Articles by Alan Ayckbourn

This article about Absurd Person Singular was written by Alan Ayckbourn and published in The Guardian on 19 March 2012.

How We Made Absurd Person Singular

My play Absurd Person Singular, now 40 years old, was a step in the direction of a darker me. The plays before it - How the Other Half Loves, Time and Time Again - were relatively light, but this one really moved into the shadows.

It's set over three Christmasses, following the fortunes of three couples. The first pair are very nouveau riche, and are patronised by the other couples, who come over for drinks on Christmas Eve. During the course of the play, the others drop out while the first couple, who have absolutely no scruples, become extremely wealthy and dominant. It's about the socially mobile. It was my shot at mammon.

I wrote it for a summer season in Scarborough, for six actors. During the day we would rehearse another play, then in the evening I would go home and write. In those days I would write plays right up to the deadline. The title was something I'd thought of in a lift. I've read theses justifying it and thought: "Oh God, I don't want to tell them it was just an accident."

The most famous act is the second: one of the wives is attempting to kill herself. She puts her head in the gas oven, and one of the other women thinks she's trying to clean it; she tries to hang herself, but one of the men thinks she's trying to change a bulb. I was frightened about that scene because, really, how funny is that? I had this image that there would be 200 people in the audience, all of whom had had brushes with suicide. It could really have backfired. In fact, it's a riot. I realised that if you run that sort of darkness alongside comedy it can cause enormous laughter.

The play ends with a version of musical chairs: the characters had to dance, then freeze when the music stopped, with the last person to stop paying a forfeit. While I was writing it, I asked the actors to tell me all the forfeits they could remember from children's party games. They dished up all these ridiculous, humiliating little things, like dancing with a spoon in your mouth or a tea cosy on your head. They all went into the play. The first time we ran it through in the theatre, it struck me what a chilly ending this was: it's like a dance of death.

It's a running joke that I never change anything in a script during rehearsals. But when we first put
Absurd Person Singular in front of an audience - a three-act play, with two intervals, in a tiny room in a library, with no bar - I thought: "We can't ask them to sit through that again. I don't want to sit through that again." So I cut it, and the play became a hit.

Copyright: Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without the permission of the copyright holder.