Articles by Alan Ayckbourn

This article about Sisterly Feelings was written by Alan Ayckbourn for the student edition of Sisterly Feelings in 1989.

Writing About Sisters…

In 1974, Peter Hall invited me to write a play for the nearly completed National Theatre on London's South Bank. I visited the building during the final stages of its completion. It seemed vast. The two main auditoria, the Olivier and the Lyttelton, were empty shells without seats or stage walls. The tiny, temporary theatre-in-the-round which I was running in Scarborough (and where I initiate all my plays) would have fitted comfortably into either of them, twenty or thirty times.
I felt a little daunted. Peter suggested the Lyttelton, the proscenium stage, as being the more suitable of the two for my purposes (the National's very much smaller studio space, the Cottesloe, was still a hole in the ground with no fixed completion date). For my part, I determined that I should not break with tradition but adopt the same procedure for the National as I had been following in the past with the commercial theatre: that is premiere anything I wrote at the Scarborough theatre first. The result was
Bedroom Farce, which Peter and I co-directed and which became one of the first really big new play successes that the NT had in their new building.
Inevitably, there had to be a sequel. This time, it was felt I should tackle the biggest of the theatres, the Olivier. This thousand-seat auditorium, with a semi-thrust stage, really did present a challenge, especially to someone used to writing (mainly for economic reasons) for casts of six to eight in tiny spaces. I had solved the size problem at the Lyttelton by writing a play set in three rooms side by side, thus effectively dividing the stage into three. The Olivier wasn't going to be so simple.
Again, I decided to launch the play in Scarborough and once more I was to work at the National with a co-director, on this occasion the experienced and very supportive Christopher Morahan, who had earlier directed the television version of the NT's
Bedroom Farce.
As I considered ideas, I came to the conclusion that in order to utilise the space most effectively, I should write something set outdoors. I have always welcomed the chance to write an exterior play and had already done several with garden settings (
Relatively Speaking, Time and Time Again, one of The Norman Conquests and Joking Apart). But, on this occasion, I needed a setting that was potentially bigger than anything I had ever demanded before. The garden of a stately home? Or possibly a public space, say a public common?
So I set about writing
Sisterly Feelings for the winter season of the 1978 Scarborough season. We had moved from our original home and the birth place of Bedroom Farce, Scarborough's Library Theatre, to a slightly larger (only slightly larger), more flexible auditorium in the Old Grammar School at Westwood, where we are today. Here, it was possible to alter the normal four-sided auditorium into a near three-sided one. By removing most of the seats from one block (but still leaving a few), we were able to 'create' a giant grass bank, going up twelve feet or so.
The play, you may gather, started life very much influenced by its physical requirements. But then I have always been firmly of the belief that a play is rarely just a single notion - rather it is, in essence, a meeting of several ideas. Put a few of them together and, like rabbits, they will start to breed if you're lucky. And though, of course, one of these ideas must be the theme of the play, theatre is - and this often seems forgotten - a visual as well as a verbal medium. Characters should not only discuss what they've done or what they're about to do (in fact, the less they do the better) but should also be seen to do it.
It all forms part of my aren't-we-in-the-wrong-room? theory. Simply, the acid test of a good play is whether the dramatist has put us, the audience, where we can expect the best view of the parade. The more he makes us feel, 'I'm sorry I missed that bit, I wish I'd been there instead of here', the more we experience an overwhelming curiosity as to what's going on backstage, the less well constructed his play is. Playwriting, at its most basic, is the business of arranging for the right people to be in the right place at the right time - without - and this is the difficult part - an audience being aware of it.
Whilst contemplating a suitable setting for the new play, I was also considering how, as a writer, I could make best use of the National Theatre itself - a company with larger resources and greater flexibility than the West End could offer. How to construct a play to take advantage of this flexibility? I started to consider an idea I'd been nursing for some time, the possibility of a play with limited 'random' action.
Clearly, the only real difference between theatre and, say, TV or film is that it's live. Every performance is unique and, certainly in the best theatre, is subject to a million different variations, depending upon the mood of the performer, the audience and the rapport that is established between them. And anyone who thinks that audiences don't vary has never taken part in a run of more than one consecutive performance!
Yet another ingredient was the fact that I'd wanted for some time to write about two sisters. The affection, the jealousy, the love-hate - but ultimately the love - that might exist between them. A story of how they would fight over the same, apparently ideal man. How his personality would alter subtly in response to each of them; how they themselves would alter with him. And how, in the end, ideal men - ideal anybodies, come to that - belong only in our dreams. Tall, bronzed, athletic Simon would appear at first to Abigail and Dorcas like a hero from a comic book. But in the end, it would be Patrick to whom Abigail would return, in need of his strength and humour; it would be impossible Stafford to whom Dorcas would, irresistibly, for better or worse, return as nursemaid. Dorcas needed a relationship where she was at least an equal partner. Ultimately, she could never submit to Simon's appalling brand of paternalistic chauvinism. For Abigail, Simon's attempts to put her on a pedestal, although worship may be fine for goddesses, was going to prove equally unsatisfying.
Having sorted out the principal protagonists, it was then a matter of deciding how and when the play would vary. Obviously, if audiences were going to see the piece twice (and I hoped they would) I needed to make the scenes that were common to both versions - the ones that people would need to sit through more than once - as short as possible. There was no way I could vary the first scene at all. I had to make it as short as I could, just enough to introduce ten characters and set up the basic premise. At the end of it comes the first choice which I made as random as possible by employing the toss of a coin. Such a random decision not only had to be made, but, more important, it had to be seen to be made.
This led naturally to the twin cores of the play and progressed, at the end of the first act, to another possible shift of affections.
I decided to keep the first act variations within sight of each other. There are a lot of overlapping events - the same picnic (I'd always wanted to write a picnic scene), some identical dialogue, even the same wasp! This, as you might imagine, went down better with audiences than it did with actors who had a nightly dread of going into the wrong variation or, worse still, the wrong set of sandwiches!
In Act 2, events really diverge. Simon, our hero - or antihero, depending on how you see him - is beginning to show his real colours: Abigail, I felt, should have the night scene. I bought a small tent and set it up in my living room whilst I worked out the action at the camp site. For Dorcas, I chose to make full use of the hill. A cross country race seemed like fun and, given the competitive nature of Simon, would serve the dual purpose of further highlighting the choice Dorcas is faced with between him and Stafford. The only problem was how to get rid of the other 90 per cent of the cross country competitors.
The last scene is, like the first, always the same but it is possible, by change of emphasis and attitude - especially on the part of the protagonists Abigail, Dorcas, Stafford, Patrick and Simon - to play it in at least four different ways.
The main structure having been formed, it was then a matter of my weaving in the various related counter themes. Apart from the central five, Uncle Len, of course, plays a central role in both Abigail's and Dorcas's infidelities. Auntie Rita, apart from being pivotal in the picnic scenes, adds general family colour whilst Ralph gives the whole family a focal point around which to revolve.
And Brenda and Mel? Well, I needed amongst all the chopping and changings of our main characters, to have one constant private steady relationship. Something that says 'we're not all like this, some of us just get on with life quietly'. Both sisters are overprotective towards their younger brother; both are critical of Brenda and underestimate her entirely - typical, really, of older sisters. But in the end, Brenda and Melvyn have the last laugh, whereas Abigail and Dorcas are left a little sadder and wiser and resigned, for a time at least, to settle for what they already have. Maybe, after all, as in most of our relationships, we get what we deserve.

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