Interview: When & Where (1987)

This interview was published in When & Where in on 19 November 1987.

New Bard Or Old Farce

by Carl Hindmarch

His 33rd play has just opened at Scarborough's innovative
Stephen Joseph Theatre in The Round, while Leeds Playhouse has already extended its run of A Chorus of Disapproval to accommodate the demand for seats. The most popular playwright since Shakespeare views his laurels with defensive wryness, and a self-depreciating modesty.

"Well, I mean, it's nice... one sets out to write plays to attract an audience in one sense. All my background has been in this theatre, and it always has been, and still is, very important to make money - not for the perpetrator - but for the company to be able to stage the next play. Although I've wonted to say things other than 'funny' things, I've always been pressured to say them in a way that would appeal to the widest possible audience."

It's Catch-22. For Ayckbourn, trapped between the cruel economics of theatre budgets and high-brow acclaim, has forsaken the latter to fill the till. Shot by both sides it's something he is not so much bitter about as defensive towards. Someone who lists
Harold Pinter as one of their heroes clearly dislikes being seen as on angst ridden version of the Ray Cooney trousers-round-the-ankles, oh-my-god-it's-the-wife school of entertainment.

"It's toeing the line between insulting your actors who have come a long way and work for very little, and who want to do something they feel is worthwhile - and entertaining an audience who have their reasons for coming, some because they believe that theatre has things to say about life and so on... and some because they want a good laugh and it's raining. It really is that level of theatre - which I have never objected to because I think the most interesting people to have in are the unconverted. The people who chose narrowly between you and the latest James Bond movie."

The last thing he wants is a nodding, assentive audience - an audience who come to the theatre to have their view of the world confirmed. Ayckbourn clearly suffers from the image he has as a middle class and middle aged writer. The fact that his plays deal with the middle class has become entangled with the content of the plays - the result is (horror of horrors) the sticky stigma that Ayckbourn is a middle class playwright. Isn't this image, and his appropriation by the middle class as their conscience at odds with the actual content of his plays?

"Well, yes, I've been called a left-wing writer in right-wing clothing - which is a sort of definition."

Theatre is undoubtably a white collar institution, and the audience for it is growing because there are more white collar workers. What is worse than this basic truth is he feels the inverted snobbery and class guilt that provokes the middle class to chase an audience that doesn't want theatre or have any need of it.

"Sort of 'Let's take some art to the workers - as long as it's of benefit to them' which only furthers the terrible class thing that theatre is for certain people. On the other hand the working-class man is the last resistor of theatre - he lets his wife or daughter go, but it's a bit nancy for him, a bit too like needlework. The new boys in the '50s didn't really help, didn't get an audience back in. It wasn't the sort of stuff to get you rolling in the aisles. I remember doing Pinter's
The Caretaker, and was talking to the local bobby afterwards, I said did you enjoy that, and he said 'No, I can get all of that at home'."

Theatre is for the middle class, and yet so often pretends that it isn't. Not a major revelation, but it is this inverted snobbery and class guilt that brands Ayckbourn as merely an entertainer. It's a snobbery that Ayckbourn loathes.

" I still wince when they say things like 'Well, we'll have to put on the odd Alan Ayckbourn or Agatha Christie.' I like to think, my plays have more to them than that. But if it gets people in, and is seen as accessible... I mean, i don't mind being popular. That's the right answer"

For all the laughs Ayckbourn's is a sad world view. It is black, pessimistic, sometimes tragic, always unhappy - generally a downer. Given this outlook, this world view of people trapped in relationships and by themselves of the sound of marriages quietly falling apart.

"I think, well I've always said that you've got to have been in love once, and probably broken up once, before you can get anything out of my plays - they are about people who have been bitten by life a bit, and are just starting to sort something, themselves, out again. People relate to them more. Most of us, unless we are very dishonest, have difficult relationships. We expect a lot from people and can't and don't understand or appreciate them "

But the danger remains that in making laughs out of the failure of someone's life gives an audience either an arrogant security, or the ability to laugh off their own problems.

"Well I hope that, certainly with my latter plays, that most people even if they don't when they are in the theatre, carry something away. I've always been a little bit defensive about laughter - but I would be honest and say that a lot of my joy comes from making people laugh."

But everyone wants to make people laugh. The eternal safety valve and release that gives people a way out of impossible situations. Laugh and the world laughs with you, cry and you cry alone. Unless you're on stage in an Ayckbourn in which case you just might find people laughing at you. Isn't there just too much of a danger that the laughter is mocking, or just plain empty? The sardonic bounces back.

"Once you've done ten you begin to question the quality of the laughter - what they're laughing at and why you're making them laugh. The greatest laughter for me though is the laugh of recognition, not laughing at a gag line, but getting further in, to get the laughter from a genuine recognition."

It's clear that, while constantly tempted and delighted by the precision and fine tuning of good farce, Ayckbourn would hate to think that people were laughing off his observations rather than recognising them It's more than just laughter at domestic disasters In
Seasons Greetings, the definitive analysis of the bourgeois Christmas, the laughter of the play's first half is replaced by a growing blend of manic sadness, and the ploy ends with someone being shot. Woman In Mind is another.

"I never announced it as such, but it's a play about a woman having a nervous breakdown Not the sort of thing people queue round the block to see... watching the audience though, as the play developed, the house divided as first the women stopped laughing, and the men carried on. Then the men noticed that the women weren't laughing - that is what is interesting. I'm not seeing myself as some glorious agony aunt, but I think if the plays have that then I am happy that I'm doing it, treading that tricky line between laughter in the wrong way - to say that laughing at people with mental illness is appalling - but laughing with them at some terrible dilemma, and eventually understanding."

Unfortunately being funny doesn't score too many points with the po faced guardians of the theatrical limelight, who put Ayckbourn somewhere between pantomime and bedroom farce. As an 'entertainer' he suffers from the art snobbery that sees entertainment as a dirty word and something that lacks the rigour and integrity of true art. Of course the 'integrity' of people who shun the popular, and who have the luxury and security to watch the naked pain and ugliness of the world as their 'entertainment' or, 'culture' is a dubious moral high ground. For Ayckbourn, who has experienced his fair share of emotional pain in the form of his own broken home, childhood and subsequent failed marriage, the important thing is accessibility, rather than angst.

"People ask me 'When are you going to write a serious play.' I mean I wrote my serious play when I was 17 and have since then progressed - thank God - to writing plays where I needn't be serious all the time. It's what I call the third eyelid. If you are assaulted by something which offends you, say mental health or sexuality, people shut their eyes. They can't actually look at it, and so the only people who are looking and listening sit there saying yes, yes, yes and agree already. It's also saying things acceptably - and so occasionally you think. 'Good, I said something then and you don't even know! said it'."

There is the danger that you can say something and someone might not even notice - and he has a deep anxiety that people miss the point, that people dismiss him out of hand, that he is the misunderstood popular artist. It hurts, but what hurts most is when people judge him before they've seen him. He realises that he can never be both respected by the critical elite, and pack a theatre on a rainy Saturday afternoon in Scarborough.

"Either you get a reputation for being Beckett (a lot of people haven't seen him but they all know he's different, a bit strange), or you have a reputation for being popular. People have written and said, 'Your plays are silly,' I mean, I don't know what play they saw. I mean they don't read marvellously - they're not great literary masterpieces, but I do believe that they work on stage. I was caught in the crossfire between two very different theatre movements, the Rattigans and Cowards, and the Osbournes and Pinters, and was equally impressed by both."

The result is a suitably hybrid blend, that can be absurd or farce, depending on the night. The common themes of marriage, male insensitivity, the brashness of the social climber and the restrictive social forms and norms of marriages, anniversaries, weekends and Christmas recur throughout his work. Forever shredding these established rituals and models he reveals them as redundant, inadequate and in a crisis.

And yet these values are the very bedrock of the audience that constantly flocks to be entertained by him. Either the audience is masochistic, or just missing the point, is there any ray of hope, any notion of optimism ever reached in his morass of loneliness and confusion?

"Well, sometimes. Not often. People don't tend to... understand. Things get worse and worse, I only ever wrote one optimistic play - and that tended to do less well. That ended with reconciliation and people agreeing to fight things together. But no, most of my characters end up sitting in gardens or chairs unable to move."

The sense of being trapped, immobilised by indecision, circumstance or self is no stranger, to the likes of Pinter and Beckett (if not the 20th Century art as a whole) but Ayckbourn lifts me out of his minor tragedies with the flip side of the absurd. The financial pragmatics of regional theatre.

"And also, what's more, plays about very, very, very happy people are not very interesting. People desperately in love are wonderful - bless them - but they are not very interested in anything outside of each other. Being in love is private really, it's when they start scratching that it really becomes interesting.

"I wrote a play, called
Joking Apart, about the people who live next door who are wonderful, really nice people. She was beautiful and effortless, and he was tall and marvellous - everybody hated them, tried desperately to compete with them. It's the same old story, in that you get a washing machine like the guy round the corner and yet yours doesn't work. The funny thing is that when you write that down 85 pet cent of the audience think it's funny."

Just as Shakespeare's
Hamlet came to terms with things by leaping into graves. Ayckbourn's characters rely more upon leaping into one another. There is a group therapy in his work - it says we are not alone, and so becomes a comforter, a source of security for all of us tempest tossed on the waves of mid-life crisis and emotional menopause.

"We are all deeply concerned with the major issues of the world, and yet there is an element of powerlessness that makes the trivial things much more important. You only have to read the angst columns of newspapers to see the type of things people worry about."

But don't you ever want to write about the larger problems?

"No, No... that's not - well it, it's not the problem - it's defined ground. I don't know, I think you know your limits, the small family business is still about families. I don't seem to respond too well to individual specific issues - but it seems to me that the very things that involve my audience would go out of the door."

And it is this very scope; the middle-class, middle-aged obsessions with washing machines, dinner parties and adultery that some people find so repellent about Ayckbourn. But if you look beneath the plots and settings you find a vision of humanity disturbing in its cynical lack of faith in the ability to relate to and understand our fellow human beings. A sad man, trapped in on entertainer's body, just like Archie Rice, when he does feel there is something important to say there is the danger that people still take it as a joke.

Internationally famous, mythologised in his own lifetime and shot by both sides the most popular playwright since Shakespeare has one remaining ambition.

"Well, one has one's initial ambitions for the sort of plays one writes... but now. Well I suppose I'm still looking to write the play that lands straight down the middle - where people come for the wrong reason and leave with the right reasons…"

But, naturally,

"Without selling them short, I mean without disappointing people."

Website Notes:
[1] At the time of publication, Alan Ayckbourn had written 34 plays.

Copyright: When & Where. 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.