Interview: New York Times (1989)

This interview was published in the New York Times on 3 August 1989. An abridged version of this article was also published in the International Herald Tribune on 5 August 1989.

Ayckbourn, 37; Shakespeare, 36

by Benedict Nightingale

Almost 20 years ago, Alan Ayckbourn became the Artistic Director of the tiny repertory theatre in the sedate Yorkshire seaside town of Scarborough. Thirty years ago, he joined it as an assistant stage manager, aspiring actor and occasional writer. [1] And 50 years ago, there occurred a still more significant incident in the Ayckbourn almanac: the dramatist-to-be was born.

No wonder there's a celebratory mood at his
Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round this summer. In their eagerness to find events to commemorate, Mr. Ayckbourn's aides are even pointing out that with his latest piece, The Revengers' Comedies, he has out-written the most celebrated British dramatist of them all: Mr. Ayckbourn has had 37 works produced, to Shakespeare's 36. [2]

No wonder, either, that the man himself is in a reflective frame of mind these days: assessing his skills, contemplating his artistic evolution and wondering how long he can retain his own and his public's interest.

"You've got to keep surprising yourself," he said in a recent interview. "You have to try to break the mould of what made you successful. If you throw yourself into new worlds, new areas, new problems, you sharpen yourself. It's like mountaineering. If you keep climbing the same rock face, you just wear out your boots. But if you say, let's go a different way up the Himalayas, the way everyone else has got killed, it's exciting and maybe you convey some of that excitement in your work."

That is Mr. Ayckbourn's philosophy reduced to its essence. He writes comedies, yes, but increasingly often they're strange, dark comedies. His characters destroy one another emotionally, succumb to despair and madness, and do all sorts of other things more commonly associated with tragedy. In
The Revengers' Comedies, no fewer than four die, all unnaturally and unpleasantly.

"I'd like to think I'm inching like an iceberg toward my aim," Mr. Ayckbourn said. "To write a completely serious play that makes people laugh all the time."

Similarly, Mr. Ayckbourn has long taken a positive delight in improbable technical challenges, in
Absurd Person Singular setting each act in a different kitchen on consecutive Christmas Eves, or in Intimate Exchanges supplying the cast with alternative routes to no fewer than 16 different endings. This twin enthusiasm for taking risks, both of form and of content, may explain why his critical stock in England has risen sharply in recent years. He is probably the most commercially successful of the nation's dramatists, and more and more he is recognised as a strikingly original one, too.

Mr. Ayckbourn personally
directs the world premieres of all his own plays, as well as four or five other productions each year. He likes the artistic freedom and control that having his own theatre gives him, and he has come to value audiences that are socially more diverse than in London, and mostly less accustomed to live theatre.

Often they discuss the play during performances, as if they were watching television in their own living rooms. One elderly lady, presumably still the owner of a black-and-white set, stunned the actors by proclaiming, "Oh, good, it's in color." But they are also hardheaded spectators, tough to please. "Some of them take the attitude, 'If you're so good, why are you up here instead of in London?' " Mr. Ayckbourn said. "You have to earn their attention. You just can't take them for granted."

Not until Scarborough gave its approval did the 1975
Bedroom Farce progress, with a new cast, to the National Theatre and Broadway, or the 1985 Woman in Mind move to the West End and the Manhattan Theater Club.

So far Mr. Ayckbourn has transferred more than 20 plays to London, but he readily concedes that he has yet to make the impact he would like on New York. His
The Norman Conquests, a huge success in England, actually flopped there in 1975. Are his comedies too British for Americans, too glum, or what?

"Perhaps it's because my work tends to fall between the cultural and the boulevard," Mr. Ayckbourn suggested. "People may think me either too lightweight or not lightweight enough."

His working methods have remained essentially the same over the years. He allows characters, technical possibilities and other ideas to gestate in his mind, perhaps for months. He then spends about three weeks assessing, rejecting, planning, plotting. Then he writes, always intensively enough to insure that his adrenalin keeps flowing and the play remains coherent and alive to him.

The Revengers' Comedies emerged from the image of a crazy, destructive young woman and, although he has never written or wanted to write a film as such, from a desire to broaden his dramatic canvas and become more cinematic. More specifically, he had an itch somehow to reconcile Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train with a Jacobean revenge tragedy like 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, which he had recently directed. The five-hour, two-part result took him 10 days to compose, an unusually long time by his own hectic standards.

He has moved away from the small-scale naturalistic play in which he used to specialise.
Woman in Mind is half real and half hallucinated by an unhappy wife as she lapses into psychosis. In The Revengers' Comedies has 23 characters and a rich mix of country and urban settings. More important, Mr. Ayckbourn's work has acquired a stronger social and political edge of late.

He has long believed, he said, that comedy "is a good way to get behind an audience's defences and say something about their lives they'd find unpalatable in a more obviously serious play." And he added that he still hoped to provide new angles on painful situations, to provoke a wry sympathy for human struggle and disaster, and to remind people that their personal problems are not unique.

But the pain, problems and struggles seem less domestic these days.
Man of the Moment, due in the West End next year, is a sly critique of television. A Small Family Business, staged at the National Theatre in 1987, shows a respectable furniture-manufacturing company resorting to drug running and murder in its quest for profits. And The Revengers' Comedies involves, among other things, a ruthless woman driving her enemies to lunacy and premature death as she scythes her way to the commercial heights.

Mr. Ayckbourn agrees that these plays reflect his unease about Britain as it has progressed, or regressed, under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's leadership.

"It's no coincidence that you hardly ever see members of the present Government in the theatre," he said. "The arts and gentle, civilised living are being rapidly downgraded for the fast buck. It has a narrowing effect. It creates an uncaringness."

Recently, Mr. Ayckbourn has achieved national recognition as a director, notably for a fine production of Arthur Miller's
A View From the Bridge that he staged for the National Theatre. No doubt London, as well as Scarborough, will continue to call on his skills in that area. But it is, of course, as a dramatist that he will continue mainly to command attention. What's next there?

One plan is for a funny-sad, or hilarious-calamitous, play in which-time goes at a different speed for every pair of characters, and some events occur backward. Mr. Ayckbourn has even given it a working-title,
Ecraf, which is the word 'Farce' reversed. Whether it would move from Yorkshire to London, or London to Manhattan, remains to be seen. But for a writer who celebrates his entry into his second half-century with so defiantly rash an idea, the prognosis can surely not be bad.

Website Notes:
[1] Alan Ayckbourn actually joined the Library Theatre, Scarborough, thirty-two years previously in 1957. He began writing for the company, of which he became Artistic Director in 1972, in 1959.
[2] 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: New York Times. 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.