Interview: Drama (1982)

This interview was published in Drama magazine during 1982.

Alan Ayckbourn: Playwright of Ineradicable Sadness

by Harold Hobson

Alan Ayckbourn was born in London on 12 April, 1939, but he is now, and has been for many years, geographically associated chiefly with Scarborough. It is for Scarborough that he writes his plays. It is in Scarborough that they are first produced. Where Ayckbourn is concerned, what London sees today, what the rest of the world will see tomorrow, Scarborough saw yesterday. This is because he is a good and grateful man.

It was Scarborough that gave him his start in the theatre, when it offered him the job of producer at its small
Library Theatre, and he has never forgotten this. Shakespeare spurned provincial Stratford, but Ayckbourn does not spurn provincial Scarborough. There are people who say that he differs from Shakespeare in other ways, too. But let that pass. The jealous are always with us. The fact remains that it is Scarborough, in the late Stephen Joseph's Theatre in the Round, where all Ayckbourn's plays have their first production. [1] It is by Yorkshire hands that they are first applauded. As a Yorkshireman I naturally approve of this. I only wish he were a Yorkshireman himself. But as a consolation for not being a Yorkshireman Ayckbourn has the satisfaction of being just about the most popular dramatist in the world.

Week after week, when I was a Governor of the National Theatre, I had evidence of the extraordinary appeal that his plays have for the public. The National has presented many plays that have achieved great popularity, but none of them, I should think has given pleasure to such enormous numbers of people as Ayckbourn's
Bedroom Farce. For many months this production filled the theatre to capacity. It was then transferred to the Prince of Wales Theatre in the West End, and it ran there for over a year with undiminished zest. The box office figures, as they were progressively revealed, were prodigious. And then the play went to America and the Dominions, and its popularity everywhere was unflagging. And all this began in Scarborough, and there the creative process still goes on.

In a television programme Ayckbourn was asked why this was so. Why, the interviewer anxiously inquired, didn't Ayckbourn write first for London? Ayckbourn might have replied that he was indebted to Scarborough for his first employment in the theatre, or even that he just liked the place. But he said nothing at all resembling this, though I am in fact sure that this is the case. Very surprisingly he replied that there was not much stimulus in writing for London because all you had to do was write something that pleased Harold Hobson.

I was amazed to hear my name fall from the lips of so eminent a dramatist on so public an occasion. And for a moment I was flattered and delighted. Did not the remark suggest that I was a critic of considerable influence, indeed of very great influence? And who could object to having such a character attributed to him? And yet after a moment I began to feel rather uncomfortable. Not from modesty, oh dear, not from modesty at all. But simply because the great man uttered the words with more than a touch of sourness. I realised they were not as complimentary as I had at first supposed. And they were mistaken. That was the really bitter part of the incident. That is why to this day - or rather to this night - I lie awake, pondering sadly, when in the small hours they from time to time recur to me.

For the exasperating thing is that they are not true. When I praise a play of Ayckbourn's - when, that is, he gives me the greatest pleasure - the play runs for a much shorter time than those plays of his which I receive with more restrained enthusiasm. There is the sad case of
Jeeves, of which he wrote the book and lyrics in 1975. I was so delighted by Jeeves that on five successive weeks in the Sunday Times I wrote a laudatory review of it. I was prepared to write a sixth, but by that time the play was withdrawn. Its producer was Michael White. White's next production was a musical at Drury Lane. I did not like it, and said so. The result was that it ran for years and years. If only I hadn't liked Jeeves it might still be filling Her Majesty's to capacity. No wonder that after Jeeves I was myself, within a short time, withdrawn from regular weekly criticism.

All this is literally true, but it sounds frivolous. Yet it is not frivolous at all. It involves an important point about Ayckbourn's future, and above all about his permanent standing as a dramatist. I believe the public likes Ayckbourn because he is both a highly comic writer and, dramatically speaking, a first-class conjuror. The tricks he plays in some of his work are stupendous. They are miracles of human ingenuity.
Relatively Speaking, the first of his plays to make a serious impact on London, turned entirely on Ayckbourn's skill in seeing to it that a simple piece of information which the audience knew should not be passed on to various characters in the piece. Time and again they skirted the edge of discovery, and time and time again, they missed the vital clue.

How the Other Half Loves he achieved the almost impossible feat of staging two dinner parties involving different families both sitting at the same table, and carrying on, to hilarious effect, two separate conversations without either familyb being aware of the other or the audience being in the least confused by the simultaneous double conversation. In the famous trilogy, The Norman Conquests, Ayckbourn brought off the most triumphant trick even of his career. He wrote three plays, each complete in itself and played on separate nights, all of them concerned with the same people on the same evening and telling the same story. In Absurd Person Singular (unless memory plays me false) he wrote a play set on three successive Christmas Eves. These are the plays which had the greatest success with the public, and the least with me.

There is in at least two of them (the two most popular) an element of sadism in its ingenuity. In
How the Other Half Loves there was a rather foolish wife. Every time she made a stupid remark her husband slapped her on the wrists. This humiliation of a quite harmless woman before her friends delighted the audience and disgusted me. [1] I do not enjoy seeing such women being made publicly ridiculous. In this I appear to differ from most audiences (consisting, strangely enough, mainly of women). Again, in Absurd Person Singular, the character superbly played by Anna Calder-Marshall spent the entire central act vainly attempting to commit suicide. Every means she attempted ludicrously failed to succeed. No matter how hard she tried, she failed every time to kill herself. This seemed very funny to the audience, but it did not seem funny to me. It is quite possible that I have no sense of humour. Yet I think that there is in British audiences a taste for cruelty which the most popular plays of Ayckbourn satisfy. [2]

But I have to reckon with the awful possibility that I misunderstand Ayckbourn. This, I think, was undoubtedly the case with the play of his which moved me most and gave me most dramatic satisfaction. Let us turn for a moment to Henry James. Nowadays everyone knows that James's most famous short story,
The Turn of the Screw, can be read in two diametrically opposite senses. On the one hand, you can regard the terrifying and evil ghosts as real; on the other, you can take it that the governess who tells the story is obsessed with the feeling of corruption, and that the ghosts are the product of her own fevered imagination. The same is true of James's greatest novel, The Golden Bowl. Adam Verver and his daughter can be either the most morally valid characters in the book, or the worst. It depends on which way you look at it. They may be regarded as victims from whom the unscrupulous and immensely clever Charlotte Stant tries to steal the daughter's husband, the Italian prince. Or it may be that they did Charlotte an enormous wrong by using their vast wealth to tempt the Prince away from marrying her. There may be some relevance in the fact that, though the finest of James's work, The Golden Bowl is also the least popular.

As I say, it is in the least popular of Ayckbourn's work that I find his greatest achievement. Nothing of his has moved me so much as
Absent Friends. And yet according to many readers and, as I finally discovered, to Ayckbourn himself I interpreted it wrongly. I can best make this clear by quoting what I wrote about the play when it was first produced in London in 1974. "The scene, as so often with Mr Ayckbourn, is a well-to-do suburban tea-party. Beneath the compulsory chatter proper to such occasions there is a deep unease. The hostess, Diana (Pat Heywood), is troubled by suspicions of her husband's infidelity. The husband, Paul (Peter Bowles) blusters and is uncomfortable. A friend, Marg (Phyllida Law), seems lively enough, but she is anxious about her own husband's continual trivial illnesses. And so on. But they all make some sort of effort to pull themselves together, for they are expecting the return from abroad of an old friend, Colin (Richard Briers), whose fiancee, whom none of them had met, has just died. They feel that in spite of their petty distresses (which to them are not petty at all, but rather the reverse) they must comfort Colin in his grief and loss.

"It is when Colin enters that Mr Ayckbourn springs his greatest surprise; for the man whom all had expected to be broken and distressed is radiant with happiness. They, who have so much to be grateful for, are miserable, but Colin, who has so little, surveys them in Mr Brier's indestructible toothy grin, from the height of an impregnable joy. In a very moving passage Mr Briers explains why he is happy, and his explanation causes Diana to break down. Colin does, in fact, cause everybody to break down, for a man may have the best motives in the world, and be entirely lacking in self-pity, and yet have neither tact nor sensibility".

Now I took this play to be a triumphant manifestation of the splendour of true love. Colin's happiness, or so it seemed to me, was rooted in the joyous memory of his fiancée when she lived. To have known such an affection and to have experienced such happiness was enough to make a whole life rich. I found this deeply moving. But many people who saw the play interpreted it quite differently. They took it that Colin's present happiness was a sign, not of supreme love, but of callousness. They pointed out that his effect on everyone was to increase, not lessen, their misery. This last argument, however, does not mean much. For in nearly all his plays Ayckbourn is a dramatist convinced that in marriage there is no joy. And yet I think that on the whole Ayckbourn would agree with them rather than with me. For on the television programme I have mentioned he said that
Absent Friends was about the death of love. [3]

This brings up an interesting question. Is one's enjoyment of a work of art any less valid if one interprets it differently from the author? I do not think necessarily so. Presumably one of the possible explanations of
The Turn of the Screw and The Golden Bowl is the one that Henry James intended, and no one knows which that is. But these stories are valid aesthetic experiences even if the explanation one chooses is not the one that James meant. So I continue to feel that the emotions I had at Absent Friends were justifiable - even if Mr Ayckbourn had never intended that I should have them.

Anyway, it all comes to this. The things that the public most appreciates in Ayckbourn - the jokes, the leger-de-main, the farce, the high spirits - are all worth appreciating. They are first-class theatre. But they are not, in my opinion, the things which are most valuable in him, and by which it is possible that his work may live. Behind all his foolery he has this sad conviction that marriage is a thing that will not endure. Men and women may get instant satisfaction from life, but it is not a satisfaction that will last long. I think of the forlorn and weary commercial traveller, in one of the plays in
Confusions trying to hit it off with a couple of girls in the bar, and miserably failing; or of the tycoon in Joking Apart whose confidence is vanishing, and of the desperate game of tennis, with which a well-meaning but blundering friend tried to restore it, and of this game's disastrous results.

It is when Ayckbourn sees the tears of life, its underlying, ineradicable sadness, that he is at his superb best.

Website Notes:
[1] Sadly, Hobson here mistakes the playwright for the production. Notoriously the West End production of
How The Other Half Loves was dominated by the actor Robert Morley as Frank Foster. He took such liberties with the script and dialogue that Alan was, according to himself, driven to tears at what was being done to his play on several occasions. The incident quoted here of Frank slapping his wife was entirely an invention of Morley and was not part of the original script.
[2] It can be strongly argued here that Hobson has completely misjudged the second act of Absurd Person Singular. Whilst it is centred on Eva's attempts at suicide and is extremely funny, it is never at the expense of Eva. As Alan has frequently noted, for the second act to work, thew audience have to believe that Eva is desperately serious to commit suicide. That it is a truthful act and must be played that way. The humour derives from the characters around her, again truthfully written and played, and how they feel to appreciate Eva's intent, interpreting her actions only through the selfish prism of their needs and drives. Absurd Person Singular never laughs at Eva nor asks the audience to laugh at her.
[3] Again, Hobson's interpretation of both the play and Alan's own thoughts about them is, arguably, not borne out. The play is undoubtedly about the death of love - there is not one happy marriage portrayed on stage and Colin's experiences and demeanour, as well as tactlessness, merely hasten them all to their inevitable ends. As Alan points out, Colin's rose-tinted vision of his relationship and what his marriage would have been like is entirely unrealistic and untempered by the actual experience of living with someone. Colin never experiences the reality of a real relationship and is living in a world where the initial euphoria of love has not been subjected to the first disagreement or argument. It is not 'true love' as Hobson feels because, as Alan himself says: 'The best love is the one you never attain, the unfulfilled love. Colin loses his love at that vital moment and thus it remains, as it were, frozen in perfection. Albeit an artificially perceived perfection. The other characters in the play are aware of this but are unable to dissuade him from his quite unrealistic view. Eventually, of course, in their attempts to put him right, they become even more aware of the imperfections in their own loves.'

Copyright: Woman & Home. 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.