Interview: Play & Players (1982)

This interview was published in Plays & Players magazine in March 1982.

Only When They Laugh

by John Russell Taylor [1]

It is often been remarked that among British dramatists every clown seems to have an inescapable longing to play Hamlet, at least once. I wonder whether they would necessarily feel that way if critics and public did not feel it for them first.

There is after all, no more serious business than making people laugh. And it is not too difficult to see now that say, the enduring Coward is not the trendy problem play like
The Vortex or the patriotic pageant like Cavalcade, but the nonsense, light as air, strong as a steel spring, of Hay Fever or Blithe Spirit. But, you might say, of course they are not really serums, thereby implying that Coward must belong to a very silly, inferior class of playwrights. The trouble is, if you had. Coward would very likely have believed you: that is no doubt why he strove so consistently to produce the big, serious success.

And the problem is not confined to past generations, both Alan Ayckbourn (born 1939) and Michael Frayn (born 1933) might well be content to cultivate their comical gardens, and leave deeper significances, if any, to be ferreted out by a cooperative audience. But how can they when, despite all their successes, the big question mark still hangs over them: that is all well and good, but are they serious?

Considering the pressure that this kind of worrying puts upon anyone, it is surely remarkable that they have both managed to hold out so long and successfully against its insidious effects. Though neither, it must he said, entirely. During the pst ten years, which have brought Ayckbourn all the way front his second big West End hit,
How the Other Half Loves, via no fewer than fifteen major original plays, to the second London appearance (still on the geographical fringe, but possibly heading in) of his last year's Scarborough play Season's Greetings, there have been intermittent signs of a desire to go serious. One might, of course, always lay this at the door of middle age and maturity. Or one might suspect that a Iof of critical niggling (minor critical niggling, for who can really argue with quite so much success?) about the seriousness and therefore the substance of his talents has started to get to him.

Certainly the move towards seriousness, even bitterness, has not been totally consistent. Rather, perhaps, one can see a polarisation of Ayckbourn's talents: the out-and-out comedies have pushed over more toward farce, while the serious undertones to be found somewhere in all his comedies of suburban manners have elsewhere increasingly got the upper hand. For me, the perfect point of balance, and Ayckbourn's finest achievement in the theatre, remains
The Norman Conquests (1973/1974). Here the tendency earlier remarked in his work (right back to Relatively Speaking, in fact) to need his interest sparked by some purely technical challenge to his ingenuity for once brought real dividends in human terms. In the course of the three interlocked plays we built up in analytical-cubist terms such a detailed and many faceted picture of the characters that the depth of our comprehension became irrelevant: in the theatre a grain ofl total unquestioning belief is worth a peck of intellect i understanding.

But from there Ayckbourn had to move on, or stagnate. There have been moments of stagnation in the later plays
Ten Times Table (1977-78), for instance, was an idea for a quite jolly one-actor dragged out to a whole evening's length; Sisterly Feelings (1979/1980) has the element of technical challenge all right, in its two versions [2] with alternative middles, but even Ayckbourn does not seem quite to believe in the exercise and it would be all too simple for anyone to combine the obviously preferably alternatives into one reasonably satisfactory whole.

Apart from these, there have been the two distinct lines. On the one hand, the 'serious' plays,
Absent Friends (1974/1975), Just Between Ourselves (1976/1977) and Joking Apart (1978/1979) On the other Bedroom Farce (1975/1977), which is not quite what the title says, [3] but undoubtedly more comical than otherwise, and Taking Steps (1979/1980) which Ayckbourn, who generally labels his plays with such nicety, calls simply 'a farce'.

One thing is clear, however much the critics may have liked this first group, the public has been puzzled by them, while the second appear to have been among Ayckbourn's biggest successes.
[4] This fact [5], when remarked has generally been found disappointing: how sad that the public will not let Ayckbourn break out of his own stereotype. [6], But I am not so sure about that. Myself, I rather doubt that Ayckbourn'a talents run deep enough in the creation of character to sustain a play built on such an uncomfortable premise and leading to such black conclusions as Just Between Ourselves, with a marriage wrecked by a fiendishly destructive mother-in law and a criminally irresponsible husband who between them drive the wife into complete catatonia. Joking Apart, which is about ageing, deterioration of character and relationships, and the deep unfairness of life, is almost as difficult to take.

But does that mean that, like really bad-tasting medicine, it has to be good for us? Or is it misplaced English puritanism which urges us to think so? Admittedly, it is admirable of Ayckbourn to want to do something different, and have the courage actually to do it. But intentions and id achievements are quite different things. And are not
Bedroom Farce and Taking Steps not only better plays, but in their own way far more serious plays - aesthetically serious, that is - then the others? True, Taking Steps does not manage to keep tip its dizzying pace quite throughout the evening. [7] But what other dramatist do we have at the moment who can carry a classic farce as Pinero or Travers would have understood it half so far? And do you think that is easy? With Season's Greetings, the case is unresolved on Scarborough / Round House showing, it has marvellous things in it, that only Ayckbourn could do, and also has dullish patches and is much too long . Or was: perhaps Ayckbourn will have used the interval between productions for a tidying-up operation. At least one never doubts his continuing ability to surprise us agreeably just round the corner.

Website Notes:
[1] It should be considered when reading any of Russell's writing on Alan Ayckbourn, that he arguably never truly considered Alan as anything but a successful boulevardier. This article is predicated on Taylor's perception that playwrights feel they need to be vindicated for their serious writing; this is something Alan has railed against throughout his career. He has always believed comedy as a medium can say as successfully - if not more so - anything the serious drama can and that he never had any intention of writing a 'serious' play. Russell's contention here that Alan's work has become darker in a need to be taken more seriously is flawed as it cannot be supported, not least by Ayckbourn's actions nor writing. The dark strand in Ayckbourn's plays can be traced back to 1971 with
Time & Time Again (it has been argued, it can be traced back as far as Relatively Speaking in 1965) and that as Alan chose to concentrate more and more on character than situation, the plays naturally took a darker path.
Sisterly Feelings actually has four 'versions' although only two of them are named.
[3] It was a source of much contention with Alan that many critics seemed incapable of appreciating that
Bedroom Farce was the title of the play rather than a description of the play; hence why he originally intended to call it Bedroom Farce, A Comedy. The fact that Bedroom Farce is - intentionally - not a farce was a point lost on many critics.
[4] There are two important issues to be considered here. The first is Taylor is only considering Ayckbourn's work through the prism of London and how these audiences have reacted to the playwright's work; London has never been the focus of Alan's writing and he has long held reservations about how the West End treats his plays turning them from ensemble pieces into star vehicles. Further, whilst the plays he mention may not have had huge success in London - at least as compared to earlier works - the contention they 'puzzled' audiences must be clarified and directed to London audiences. Each of these plays enjoyed phenomenal success in their original productions in Scarborough and would go on to great success in regional revivals. The second point, which does undermine Taylor's argument, is
Taking Steps was not a great success in London and had a West End run comparable to Absent Friends and Just Between Ourselves. It was also the only Ayckbourn play at this time - other than Joking Apart - which did not recoup its costs in the West End.
[5] As explained in the footnote above, this is not a 'fact', it is a supposition by Taylor and not supported by actual facts such as length of runs and box office receipts for the plays he mentions.
[6] Again, Taylor is ignoring the importance of the regional theatre audience to Alan. It is, arguably, their acceptance of the progression of his work that enabled him to not have to write 'stereotypical' plays given that his home theatre in Scarborough was so reliant on box office success for his productions.
[7] Again, Taylor is judging the play by the London production which as far removed from Alan's intentions for the plays as it is probably possible. Written specifically for in-the-round staging for an ensemble, it was transferred - unsuccessfully - into the proscenium arch with a star role. Taylor is judging the play by a production which bore little resemblance to the author's original intent.

Copyright: Plays & Players. 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.