I do tend to be a bit Soviet and destroy them, 1984-like. But I honestly wouldn't like them done, because it's a bit like having your childhood snaps blown up for current publicity purposes."

It is the rest of Ayckbourn's output of 21 plays to date which have made him probably the most successful playwright currently writing in English, and certainly one of the funniest. Since
Relatively Speaking hit London in 1966 [4], his comedies have been played throughout the English-speaking world and translated into 26 other languages.

Critical analysis has at times been contradictory: it is scarcely possible, after all, to reconcile John Osborne's view of Ayckbourn as "a right-wing boulevardier" with Guardian reviewer Michael Billington's conclusion that he is "a left-wing writer using a right-wing form." The form is that of traditional British middle class comedy; and certainly the sheer craftsmanship and technical dexterity which Ayckbourn displays in manipulating it, and which are born of his experience as a working theatre person, invariably directing his own plays in Scarborough (and now, with
Ten Times Table, in London, too), can frequently dazzle the spectator to the extent of suggesting it might be churlish to demand anything of substance behind them. On one level, what Ayckbourn is about is the exploitation of theatrical artifice. But if there is virtually no other level (apart from some gentle lampooning of upper class twittery) to Mr Whatnot, which its author describes as "a totally trivial, non-meaningful, frivolous entertainment" and in which the Chaplin-esque piano-tuner hero is played mute throughout, we should beware not to reach a similar conclusion when he employs the same device again, though for devastatingly different effect, in the second act of Absurd Person Singular, as Eva attempts repeatedly and silently to commit suicide, with everyone else chattily engaged all around her in helping out with her every domestic problem except the one that is tearing her apart. In neither case is the character actually mute, nor is the muteness credible in any but a purely theatrical context; it is simply very funny.

Theatrical artifice of a different kind is the set for
How The Other Half Loves, which combines two living / dining rooms in one and which almost actively intervenes in the plot when it simultaneously accommodates two dinners on different nights in different households, though with the same guests, and has them counterpointing each other. [5] The farcical hilarity which results is its own justification, forcing the audience by sleight of hand to suspend its rational objections.

Here, as so often, Ayckbourn deliberately sets himself a seemingly crazy technical problem; and the virtuosity of the solution he provides to that problem supplies one of the major comic rewards of the play.

"I like to have a problem, because I think it takes care of one aspect of the play. Take
Absurd Person Singular. I had the theme of the ascendancy of one couple and the decline of the other two, set it in the sitting room, started off as normal, and I think in terms of content it was quite interesting - you know, I'd got the couples sketched rather well. But there was an edge missing off it, and by transferring it into the kitchens - setting it backstage, as it were - one got an additional angle on it, which made it much more interesting. I think it lifted it from being a reasonable play into a better play. I do like to charge things. People assume that theatre is a very good medium just for people sitting down and discussing. Having worked in theatre, as a theatre person all my life, I do love to make use of the medium. There are certain tricks one uses, like having a cricket pitch offstage in Time And Time Again, which are pretty boring on television because we always have them. But actually on stage it's fun. By the same token, The Norman Conquests, although, I thought, quite well done on television, are essentially stage pieces and always will be. I mean, the fun is in going on three different evenings, not in switching on three different weeks. Most of my ideas I pinch from other media. I pinched the Normans from The Archers.''

In subject matter, too, Ayckbourn draws deeply upon his experience in the Scarborough Theatre. After twenty-two years, he probably has a closer relationship with his audience than any other British playwright. It is a solidly middle class audience, for whom he writes plays about the middle class. But if his earlier plays steered close to stereotypes already sanctified by Shaftesbury Avenue, his observation of behaviour patterns has drawn him progressively away from these to examine and diagnose the precise mechanics of a very recognisable middle class British life, with which his audience can empathise completely. (I do not think, incidentally, it is helpful to localise Ayckbourn's interest, as some commentators repeatedly do, to the Home Counties: the symptoms he observes are as readily visible in the Scarborough hinterland - particularly around the suburbs of Bradford, Leeds and even York - as they are in the southeast, and presumably the acceptance of the plays universally suggests that audience identification is fairly general.)

It may at first sight seem slightly fanciful to see, as Michael Billington did, that sparkingly well-plotted comedy of misunderstanding and counter-misunderstanding, as "the territorial invasion by a weekday mistress-secretary of her boss's rural retreat." Even a cursory look at other Ayckbourn plays, however, reveals the boss figure recurring again and again - in
The Sparrow, How The Other Half Loves, Time And Time Again, Confusions and Joking Apart - as a sort of leitmotiv for the inhibition to personal relationships which is created by an internal hierarchical system. A slight variation on the same theme is the basis of Absurd Person Singular, where a total reversal in the professional pecking order brings attendant shifts in social and personal relationships. To this extent, Billington is wrong in suggesting that all Ayckbourn's plays "are about the precise interaction of sex and class in modern English society." Class itself is not a factor: the plays concern, for the most part, the precise interaction of human relationships (often, but not always, sexual ones) and the internal systems of middle class living. The suffering brought upon the individual by the self-imposed straight-jacket of the bourgeois ethic is, perhaps, the meat of his comedy - and a mighty strange subject for comedy it must be admitted to be. The familiar totems of middle class life are there, but their functions are subtly twisted: competitive sports (in Time And Time Again and in Joking Apart, counterpointing far more basic competition on a personal level); gardens ("notice how many of Ayckbourn's plays are set in gardens," says Billington: "classic status-symbol of the English middle class" - notice how often, too, the garden becomes a battlefield); and do-it-yourself pursuits (the concern with manual mastery seen, in both Bedroom Farce and Just Between Ourselves, as a sublimation of a responsive and responsible marital relationship).

Ayckbourn's taste is for low-key comedy. "Certainly," he says, "80% of the productions I've seen of my plays have always been far too boisterous: that's the British idea of having a good time." Working in the round, he finds, encourages him to pull his plays down into even lower keys. In the last few years, his plays have tended to divide into two fairly distinct modes, light and dark. In the light plays, like
Bedroom Farce and Ten Times Table, consequences remain physical, frequently farcical and usually hilarious, when that crisis is reached at which rational communication breaks down, as in the punch-ups of How The Other Half Loves, Time And Time Again and The Norman Conquests, or the electrocutions in Absurd Person Singular and Confusions. The plays may concern frustrations and miseries in plenty, but there is an immediacy of resolution to them which defuses them: the pain is quickly dismissed before it touches the audience too deeply. In the dark plays (the last two of which, Just Between Ourselves and Joking Apart have been described as plays rather than comedies), Ayckbourn allows no such easy resolution, but charts instead the destruction of the human spirit. The relationship between social mechanics and personal relations is in two cases viewed over an extended period, and Ayckbourn postulates a form in this interaction. Thus in Absurd Person Singular, Marion is viewed over a period of three years as she is dragged into alcoholism by the agony of reversed social fortunes. And in the latest play, Joking Apart, it takes twelve years for Sven, a pedantic workaholic, to be struck down by a disabling heart condition, and for Louise, the vicar's wife, to fall into manic depression, both under the paradoxically insidious influence of the effortlessly generous and endlessly liberal flair of Richard and Anthea - a socially maverick couple whose natural supremacy and goodness conspire to destroy the very basis of the work ethic and the Christian family ethic by which their friends and neighbours order their lives. As with Leonard in Time And Time Again and Norman in The Norman Conquests, Ayckbourn's introduction into the rigid social mechanism of middle class values of an unfettered maverick influence serves to expose the precariousness of the system's shibboleths; though in this case, more even, perhaps, than in the case of the other dark comedies, the low key comedy comes remarkably close to tragedy.

And yet, even in the midst of such dark pessimism, Ayckbourn never abandons his genius for the management of action for high comic effect. In
Just Between Ourselves, the climax as Pam, depressed and frustrated wife of the feeble Neil, lunges at Dennis in the front seat of his car as a celebration birthday cake is ceremonially carried into the garage, is extremely funny, in spite of the horrific effect it will have upon Vera, Dennis's desperate wife. And in Joking Apart, Ayckbourn manages the two crunch points of the action simultaneously, as Sven and Richard take their competition on to the tennis court while Richard's wife, Anthea, receives a declaration of love from the vicar, Hugh; and the two events encroach ludicrously upon each other.

For the future, Ayckbourn may well continue to alternate light and dark plays. He claims that it depends whether he is writing them in the summer or the winter; though it is not clear whether this denotes a differing response to different points in the natural cycle, or a rather more practical response to the contrasting needs of holiday audiences and the resident Scarborough population.

"I would love to fudge the two together. I'd love to write a truly hilarious dark play." But, he says, the options open to him are getting narrower. "I say 'I can't do that because I've already done it', and the little things that would delight me in the old days, like mistaken identity and confusion - the things, you know, that you write into plays - I would find pretty boring now. And there are certain aspects of humour that I no longer use. I mean I discipline myself. I never used to do much, but I would hate to use the double entendre, which I find an easy laugh. And I hate using puns because I find them easy; and I hate using sex jokes, because they're very easy. So you think 'What have I got left?' You know, I want to make jokes about things that aren't usually made jokes about. It's more that I want to discuss things that aren't usually discussed in comedies." He would also, he admits, love to write a detective thriller, for which he already has the idea.

The theatre critic of New Statesman, Benedict Nightingale, wrote last year of "the masterpiece Ayckbourn will one day offer us, a quasi-comic re-run of
Lear set in Selsdon, with each act occurring in a chintz-covered eye-socket on successive All Fools Days."

"I always say the same thing to Alan after his first nights," says Ken Boden. "I say: You've still to write your best play.''

Website Notes:
[1] The play in question was
Ten Times Table; at the time it was a multi-location play but it became a single location play when he resumed writing from page 23.
Me Times Me Times Me was originally called The Story So Far… when it opened in Scarborough in 1970. It was then extensively re-written for two failed attempts to get into the West End under the titles Me Times Me Times Me and Me Times Me. It was re-written again as Family Circles, which opened at the Orange Tree, Richmond, in 1978.
[3] This is somewhat prescient as 18 years later - in 1996 - a revised version of
Jeeves known as By Jeeves opened the new Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough and was a great success, transferring to both the West End and Broadway.
Relatively Speaking opened at the Duke Of York’s Theatre in London in 1967, not 1966.
[5] Only one of the three couples is present at both of the simultaneously presented dinner parties in
How The Other Half Loves, moving their chairs round to indicate which party they are currently at.
[6] The idea was announced two years later as the thriller
Sight Unseen; a detective thriller in which the murderer was randomly determined. Practically the day before rehearsals, Alan withdrew the play and instead wrote Season's Greetings. He successfully revived the thriller idea in 1983 with It Could Be Any One Of Us.

Copyright: Municipal Entertainment. 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.