Interview: Vogue (1975)

This interview was published in the April 1975 edition of Vogue magazine.

The Ayckbourn Conquests

Alan Ayckbourn has had four plays running in the West End for many months, a feat which he may well repeat on Broadway when The Norman Conquests arrive there later this year on the trail blazed by Absurd Person Singular. Ayckbourn has had West End doubles before: Time And Time Again joined How The Other Half Loves in summer 1972. His producers are now sitting on two plays, Absent Friends and Confusions, because they don't want to flood the market. The musical Jeeves, with Ayckbourn's original book and lyrics based on the Wodehouse characters, is in production. And in January he was gaily talking about opening his summer season at the Library Theatre - the theatre in the round in Scarborough - with a new comedy he hadn't even started.

It is typical that he should see a long run as a problem needing a remedy, when most writers would just sit back and enjoy it. He says he wrote
The Norman Conquests as a trilogy partly to get over the problem of staleness setting in on a long run. He is constantly thinking of his actors: "I refuse to write small parts simply because I hated playing the things. I didn't mind parts where you are off for an act; that's lovely. But parts like postmen, where you have to get all the drag on and trudge on and deliver a letter and trudge off again and that was your life, I've always tried to avoid. In the same way I hated playing parts where you were sitting around with nothing to do in the scene. It's part of being a good technician to be able to write plays where that doesn't happen. But it was something that I always set out to do. Because, as soon as an actor can sit on a stage saying 'What the hell am I doing here?' the audience gets bored with him too."

Ayckbourn gives a percentage of his royalties from the West End to the building fund of the Scarborough theatre, which is the normal procedure since his plays are first performed there. But again it is typical that he should have consulted the whole company about the plans for The Library Theatre's new premises. He put all the proposals together and gave them to the architect. "Asking everybody produced a lot of sense." Scarborough for Ayckbourn is the grass roots, his real field of work. He tends to avoid London, although he has a home in Hampstead where he can sometimes be found. Success is just a bonus which pleases him. "I like theatres to be full of people, and I like plays to be done a lot." And a play has to succeed in the West End if it's going to get taken up everywhere else. But his first aim remains "to get people into my theatre, and then I hope to entertain them intelligently."

Success means being taken seriously, which wouldn't seem a top priority for a writer of high comedy. There was a progress from having
Absurd Person Singular voted Best Comedy in the Evening Standard drama awards, to having The Norman Conquests named Best Plays of 1974 by both the Evening Standard and Plays and Players. Which doesn't mean the Norman plays aren't comedy. However unpretentious Ayckbourn may be himself, a lot of people are starting to say either that he is something more than comedy (because that is not quite respectable enough by itself) or that, after all, he is only comedy (and what is all the fuss about anyway?). But his success is very solidly grounded in his unerring sense of character and his imaginative grasp of the theatrical possibilities of the post-cinema era. His situation comedy is not artificially imposed but stems effortlessly from the characters, and the avant-garde split staging or double timing in the plots would never have been accessible before audiences became accustomed to film montage. Moreover, his plays, which might appear tailor-made for the traditional proscenium arch theatre, are in fact written for his own theatre-in-the-round (with the audience on all four sides of the stage and no scenery) and the requirements of this unconventional type of theatre environment have contributed significantly to the build-up of his superb technique. The Scarborough audience, too, is an ideal test.

"Most of my audience in Scarborough I suspect, particularly in summer, are not theatre-going people," he says. "They, go because they're on holiday and would never dream of visiting their local rep, or very rarely. They're telly-orientated and used to close-ups. They want to see what's going on. In the round, even if we have five hundred seats, nobody would be more than eight rows away. They'd be almost within touching distance of the actors, which is terribly important. It gives this bond for the sort of work we do that brings out the celebratory element in theatre: the gathering together of people to enjoy an event.

"One sees this in very positive terms when we're doing a comedy in summer in which you get a laugh from the audience from both sides of the auditorium, and then each side sees the other laughing and it lifts the laugh again, and it's a shared experience. It's a wonderful thing. You can get these cannon laughs, which to a new actor in the round are quite confusing, where the laugh will apparently rocket backwards and forwards across the stage in stereo for a long time. Last summer we were doing
Absent Friends and there were two actors on stage sitting next to each other on a settee and talking across each other, and in the middle of them (because we're so close) a woman in the front row had leant over the back of the settee and was following their words with her mouth. The actors just carried on the scene; in fact she wasn't quite in their eye-line. But from where I was sitting she looked as if she were between them. She was so carried away, following the questions and looking back for the answers. Wonderful. Like a child watching a toy."

Writing for the round in theory makes for good play-writing and bad television-writing, Ayckbourn maintains. In the round you have to keep all the characters animated to some extent and contributing, because they are conveying information to a part of the audience. The reverse is true of television because the camera is so one-eyed. "You don't want this share acting," he says, "You want to say this is Mary's moment: camera holds on Mary. Which is why I find it fiendishly difficult to write for television, because it's going against what I do naturally."

The characters he puts on his Scarborough stage are in no way local or Yorkshire. They tend to be members of the broad English middle class of comfortable home counties suburbia which probably forms the major part, incidentally, of his West End audience. It is a sombre reflection that Ayckbourn's predecessors in the line of high comedy, Oscar Wilde and Noël Coward, also chose as subject matter the people who subsequently turned out to be doomed targets. Ayckbourn writes, as they did, about the class he knows and belongs to. But, again like them, he is not primarily in the business of satire, attacking social attributes. The class is just the setting; the comedy is in the general human dimension. People laugh at human failings that they share, whereas they just become uncomfortable if they feel they are being attacked from the stage.

"There are one or two notable critics who get very upset by my stuff," says Ayckbourn, "because they think it's laughing at the best of human nature. But in fact it's saying that it's sad that people can try to be nice and it sometimes doesn't work. For example Sarah in
The Norman Conquests tries misguidedly to get everyone together and make them happy, but the silly cow really shouldn't try. It's not the way to do it. But her motives are right, although she has a lot of ulterior motives like she really wants to lord it. I think that a lot of the worst things that happen in life are a result of very well-meaning actions. Like in Absent Friends this man genuinely wants to sort these people out, but the fact is they don't want to be sorted out. What he's saying they know, and don't want repeated, but his motives come from a genuine affection. I tend to be optimistic about people anyway. I always assume they're nice until they've finally stolen my wallet. I believe basically that most people do bad things to each other mainly because of fear."

It's true that Ayckbourn's gallery does not include villains and rogues. His nastiest characters, like Graham in
Time And Time Again and Sidney in Absurd Person Singular, are at worst smug, insensitive, and unconsciously egotistical. But they are not notably more vicious than his more amiable figures like Leonard in the former play and, of course, Norman (both Tom Courtenay roles). A typical Ayckbourn device is to confront staid conventional people with types who don't play the game but are, perhaps predictably, sympathetic and probably more intelligent in their eccentricity. The resulting conflicts, immaculately plotted with never a line out of character, are hilariously funny. Ayckbourn has a perfect grasp of the politics of everyday life, and the theatrical technique to do his perception justice. His situations may not invariably be original, but behind the sour flavour of, for instance, the last act of Absurd Person Singular lies subtle observation which makes his self-declared ambition to pursue in the future a more Chekhovian path not unreasonable. Nobody, for example, has caught the peculiarly English sexual isolation of the middle-class male as aptly as Ayckbourn does in Ronald's last act speech in Absurd Person Singular: "This may sound ridiculous, but I've never to this day really known what most women think about anything. Completely closed book to me. I mean, God bless them, what would we do without them? But I've never understood them. I mean, damn it all, one minute you're having a perfectly good time and the next, you suddenly see them there like some old sports jacket or something - literally beginning to come apart at the seams. Floods of tears, smashing your pots, banging the furniture about. God knows what. Both my wives, God bless them, they've given me a great deal of pleasure over the years but, by God, they've cost me a fortune in fixtures and fittings."

Ayckbourn's technical adventurousness is typified by a certain gamesmanship. In
The Norman Conquests the three plays each deal with the same chunk of time (a weekend) but are located in three separate parts of a house, as indicated by the titles - Table Manners, Living Together and Round And Round The Garden. He wrote the twelve scenes that compose the trilogy in correct chronological sequence, and separated the material into the various locations subsequently. The wonder is that he managed to sustain the idea. Ayckbourn's plays are full of meals as suitable crisis points in family relationships. The setting of How The Other Half Loves is, of course, like a pantomime horse (or pantomime house) with two living-rooms blended into one. The three scenes of Absurd Person Singular take place in the three kitchens of three sets of couples on three consecutive Christmases. And here the favourite Ayckbourn equation of games playing and social conflict becomes most sinisterly overt. In most of his plays one of the characters is dying to play games with somebody. But if Ayckbourn plays games with himself when he writes his plays, and could be said to be doing some avant-garde things on the stage, he doesn't, in fact, make any difficulties for his audience.

Surprisingly, he claims to be "awfully bad at writing, straight stuff". Occasionally he has been asked to do a serious preface but he always has to make it jokey. He recalls that "When I was a sort of struggling writer my agent, bless her, would say there were some bread and butter jobs going like
Z-Cars for television, but I could never get on to that level of writing. The cars would blow up or something. Now I've got to the stage when I don't even have to think about the comedy at all. I write what is for me perfectly serious and then the typist types it out and says that it's very funny and I say 'Oh, is it?'.

"One of my obsessions is to try to get consistently real facts; for example, I've got a thing about very witty people - I don't really write very many of them. You know there are some plays where everyone is terribly funny all the time and has an immense sense of humour. I get plays sent me from Scarborough where people say hysterical things. Some very unlikely cove, like Second Man in the Labour Exchange, will suddenly turn in a really witty piece of repartee, and one thinks he could never have done that, not at that speed. All right, if he's been established as a man who could, but they're all doing it, all these fellows in the dole queue, with tremendously witty lines.

"A great influence on me has been Harold Pinter. Not particularly what he's written about, but the way he's seen things and allowed his own viewpoint on something to warp it slightly. Then there's his love of picking up phrases, like a poet. He finds a phrase like 'going the whole hog'. There's one of those in
The Homecoming. And he just keeps repeating this phrase, which people do in conversation. But then he puts in one too many, which just tips it over into being very funny. That's a trick in a way, but it's also a great ability to hear these phrases and isolate them. Actually, if you listen to a conversation at the next table, which I'm very fond of doing, you may not hear all the words but you'll hear this salient phrase coming back.

"Scarborough is a wonderful place to eavesdrop. The roads are full of hysterical scenes. People on holiday are generally much funnier than they are at home. They feel they ought to be enjoying themselves but there's always some pandemonium going on - like they're locked out of their digs, or can't even remember where they are, or they've lost the coach station. One probably sees a rather heightened version of the English at play. I love things when they're set up and go wrong; there's something very funny about human dignity.

"Civic occasions are wonderful in small towns, too, because they don't quite have the Lord Chancellor to organise them. So vases of flowers fall over. Every summer in Scarborough I always go to the Mayor's tent. It always rains, and the Mayor and Mayoress sit there and nobody turns up. There's a great pile of sandwiches, the band's playing, the cricketers are cursing, and everything's a washout."

But, conversely, in the theatre it was the sense of professional order that first fascinated Ayckbourn. "I used to admire how, with a play, you could sit there night after night and it worked on any old audience - the whole thing. Even if the performance seemed a bit ropey, it was determined by the mechanics of the operation. You thought 'I know they're going to laugh at this scene' and they did. One got to love the structures of plays. It was a fortunate coincidence that, when I came to writing, my style happened to suit Scarborough. I wrote a sort of comedy which really wasn't awfully good. But it was fun and I got £40 for it which was not to be sneezed at in those days. Having done that and a few others, I felt that I had developed a few muscles. The fascination then grew to see how far I could go, to do the things I hadn't done before like split staging, because I suddenly felt 'Wouldn't this be fun to do?' Most of my things come as fun ideas."

Ayckbourn says that the theatre was always magic for him as a child. But, in fact, he was journalism-struck before being stage-struck. "My mother was a successful short story writer for women's magazines, and I spent a lot of my childhood sitting in offices in Fleet Street waiting for her to discuss a deal." His father was a violinist in the London Symphony Orchestra who died when Ayckbourn was very young
[1], and his mother later married a Barclays Bank manager, "which was a very sensible thing to marry. I spent the rest of my childhood in Sussex, moving from bank flat to bank flat, which is where I suppose I gathered most of my diagrams for my characters later - that sort of surrounding." He remembers thumping, out stories on his own miniature machine, and he continued writing when he went to public school (Haileybury) on a bank scholarship: "Not plays but poetry, the sort of things you always go through. But acting became very much more interesting."

At Haileybury he came under the influence of
Edgar Matthews, a wild theatre enthusiast [2], who, when Ayckbourn at seventeen was determined to miss university and go straight into theatre, fixed him up with a job working for Donald Wolfit, "who was looking for a cheap ASM who'd work for £3 a week at the Edinburgh Festival." [3] This was in 1956. Ayckbourn says, "I played a sentry. Wolfit employed me because I'd been in the cadet force and could be guaranteed not to faint for forty minutes on parade. The last bloke had fainted on him in his big scene. So I stood there and watched him act every night, watched him cursing the audience upstage. I was green as anything… the amazing Mr Wolfit, as he was then. I thought all actors were like that." Edinburgh also meant the chance to take in the vast range of theatre that the Festival had on offer.

Then after Edinburgh, Worthing, where he was completely unpaid, and did occasional bit parts including "that traditional thing where the leading man fell ill and I took over. And it's supposed to go on in the book that they all crowd round you and say, 'Son, you're a star'. But in fact they replaced me the following day. One began very gently to get the message." He now says that he was too objective. "I was always worrying about the whole scene, when as an
actor I should have been worrying about my part in it. But, being so objective, one reached the stage of looking at one's own acting abilities and saying 'I'm never going to be as good as I want to be.' However, when Stephen Joseph at Scarborough gave me my first writing opportunity on condition I act in my own play, I wrote myself a super part. In fact, my first plays were all plays attempting to further my career as an actor. They were all shameless vehicles." Nevertheless, he found himself shunted more and more into stage management, which he was rather good at.

Between Worthing and Scarborough, Ayckbourn had the usual round of jobs in various reps. He was at Leatherhead, at Oxford with Frank Hauser, at the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent. For a spell he was with the BBC as a drama producer in Leeds. "I was never out of work because I never said no to anything." Perhaps that has something to do with his assignment on
Jeeves, that and his gamesmanship. Ayckbourn has never done a musical before, but took on both book and lyrics with Andrew Lloyd Webber's music already half composed before he had even started. Ayckbourn is notorious for controlling every detail of his scripts, which led to much agony when the irrepressible Robert Morley played the lead in How The Other Half Loves. It will be fascinating to see how his meticulous talent will thrive in the collaborative world of musical comedy.

Website Notes:
[1] Alan's father, Horace Melvyn Ayckbourn, actually died when Alan Ayckbourn was 17; although as Alan's biographer - Paul Allen - notes, for many years Alan told people he was 13 at the time of his father's day.
[2] Edgar Matthews was a French teacher at Haileybury with a passion for theatre; each year he organised an extensive European or North American tour with a school production. Alan frequently cites him as one of his major influences and further details about him can be found
[3] Alan Ayckbourn appeared in Wolf's production of
The Strong Are Lonely at Lauriston Hall between 19 August - 8 September 1956. He was credited in the programme under the name Walter Plunge.

Copyright: Vogue. 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.