Interview: Los Angeles Times (1975)

This interview was published in the Los Angeles Times on 5 October 1975.

Ayckbourn: Simon With A Stiff Upper-Lip

by Irving Wardle

In 1908 Somerset Maugham made theatre history with four plays running concurrently in London's West End. That record has remained unchallenged until this year when Alan Ayckbourn broke it by pushing the number up to five. Admittedly, this claim is a bit of a cheat as three of the plays consist of Ayckbourn's trilogy,
The Norman Conquests, which Los Angeles will be seeing at the Ahmanson, beginning Friday. But the sheer numbers do tell you something about this 37-year-old writer-director's extraordinary career.

The Ayckbourn phenomenon has no parallel In the British theatre. Since 1567, when he made his London debut with
Relatively Speaking, [1] a steady stream of his comedies has appeared in the West End, all of them hits. Meanwhile, as if nothing was happening, he has continued to devote most of his time to running a repertory company by the Yorkshire seaside. The Library Theatre, Scarborough, is not one of the big British reps. Founded 20 years ago by the Arena stage pioneer Stephen Joseph, it is a 200-seat theatre-in-the-round on the first floor of a public library, playing largely to holiday crowds with minimal scenery and a maximum of eight actors. What makes it special is its persistent emphasis on new plays, many of them written within the company. It was Joseph who first bullied Ayckbourn into writing when he went to Scarborough as an actor. [2]

Now Ayckbourn works by a self-commissioning process, writing for a fixed opening date and a fixed size of cast, and directing all his own plays. The fact that these plays may go on to London and New York is irrelevant at this stage: he is just getting something right for Scarborough, Success in the theatrical capitals has in no way affected his commitment to small setups. On the one occasion he took a header into the big-time, with the musical
Jeeves at Her Majesty's the result was a ruinously expensive flop. Knowing the exact preconditions is essential for him. "Unless I can see my play announced," he says, "I won't write it."

You might describe Ayckbourn as the British Neil Simon, in the sense that both are honest comic writers who happen to captivate the big public by following their own tastes. The difference is that Ayckbourn does not go in for funny line.s His plays, invariably set in the Sussex countryside and London suburbia of his childhood, depend for their laughter on the response of character to situation and on an astounding mastery of theatre mechanics. (Buster Keaton, significantly, is Ayckbourn's favourite clown).

In
Relatively Speaking, he sustained four character cross-purpose relationships for an entire evening: a tottering house of cards that miraculously never fell down. In How The Other Half Loves, he split the stage in two for an adultery farce which, at one point, features a simultaneous dinner party in both rooms. But for technical Ingenuity, nothing compares with The Norman Conquests: three plays which can be performed in any order and which cover a single set of Incidents as viewed in different parts of the same house during a family weekend.

The mainspring of the comedy is Norman, a disgruntled librarian elsewhere described as "a gigolo trapped in a haystack," and his indefatigable attempts to seduce the ladies of the party. As his wife is the only one to succumb, we are left with a blamelessly uneventful three days. How is a playwright to get one comedy out of that, let alone a trilogy? And why try? Ayckbourn's answer, as usual, takes us back to Yorkshire.

"It started at the Sheffield Playhouse, where they have a main auditorium and a studio theatre. I breezed in there one day to see the director, and he asked me for a play. I said fine, (I always say fine to everybody.) Twenty minutes later the Studio theatre director asked me for a play, and I said fine again. I then thought it would be a lovely joke to have a play going on In the big house and the offstage action going on in the studio, with the actors cross-fertilising.
[3] Well, nothing came of that, but at the end of the Scarborough season the local press boy came bounding up the stairs and asked what I'd got planned for next year. I said, dunno, might finish up with a trilogy. So there was a note in the paper. Trilogy Eagerly Expected. I didn't put a denial in. I thought since the gods have said that, let's have a go. Then I realised that I must make each play Independent, as I couldn't guarantee that my little holiday audience could come three limes in a week. The division of the house followed, I had been hovering around in Absurd Person Singular with the Idea of using the kitchen instead of the living room as a focal area - audiences are always fascinated by offstage - so I tried to pursue it to a logical concision.

"Then came the interesting exercise of how you plant the basic information in all three parts without boring the pants off the person coming for the third time. Aa I was writing them simultaneously, there as also the question of switching on an auto pilot to make sure the plays weren't getting mixed up and that each built up to a climactic shape. Some of the incidental by-products were interesting. For instance, in
Living Together I found myself in a scene where no action was required. The characters just sit down and read magazines and talk about mother. It was the first inactive scene I've ever written, and it was like discovering water for the first time. Set-pieces like the dinner party, which a lot of people like, are much easier to do. It was a breakthrough for me to produce a scene that was limper but still had tension.

"Writing
The Norman Conquests took something ridiculous like 10 days (a normal-length play takes me three or four days), but It's a round-the-clock operation, like a prolonged delivery. I start early in the evening and I write through to 6 in the morning and then sleep. In the afternoon I dictate from scrawled notes onto a typewriter, which gets all the dialogue spoken: and then come on again In the evening from what we've typed up.

"If anything Interrupt! the flow, the play's doomed. If I have to leave a play for two days, it's out of the window, With the
The Norman Conquests there came the great day when I finished two plays on one night, the first and last time I'll do that.

"Norman the character illustrates to me the game that often goes on between men and women where a man spends an incredible amount of time setting up an elaborate act for the woman's benefit. The woman sees through it. and likes him despite the act. But the man continues to think it's his act that's doing the trick. Norman is patently the most transparent man in the world. He's like someone I knew who was a total failure with a disastrous marriage, but a tremendous live-wire to meet socially. Delightful, but not for very long. Norman's the wild card among these English limbo people I carry with me from childhood: the lapsed middle-class. It's a rich comic area.

"There's the quirkiness of their phraseology; expressions like 'a pretty kettle of fish' which become ludicrous when you illuminate them. And so many little regulations about what clothes to wear or which knife to use. So many other social barriers have broken down that you can't honestly write farces like Feydeau. There isn't much comedy left in sex now the taboos have gone. But in the middle class there are still quite a lot of taboos lying around in strange corners.

"Counterparts for my characters do exist in other countries. When we did
How The Other Half Loves in New York, the upper-class husband naturally became a member of the Elks Club and the others turned into third-generation German immigrants. The trouble was that we decided to adapt the dialogue for America: a fatal mistake. My stuff is idiomatic and quite delicate, and if you're not a great master of the American vernacular and you start pulling it about, you get a bald, boring script. So next time round, with Absurd Person Singular,' we decided to cast Americans to play English, and likewise with the The Norman Conquests. If I'm going to sink at least I'll sink with my own script. Even in England, the number of actors who cm play what I write really well is quite few.

"I had a running battle against English comedy playing when I was in rep. The director would say, right, well play it twice as fast and twice as brightly. And the last scene you play terribly fast and terribly brightly - that's comedy. But when you see a great actress like Celia Johnson you realise what comedy is about. During the run of
Relatively Speaking she played Mrs. Alvlng in a television production of Ibsen's Ghosts. There was only a hair's breadth difference between the two performances. She was walking along a razor blade. If she'd stepped this side as Mrs. Alving she'd have had everyone in hoots of laughter. And in the same way she could have had them crying in Relatively Speaking.

"What's needed is that delicate ability to plant the comedy without giving any impression of effort. Actors will tell you that my plays are variable. On some nights it's like carnival time. On others there are silent people staring at you weirdly. And once you set yourself up for the big laugh and it doesn't come, all the reality's gone. I tend to avoid actors who think they're good at comedy.

"Also I write for a company playing in the round, and it's hard to preserve the group feeling when you move to a proscenium production with stars. The prime example was
How the Other Half Loves where you got the worst of commercialism with a star plus five and the structure of the play just tore. You can gain things from the proscenium. But my work, which has to do with six characters and not one plus five, can lose from it.

"What won a lot of peoples' hearts in
The Norman Conquests was that Tom Courtenay, who has all the iron inner confidence of a star, was just one of the six. There was a feeling of oneness about the company. It was moving toward my ideal, the Chekhovian level, which I think is magic time, when you get this wonderful laughter and awful sadness riding quite happily together.

"The satisfying thing is that you can be genuinely moved by a play and yet not depressed by it. Being moved by a play can actually make you like human beings a bit more. But there are a lot of plays around that make you like people less. I like to come out of a theatre feeling warm. It's just a personal taste."

Website Notes:
[1] While
Relatively Speaking was undoubtedly Alan Ayckbourn's breakout play in the West End, it wasn't his London debut. That took place in 1964 with Mr Whatnot; a production which closed after just two weeks in the West End and nearly drove Alan out of the playwriting business.
[2] Not quite accurate: Stephen Joseph encouraged practically everyone within the Scarborough company to act, but never forced them to. He was aware that Alan had a nascent interest in writing, having written several unproduced plays. When Alan challenged Stephen about the quality of the roles he was playing, Stephen challenged him to write something better. Alan met the challenge with
The Square Cat, which Stephen produced and launched Alan's writing career.
[3] Although Alan did not utilise this particular idea, it undoubtedly lay the roots for
House & Garden (1996) in which two plays run simultaneously in two auditoria with the same cast moving between the two plays.

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