Interview: New York Times (1990)

This interview was published in the New York Times on 28 January 1990.

Bard Of The British Bourgeoisie

by Mel Gussow

While other playwrights live in fashionable sections of London, jet back and forth to New York to arrange for Broadway productions and write screenplays for movies that are filmed in Hollywood or Moscow, Alan Ayckbourn stays home in Scarborough tending to his business of writing plays, directing them and running his small 300-seat theater.

He is a man of the theater, in all senses of the word, a former actor and stage manager who has become England's most successful and prolific playwright. As such, he is an anomaly in Scarborough, a seaside resort on the north-east coast of England catering to middle-class families on holiday and pensioners who gather for ballroom dancing in the once-grand Grand Hotel. Artistically, Ayckbourn (pronounced ache-born), is nurtured by his adopted Yorkshire environment, often writing about the kind of people who live there. He could be considered the bard of the English bourgeoisie.

Once regarded as a writer of light boulevard comedy, he has gradually risen to the pinnacle of his profession, someone who has earned his position alongside Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard and a very few others. His two newest plays,
Man of the Moment,'' opening in London in a production starring Michael Gambon, and his five-hour doubleheader The Revengers' Comedies (seen last summer in Scarborough) are each mirthful, with disturbing underlying commentary about life in Thatcher-dominated England.

In his plays, love, marriage and infidelity are all subject to misunderstanding. No other contemporary playwright can equal his agility in depicting marital rifts and squabbles. Almost all of his characters are unfulfilled in one way or another. Their dreams range from the mundane (a stolen weekend in East Grinstead) to the most fantastical (an entirely different family and style of life).

His artistic stock continues to be ascendant. The director Peter Hall has called Ayckbourn's plays ''documents of our age,'' adding that the bleaker they have become the better they are. Pinter, who is one of Ayckbourn's advocates, classifies him as ''a very serious playwright,'' and pinpoints his talent by saying, ''He has a searchlight on behaviour.'' That searchlight illuminates man at his most absurd and most vulnerable. Gradually, Ayckbourn has moved closer and closer to his ideal - of writing a serious comedy that will lead audiences to ''laugh, gasp, laugh, gasp.''

In Scarborough, his home is a former vicarage, indistinguishable on the outside from nearby dwellings owned by shopkeepers and retired seamen. In the rear, there is a lush garden and a view looking toward the twin Scarborough bays, with shrubbery and sloping hills concealing the amusement-pier aspects of the community.

The house and garden could be the setting for an Ayckbourn play. Look closely and one could see the put-upon paterfamilias, if not the vicar himself, puttering in the toolshed while fantasising about his neighbour's wife (who, in turn, may be dreaming about a romantic interlude with the husband next door). As is often the case, the garden is empty. Though he has a fuchsia named after him, the homeowner has no interest in horticulture. Cricket is his idea of outdoor life. Undoubtedly, he is indoors, hard at work, either at home or at the
Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round, the company he has managed and shepherded for almost 20 years.

Ayckbourn shares the house with Heather Stoney, an attractive former actress and for many years his closest associate and companion. At least in private, he is an engaging fellow who, in the glow of the theatre's green room, can exchange anecdotes with actors. No wonder he thinks a director is ''rather like an eager sheepdog running alongside the actors, barking and trying to show them the odd gate to go through and occasionally, if they really get difficult, snapping at their heels but never actually harming them.''

With friends, he is the soul of congeniality, although he can be besieged by bouts of depression and inertia. His worst fault, he says, is procrastination, but if such immense productivity can come from procrastination, he should package it and market it as
Ayckbourn's Own. It takes him four to six days to write a play, just in time to meet an announced opening date at the Scarborough theatre (followed a year later by a transfer to London). He has never missed a deadline. The swiftness of the execution is, however, somewhat deceptive. The writing time has been preceded by long periods of cogitation and by a blank space of time he calls a dead zone, when he thinks about nothing else but the coming play.

In his home - more modern than one might expect from the Victorian exterior - is a user-friendly study complete with computers, printers and other electronic equipment, and, offsetting the technology, a gumball machine. Over his desk is a planning calendar like those used by opera divas and orchestra conductors. Strands of coloured paper denote different projects. In his case, the calendar is a multi-colour cross-hatch. He is already booked through 1991, with play openings and directorial engagements. On one wall is a large bookcase filled with red-bound volumes listing actors (the study also serves as his casting centre). Upstairs, past a lineup of posters of his many hit shows, in a loft aerie is a fully equipped sound studio where he and occasionally an aide orchestrate the sound effects for all his shows, his chief indulgence in a career that is artfully designed to make the most profitable use of his time.
[1]

Although for many years he wrote plays in longhand, then dictated them to Ms. Stoney, he is now addicted to word processors. He loves computer games, and, with his increasing wealth, he can think of only one investment - not cars, art or real estate but more and better sound equipment. Regarding his combined career as writer and
theatre manager, he says, ''It's a cottage industry'' - a hi-tech cottage and a booming one-man industry. Despite his international reputation, he savours his position as the chief artistic resource of the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, the English equivalent of a small American regional company. Under his aegis, his theater has produced almost all of his plays as well as works by others.

Stephen Wood, the head of the press department at the National Theatre, says that Scarborough is ''the catalyst for everything he does.'' Explaining one reason why he has remained in Scarborough, Ayckbourn can say with a smile, ''One has had the amazing opportunity of never having had a play rejected.''

No other playwright of his stature has his own theatre. Imagine, if you will, Neil Simon managing a theatre in Asbury Park, N.J., and directing all of his own plays before moving them to Broadway and you might begin to have an idea of Ayckbourn's efforts. As a result of his work at the
National Theatre in London he has also become accepted as a director of the first rank. Once when I asked him if he could write, direct, quick-change in all the roles, and do the lights, costumes and scenery, he answered, ''Not the costumes.''

A robust, energetic man, he has to limit his output, just as he has to control his eating. In the last year, by exercising and by having only one meal a day, the formerly corpulent Ayckbourn has lost considerable weight. ''I have a need to write - and quite often,'' he explains. As a playwright he is in the unique position of having to be a self-stopper. ''I'm a bit of a food freak,'' he says, and, as an artist and gourmand, he has to ''lock the fridge.''

In one year, 1975, he had five hits running simultaneously on London's West End, but in recent years he has been strict about limiting himself to one London play a season, apportioning Ayckbourn as if it were an endangered species (which it certainly is not). This self-embargo has worked to his advantage, as his admirers wait patiently for the newest model to come to town - and as formerly carping critics finally realise that his plays are caviar for the general public.

Man of the Moment, about the glorification of instant stars and television's role in manipulating public events, is the author's 35th professionally produced play. (No. 36 was one of his family plays.) His 37th, and his chef d'ouevre, the exhilarating The Revengers' Comedies' (because it is in two parts, it took him 10 days to write) is not scheduled to arrive in London until 1991. With two weeks free last summer - between my two visits to see him in Scarborough - he wrote a new family play, Invisible Friends, play No. 38, which puts him one up on Shakespeare, or more than a dozen up if one includes all the variant versions of a single play (eight for Intimate Exchanges) that are his specialty.

In addition, there are his other children's shows, musicals and occasional adaptations, all of which make up an unmatchable body of work that is as popular around the world as it is in England. He has been performed in more than 30 languages in 51 countries; his words are heard in Walloon, Serbo-Croatian and Urdu. In Germany, he has had more annual productions than Schiller.

In only two places is he a profit-maker without honor - in New York and in Scarborough itself. Perhaps each is too provincial for him. Ever since the 1979 commercial failure on Broadway of
Bedroom Farce, despite a splendid National Theatre production, Ayckbourn is considered - in the words of one Broadway producer - ''box-office poison.'' In contradiction to that charge, his plays are performed with regularity at American regional theatres, winning an even wider audience here through English productions on public television, most recently with a new version of Relatively Speaking.

The shortsightedness of producers has cheated New York theatergoers of such early Ayckbourn as
Absent Friends, and his recent serious comedies, A Chorus of Disapproval and A Small Family Business, both prizewinners. The Manhattan Theater Club began to break the blockade two seasons ago with its incisive production of Woman in Mind, starring Stockard Channing as a wife undergoing a mental collapse.

As for Scarborough, the attitude remains insular and self-defensive, or, as the playwright characterises the local response, if his plays are so good, what are they doing in Scarborough? ''A lot of people in Scarborough try to figure out what I'm doing here,'' says Ayckbourn. ''They feel that I must have an angle, because the theatre is obviously not making a lot of money. When I tell them that my plays are done elsewhere, places I don't have to be, and I get paid for it, they see me as a really big con man.''

As Scarborough's most famous citizen, Ayckbourn is like George Bernard Shaw in his adopted town of Ayot Saint Lawrence, but where Shaw could not walk down the street without attracting attention, Ayckbourn is close to anonymous. Walking almost every day from his home to his office at the theatre, he traverses several principal thoroughfares without an invasion of his privacy. Admittedly, he does not cut a prepossessing figure. He is a large man with a receded hairline (his most distinctive feature is his intense eyes), and an attitude of sartorial laissez-faire.

Though he maintains an apartment in London, where he makes frequent though brief forays, he rarely goes to plays other than his own. He says: ''I spend 40 weeks of the year sitting in the auditorium directing. One thing I don't want to do on my day off is to watch actors.''

Ayckbourn does not want to write anything other than stage plays. His film adaptation of
A Chorus of Disapproval, starring Jeremy Irons, was a rare and - because of the director's approach - regrettable exception. As a playwright, he says, ''I have all the best toys.''

In my visits to Scarborough, we talked at his home and in his theatre. Sipping tea, he warmed to the conversation, but, later, when speaking to a class in stagecraft at the Westborough Methodist Church, he became less informal, answering questions but avoiding eye contact with his questioners. I began our first conversation by reading a quotation from the critic John Russell Taylor, who, in a 1978 book about English playwrights, dismissed Ayckbourn with these words: ''Of all our younger dramatists, he is the one who has most consistently and uncompromisingly avoided any suggestion of deeper meaning in his plays.'' The playwright's amused response: ''I fooled him.''

He explained: ''One of the reasons people come to my plays is they don't feel that someone is telling them how to live their lives. Having said that, I hope I do say certain things about the human condition. I've had to steer between Vacuous Empty Entertainment and Sit Down, Shut Up, This is Doing You Good Theatre.''

In his plays, the first thing he says about the human condition is that it is a comedy. His plays are populated by imperfect people like himself, not the smoothly confident sort ''who are able to get a plumber in the middle of the night.... Most of us are flawed and don't have eternally happy relationships. I think people come out of my plays saying, 'Well, we may have a bad marriage, but it's not as bad as that one.'''

His difficulty as a playwright has never been in sustaining laughter, but in sustaining narrative. The director Ayckbourn could be more insistent about the playwright Ayckbourn trimming his text. As he has become more serious, he has told better stories. ''It used to be said that the audience would laugh at my plays as the curtain left the deck. Now there's a slight wariness because they're not quite sure which way we're going to take them. They know my plays are mine fields.''

As a gamesman and logician, he constructs a firm foundation before he erects his elaborate house of cards. It is his conviction that theatre must be visual; otherwise it belongs on the radio. He ''bends space'' and repeatedly alters the audience perspective so that one stage set stands in for two identical apartments, or, as in
The Norman Conquests, three plays occur simultaneously in adjoining rooms and gardens.

Along the way, he has become a theoretician; he knows what he does and how he does it: ''I think that play-writing has to do with bringing the right events into the same room as the audience. This requires a great deal of technical adroitness so that we don't get invited to a boring party.''

In his plays he asks for complicity from the audience. Arm in arm, we move into Ayckbourn country, which sometimes can resemble a maze. Humour comes from clearing up the confusion, or from carrying the incongruous to the point of contradiction, as exemplified by the incompetent cook who cannot tell fines herbs from tea leaves and cooks a ''burnt Earl Grey omelet.''

Defining farce, he said: ''You start by leading people across the floor. In the second act, you take them up the wall, and by the end of the evening they're standing on the ceiling. Just before the curtain comes down, they ask how the hell they got up there.''

He delights in being devious and in setting challenges for actors as well as theare-rgoers. In
Intimate Exchanges, two actors play 11 characters in eight plays, or 16 if one counts all the variations. Should the actress decide to have a cigarette in the first scene, that sets the play off on a tangent. When this entire labyrinthine play was staged at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round over a period of two weeks, it was twice as long as the trip on the motorway from London to Scarborough.

Just as chance is an essential factor in his plays, it has played a pivotal role in his life, which has been, he said, ''a series of extraordinary accidents.'' For one thing, he never set out to be a playwright. Born in London on April 12, 1939, he is the son of artists. His father, the late Horace Ayckbourn (the name was originally German), was a violinist with the London Symphony Orchestra. His mother, Irene Ayckbourn, who lives in an apartment near her son's in Scarborough, was a writer of romance fiction, and is known by her pen name, Mary James. As he remembered, ''I didn't know what else you did in kitchens except work at portable typewriters.'' After divorcing Alan's father, his mother remarried. Her son always had a talent for self-dramatisation. At boarding school, he joined the dramatic society, wrote a play, and acted the role of Macduff in a production that toured America.

At 17, he spent part of one summer as an assistant stage manager to
Donald Wolfit, the legendary English actor-manager, and he was captivated by the world of theatre. He never attended a university. Within a year, as actor and stage manager, he joined a company in Scarborough, under the direction of Stephen Joseph, the son of Hermione Gingold, who had definite if eccentric ideas about theatre.

As Ayckbourn recalled: ''Stephen encouraged anyone who looked remotely literate to write plays. At one stage, he had the box-office assistant, assistant stage managers and electricians hammering away on typewriters.'' Joseph convinced Ayckbourn to write, with the guarantee that if his play were ''half good,'' he would produce it.

Thus began ''a series of shameless vehicles,'' starting with
The Square Cat, in which the actor-author played a flamboyant guitar-playing pop singer. That and several other plays were written under the pseudonym of Roland Allen, a combination of his and his wife's names. At 19, he had married an actress, Christine Roland (they had two sons, and were separated some years later).

''I had, first of all, to entertain the audience. I was already walking that narrow razor blade between artistic integrity and commercial viability.'' A valuable lesson in dramaturgy came from acting in his own plays: ''There were nights when lines died in my mouth and I contemplated a quick rewrite.''

While still stumbling with his writing in the late 1950's, he met
Harold Pinter, who had arrived in Scarborough to rehearse the first production of The Birthday Party following its disastrous premiere in London. Ayckbourn was enlisted to play the central role of Stanley, the young man who is forcibly removed from a seaside boarding house and taken away to some horrific fate. As Ayckbourn remembered: ''Pinter was a rather burningly passionate young man. He set out with a script that we found mystifyingly baffling. But we were professional actors who were prepared to follow a director with obvious gifts and who increasingly illuminated the text. We opened and the atmosphere was electrifying. It excited me more than any play I had ever been in. What I loved was his terrific humour. It was the first time I had seen seriousness and humour juxtaposed quite so closely.''

In particular, Pinter illustrated the self- containment of a theatrical event. During rehearsal, Ayckbourn asked him what happens to Stanley after he is taken away. Pinter curtly replied: ''Mind your own business. It doesn't matter. He goes. The play is finished.'' The actor persisted: ''Where does Stanley come from?'' Pinter answered, ''The play hasn't started. It starts with the first line and ends with the last line. That's all you need to know.'' As Ayckbourn realised: ''I think he was heading off an actor who was going to come in with a limp the next morning and say, 'I think Stanley may have been a cyclist.''' He was also saying that, though a character's biography may matter to an audience, it should not matter to the actor. '''Mind your own business' is a wonderful answer,'' said Ayckbourn, who, as a director, was later to use a similar response whenever his actors became inquisitive.

Though their relationship was brief, Ayckbourn is intensely indebted to Pinter: ''His ideas remain with me - the delight in words, the delight in repetition in order to create tension in a character, a sharpened love of language.'' One could carry the comparison too far. In his menacing comedies, Pinter writes about ''the weasel under the cocktail cabinet.'' Ayckbourn specialises in what he calls ''the plumber in the cupboard.'' He explained, ''While a couple tears their marriage apart, an innocent third party overhears it all and doesn't know whether or not to come out.''

The writer in Ayckbourn steadily improved and, in 1964,
Mr. Whatnot, a comedy written partly in mime, was optioned for London. The producer Peter Bridge asked the 25-year-old playwright if he had an agent. When he said no, Bridge introduced him to Margaret Ramsay. She signed him up, and the first thing she did was to renegotiate his contract with the producer. The play failed but the playwright-agent relationship prospered. Miss Ramsay became one of the people most responsible for Ayckbourn's career. Considering his inauspicious beginnings, ''It's amazing how very very successful Alan has become,'' she says. ''I don't think people could have predicted it.''

To support Ayckbourn's early playwriting, he got a job producing plays for
BBC radio. During the summers, he continued his affiliation with Stephen Joseph, for whom he wrote Relatively Speaking, which was a hit in London. In 1970, several years after the death of Joseph, he took over the operation of the Scarborough theatre, renaming it in his mentor's honor. He also bought Joseph's house, the former vicarage - another case of Ayckbourn happenstance. He has remained in Scarborough because Joseph's theatre happened to be there. Wearing his two hats as playwright and director , he embarked on an unprecedented series of successes. His only major failure was also Andrew Lloyd Webber's only failure - Jeeves, a musical version of the P.G. Wodehouse stories, for which Ayckbourn wrote the book and lyrics.

In celebration of his 50th birthday, Ayckbourn decided to write something special -
The Revengers' Comedies, a virtuosic contemporary equivalent of a Jacobean drama. The comedy begins with two characters attempting suicide from the Albert Bridge in London and continues with their mutual agreement to get even with each other's nemesis. Borrowing freely from such films as Strangers on a Train and Kind Hearts and Coronets, the play is a double tour de force. Two adverse worlds collide - the horsy, foxy set populated by stuffy colonels and a spoiled scion who races his motorbike through the family manse (cycle sounds that the author gleefully taped on location in the corridors of his theatre) and the computer-eased world of high-floating big finance. There are deaths galore, most of them intentional, all of them droll. The Revengers' Comedies is grand fun, with sharp-witted observations about conservatism, careerism and retribution.

As usual, as he was writing, he found himself living the life of his characters. ''It's quite a mental juggling act. One just has, mercifully, a reasonably well controlled multiple personality. My greatest fear is to be psycho-analyzed - or cured. A doctor would say, 'You've got a whole load of personalities, let's get rid of some of them. Then you'll be this very sane, balanced person.' And I'd say, 'Oh no, it's my insanity that allows me to write.'''

Asked to elaborate, he said, ''I don't know what I am, really. It depends on the day. It's a bit, I think, like Laurence Olivier. You weren't sure what his personality was, and I don't think he knew either. It was all fired onto the stage. In a sense, one is the sum of one's characters.''

At the end of October, Ayckbourn was deep into his fall season. He had directed
Wolf at the Door, his adaptation of a Henry Becque play, at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round. Soon he was to dive into a nonstop schedule - opening his children's show, directing a touring production of Absurd Person Singular, followed by the London premiere of Man of the Moment.

Looking ahead to spring, he realised that he would have scant breathing space to write the play that would open the Scarborough summer season. So, with a week of no commitments, he confined himself to his study. At 9 one morning, he inserted a disk into his computer and began to write. Six days later, on schedule, he emerged with a new play,
Body Language (about transposed heads). It is his 39th play, leaving Shakespeare behind in the dust.

Website Notes:
[1] The loft aerie and former studio is now the office of the playwright's Archivist, Simon Murgatroyd.

Copyright: Evening Standard. 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.