Interview: Sunday Star Ledger (1979)

This interview was published in the Sunday Star Ledger on 22 April 1979.

The Comic Laureate Of England

by William Raidy

"Why did I write?" John Milton once asked himself. "What sin to me unknown dipt me in ink - my parents', or my own?"

Alan Ayckbourne [sic], who might be called England's Neil Simon, blames it all on himself and his inability to get a good acting part.

London-born and Sussex-bred Ayckbourn
[1], 40 this year and the author of just about that many plays, [2] hasn't appeared profession ally on the stage ("except to read some sick actor's lines one night") for 14 years. His plays (the first one was written when the aspiring actor was 19 in order to give himself a better part) include Absurd Person Singular, The Norman Conquests and How the Other Half Loves. They have delighted the world in any number of languages.

What many consider the "comic laureate" of England's best play,
Bedroom Farce — a highly unsalacious comedy about what people do in bed besides what most people associate with bed - is a resounding success at the Brooke Atkinson Theater here. It is the National Theatre Company of Great Britain's production - directed by the author and the National's Peter Hall, and currently being played with an all-English cast who will depart due to American union rules in a few months.

The comedy, says Ayckbourn, was written "during three or four sleepless nights a couple of years ago" when the National Theatre commissioned it. The prolific author, wearing a colourful shirt, a floral tie and an air of eternal detachment to an interview, put it this way "I didn't think I could really write a play specifically for the National. I told them: 'I'll write one and you can put it on if you like the look of it.'"

Peter Hall and the National most certainly did "like the look of it" when it was first presented at the Scarborough
Theatre, the repertory establishment in a seaside resort 300 miles from London where Ayckbourn usually first presents his comedies. He is this distinguished regional theatre's director of productions. It was at Scarborough, where the author makes his home, that he first tried to carve out an acting career.

Bedroom Farce, which some diehards felt wasn't up to the National Theatre's usual profundities, provides the institution's only money-maker since its new, impressive and costly complex was built overlooking the Thames. The comedy still is enjoying a prosperous run at the Prince of Wales Theatre.

"Being a regional man," the author said, "I have a warm spot for repertory theatre. My comedies help pay the way for more serious plays. When we make some money we then go ahead and do
The Seagull. That's my treat if I do well with one of my own. I get to direct The Seagull or Strindberg's Miss Julie. We have a wonderful company. Our whole premise is based on using fine, all-around actors instead of a star system, which is usually the way with repertory companies. I took over the directorship of Scarborough in 1972 [3] and I'm happy to say that what was then a 13-week season is now a nine-month one plus a month's touring."

When young Alan Ayckbourn first went to Scarborough, whose theatre then was housed in a
library, he had very little acting experience and a great deal of enthusiasm (something he has never lost).

"At 17," he recalled, "I decided to have a go at the theatre, although no one encouraged me very much. Through a French master at school, I was able to wangle an introduction to Sir Donald Wolfit, who I heard was looking for 'someone to polish his furniture. He was a most imposing figure, an actor of the old school who often wore a big, wide-brimmed black hat and a flowing cloak. He terrified me - but I got the job. He took me to the Edinburgh Festival and eventually I got the smallest of parts in a play he was starring in,
The Strong Are Lonely, all about Jesuit priests in Spain.

"My job on the stage was to stand at attention for 45 minutes. I'll never forget when he decided to review his 'troops.' He had a parade of his soldiers and when he walked down in review, he looked at me and said: 'You're one of those people who looks funny in a hat.' I sank, but was soon revived. He made the decree that nobody was to wear a hat. The entire Spanish army went hatless."

After stage managing and playing minor roles, Britain's foremost comedy playwright first dipped his pen into the writer's inkwell at the age of 19.

"The first play I wrote," he said, "was called
The Square Cat. I've destroyed every copy. [4] It was written by me, for me. It was a very daring farce that I wouldn't dare to do today. It did make me 47 pounds, however, which I thought was terrific. I was 26 when I had my first big hit. I've written 23 plays for Scarborough, 14 of which have gone afterward to London. While most people are quick to comment on how quickly I write a play - it usually takes a week to put it down - they seem to forget about how long it takes me to 'think' a play."

Ayckbourn, who during his career has had as many as five of his plays running concurrently in London, has two new ones for the West End. One is
Joking Apart, which the author calls "a serious play about how envy can destroy one," and the other is Sisterly Feelings, which begins at a funeral and is a comedy with several options for its ending. The latter play, insists the author, "is about choice and asks the question: 'Do we have control over our own lives?'"

Ayckbourn has been called - like America's Neil Simon - both a laugh machine and a money machine. He assures anyone who listens that he wants neither to write - nor to play -

"My ambition is to write a serious play that everyone laughs at," he said.

If he hasn't done it already, he has plenty of time ahead of him. And there are Ibsen, Strindberg and Chekhov to direct at Scarborough. All are in good company.

Website Notes:
[1] Ayckbourn is mis-spelt throughout the entire original article as 'Ayckbourne' and has been corrected from the second use forwards.
[2] As of publication of this article, Alan had actually written 23 full-length plays.
[3] In the original article this is printed as 1970 and has been corrected to 1972 when Alan was appointed Artistic Director of the Library Theatre, Scarborough.
[4] Alan frequently mentions during the '60 and '70s that he has attempted to destroy every copy of his early plays. Fortunately, he wasn't successful. Copies of
The Square Cat are held in the Ayckbourn Archive at the University of York, the British Library, the University of Manchester and the Stephen Joseph Theatre.

Copyright: Sunday Star Ledger. 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.