Interview: San Francisco Chronicle (1977)

This interview was published in the San Francisco Chronicle on 30 August 1977.

England's Triumphant Playwright

by Caroline Haydon

Alan Ayckbourn is England's most successful playwright. His name is famous - not his face, which is the way he wants it.

"One can't carry on one's craft, which half the time is listening to other people's conversations, if people know who you are," he says. No, he doesn't rush home and copy their lines verbatim. "But most of it is filmed somewhere in the mind."

Bedroom Farce, his latest play, opened at the National Theatre in March, Ayckbourn was on a northbound train home before the reviews came out. The last time he got bad reviews, he stopped writing for 18 months. [1]
He need not have worried.
Bedroom Farce was another Ayckbourn triumph.

In 1975, he made theatrical history, when five of his plays ran simultaneously in the West End -
The Norman Conquests, Absent Friends and Absurd Person Singular [2]; Absurd Person Singular and The Norman Conquests have both been produced on Broadway, Absent Friends is now wending its way to New York, and Confusions will be produced on Broadway sometime next season. [3]

When he's not working in London, Ayckbourn makes his home in Scarborough, where he is Artistic Director at the
Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round - he spends most of his time directing the small repertory company there in other people's plays, as well as his own.

"People say, 'What the hell are you doing on the northeast coast of England in a totally out-of-the-way resort?'"

But Ayckbourn loves it - his real-life "toy" theatre has no artistic limitations, only financial ones. "But that's healthy," he thinks. He can play his own seasons, use the actors he wants, write what he likes and know it will be produced. He produces all his own work at Scarborough first.

Ayckbourn lives a deliberately ordinary life and writes about ordinary people with a poignancy and depth that can easily get lost in the laughs. His work is most often compared with Neil Simon's. "But his is a one-line humour, and mine is a situation humour." Both playwrights suffer when transported across the Atlantic.

Ayckbourn's toughest audiences, he says, are in America. A dissatisfied American producer actually had the laughs counted in an Ayckbourn production. The playwright received what he called a "chuckle ratio."

"The second act had 28 roll-'em-in-the-aisles laughs, eight belly laughs and 21 chuckles. And the third act had only one roll-'em-the-aisles laugh." The producer wanted to reverse the acts, but Ayckbourn pointed out to him that life usually gets sadder, not funnier.

Wearing two-tone brown bedroom slippers and a cream semi-silk shirt, the 38-year-old Ayckbourn sits in his submarine-sized pied-à-terre in Hampstead and answers questions with lots of un-English hand gestures.

He used to be an
actor. He never takes a holiday. He finds the cinema more stimulating than the theatre. He is on good terms with his ex-wife and two sons and now lives modestly with a woman who understands his taxes and his obsession with Scarborough. If he wakes up depressed, he goes straight back to bed. He allows success to indulge his three luxuries: a small Mercedes; a good education for his sons, and the pleasure of taking his company out to dinner.

Ayckbourn hates the actual process of writing, and therefore makes it as short as possible. His annual play is usually completed in a four-day marathon.

"I write quickly and think slowly," he explains. "For 360 days I think, I work for four and collapse on the other one."

An Ayckbourn play opens in London more than once a year, which leads people to presume he is more prolific than he is. In fact he paces them so one or more is in production before the latest one opens.

"It's a silly game," he says. Actually it's a defence mechanism. If the critics had hated
Bedroom Farce, he could have blamed it on the fact it was written two years ago. "I'd have told myself that I'm a much better writer now."

His mini-paranoia is understandable. Like everything else, he could suddenly go out of fashion, "like last year's single-breasted suit."

"There is probably some bloke somewhere writing a play that will spell the end for us all - Edward Bond, Tom Stoppard, Harold Pinter and me. We may soon ail be writing angry letters to the Times saying that the country is going to the dogs."

Website Notes:
[1] This refers to his experiences with the West End premiere of
Mr Whatnot in 1964. Such were the devastating reviews, that Alan contemplated giving up playwriting and took up a job at the BBC as a Radio Drama Producer. His reaction was short-lived though as following Mr Whatnot he was almost immediately commissioned to write Relatively Speaking which he accepted - even though he did not write it for the better part of eight months. The article should have noted that the last time Alan Ayckbourn had received bad review was for the musical Jeeves, which received some excoriating press but which did not throw Alan from his writing.
[2] The original copy actually states
Confusions was the fifth play, this has been corrected and amended to Absurd Person Singular.
Absent Friends was not actually produced on Broadway until 1991 and Confusions has only got as far as Off Broadway when Alan Ayckbourn brought his Scarborough company to the Brits Off Broadway festival with it in 2016.
[4] At this point in his career, Alan had premiered the majority - but not all - of his plays in Scarborough. Two plays -
Christmas V Mastermind and Mr Whatnot - premiered at the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, whilst Jeeves opened at the Birmingham Hippodrome.
[5] This was the Broadway production of
Absurd Person Singular, the full story of which and its often strange journey to Broadway can be read here.

Copyright: San Francisco Chronicle. 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.