Surprises (2012)

This article was written by Alan Ayckbourn for the programme for the world premiere of Surprises at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, in 2012.

I suppose it’s in the nature of growing older that, as a writer, I become more and more intrigued with what the future may bring, with what lies ahead for all of us living on this confused little planet. A long term future, which I can contemplate with a certain dispassionate though I hope not totally selfish gaze, confident that sooner or later I will be relieved of any responsibility to take further part in.
Questions as to whether we are truly alone in the universe as it currently would appear (improbable) or whether there are there countless other civilisations, blue, green, eight legged or what have you lurking beyond the nearest stars waiting for us to discover them or them to discover us (more likely). Either way, I don’t personally need to bother to polish up my intergalactic interplanetary etiquette. How to greet, say, an Andromedan without causing deep offence is hardly going to bother me or you. Or indeed probably our children and even their children’s lifetimes. That’s all way in the distant future, centuries away. But.
But, there is another factor to consider here. At the current rate, barring man made global catastrophes (always possible, in the gloomy opinion of us science fiction writers) and given the current rate of medical advances, there is a distinct probability when we talk of our children’s and certainly their children’s lifetimes we could be talking of a considerably long way into the future. For the traditional average lifespan of three score years and ten, could not we soon be talking five six seven score years? If we include this factor then the remote the distant future is brought considerably closer.
The underlying theme of
Surprises is longevity and what it might mean for the human race. Socially of course. But for me, more interestingly, personally as well. Medical achievement has brought mankind currently within hailing distance of doubling natural life spans As we gradually learn to replace more and more physical bits of us, we are perhaps even ultimately in sight of virtual immortality. Are we mentally equipped to cope?
Indeed this in turn raises question, to what extent do we replace ourselves before we cease to term ourselves human. Arms, legs, internal organs are these days accepted as fair game. But what of the brain? That precious organ which all of us privately believe, actually determines our individual personality, our claim to uniqueness. Once we are capable of downloading the human brain (short term, unstable living tissue that it is) to a more reliable silicone based substitute do we in the process forfeit our human status? At that point do we need to re-register as an android life form?
And what will longevity do to our emotional lives? Our mercurial feelings, our loves and loathings, our youthful short-lived passions, our sudden middle-aged switches to boredom, our subsequent lapses into senile indifference, are all just about manageable over a normal lifespan. But as one character in
Surprises puts it, there’s a world of difference marrying someone and promising to be true for the rest of your natural life but what happens when that expectation becomes virtually endless? When that promise is liable to extend to centuries rather than decades? There must surely be a statute of limitation on traditional marriage vows. Something in the style of, ‘I promise to love you for as long as I am humanly capable’ might be a possible place to start. Though come to think of it, we probably all know of married couples who muttered that silently under their breath, even today.
So what then will be the future of love? We talk of undying love but doesn’t that mean to most of us, notwithstanding an afterlife, as long as we live. Once we die, the contract becomes formerly null and void, surely? Certainly as regards the deceased. Maybe for the grieving relatives there will remain a period of gently healing grief, hopefully a period of lingering love until their own demise. Thereafter … well for those who believe in a hereafter, maybe it’s possible human love continues eternally on.
But there’s something vaguely disquieting at the prospect of ninety year old grandchildren standing alongside their hundred and fifty year old parents as they all cluster around the two hundred year old grandmother’s bedside, impatiently waiting to say a final goodbye as she whirrs and clicks to a final standstill. As my own grandmother would have put it, it isn’t natural, is it?

Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn. Please do not reproduce without the permission of the copyright holder.