Articles by Alan Ayckbourn

This article about Absurd Person Singular was written by Alan Ayckbourn as part of correspondence regarding the play. The date of the piece is unknown.

Correspondence on Absurd Person Singular

Absurd Person Singular suffers (if that’s the word) from a reputation for being a very funny play. And yes, indeed in my first production of it in Scarborough in 1972 and the subsequent fine West End production by Eric Thompson in 1973, it did elicit huge laughs from the audiences (and even critics!) who saw it. But the reason it did this - and the reason that sometimes in later productions it doesn’t or the reason the laughter wears a little thin - is that it was played with intense seriousness and even a certain venom.

In common with my later plays where the mix is much more obvious, it was an early attempt by me to run the contrasting strands of theatrical darkness and light almost parallel. This is especially evident in the second act of course. The comedy there entirely relies on the fact that Eva intends to kill herself. Once we, the audience, fail to believe that she has real death in mind (however pathetic her attempts), the tension evaporates and then so does 90 per cent of the laughter.

So it is in the first act with Jane and Sidney. What Sidney does to Jane is appalling. It is an act of calculated betrayal. In his anxiety to “make it” he is quite prepared to sacrifice the poor woman. It is a small gesture in the grand scale of things - a few minutes standing out in the rain, what’s that after all? - but it is a symptom of something infinitely more sinister. Men who do that are men who will eventually rise ruthlessly to the top and finish up locking us all out in the rain.

Yes, it is a comedy and I hope people will laugh, of course I do, but it is also a sad savage reflection on the way we treat each other and the way, certainly in this life, the meek are very, very unlikely to inherit the earth.

Of course the really awful thing about Act I is meek Jane’s little rebellion that follows her final entrance - all of two lines - which is ruthlessly crushed by Sidney. Probably the last time she ever argues with him. From then on she follows him, a long suffering acolyte, enjoying the riches that accrue but in return having given up any shred of individuality or self determination.

Now, if that all sounds hopelessly heavy and ponderous, my apologies but that is really the way you have to approach my stuff. In general, the more seriousness, the more truth you bring to bear on the characters, the more they will bear fruit later.

In my own rehearsals I am somewhat of a joke in that I never allow us to dwell for a second on the subject of possible audience laughter. For, in truth, I have found that the more we disregard it, the more readily the laughter flows. And if it doesn’t, well we have a very serious moment in its place.

Jane’s return to the kitchen is very sad - and I think a lot of people, especially the women in the audience - might even be angered by it. How dare he treat her like that? Why the hell doesn’t she punch him on the nose? Indeed, if you try to make it comic in the wrong way you may merely serve to antagonise them. Are they expecting us to find this funny? Because we don’t.

But of course that is an isolated instance. And it is my hope that in any production it is indeed isolated. Really - if I can give you a yardstick - it is this: You should never, never in your performance (in anyone’s performance) have a single moment in the entire evening where a laugh becomes the be all and end all. You should always have the safety blanket of dramatic truth to sustain you. If you’re ever caught bending this in pursuit of the gratuitously comic then you’ll find you’re on a downwards path to nowhere. And don’t let anyone encourage you to do so or tell you otherwise.

To conclude: A small anecdote.

Years ago I wrote a play called
Absent Friends. Very low key and very naturalistic in tone. In it there’s a character called Evelyn, a dour, dry, cynical girl given to sudden deflatory one-liners every five minutes or so in the way that only people of that age can do. For the first production I cast a wonderful young actress who had been working a lot in serious unsmiling community theatre doing socially significant community drama. She joined my regular team, most of whom had worked together for years. As a result, we talked in rehearsal even less about the potential comedy than usual. We just rehearsed the play in all its seriousness and the young actress sat throughout the proceedings solemn faced and totally absorbed, watching whenever she wasn’t called, and developing the most fascinating character besides.

The first night came and the audience within the first few minutes found her a riot. She had only to open her mouth and the house came down. She continued through the first act, deadpan and throwaway.

In the interval, I broke my usual rule and went back to see her to say how well she was doing. She was in floods of tears. I’m sorry, she said, I can’t stop them laughing. I’m trying my best. I explained gently that it really wasn’t a worry. That they were meant to laugh. She looked totally flummoxed. Are they?

A few days later I came back to see the show again. Alas, she had discovered comedy. Playing, of course, to half the laughs and with twice the effort. Her innocence was gone. Aaah!

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