Interview: The Boston Traveller (1971)

This interview was published in The Boston Traveller on 7 March 1971.

From Britain To Boston

by Samuel Hirsch

This year, Broadway has developed an English accent. The British playwrights seem to have successfully invaded our shores. So far, they've given us the only solid hits we've seen in an otherwise dreary season.

At this moment, the hottest plays in New York are Anthony Shaffer's
Sleuth and William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. A solidly sold-out drama, David Storey's Home, which starred Sir John Gielgud and Sir Ralph Richardson, recently closed after a limited run, and another English import, Conduct Unbecoming by Barry England was well attended until a few weeks ago when it ended a long run on Broadway.

Why this is so is anybody's guess. It may have happened partly because Clive Barnes, the English drama and dance critic for the New York Times, has been spending part of each summer in London during the past few years viewing West End hits and sending enthusiastic reviews back to the Times.

American producers, eager to please the critic of the most powerful newspaper in the country, have vied with each other to win the rights to import those British shows he liked the most. Helen Bonfils and Morton Gottlieb happily won
Sleuth, David Merrick presented Peter Brook's A Midsummer Night's Dream and Alexander H. Cohen triumphed with Home.

The overseas search has continued. The newest London success to be transferred to our shores is Alan Ayckbourne's [sic] farce,
How the Other Half Loves, now in its seventh month on the West End at the Lyric Theater. It stars the inimitable Robert Morley. The comedy recently opened at the Theatre Madeleine in Paris, where it's also a hit.

The American production will open in New York on March 25. It stars Phil Silvers
[1] in the Morley Role and Sandy Dennis is his co-star. The comedy of marital confusion is directed by Gene Saks and will open tomorrow at the Wilbur Theater for a two-week pre-Broadway tryout. Prior engagements have been in Palm Beach and Washington, D.C.

Ayckbourne visited Boston last week, his second trip to the Hub, as it turns out. The 31-year-old playwright first visited here when he was a schoolboy actor in a traveling production of
Macbeth, produced by the headmaster of Haileybury, a public school in Hertfordshire, England. He played Macduff.[2]

The British playwright started writing when he was 19. His mother, Mary James, is a novelist and his father is the concertmaster of the London Symphony Orchestra. The young man began his apprenticeship in the theater as an actor and assistant stage manager for Sir Donald Wolfitt's company at Edinburgh.

"Actually," he said in an understated, quick voice, "I played a sentry in a play called
The Strong Are Lonely. My part required me to stand at attention for two hours each night. I think I was selected for the role because of my unusual ability at being able to stand at attention for indefinite periods of time."

Ayckbourne [sic] smiles a lot. His sense of humour is acute; it's a fundamental part of his personality. He has the shy sly smile and controlled reserve you associate with brittle British speech, but his sense of the bizarre breaks through that polite veneer when his quick mind turns up comic possibilities in the conversation.

"My mother's a good novelist," he said. "She's good at plots, but she can't write dialogue. I'm quite good at dialogue. I suppose if we collaborated we'd turn out a cracking novel with excellent dialogue."

Ayckbourne [sic] has written eight plays
[3], most of them presented in a summer theater at Scarborough, some 300 miles northeast of London. It's in the industrial North, a seaside resort town, he said, where it rains so much the people have nothing else to do but visit his 250-seat arena theater on the second floor of the Library. [4]

"I started off as an
actor there [the Library Theatre, Scarborough]. [5] After playing in some awful plays for several seasons, I told the producer [Stephen Joseph] I could write a better play than the one I was in. He told me to go ahead. If I wrote one he'd put it on, provided I wrote a leading part for myself. So I did just that - and it was the beginning for me as a playwright."

London producer, Peter Bridge, who is part of the American producing team. which includes Michael Myerburg, Eddie Kulukundis and Lawrence Shubert Lawrence, saw one of his early plays at Scarborough. It was called
Meet My Father.

Bridge told him he had written an international hit. Ayckbourne [sic] was amazed, particularly since that night his audience had consisted of 38 people. But the producer followed through. He changed the title to
Relatively Speaking and presented it in London where as he had predicted, it became an instant hit.

It also turned into an international success. There have been 34 productions in Germany, as well as successful translations in France, Italy, Scandinavia, South America and Mexico.

How the Other Half Loves also had its initial production in Scarborough. Bridge subsequently transferred it to the West End. Ayckbourne [sic] directed it both times [6], but has declined to stage it in this country on the grounds an American could better adapt the comedy for our tastes. Gene Saks is directing the show, which has been adapted into American terms.

"I get my ideas from my own life experiences," he said. "I tend to pile up like a coffee percolator during the course of a year. Then I put it all down in one week. Usually, I set myself a deadline during the summer season at Scarborough. I'm the director there
[7], so all I announce to the cast is the title. Eventually, I'm forced to deliver a script - so I do. That first reading is generally my first full look at the new play.

"Basically, I write (and know this sounds reactionary) to find that wonderful interaction between the actors and an audience. When I was an actor, I remember playing certain colourless roles and I'd wonder what I was doing in the play. I resolved that someday I'd write meaningful and full parts for actors.

"I've been influenced by every play I've ever been in. Mainly, I write farces. I come naturally to this form and I enjoy writing them. It's a demanding medium, but it gives you an opportunity to hit an audience with a bang. I like to keep to the farce tradition, only change it to a contemporary context. People say I write like Noël Coward. But things have changed since he wrote."

The farceur
[8] turns out a play a year. The next one to be brought to the West End by Bridge is one called The Story So Far…. It played a total of 14 performances at the Library Theater last summer.

"I think of myself as a social writer," he smiled. "I believe the average man is more worried about what socks to wear than about the Vietnam War. He has his own social walls. I like to deal with the little things people worry about.

"The essence of comedy is contained in debunking pretensions. I try to show how the biggest tycoon can get his finger caught in the door. Things happen like that to me, too. Last summer, I was interviewed by a young man who wanted to become a writer - and I was very patronising. As I gave him advice, I lit a cigarette and sat back smoking - and talking. Absent-mindedly, I reversed the cigarette and put the lighted end in my mouth. He stared at me. I pretended it hadn't happened. When he walked out, he must have thought me mad. That's a comic scene, essentially - and I may use it one day!"

Ayckbourne [sic] sees the same thing happening in London that has happened in this country. Provincial theaters are making a positive contribution to the major professional theater centred in the West End. New playwrights in the provinces are learning their craft, just as he did, and in the long run he's certain the recent decentralisation will fertilise the commercial theater.

Whatever happens, we'll be hearing more from Alan Ayckbourne [sic]. He's been in the theater for only 14 years - but has little interest in writing for TV or films. That instant laughter from a live audience is what he needs - and he wants to keep writing for it.

Right now, he's enjoying himself in the back row of the orchestra each night. He watches American audiences do what their British, French, German, Italian, Scandinavian, South American and Mexican cousins are doing - laughing at an Ayckbourne [sic] farce.

"Last night in Washington," he said, "I sat and listened to the audience laugh. I took great pleasure in that sound. It was the same laughter - in the same spots - that I heard not long ago in Paris and Berlin. I hope to hear it in Boston, too."

Website Notes:
[1] The North American premiere of
How The Other Half Loves notably featured Phil Silvers of television's Sgt. Bilko fames as Frank Foster; it was hoped this would help relaunch his acting career.
[2] The production of Macbeth was actually directed by Edgar Matthews, the school's French master and a significant influence on Alan Ayckbourn's decision to go into a career in theatre.
How The Other Half Loves was actually Alan's ninth play and by the time the article had been published he was due to premiere his 11th play, Time & Time Again, at the Library Theatre in Scarborough.
[4] In the UK, the second floor would be considered the first floor above the ground floor.
[5] Alan joined the Library Theatre as an Actor / ASM in 1957.
[6] Alan directed the world premieres of both
Relatively Speaking and How The Other Half Loves at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, but did not direct either of the West End premieres. Relatively Speaking was directed by Nigel Patrick and How The Other Half Loves by Robin Midgley.
[7] Alan was the annually appointed Director Of Productions at the Library Theatre in 1969 and 1970 - a role taken by Caroline Smith in 1971 - before he was appointed the Artistic Director in 1972.
[8] Alan has never considered himself a farceur and while, arguably, there are farcical elements within
How The Other Half Loves, he considers he has only written one true farce, Taking Steps.
[9] Although Peter Bridge did produce a pre-West End tour of
The Story So Far… - retitled Me Times Me Times Me - it was not successful enough to reach the West End.

Copyright: The Boston Traveller. 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.