Interview: American Theatre (1990)

This interview was published in American Theatre magazine during 1990.

What Makes Ayckbourn Run?

by Matt Wolf

Two things are certain to happen annually in the life of Alan Ayckbourn - he grows another year older, and he writes another play. 1989 marked milestones on both counts: He turned 50 and opened his 37th play, which now puts him on a numerical par with Shakespeare. And there's no end to his output in sight. More recently, he has finished play number 39, due to premiere next summer at his home base, the Stephen Joseph Theatre in The Round in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, where Ayckbourn, originally a Londoner, has been artistic director since 1972.

"I hope my plays hold up in 400 years; that's the real test," says Britain's most successful and prolific playwright, noting the comparison with typically genial self-effacement. But if this author's sheer output is impressive, so too are his adventurousness and breadth. Ayckbourn may write plays like clockwork, but there's scarcely a dramatist in Britain whose work seems less mechanical - or, one increasingly feels, more sophisticated. This growing sophistication has been only intermittently apparent to American audiences, who have what Ayckbourn calls an "edited view" of his career.

A fuller version may emerge this spring with a pair of productions to fill theatregoers in on work they know mostly by hearsay.
A Small Family Business (play number 33), opening on Broadway in late March, offers New York audiences a morality play thoroughly steeped in Thatcherism, yet one that never once mentions Margaret Thatcher by name. In April, Gordon Davidson directs Henceforward... (number 34) for the Center Theatre Group / Ahmanson Theatre at UCLA's James A. Doolittle Theatre in Los Angeles. Ayckbourn himself staged a 1987 production of the play at Houston's Alley Theatre, but both he and the critics agreed that it was less than successful.

Along the way, those audiences may discover what the English now well know: The playwright long described as Britain's answer to Neil Simon is in fact its master surgeon, taking an ever more merciless scalpel to the ruthlessness and foibles of the English petite bourgeoisie.

"Maybe my reputation has stopped being that of an English Neil Simon," Ayckbourn says in the second of two interviews, following a day of administrative duties at Scarborough, where, ironically, his theatre is opening a new production of
Brighton Beach Memoirs, directed by actor Michael Simkins. In the past Ayckbourn has found the comparison "both flattering and a tremendous hindrance, because it raises the expectation of a tremendous, whoopee Jewish romp with a loving family and one-liners slamming on one after the other." Pausing, he adds with a chuckle, "Most of my characters hate each other."

Indeed, this author's creations could not inhabit a climate both socially and spiritually more remote from the quasi-fractious love nest of Simon's so-called "Eugene trilogy," the American playwright self-avowedly "most mature" plays so far. In Ayckbourn, characters are often too deeply troubled - too blocked - even to fight. In
A Chorus of Disapproval, which ran at Washington's Arena Stage last winter and was subsequently released as a film, wife Hannah keeps a 'Daddy doll' in her husband's absence so that their children, all of whom seem to have perpetual colds, will have a father figure, however silent. But when husband Dafydd, a rumpled opera director staging an amateur dramatics production of The Beggar's Opera, is at home, he's almost as uncommunicative as his doll double.

The same stifling reticence drives to madness the heroine Susan in
Woman in Mind, a 1988 success Off Broadway with Stockard Channing at the Manhattan Theatre Club. This Susan is as emblematic a middle-class type as David Hare's contrastingly fiery and bitter Susan in Plenty, a woman who also cracks under the weight of stiff-upper-lip English pettiness.

"That national repression is something I bless and curse at the same time," says Ayckbourn, who speaks in a fast, low voice, punctuated by nervous laughter that occasionally overwhelms his words. "As a writer, I like the fact that the English saunter in at an oblique angle to everything they say and do to each other. Whether it's love or hatred, they manage for a lot of the time to hide or conceal it - or to show it without being aware that they're showing it."

Recently, the recalcitrance of Ayckbourn's people has turned to covert aggression, as his plays' tones darken and moral issues become preeminent. In
The Revengers' Comedies, Ayckbourn's two-part, five-and-a-half-hour work premiered in Scarborough last June, characters intimidate everyone they can't profit from. The most energised character, Karen Knightly, is a Londoner with a posh accent and a thirst for revenge that destroys careers, reputations and even buildings. In that play, as in A Small Family Business, the topic is human charity. As one character remarks wistfully, "Would that goodness were enough in itself." The implication: It isn't.

Ayckbourn the farceur has turned into Ayckbourn the moralist, and the playwright himself readily acknowledges the shift. "I think the time is right for morality plays. In my last few plays, I've taken the audience by the hand and led them down a path a lot of them would not normally have taken," he says.

But his career has continually subverted expectation. As a London revival of his 1969
How the Other Half Loves last year proved, this is a writer whose
emotional undercurrents recall Strindberg even when the craftsmanship evokes Ben Travers or Feydeau. The deceptively titled
Bedroom Farce, his last play to be seen on Broadway, in 1976, is lighter in tone, but it too plays fast and loose with expectations.

"Some people were quite shocked by the fact that there was no nudity, no swearing, no sex in it," he says. "The joke I wanted was: Let's write a play about three bedrooms, and the first thing you expect to happen in that bedroom never happens."

Both those plays traverse the minefield of male-female relations, an area of natural interest to a playwright who has lived with a woman, actress Heather Stoney, for 21 years without marrying her. (He has two sons from an early, failed marriage which has never been formally annulled.) Lately the personal concerns have taken on a political cast, as befits the response of a self-described "woolly liberal in the middle" to more than a decade of conservatism under Margaret Thatcher. While Britain's best-known leftist playwrights - David Hare, Caryl Churchill, Howard Brenton - risk getting mired in a polemical thicket, Ayckbourn has chronicled the changing values of an increasingly acquisitive, money-minded society, and the waning influence of morality within it.

"I'm alarmed and worried by some of the attitudes that have come out of that philosophy," he says of Thatcherism. "But I think it's wider than her; she bears the title." Mammon, he argues, is no newfound theme, though its prominence in his writing has grown. "
Absurd Person Singular, for instance, was a rather cynical piece that said, 'If you stay behind too long, worrying about yourself and other people, the small man who worries only about his own profits overtakes you.' But the disease is permeating the society more deeply now than it was then. When I wrote that play in the '60s, I think we all felt there was a door opening then which was rudely slammed again - a whole sort of optimism which doesn't exist much now."

The disease is memorably diagnosed in
A Small Family Business, Ayckbourn's one play not written for the in-the-round arena of Scarborough [1], where most of his shows premiere up to two years before they travel to London or elsewhere. (The Revengers' Comedies won't come to London until 1991, despite an unusual spate of international acclaim over the summer that turned the prosperous seaside resort into a mecca for interested theatrical producers).

A Small Family Business opened at the National Theatre, the third of four plays - the only one written by him - which he directed at Peter Hall's behest during an 18-month sabbatical from Scarborough. Set in the south London suburbs among the employees of a furniture firm called Ayres and Graces, the play spirals from its roaringly funny beginning into a black, bleak look at a community riddled with deceit. "There's got to he a minimum level of decent behaviour," declares the main character. Jack McCracken, who inherits the firm. It's not long, though, before Jack finds to his - and the audience's - distress just how low such minimum, can be.

"There seems to haw been a collapse of conventional morality." says Ayckbourn, eager to chronicle what happens when a society licenses self-interest. "I just wanted to carry this notion to its logical conclusion and say, 'Yes, stealing ashtrays from the Savoy Hotel is a pretty minor offence - some people would say quite laudable. Then one day you come in and take a tase out of there, and suddenly you're a thief.'"

In spite of his message. Ayckbourn is uninterested in harangues. He is mindful always to entertain, not to preach.

"It's a little like doing anti-Tory plays at miners' galas: There's no point. I should be doing plays for Conservative clubs, but in order to do so you've got to get in there with a slow-burning fuse."

As a result, he ends up implicating onstage the same audience that comes to see his plays. The irony in being adored by the same massive English middle class that his writing indicts doesn't escape him. "As a man said to me once. 'If I'd known what I was watching. I wouldn't have stayed.' He didn't realise until he was halfway-through. 'I think I've rust been insulted.' I took it as a very nice compliment."

At least one English critic has argued in print that the 'moral discomfort' in Ayckbourn's plays makes them difficult tor American audiences, who like their serious drama more neatly-codified, their comedy less ambiguous. Ayckbourn refuses to guess what. the Broadway fate of
A Small Family Business may be; he's adamant only that its theme has resonance in the United States, as well.

"The play is about a man who compromises a little and finishes losing his soul." he says. "I can't imagine anyone condoning his behaviour by the end." Nevertheless, Ayckbourn takes nothing about Broadway for granted.

"America on a larger scale would understand this play, but Broadway has a peculiar set of rules and requirements that aren't always what you expect. It's a risk, but I think all my plays are risky there; that's where they appear to be at their most foreign"

Still Ayckbourn won't have time this year to get caught up in the fate of his plays in America. He'll be too busy advancing his career at home. On February 14 play number 35,
Man of the Moment, opens in London starring two of the mainstays of the National Theatre company, Michael Gambon and Diane Bull. In March it will he joined in the West End by a revival of Absurd Person Singular. Next summer, Body Language, play number 39, bows at Scarborough. It's an "improbable comedy." he says which he has already completed. Writing comes easily to Ayckbourn, who describes his main creative task as "getting the ideas and marshalling them all together."

And lest anyone think he's slowing his pace at 50, here's Ayckbourn on age: "People say. 'What's it like to be 50 and you say, 'Well, it's the same as it is to be 20.' The only thing that changes is people's perception of you."

Website Notes:
A Small Family Business was actually the fourth of Alan's plays not to premiere in Scarborough following Christmas V Mastermind (1962) and Mr Whatnot (1963) at the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, and Jeeves (1975) at the Bristol Hippodrome.

Copyright: American Theatre. 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.