Interview: Oxford Today (1992)

This page reproduces some of Alan Ayckbourn's significant quotes from the interview.

Comedy Of Horrors

by Graham Topping

"I'm not a natural academic - I haven't the faintest idea how universities work, never having been to one."

"The whole rep system, right through to the National Theatre, is that you do a Tom Stoppard, or one of mine, to pay for Joe X's high-risk project. Unfortunately the few of us who are lucky enough to fill theatres today - David Hare, Alan Bennett, me - we're all close to 50. Pinter's finished as a writer, Frayn's vowed to quit, Peter Nichols keeps quitting, and there's no new generation of 30-year-olds starting up. We're actually losing good younger people like Anthony Minghella. If a theatre management had encouraged and taken care of him he could have been one of our mainstay writers. Of course, there's no reason why Oxford should produce ten new writers any more than Slough, but hopefully I can impress principles on my students that will help to pay the bills in the future.'

"I've been lucky in the combination of pressures at Scarborough. I've had to write plays that decent actors would cut their salaries in half to come and work in. That means they shouldn't have to throw their brains out of the window to act the parts. On the other hand I've had to write plays that the local audience will come and see - that's sort of meant comedy. But they're not mindless farces, except the early ones where I was experimenting technically. It's rather depressing that those are the ones revived annually by the Penge Amateur Dramatic Society."

"The odd thing is, at the Scarborough box office they ask two questions: First "Is it by 'im?" (meaning me). If the answer is yes they usually buy a ticket. If no, the second question is 'Is it a comedy?' and a second 'no' means no sale 70 per cent of the time. But it's clearly assumed that if it's by me, it's a comedy, though we never put that label on the posters any more."

"I long ago stopped trying to manoeuvre my characters into situations. Literally, I used to say 'I really do need a big scene here chaps, so we'll have to get you all in this room with a bowl of custard….' I was delighted that I could engineer that, but it was usually at the expense of the character's dignity or credibility. Once I'd learnt about play construction, I could allow characters freedom to develop, with the result that the plays have the same inevitability as tragedies. I once coined a phrase that might almost be original: that a comedy is just a tragedy interrupted. You stop the action at the point where they lived happily ever after, not when he wakes up the next morning to find she eats cornflakes off her knife."

"Drama is a matter of strife. I don't think people are evil or malign. They usually intend well, but people can harm each other entirely by accident - by loving them too much, like parents, or by marrying them…"

"Arthur Miller was surprised at how much humour we found in
A View from the Bridge."

"The best thing I've seen was at some college dinner where a man was applying for a Fellowship. He leant over the candles to make a telling point and set his beard on fire. Suddenly he had everyone's attention and for a split-second he couldn't think why!"