Interview: Daily Telegraph (1989)

This interview was published in the Daily Telegraph on 15 April 1989.

Alan Ayckbourn At 50

by Charles Spencer

Alan Ayckbourn celebrated his 50th birthday this week. But a more significant statistic, perhaps, will be achieved in June with the opening of The Revengers' Comedies at his beloved home base, his theatre in Scarborough. This will be his 37th full-length play, bringing his tally to the same level as Shakespeare's. [1] It seemed a good moment to head north and meet Britain's most successful and prolific dramatist.

If Ayckbourn has become an Establishment figure - when I arrived he was, somewhat reluctantly, having his photograph taken by the artist who is to paint his likeness for the National Portrait Gallery - it certainly doesn't show in his appearance or his manner. Sporting a multi-coloured designer T-shirt, he is a reassuring and faintly dishevelled figure, avuncular, straightforward and refreshingly short on personal vanity.

By far the greater part of his energies are devoted to the arduous task of running a small seaside theatre. The plays, which have made his name and his fortune, are produced in brief bouts of hectic creativity when he places himself in artistic purdah. The Revengers' Comedies - five hours long and to be staged in two parts - were written in a fortnight, which is pretty slow-going for Ayckbourn. His trilogy,
The Norman Conquests, was completed in just a few days and nights of almost continuous labour.

From early days, Ayckbourn found enormous popularity with audiences; as a young reviewer on a local paper in Surrey in the '70s, I found that hardly a month seemed to pass without one of the county's three theatres staging an Ayckbourn, offering the faintly disconcerting experience of sitting in a packed, middle-class and often delirious audience, most of whose members bore an astonishing resemblance to the characters on stage.

Some of the more highbrow theatrical observers were less impressed. It was common to hear Ayckbourn dismissed as a lightweight, a boulevardier, a purveyor of theatrical trifles. When Peter Hall elected to stage
Bedroom Farce at the National (it remains the Lyttelton's biggest box office success) there was a whine of snobbish dismay.

In fact Ayckbourn never set out to write what the snootier elements doubtless regarded as harmless West End fodder. At school, he wrote plays strongly influenced by avant-garde heavyweights like Ionesco and Pirandello and he later came to admire Osborne and
Pinter - indeed, as a young actor, he was directed by Pinter in a production of The Birthday Party.

"Like all young dramatists I wanted to break moulds but I was economically under tremendous pressure, I had a wife and children very early on and I suddenly discovered that
play-writing supplemented your acting income like mad. Play-writing started as a child benefit really. I wrote a play one summer and got £47.50 royalties for it which was something like six weeks wages. It seemed like fairy money for old rope, and I think my natural voice by some good fortune was a comic one and I found it no effort to say 'let's be funny'. "

But Ayckbourn's work has never been as innocuous as some have mistakenly perceived it to be. The conventional wisdom is that his plays have grown darker over the years but as recent revivals of early pieces have revealed, beyond the comic invention and the delight in theatrical sleight of hand (it is no coincidence that Ayckbourn was once a stage manager - in a wider sense he still is) there is a profoundly pessimistic view of human nature. Decent people suffer dreadfully in even Ayckbourn's earliest plays, the disregarded victims of blinkered egoists and unthinking boors. As in Shakespeare, you have to search long and hard for a happy marriage, a. state which Ayckbourn appears to regard with all the enthusiasm of Strindberg. And there are very few happy endings.

"People used to say 'Do you ever want to write a serious play?' and I used to get quite hurt. If I've done nothing else I hope I've managed to create an atmosphere where we can expect to laugh and cry in the same evening. I think there was a terrible division - 'are you a funny writer or are you a serious writer?'." He is understandably fond of the remark of a Scarborough theatre-goer who told him "If I'd known what I was laughing at I'd never have started laughing at all."

It comes as no surprise to learn that the dramatist Ayckbourn holds in highest esteem is Chekhov.

"Chekhov's my man. He does turns on a sixpence. He can make you laugh and then wind you with virtually the same line. When one achieves that oneself it is the most pleasing feeling and there have been one or two moments of late when one can say one has managed to do it."

But if Ayckbourn's plays have always been dark, they have recently become broader, and I think deeper. A few years ago the idea of Ayckbourn writing 'state of the nation' plays would have seemed highly improbable, but that is exactly what he is doing now.

Sir Peter Hall has described Ayckbourn's later plays as "the document of our age" which, in decades to come, will give a vivid impression of the ethos of Britain in the '80s. A play like
A Small Family Business as well as being extremely funny, is a chilly allegory of our materialistic times, almost subversive in its depiction of the possible effects of Thatcherism in producing a society in which affluence is all and morality, public and private, becomes an unaffordable luxury.

In
Henceforward… his vision of London in the near future is apocalyptic, a terrifying world of no-go areas, prowling violent gangs and citizens who lock themselves up in fortress-like homes, warily surveying the world through video monitors. Ayckbourn describes these as "social" plays. "I think perhaps there are more serious things to write about than dinner parties going adrift," he says. Nevertheless, he says he would consider a play with no jokes in it a failure.

At 50 Ayckbourn is understandably chary of sounding like an enormously old man, tutting with disapproval at the present and looking nostalgically back to the good old days. But the climate of the times troubles him and it has enriched his work.

"It sounds like Lord Longford, but one of my deepest concerns is that there seems to be no space for what I would call a spiritual consensus. I'm dreaming of a play, it's a gleam in my eye and I shouldn't really tell you in case someone pinches it, in which the government has to invent a religion to draw people together. There's no rallying call in terms of what we all believe in and I think years ago there was. What I notice is a sort of disregard for the person. There's an ugliness up there and it reflects downwards."

He is certainly no convert to the Left and still recalls Denis Healey's remark about squeezing the rich until the pips squeak with a shudder. He is highly entertaining, too, on the subject of the left-wing dramatists he dislikes (no names, no pack drill) and who undoubtedly despise him.

"I'm on a crusade to try and persuade people that theatre can be fun, but every time I start doing that, some hairy bugger from the Left comes in and tells them its instructive and drives them all out again," he complained a few years ago, and his view doesn't appear to have softened.

"I hate the dilution of theatre into purely message giving stuff, telling people that war is wrong, it's so much richer than that. The old Greek business of purging the emotions is so true. These dramatists are only giving people one course really, Ryvita, when you should be giving them this enormous banquet of pain and pleasure and joy."

Ayckbourn describes the lonely business of actually writing his plays as "boring" and has a recurring nightmare that one day "the old lumber room" of ideas will turn out to be empty.

"They don't get any easier. Every play, potentially, has got to be better than the others or there's no point in writing it. If I ever thought I'd written my best play I'd stop. There's no real necessity to keep writing except one's striving for the unattainable perfect play. And there is something joyous about thinking up a new game, and tiptoeing down to the rehearsal room with it and getting a lot of like-minded chaps together and working it out with a certain amount of glee and saying 'this will get 'em, this will make 'em laugh', and then tiptoeing into the theatre in due course, and sharing it, like you did with your parents when you were a kid, and they all come in and look. And particularly in a little space like this, if it works, there's a terrific feeling going round. It's the child's magic of theatre which is still there, and despite all the messages and the saying things, that is the over-riding joy."

That process will begin again in a couple of weeks at his
Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round, when rehearsals start for The Revengers' Comedies. Ayckbourn suddenly looked and sounded like a very happy man indeed.

Website Notes:
[1] Since this article was written, it's become difficult to be quite so certain about the number of plays Shakespeare actually wrote. The general acceptance now is he wrote at least 37 plays and collaborated on several more.

Copyright: Daily Telegraph. 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.