Interview: Sydney Morning Herald (1986)

This interview was published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 14 September 1986.

A Master Of Comedy Who Is Now Being Taken Seriously

by Bob Evans

For the first time since he joined
Stephen Joseph's Scarborough Company in 1957 as a stage manager with aspirations to be an actor, Alan Ayckbourn has left the seaside resort town in Yorkshire to work as a director at London's National Theatre.

What is an even bigger departure from his modus operandi is that he has written one of the plays he has to direct, in advance. The master of comedy gets serious.

"It's unheard of. I finished it in April and I had to submit it to Sir Peter Hall. That was a unique feeling. I have been submitting plays to myself for years and accepting them without a qualm. I was extremely nervous. Of course some people would say it should happen more often. Now I've cast it and it's sitting in a drawer while I sit here twitching, wondering whether I'll still like it when next April comes and we start rehearsing it. I hope to God I do."

Behind that fervent prayer lurks the love-hate relationship Ayckbourn has with the West End and with Scarborough. Ayckbourn has craftily exploited Scarborough's distance from the metropolis to establish his career.

"It's at the end of the railway line, 300 miles (480 kilometres) from London, so we only get occasional visits from the national press. In the West End, the pressure on you to get everybody's money back is so enormous, you can't take the same risks. In Scarborough I can fall off the edge occasionally and not be too frightened. We can always make the books balance somehow."

It seems incredible that Ayckbourn should have had to cook the books to cover the occasional miss, he has had so many hits in his career. He wrote his first play,
The Square Cat, under the guidance of Stephen Joseph in 1959. Since then he has consistently written one play a year. He now has over 30 to his credit.

Ayckbourn's West End hit,
A Chorus of Disapproval, has chalked up its 100th performance at the Lyric. And in Sydney, his 1984 success, Intimate Exchanges, opens tonight at the Ensemble Theatre, to be followed in a few weeks by Absurd Person Singular, that blackly funny tale of marital catastrophe and the class system, at the Northside Theatre, Marian Street.

For much of his career Ayckbourn has been considered too frivolous to be taken seriously. Certainly he knows his audience and exploits their tastes to his advantage. But lately there has been a re-evaluation of his status as a serious dramatist.

It was
Absurd Person Singular with Time And Time Again which confirmed his reputation as playwright following the success of How The Other Half Loves which became a vehicle for Robert Morley in 1969. The darker side of his comedy is being recognised and valued, although he thinks there has been an over-reaction.

"My favourite writer is Chekhov and I've been getting into Ibsen recently, but I don't want people to think that I've gone into some sort of black Nordic depression. Most human endeavour, including trying to take your own life, does have its comic side. I'm concerned to let the impact of the deed sour the sugar."

Ayckbourn says he chooses to write about domestic situations because family relationships are thing most have in common.

"It is universal. Everywhere you go there are people with unhappy marriages or people who can't cope with life. The idea that plays in which there is laughter are frivolous and can't be serious comes from this country's strong puritan ethic. Imagine a play without comedy. What an unbearable slog the evening would be."

But Ayckbourn acknowledges that much of his inspiration may indeed come from his own family life. His parents were divorced when he was young. His mother wrote several novels which were published before she was married. Then she stopped writing and didn't start again until forced when times got hard, after the separation. When Ayckbourn was between four and 14 his mother contributed short stories to the leading women's magazines.

"She became the queen of the short story world. They would send her the illustrations and she would write the stories to fit."

Then she remarried - this time, a bank manager. Ayckbourn puts it succinctly: "It was a shrewd move, I suspect. It got me educated." But he gives the impression that it was not a happy marriage.

Ayckbourn is no stranger to the West End. This, he thinks, also explains why he does not seem to take much inspiration from his home in Scarborough but continues to write about life as it is lived in the home counties around London.

"Writers never lose their formative years. I'm still writing about people who live in Barclay's bank houses in Sussex. That's where my inner voices are. Most of the characters we create contain varying degrees of our own personalities."

Alan Ayckbourn may appear to be "a slightly tubby, genial Yorkshire playwright" but that description he says is only good for newspapers which have to sum you up in three quick lines. There is more to the master of surface appearances than that.

Copyright: Sydney Morning Herald. 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.