The Good Commercial Play (1987)

This article is a transcription of the J W Lambert Lecture presented by the British Theatre Association and sponsored by the Sunday Times and presented by Alan Ayckbourn on 21st October 1987.

Most of my talks start off with different titles and end up roughly the same - a sort of history of me. Anyway, this time I wanted at least to start differently, even if I end up in the same place. I want to draw your attention to what I consider to be an endangered species; it's called the good commercial play. There are still a few of us practising it out there but it is becoming increasingly difficult to develop. There are several reasons why.
The first is down to the fact that a lot of work is being done by community or group theatres - splendid work too, except that what's happening is that these plays are what I call Event Theatre - plays that are often developed and done in situ to cover a particular event, something pressingly social like, say, the miners' strike. But very often they don't move any further than that. They die with the group doing them, and so there is no play left over to move forward. You might note, for instance, how few productions have been seen of even a show like
Nicholas Nickelby. The play that you can take off the shelf and do, is actually not as much in evidence as it used to be.
The second reason, possibly, is due to the fact that a lot of theatres are consigning the new writers to the studio end of the business - the low risk end. I would say that studio writing is fine and good, for very new writers. But for writers to survive they have got to come out of the greenhouse at some stage. One of the great benefits I had was to experience commercial pressures: to do more, that is, than just deliver a play. If you are always being sheltered by productions of, say,
King Lear, assorted Agatha Christies and Alan Ayckbourn - we always tend to get bracketed together - then in truth, as a writer, you remain playing to small houses in small theatres, or to no houses in small theatres. As one regional director said to me, there's a lot of very good work being done developing new writers in studio theatres but whoever saw a second production of most of these plays? A writer learns a lot from repetition of his work - at least he does if he is canny.
The third, the most obvious but probably the biggest reason, is the shrinking budgets, the move away from government finance, the smaller amounts available for smaller theatres outside London where new dramatists, one hopes, are coming - a play is an expensive thing. It's easy enough - comparatively easy anyway - to get a small scale production in a small theatre, but it's that next stage, to play among the big league, that is getting tougher. At Scarborough we spend a lot of time encouraging new writers, but it is not really a matter of receiving a script and saying `this looks good' and just doing it. Often it's a matter of recruiting and creating a working relationship with an individual who you have a hunch might write a play in five years.
In my own case I was lucky enough. I was an actor looking to be a star, who happened to arrive in a theatre where there was one of the most remarkable men I've met - Stephen Joseph. The theatre in Scarborough bears his name. He had a rather eccentric habit of encouraging anyone who worked in his theatre, to write-the box office assistant etc. We had a lot of playwrights wandering round that theatre at any one time. But, in my case, the eight or nine plays I had done in the privacy of my own home, although reasonable, had never shown any development. Because a playwright doesn't just develop in isolation. One of the saddest sights is seeing the work of an unproduced author who's written for forty years and who's stayed absolutely still. The only thing that has got better is his typing.
Until a play goes through the mill, you can't begin to get a feedback as to what is working and what isn't. I was more interested, in point of fact, in acting during the early times I am now talking about and so, under Stephen's prompting, I wrote a wonderful vehicle for myself; it was designed to show just how good an actor I was. As an ASM I had observed from the wings for two years, a lot of how a play was put together. I knew that if you wanted to be a star you came on at the end of the first act, so I wrote my character in at the last line of Act 1. I stayed on for the next two acts and I gave myself all the laugh lines. In a fit of enthusiasm I wrote myself in as a guitar-playing, singing, dancing pop singer; none of which I could actually do. The first act was traumatic and I was sick several times before I came on. When I did come on it was to find myself in a play that I completely failed to recognise as mine. But, what remained with me, was the experience of the very first laugh of the play - it may have been just a titter - a few minutes in. That was very exciting, like gunsmoke to a warhorse. After that I seriously began to think about writing more... vehicles for myself. The next play, therefore, was destined to show me in four roles. I stole the plot from
The Marriage Of Figaro, disguising it slightly. The Guardian - or Manchester Guardian as it was then called - described it as a`witless' piece. Nor did I get very good reviews as an actor. Still failing to heed the call, I went on to write a third play, and this time I wrote a mere eight parts for myself. I came on and off in a monstrously bad series of false moustaches. The play died without trace. It was then - around then - that I hit on the idea of putting other actors in, in the hope that they would do something for my plays that I so conspicuously could not. About the same time Stephen guided me gently away from acting towards directing.
So, I developed two careers at once. On the one hand I was directing and on the other hand I was a writer delivering plays at regular intervals to Stephen and his company: I think the first thing to be said about the whole business of starting to write (I may be repeating myself) was that I had been fortunate enough to be put in at the sharp end. I was writing plays for a company running on a shoestring in a town, Scarborough, in the North East of England; a town not known for its theatrical innovation. It was a variety town in summer and in winter it had no theatre at all. Here we were doing a totally unknown form of theatre - theatre in the round - by totally unknown writers, actors and directors; it was the first outside London fringe I suppose. We are talking here, don't forget, about the early sixties. We were all earning nothing. We were the first company not to play the National Anthem, which immediately branded us as communists, and it meant that nobody came because of that, as well as for the other, reasons. My plays were supposed to earn us the money to live until next week. So the onus was well and truly upon me. My colleagues in the dressing room were putting pressure upon me to write something they could do. If we were all going to starve in force nine gales in Scarborough then the least I could do was to provide them with something worth acting in.
On the other hand, I had to satisfy the needs of a very disparate audience coming not at all from the traditional theatre-going public. The thing about Scarborough is that it is a holiday town, and people tend to behave abnormally when they're on holiday. They do daring things, like going to the theatre. For many people in our audiences, the nearest they had got to a live actor was the television set (thus the classic overheard remark when the lights went up one evening of... 'oooh, it's in colour'). What we got from these audiences was instant involvement, to the point often - irritatingly sometimes it's true - of very loud comment. They became involved. Coming, as I do, from the rather more laid-back Southern regions, I found it very stimulating. And every night I was experiencing - as an actor to begin with being right in the middle of the whole thing-how a play was progressing. Perhaps, as importantly, I was also noticing how the plays were failing. In that respect theatre in the round is very useful.
From any angle one is watching the audience. I'm a great audience watcher even today.
But even then, and, later when we moved to Stoke on Trent, no West End managements looked anywhere near us. Incidentally, it is interesting to note that although I was greeted as an overnight success, I'd had some ten plays unproduced, and it wasn't until my seventh produced work - so seventeen plays in all - that I got one nibble from a West End management. It was a long business and a long investment by that theatre which, by the end, was doing reasonably nicely, but not more, from my work. It's an interesting thing that a new playwright can sometimes deliver, quite out of the blue, a most magnificent first script. But if you are lucky enough to produce it, the difficulty will start on the second or third piece. Because, you see, the trouble with playwriting is that it is beset with rules. I always compare it with furniture making rather than with any other kind of writing.
To create a play you need a great knowledge of construction. The whole thing is to hold an audience's attention for two hours. Narrative, Character, development and dialogue arc all a crucial part of the process. They are basic rules, but only after you have learned them can you consider breaking them. At one point Stephen suggested that I write, for once, a well-made play. The well-made play - to a young dramatist this is an insulting term. It suggests that you are selling out. But it intrigued me as an exercise when I was writing the first of my plays that was really commercially successful -
Relatively Speaking. I remember sitting down and trying to write a piece that was, if you like, actor-proof, a play that would have a mechanism in it that would need only the slightest of pushes to make it work. In doing so I had to apply all my mind and technique to such an extent that I became very depressed. In fact I kept putting it off. I remember Stephen phoned me and asked if I yet had a title; titles of my plays always come first. I said `not yet'. He said that the leaflets were going to press so I clutched, from the air, a title... Meet My
Mother
, I'll call it that. So he said he'd put it in. A couple of days later he called and told me that he had changed it to Meet My Father - it looked better on the programme. I said 'fair enough, that'll fit'. In fact I hadn't started it yet. This was the play (it was eventually finished) that caught the eye of a West End impressario. The casting, although difficult, was eventually first rate Michael Hordern, Celia Johnson, Richard Briers and Jennifer Hilary, and we went out on tour.
With this play I had a stroke of good fortune. It happened to arrive at a point when the French Window was almost forgotten - it was a play, I blush to confess, with French Windows. The hairy men had moved in - the heavy, post Osborne, Pinter mob, and realism was the course of the day. In came this rather charming vehicle with a rather embarrassed author in tow, who wanted to be associated with that heavy mob, not with this cosy little piece. As it happened the piece was received rapturously but it probably set me back a-couple of years. I was known as Mr SitCom. Mr Light Ent. I tend to wince even now when people say - thirty four plays later - that this is still the best thing I've written.
It was a couple of years later that I was to meet the first of my mega-stars, Robert Morley, when I wrote
How The Other Half Loves. I didn't write it for him, I actually wrote it for my company. The thing I was learning was how to write for groups of actors. I've never been against the star system. What I've hated is the idea of a vehicle for a star, and I've always tried to write equal parts, equal shares for actors. I hope I've never written a part that I wouldn't have played myself. To that extent I was writing team plays. But I came to a head on collision for the first time with Robert Morley. He was due to play one sixth of a play of mine which increasingly became one third, one half and then three quarters. Now, if you employ Robert Morley there is no point trying to pretend he isn't there. He is very very big, and big too with his audiences. People who pay to see plays by unknown writers in fact pay to see people like Robert Morley. So, in the end one let him out of his cage and he rampaged about the play, and it was the longest run I've ever had. He said, very sweetly, to me at the end - he knew I was wincing a lot as yet another scene vanished - 'I've left a trail of sadder but richer writers behind me'. I was forced to agree with him.
As for my writing now many years on, Scarborough has given me, if nothing else, the right to take daring risks, and the right to fail. I now realise that I have a double obligation: to an audience - one has to entertain them as a practical writer; but one has also to give them something else besides. And balancing these two aspects is a fine, indeed a keen edged manoeuvre. In the end, it is the tight rope that a commercial play has to be willing to tread. You can offend more people than you please, or you can just make the work so trite and glib that you avoid the central issues. But audiences don't forgive you for that either. So, the 'commercial play' - defined simply as a play that people pay to come and see in large numbers, and which is done several times. My main fear is that the conditions for writers like myself, who have had the theatre and funds to do it, will just not be around in a few years. They may even be fading out now.
I'm going to fade out now. I wonder if you would like to ask me some questions, because I'm red-hot on questions.

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