Interview: International Herald Tribune (1984)

This interview was published in the International herald Tribune on 20 September 1984.

An Exchange With Alan Ayckbourn

by David Lewis

Who was the only playwright to attract more people into British theatres last year than William Shakespeare? [1]

Was it Tom Stoppard, witty author of
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and The Real Thing? Could it be Michael Frayn, whose back-stage comedy Noises Off is still convulsing audiences on both sides of the Atlantic? Or was it perhaps the fashionable Harold Pinter, creator of No Man's Land and Betrayal.

In fact, the only man to fill more seats than the Bard was Alan Ayckbourn, 45, who receives relatively little attention despite a prolific and mostly surefire output of 28 plays in 25 years.
[2]

London's intellectual theatre critics hardly know what to make of a man who writes exclusively on Britain's middle classes but whose plays travel so well that, at last count, they had been translated into 26 languages, including Chinese.

Ayckbourn has often written plays of technical complexity.
The Norman Conquests (1973) was a trilogy depicting simultaneous events in the garden and two rooms of one house. Bedroom Farce (1975) presented the goings-on in three different bedrooms. Both were successful in London and New York.

Ayckbourn's latest work to reach London from the theatre he directs in the northern English resort town of Scarborough far outdoes his previous inventions in its ingenuity.
Intimate Exchanges comes in 16 different versions, with one actor and one actress each playing five different parts, which required learning 14 hours of dialogue.

"The play is about choice," said Ayckbourn, who will have directed all 16 versions by October in the small Ambassadors Theatre. "And to that extent the form is not entirely arbitrary."

A woman is faced with a trivial question: Should she have her first cigarette of the day before 6 P.M.? On some nights her willpower is strong enough, on others it isn't. The chain of events resulting from either choice leads to someone else making a more important decision. And so on.

By the final scene, five years later, the woman's marriage has broken up. Or it hasn't. People have died, married and had affairs, children and nervous breakdowns. Or they haven't.

Though Ayckbourn calls all his plays comedies
[3], many are full of anguish. People commit adultery, hurt their partners, have nervous breakdowns and attempt to commit suicide. The comedy he aims for is not that of ha-ha farce or of Stoppard's verbal dexterity - "I don't really like plays where everybody is terribly witty" - but of "laughter with an 'ouch' of recognition."

He admits that he might win more critical acclaim if he wrote a play with fewer laughs, but he has little sympathy for the kind of plays written by the Nobel prize- winning Samuel Beckett.

"I find the three-men-trapped-in-a-glass-bottle plays - three men named A, B and Z - rather boring," he said. "The archetypal question I am asked is 'Are you hoping to write a serious play some time?' as if this is what you naturally progress to from comedy. On my snappiest I say I have progressed past serious plays into comedy. I hope one can make serious comments about people without having to write heavily serious plays."

Robert Cushman, theatre critic for The Observer, noted recently that Ayckbourn was the only major British playwright not to have been accorded a critical monograph.. "The real difficulty Ayckbourn presents to critics is that his plays are so unquotable," he said. "Everything depends on inflection and on situation."

After a childhood in the prosperous middle-class suburbs of London, where his stepfather was a bank manager and his mother a prolific writer of women's fiction, Ayckbourn left school at 17 to work backstage for the actor and manager Donald Wolfit. Three years later he began his association with the
Theatre in the Round at Scarborough, which staged his first professionally produced play, The Square Cat, 25 years ago.

He worked as a drama producer for the
BBC from 1965 - 1970, a spell that he said was very good for his own writing technique. Now he writes about one two-hour play every year. "I take a month off, walk around worrying for three and a half weeks, and the physical writing takes three or four days."

But he finds no enjoyment in a process that has brought him more commercial success than Shakespeare, at least in Britain. "There's no fun in writing at all," he said. "My first love is
directing."
Website Notes:
[1] This was an inaccurately reported fact even in 1984. It originated from airport from the British Arts Council announced on 2 November 1983 that "Plays by Alan Ayckbourn have been attracting larger audiences in the regional theatres than those of Shakespeare." A report showed between 1981 and 1983, there were 1034 professional productions of Alan's work in the UK playing to 327,000 people (in comparison there were 1060 professional Shakespearean productions performed to 318,000 people). It is essential to note though the quote is confined to a very specific time period and very specifically to subsidised British regional theatres.
[2] More accurately, Alan had written 31 plays in 25 years since his first was produced at The Library Theatre, Scarborough, in 1959.
[3] Alan has traditionally disliked labelling his plays - or they being labelled. At this stage in his career - and subsequently - he predominantly referred to his output as 'plays' occasionally relenting and allowing the broader plays to be called 'Comedies'.

Copyright: International Herald Tribune. 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.