Interview: The Observer (1979)

This interview was published in The Observer on 4 March 1979.

Absurd Persons, Plural And Suburban

by Janet Watts

Alan Ayckbourn has made a lot of money out of desperate people. Desperate people who live in nice homes, drink home-made wine, chat about their children with their neighbours and seldom go short of a few bob or a soothing cup of tea.

Desperate people who may miss out on life's few moments of real joy, love, passion and despair, but settle instead for relative peace, comfort and a bit on the side if they're lucky, in lifetimes of making the best of a not-too-bad job. Punctuated only exceptionally by outbursts of rage and frustration, glimpses of depression and breakdown.

It's all right, though, because Alan Ayckbourn's desperate people aren't real. They live only on stages. And they're incidentally very funny. They're the creations of this country's most successful comic playwright since Noël Coward. You can see a fresh lot of them in
Joking Apart, which replaces his Ten Times Table at the Globe Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, on Wednesday.

In this new West End production, Alan Ayckbourn (who will be 40 this year) comes dramatically of age: it is his twenty-first produced play, in a writing life of some 20 years.
[1] He hopes it brings together many strands in his work: certainly it runs smoothly by the familiar Ayckbourn ground rules. In a pleasant Home Counties garden, a few decent, middle-class people lounge over the Sunday papers, play tennis, and do a lot of drinking of harmless fruit cup and homemade soup. By the end of the play a decade has passed. [2] The same people are still lounging and chatting in the garden. But with a difference. The years have visibly destroyed more than one of them.

Meanwhile their spectators have laughed a lot. One man laughed and laughed all through the play, as he told the author: it was only when he got to the pub that he suddenly felt very sad. That, to Alan Ayckbourn, is the perfect audience reaction.

I've always felt an awkward exception to that rule. Something about Ayckbourn's plays has made me sad long before I got to the pub. I once reviewed one at Greenwich, and realised mine was the only long face in a theatre swept by gales of hearty laughter. But those flailing suburban characters have just always looked to me like a lot of pitiful people up there getting laughed at. Pitiful women, particularly.

The Norman Conquests, Ayckbourn's trilogy about one appalling family-weekend, I miserably identified with Annie, the poor girl stuck at home with the bedridden mother and only Tom, the creeping vet, for company, who gets done out of her long-anticipated dirty weekend by Norman's ineptitude and subjected to humiliation, ridicule and scorn from the rest of the deadly bunch. Bedroom Farce depressed me because though it boasts a triple-bedroom setting, no one ever has any sex in any of the three double beds.

If Feydeau's farce is propelled by the force of apoplectic (endlessly frustrated) French lust, Ayckbourn's comedy putters along with the momentum of British inertia that, when it comes to the crunch, doesn't even make mistakes - it doesn't do anything. These plays are portraits of people's unawareness, of the sometimes horrific damage they can do to one another without even noticing. They are a sort of Grand Guignol of British suburbia. British (and many other) audiences giggle uncontrollably at the sight of it.

It is dangerous for a comic writer to talk too much about the serious side of his work. Alan Ayckbourn nevertheless did so last week with a good grace, twiddling his thumbs, at his (second) home, a small modern brick house in Keats Grove, Hampstead. (The first is in Scarborough, where he lives and works for most of the year as artistic director of the
Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round, where all his plays get their first airing.)

He is quite a serious man. "If you write comedies, you've got to be serious about them and take the characters seriously; and all the best comedy is rooted in deeply serious things, and throws light upon aspects of life we're frightened to think about. This will make me sound like Max Bygraves, but it seems to me a good thing if you can outline some of the small areas of grey angst in people's minds and say. This can be dealt with a little more lightly."

He is well aware of the harsh side of his comic world. Audiences - particularly outspoken Scarborough ones - leave him in no doubt of it. One man compared
Just Between Ourselves "to picking the wings off flies"; a friend recently reeled out of Joking Apart "as if he'd been hit on the head with a plank." (He [Alan] has an 18-year-old son, a nerve the play presses hard.) And Ayckbourn, after all, put that harshness there. The very title of Joking Apart, as he says, indicates that "there's a point where the joke is wearing a little thin and the laughter has to stop. Or rather, it continues, but on a more and more manic level."

Ayckbourn's early notices used words like 'soufflé,' but the years have sharpened his cutting edge. "As one grows courage as a playwright, one takes time to stop and scrape more layers off the characters: and as you take away these layers, you get into all sorts of bones and awfulnesses which are normally way below the surface, and which belong to desperate people. But I find a lot of people are desperate today."

The desperation in his characters can appear, even intrude, as he writes them. In
Just Between Ourselves, setting out to write a play about "a man who hasn't any friends, who is very, very nice," he caught sight "just out of the corner of my eye - of his wife. Who was getting destroyed." Vera was intended as a subsidiary character, but she became to her author, as she becomes to her audience, the play's "riveting point of interest" and her destruction is terrible to see.

Ayckbourn would agree that the women in his plays tend to suffer more than the men - and from the men. "I think they do in life, too, to a certain extent. Of course there's a huge change of role going on at the moment, and for that reason it's a fascinating period to chronicle, but I don't think it's helped every woman. It has helped a few; it has made others schizophrenic and guilty. Because what do they do now? And it's affected men, too - they don't know what they're supposed to be doing, either."

Someone once said that if you make people think you're making them think, they'll love you, but if you really make them think, they'll hate you. It can take nerve for so popular a playwright to risk an unwelcome theme. He almost lost his over
Absent Friends, a play about death. Ayckbourn panicked when he found it was going to open in Scarborough in Pensioners Week, but the old folk turned out to be the ideal audience, having mostly made their peace with the subject - unlike the "middle-aged men clutching their coronaries."

Alan Ayckbourn's own life began in the Sussex suburbia in which he has set all his successful plays of the last decade, though there was a long period of apprenticeship in between - as an ASM in rep, holding scenery and forced to listen to the same play eight times; as an
actor; as a BBC radio producer writing reports on how other people's plays could be made to work; as a writer experimenting with many modes.

When he was very small, his mother divorced his father, a musician, and in "the shrewdest step of her life" married the local bank manager. Whereupon the family "moved around the banks" of Sussex - Billingshurst, Haywards Heath, Lewes - and he sussed out those charming places in which all true Ayckbourn-esque horrors occur. He admits the horrors, but denies it was dislike or hurt that sharpened his observation of them. Alan Ayckbourn liked suburbia.

Suburbia has always suited him. He looks not unlike one of his characters - thinning hair, thickening waist, neatly casual clothes - and says they all contain bits of him. The indecisiveness central to his comedy is his own. "I don't think I've made a single decision in my life, except possibly not to have the soup. I didn't give up acting - acting gave me up; I didn't want to write -
Stephen Joseph made me.'

The Hampstead house overlooks an ivy-clad garden that could be one of his own exteriors; the sitting-room contains familiar-seeming chairs with a life of their own if you sit in them the wrong way. His private life has the same combination of conventionality and fissures as his characters: the solid-looking marriage that figured prominently in early press cuttings has been replaced by a partnership with the actress in his Scarborough company who has typed his scripts for the past decade.

Ayckbourn once said that it helped, in seeing his plays, to have experienced a broken marriage or unhappy relationship:
"Since I deal a lot with relationships in peril, I think it helps to have been through something fairly perilous with someone you've been in love with."

The absurdity of suburbia suits his professional style and purposes, too. It provides an element of camouflage, subterfuge: an audience laughing themselves silly can be crept up on unawares with hard truths. Ayckbourn knows in himself an instinct to shut off when he feels "got at" to be, feel or see something, and "even though I'm not saying particularly gruesome things. I don't want people to watch the plays with their minds closed. I've a feeling that most of us today have, to save ourselves, a cut-off point, because we're exposed to so many terrible things in depth": suburban comedy can sneak through that barrier.

But isn't there a possibility of a different sort of mind-closing in audiences roaring with laughter at other people's absurd-looking pain, frustration, rage and depression with just that jolly unawareness that causes them - in the play and in real life? Ayckbourn's hope is that something else is happening there: that it's "the laughter of recognition."

"It's like when you read the sex columns of Forum
[3]," he says. "You realise very rapidly that you have no problem that someone else doesn't have. There is a reassurance in seeing on stage a couple who have even worse problems than you do. I think a lot of people live their lives on a very subjective level, and don't take stock of what they're doing; but if you showed them a film of them throwing plates at each other, they'd roll around."

A man once told him that he and his wife were in the middle of a flaming row about fixing a light switch one day and he was just about to swipe her, when they both remembered a scene in
Absurd Person Singular they'd seen the night before. "So at least one wife didn't get a black eye because of my play. My plays are all to do with recognition."

It works for him, too. In them he recognises "the times I have used emotional sledgehammers to crack nuts. When I think of the gestures I've made in my life because I got angry or hurt, I blush. Someone prods you with a finger, and they finish up losing a hand - you respond like a rattlesnake."

Even in Scarborough Ayckbourn's audiences recognise themselves in a Home Counties context, and his plays (which are translated into 24 languages) travel happily to Mexico, Germany, Japan. "Middle-class life is not that different, wherever you go. The northern playwright Alan Plater once said to me, I write about people at work, you write about people at play; and it's what they do between their work that obsesses me, especially as we get nearer the world of the silicon chip, when we're going to be extremely leisured, and a lot of people are going to have awful problems. My characters are assured a certain standard of living - their problems are actually living."

Alan Ayckbourn waved me goodbye from his front door and went back to his second cup of coffee, his nice girl-friend and his Burmese cat. Towards the end of this year he will spend five or six days and nights writing his annual play, and the chances are that it too will be filled with all the absurdity and agony of suburban folk. As he explains, "I've been in the theatre most of my life which people tend to think of as exciting: but nothing exciting ever happens in the theatre. But the stories you hear from outside it, about people's relationships and what they've done to each other! Good grief, you don't have to go far to find the utmost drama."

Website Notes:
Joking Apart is actually Alan Ayckbourn’s 22nd full-length produced play. At the time of the article, he did not count the musical Jeeves amongst his play canon.
[2] Twelve years of time, not a decade, passes during the course of
Joking Apart.
Forum refers to Penthouse Forum, a supplement to Penthouse magazine founded in 1970 with an emphasis on journalism.

Copyright: The Observer. 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.