Interview: The Times (1973)

This interview was published in The Times on 4 July 1973.

Alan Ayckbourn

By Ronald Hayman

No playwright's life could be more ideally set up than Alan Ayckbourn's. He is Director of Productions at the
Theatre-in-the-Round, Scarborough, which is open only from June to September.

Each spring he writes a new play: "When I write them first I very rarely put stage directions in, because it saves time not to." He then directs them himself as part of his summer season: "Quite an important portion of the script happens during rehearsals. I never consider a play finished until I've done it. Some of it comes from the actors themselves, but one has to be very careful what one selects."

Afterwards the plays are usually done in London, and after that all over the world.
Relatively Speaking, How the Other Half Loves and Time and Time Again were all tremendously successful, and last year's Scarborough play Absurd Person Singular opens at the Criterion tonight with Richard Briers and Sheila Hancock.

He started writing by accident when
Stephen Joseph was running the Scarborough Theatre. "I was complaining about a play I was in, and he said 'If you can write a better one I'll do it'. So I wrote myself a super part, and it went awfully well. Then I wrote a second one for me in which I played four parts, and then I wrote a third one for me in which I played eight parts. But I was starting to write better than I could act, so I then wrote myself a super part and gave it to someone else. Then I gave up acting altogether."

Two years ago he was saying that ideally he would like to create "Chekhovian characters in an absurd framework". The Chekhovian ideal is still with him, but today he would place less emphasis on the absurd framework. "What's become more important to me now is to find better sources of comedy, which means exploring the character in some depth. In all my early idols - people like Feydeau - things never stop happening. So when you start writing and find your natural style is farce, you've begun with the most difficult sort of playwriting there is, technically, creating constantly moving vehicles. Plays like
Relatively Speaking are continually knotting and unknotting. There's never a moment when somebody isn't discovering or about to discover something. So there wasn't really much time for people to get going, when they were so busy misunderstanding each other. I like to have a sense of movement all the time, but one's learnt that movement happens inside people as much as in mistaken identity. So the comedy necessarily becomes heavier, not so flip.

Time and Time Again was definitely a step towards that, so far as I'm concerned. It was a very simple plot, by my standards, and the characters grew. It was an experiment in which I wrote about a totally inert central figure. Most plays have at the centre a motor-force character, but this man does nothing, makes no decisions. What he does is opt out all the time.

Absurd Person Singular I've tried to explore people a little more, and at the same time to put back some of the high jinks. When I'd written it someone said 'What's the second act?' I said 'It's about a woman committing suicide'. But it's a farce situation because nobody knows that she is. She puts her head in the oven and they think she's trying to clean it. And they're all trying to help, and all for the wrong reasons. You have to be careful if you're going to write about suicide, but it's funny if you see why they're doing it, and feel sorry for them. One of the great touchstones for me is whether I feel for them. I've got at least to love them while I'm writing them, and understand why they're like they are.

"I think I enjoy writing to certain limitations and restrictions. I've always written for this little theatre, so all my plays are two-door plays, though other doors may get added in the West End.
[1] They, never have more than eight people, because we can't afford more than eight actors. And the last thing you want to do is give any of them small parts, so I tend to write team plays, equally balanced. In How the Other Half Loves the Robert Morley part [2] was never really any bigger than any of the others. He said to me 'I've left a trail of richer but - sadder authors behind me'. And I can never quite get angry with a man who seems to be enjoying himself.

The idea of using one set in
How the Other Half Loves for two different homes came partly from being accustomed to using different parts of the open stage at Scarborough to represent different areas, and partly from living in a block of Leeds council flats.

"My secretary had just got married and wanted a flat, and I said 'There's one going two doors down'. So she got that one. Of course the flats were identically designed and unless you were some weird eccentric you had to put your furniture in a certain way - your television there because of the plug in the wall there, and the dining hatch was there. Often I'd go for a drink with her and her husband, and one would say 'I wonder which flat we're in'. And I started to think that if you actually ripped the lid off those boxes and looked in, you'd see people treading these identical little patterns, wearing out the same bit of carpet. I was also thinking 'I don't think I can write a full-length play this year. I'm a bit exhausted'. So I thought 'I'll try writing two at once. Let's be clever'. So I got this family going this way, and this the other, and eventually they tied up. I've always wanted to play around. I wanted to write one play backwards which started with a cupboard full of vicars with no trousers on, and then wound down to two people having breakfast. And call it whatever farce is backwards - Ecraf."

Website Notes:
[1] The Library Theatre, Scarborough, only had two stage entrances (actually one being the public entrance and the other the entrance to the single public and cast lavatory). As a result all of Alan Ayckbourn's plays written between 1959 and 1976 feature just two stage entrances as originally conceived. From 1976 this increased as the Scarborough company moved to a new home with three stage entrances.
[2] Infamously when
How The Other Half Loves opened in the West End, it became a star vehicle for Robert Morley as Frank Foster despite the fact the play was conceived as - and is - an ensemble piece.

Copyright: The Times. 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.