Absent Friends: What's The Time (1997)

This article was written by Alan Ayckbourn for the programme for his own revival of Absent Friends at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, in 1997.

One of the tools available to the stage dramatist (and in my view one of the least understood) is time. Not the running time of a play - though that’s important - but the time frame within which the author has chosen to set the play.
In the occasional lectures I give on playwriting I invariably stress that there are essential questions a writer must ask before putting pen to paper or indeed word to processor.
Dispensing with the first and more obvious,
Why? You’re writing it (you need the money) and How? You write it (initially in my case, at school, with a torch, under the bedclothes, in pencil) we approach more serious and weighty decisions.
Foremost of these is
What? In other words, what do you want your play to be about? (Also referred to as The Theme or, if you’re a particularly serious dramatist, The Social Content). Following that:-
Who? Comes a close second, or even supercedes What? If your play is a dramatised biography of, say, Attila the Hun, it might well be Who? is your starting point. Whatever. Next probably comes:
Where? That is to say, what is to be your choice of stage setting, or settings? Is it a single set play which all takes place in Attila’s tent? Or will it range over various European battlefields demanding a more filmic approach. What nowadays we grandly term multi-locational but which Shakespeare probably called a bare stage production.
However, somewhere in amidst all this, you should be asking the question:
When? in other words, dramatically, what is your intended time frame? Over what period of time do you wish to tell your story? Over minutes, weeks, months, years or even decades?
The choice of
When? although perhaps not quite as obvious to a new dramatist can be vitally important. For When? includes such decisions as when to start and finish the play. Start too soon and you’ll have the audience shuffling impatiently waiting for something to happen. Start too late and you’ll have them buried in their programmes seeking some clue as to what the hell’s going on.
Beyond this, is the choice of your story’s actual time-span. Some plays demand they take years (stage years!) to tell. The Life And Times Of Attila The Hun perhaps.
In general, the rough rule is to try and tell the story within the shortest period you can. If you can condense events into one night, say all you need to say about Attila in one swift night of brutality and passion, then do. It binds your drama together, gives a sharpness and focus just as surely as does a single location.
If you must cover years, try to avoid mixing the two time frames. It rarely works. Play with scene breaks that jump minutes between scenes one and two, then decades between three and four can sometimes give your audience the equivalent of time travel sickness. If you’re unsure about this, do what Shakespeare did and rarely if ever refer to it at all.
So what will be the dramatic result of your choice of
When? Briefly, it is this. In a long time span (Scene 2: Another Battlefield. Ten Years Later) you tend to get what could be termed a “long lens” feel to the piece. You are in effect placing your audience at a distance from the action. They are watching it, as it were, in “long shot”. Whereas the more your apparent elapsed stage time matches the actual time by your audience’s wristwatches, the nearer you might be deemed to have moved them to the action. In effect, you create the equivalent of a “close-up” lens.
In tonight’s play,
Absent Friends, both times actually match. Stage time equals audience time. Which is about as close as I could get in 1975. Mind you, I’m working on one where stage time actually runs slower than real time. Now that will be some close-up!

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