Interview: The Independent (1987)

This interview was published in The Independent on 20 May 1987.

A Nation Of Shoplifters

by Mark Lawson

A loud gunpowder-sounding bang and a scream drifted across the Thames towards the
National Theatre terrace on a sunny Saturday. "Ha! Someone's shot the Prime Minister," said Alan Ayckbourn with a reflex jest but then descended into sudden glum-ness; the trouble was, nowadays, you couldn't be sure what the bloody hell it was, a car back-firing or an assassination. It was pretty terrifying.

In Ayckbourn's later plays, the master farcemanship and belly laughs have been darkened by a strain of what is, according to taste, morality or politics.
[1] Intimate Exchanges (1982) featured the first stage death in his canon; Woman in Mind (1985) included the nervously broken heroine's fantasy of being raped by Satan and his 33rd play A Small Family Business, opening at the National Theatre tomorrow, features the first murder.

In connection with this advancing darkness, it may be relevant that the most recent works were written not in Scarborough - where the writer runs the
Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, from which he is on a two-year sabbatical - but in Wapping, his new Southern base. The play after A Small Family Business - called Henceforward… and opening at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in July - is set in London at an unspecified date in the future when, says the author, "the state of the country is fairly awful, with teenage gangs roaming the streets."

At 48, with 34 plays down and very rich, Ayckbourn remains insecure; he was certain when Sir Peter Hall delayed in replying to the posted copy that
A Small Family Business would be rejected ("Too good for the National Theatre, that's how Peter would put it, too powerful a play for us to stage"). Each new play is darker than the last but he dislikes the idea that comedies need an apology for existence: Woman in Mind, a compassionate tragi-comedy about mental collapse, "always had to have a high degree of laughs but I also wanted to - attack is too strong a word - have a go at the pull-yourself-together-woman lot. If I had to be pompous, I'd say that humour is the best way of preaching to the unconverted."

Peggy Ramsay, Ayckbourn's agent for 23 years, has said that his writing is becoming more political. His convictions in this direction are a mystery; a friend of the playwright for fifteen years claims to have no idea which way he would vote. He's usually taken outside the theatre as right-wing ("But that's because the plays make money") and inside it as SDP.
[2] Way Upstream (1981) - in which two very nice weekend sailors defeat a very nasty man who tries to spoil their fun - was described by one critic as "a Social Democrat manifesto." [3]

Ayckbourn himself describes the Alliance as "a commitment to noncommittal" but his current political statements suggest a position somewhere between David Owen ("those with money should get a fair whack of it but those without need helping") and HRH The Prince of Wales ("I'm worried by the spirit of the times; a cynicism, a lack of spiritual awareness.") As his plays have done for one section of society - the British middle classes of the Wilson and Thatcher years - what Anthony Powell's
A Dance to the Music of Time did for another, it seemed interesting to consider which way Ayckbourn's characters would be voting.

Well, he said, supposed a lot of his chaps would be attracted to the SDP, the villains would vote Tory and a few stout Northern nostalgics Labour. He would never, though, write a specifically political play; these bloody things where Mr A came on and treated Mr B like shit and Mr B represented Capitalism. He did what he could, though; he refuses to have his plays performed in South Africa. "People told me I was preventing black South Africans from seeing them but, you know, I can't see them queuing round the block for
How the Other Half Loves, stuff that has no relevance to their lives. And as for changing the system by performance there, I'm not one of those writers who believes there's much chance of P.W. Botha slapping his thigh in the second act and saying, 'My God! If only I'd seen this play ten years ago. We're all equal!'"

He accepts more readily that
A Small Family Business, for example, can be read as a morality play about a nation of shoplifters. It's hero, Jack McCracken, MD of a furniture company, begins as a totally honest bloke, telling his employees that removal of even a few corporate paper clips is theft but ends up, by drawing the line a few inches further on at each occasion, as an accessory to fraud, drug-smuggling and a detective's death. Oddly enough, said Ayckbourn, the props were disappearing from the rehearsal room faster than they could replace them.

However dark the plays become, he doesn't want to be thesis fodder. In the late Seventies - after, aptly,
Joking Apart - a lot was said about the underlying seriousness of his work, about his doomed women as Hedda Gablers of the garden party classes. Ayckbourn is a little jumpy about this; when, on television, a critic described him, in his presence, as "the Ibsen of Scarborough", he gave a characteristic blimey-smile and slow-motion blink.

Himself, he believes that "the plays have no literary content whatsoever. They've never been set for O Level
[4], thank God and long may it continue." Among his contemporaries, he admires Frayn, Gray and late Stoppard ("the early stuff is a bit beyond me.") He's less interested in the words than the trickery, "the building blocks of theatre" [5]: Sisterly Feelings depending on a coin tossed on-stage, Intimate Exchanges with 16 possible endings, A Small Family Business staged on a two-level set and Henceforward… using video sequences for the first time in an Ayckbourn play.

He has never wanted to leave England or to write about anywhere else (all 33 staged plays have native and contemporary settings), mainly because of his love for the language, a dramatist's rather than an academic's passion. Seeing a play of his recently in Germany, he asked the bi-lingual translator which version was best. The man replied that the basic difference was that the English vocabulary was "this large" - hands spread like an angler's and the German one "this large" - hands like some-one almost clapping and, says Ayckbourn, "the joy of the English language is its infinite capacity for being misunderstood."

He isn't yet ready to surrender the Ayckbourn territory; there is still sufficient material in people: "If you boil down your themes, they seem terribly banal. But there are still things to say about the fear and dislike people have for each other and the fact that members of each sex are like Martians to the other."

An incident I witnessed at a preview of
A Small Family Business may be illustrative. A couple walked in - early fifties, rich-ish, a yard apart, not speaking; very Ayckbourn. She was jolly, liking the evening out; he was unsmilingly resigned to it. Then he glanced at the front of the programme, which, a little misleadingly, features a shapely lady's leg in black leather and fishnet, with a whip hanging down. "Bloody hell! You never told me...," he began, but his wife, her bonhomie gone, snarled, "That's perked you up, hasn't it?," and they went in with their expressions exactly reversed; he sunny, she glum. From the shadows behind them stepped Alan Ayckbourn, smiling like a private detective with a new shred of evidence.

Website Notes:
[1] Alan Ayckbourn would disagree with this statement as he has always made it very clear he has little interest in Politics and certainly no interest in writing about it. He would also argue that the dark strain identified by Lawson has been present practically from the beginning of his career; at the very least, the darker was well-established by
Just Between Ourselves (1976) and was certainly beginning to pervade his work by Time & Time Again (1971).
[2] Alan has noted previously that on the occasions when he did vote, he had - at one time or another - voted for every major party and had no loyalties to any specific party or Political outlook, noting that there appeared to be little difference between any party once in power.
[3] This comment was infamously made by Robin Thornber in The Guardian and it is not a view Alan remotely shares nor which stands up to close examination.
Way Upstream would arguably not have been interpreted in such a way had it not had the misfortune of being produced at a time synchronous with the formation and rise of the Social Democratic Party and the introduction of third party politics into the British political system. However, this was not something Alan was remotely concerned with and believes it to be a serious mis-reading of the play; Way Upstream does deal with extreme characters and how two normal, middle-of-the-road people rise up to confront it, but Alan was not advocating a political party, but just writing about the general state of the country which he felt was very extreme at the time with 'normal' people caught in the middle. Robin Thornber's comments can only be viewed as his own political beliefs reflected, wrongly, onto a play that does not support the interpretation to any serious level.
[4] The O Level was at the time, the standard qualification taken in the UK at the age of 16. It was replaced by the GCSE qualification in 1988.
[5] Again, the playwright would disagree with this. Whilst always interested in the potential of theatre, he is most interested in his characters. The 'trickery' is just the means of telling the story which has constantly driven the playwright; finding new ways to tell stories on stage.

Copyright: The Independent. 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.