Interview: Literary Review (18 December 1980)

This page reproduces some of Alan Ayckbourn's significant quotes from the interview.

An Interview With Alan Ayckbourn

by Hugh Rank

"Here I live in a community. I go shopping, I know my butcher, I know my baker, I am my own publicity manager, I know my actors and my technical staff well. I live with my fellow men. From them I draw on the material for my plays. I don't know many famous people. London and the great cities daunt me. Scarborough is an average but by no means insular place. In summer we have a million visitors: Scots, Irish, French, lots of Dutch and many others. This little town means a lot to me. It grew on me; so I stayed. When
Stephen Joseph died in 1967, aged 46, the theatre was in danger of folding up. At that time, all we did was a 12-week summer season. But I took over in 1972, we developed it and now we play 46 weeks in the year. It's true, we haven't got a purpose-built theatre, but I prefer that. There's a certain danger in the 'sanctity' of architecture. The building is not all the important. The main thing is the ensemble spirit. And we, including the technical staff, have grown into a unit. The actors change after about two years which, after all, makes for a more stable position than in many other theatres in England."

"The older the play the less it speaks to me. But then there comes a time when I like the older plays better again. At present, I'm not keen on
The Norman Conquests. But maybe I'll change my mind again. I like the under-privileged: Absent Friends, Joking Apart. Particularly, Just Between Ourselves. I asked myself: should it end so darkly? And at first it did shock people. But I couldn't help feeling: I must remain faithful to my characters."

"I find the National Theatre a bit overwhelming. All the proportions are so huge! I love little theatres. The place is always swarming with people. Work there is very strenuous. Rehearsals go on for a long time.
Sisterly Feelings was in rehearsal for eight weeks. Here we rehearse for four weeks. As far as Bedroom Farce was concerned I thought there was some danger in over-rehearsing it at the NT."

"I'm less at home there [in the commercial theatre]. The pressure, particularly on the actors, is quite unnatural. And there's also the element of competition between the actors. And then there's the overemphasis of the first night. As if that were the end of the whole thing."

"The physical proximity [in-the-round] gives the actors a better rapprochement with the audience. Sometimes there's a team feeling between actors and audience that can be breathtaking. And another thing; as most of the audience sits above the actors, the audience indulges subconsciously in something like a god-like feeling. It is more relaxed than in the conventional theatre where it looks upward which, again subconsciously, gives the spectators an element of heroics. Yes, it does make a difference."

"[My influences] In my early days, Pirandello. Everything I wrote was a la Pirandello. My idol is Chekhov. He's a master of tragic comedy. I admire Ben Travers; I've dedicated
Taking Steps to him. Then there's Simon Grey; Michael Frayn; Harold Pinter: he influenced me a lot, also from a human point of view. We started our acting careers together. I'm influenced by the 'comic tradition' from Henry Fielding via Dickens down to P. G. Wodehouse; by the delicious humour of Jane Austen, by the Brontë sisters; Ionesco; Beckett."

"I know the funny and tragic roles which are imposed upon people. I know the conventions, particularly those which women have to put up with. Yes, I have a great weakness for the petty bourgeoisie. But I find it very difficult to write about unpleasant characters. There, I hope, compassion intervenes."

"I hope they'll [the plays] last. Less as literature. Rather as a true reflection of our age. Something like the diaries of Pepys. Yes, as an accurate reflection of our age."

"It would be wrong to say, 'I'm not interested' [in politics]. After all, it concerns us all. I move away from extremes as far as possible. The extreme left wing of the Labour Party alarms me as much as the lack of tolerance in some conservative circles. If we had a social-democratic party I would probably be a social-democrat. I hope we shall be able to maintain our balance. I would say I stand a fraction left of centre."

"Some critics appear to feel that serious plays are superior to funny plays. That's not true. Others, it seems to me, think I should be satisfied with playing the clown and leave the serious side to the 'heavies', for instance to Edward Bond. Some critics you respect more than others. I feel a particular affinity with Irving Wardle of The Times."

"The more one writes the higher the standard which you measure yourself against. But the pressure, I think, is relieved by living and working here and not in London."

"To write prose I find extremely difficult. I've completely forgotten my grammar. And that's the fault of the actors. They know what to do with a full stop or a dash. But when it comes to a semi-colon they're lost. My own punctuation drives my publishing editor to despair. He does it for me."

"I always carry masses of ideas in my head, all year round. When I have four weeks in summer I use three of them to sort things out and to decide which play I really want to write. Once I've decided on that I write the play within a week. The first ten pages are the most difficult. Then it goes on incredibly easy. There may be minor blockages but then it flows again. The characters dictate their own destiny."

"I realised that I was no great
actor; that I am better as a writer than as an actor. But it was very useful to have done it. I can see actors from the inside now. And I wanted to direct. That doesn't go very well together with acting. Either or. A director is objective. But to direct and to write that's a very good combination."