Sisterly Feelings (1981)This article was written by Alan Ayckbourn for the publication Sisterly Feelings / Taking Steps.
When Sisterly Feelings (1978) and Taking Steps (1979) were first produced in Scarborough, I called Sisterly Feelings a comedy and Taking Steps a farce.
The residents of Scarborough, it appeared, had no quarrel with these categories, though when the plays reached London in 1980 their descriptions provoked (as indeed I should have known they would) much lengthy and somewhat tedious discussion as to what precisely defined farce and where the boundaries should be drawn between that and comedy.
At the risk of adding another tube of lighter fuel to the bonfire, here are my own descriptions of what I consider to be the three main categories of play.
First, there is the drama or straight play which is usually rather short on humour but filled with Insights and other Serious Things and is thus, when successful, regarded as a Very Good Thing to See. Comedies, on the other hand, are straight plays with a sense of humour, often saying much the same thing only more enjoyably and therefore to a wider audience. A very few comedies can occasionally achieve the Very Good Thing category but generally only if (a) the director has removed all the humour from it by playing it with funereal solemnity or (b) the author is long dead, foreign, or preferably both. If the author is foreign, the chances are the translator will have killed off most of the humour anyway (cf. Moliere, Goldoni). If very long dead, then most of the audience don't understand the jokes anyway (cf. Shakespeare).
Thirdly, there are farces which set out to be, and often are, funnier than comedies, though in order to achieve this, the author has necessarily had to jettison one or two things like deep character analysis or Serious Things. Good farce explores the extreme reaches of the credible and the likely. It proceeds by its own immaculate internal logic and at best leaves its audience only at the end wondering how on earth they came to be where they are now. In other words, it takes the basic illusion of theatre whereby, as in all plays, the dramatist first creates a world and then convinces his audiences of its credibility - farce takes this illusion and stretches it to the limits and outside them.
For me, farce begins when I feel that I am now leading an audience into realms beyond the laws of human probability.
Thus, Sisterly Feelings contains nothing that couldn't happen. Taking Steps, frankly is, as a bare plot, unlikely and for its credibility it depends entirely upon its telling.
Sisterly Feelings is, or rather are, plays concerned with choice. Their distinctive feature is their variability whereby four combinations of alternative versions are possible depending first, on a toss of a coin at the end of the short prologue, then halfway through on a decision made by one or other of the sisters during the course of the action.
This device has the effect of stimulating actors, irritating stage managers and infuriating box office staff. By way of an apologia, I can only point out that the device is not employed merely out of cussedness. As I say, the plays are about choice. How much do we really control our lives and do we really make decisions or just think we do? In Sisterly Feelings, the last scene is always the same, though the emphasis in playing differs. Not that this is saying that I'm a believer in predestination and the inevitability of fate, but rather that I do believe that mostly we finish up with the friends and the partners in life that we deserve.
Of course, this variable device is an extremely theatrical one. It is not something that would work in any other medium. Which reflects my own total preoccupation with the liveness of stage writing. For the fact is that, of the other media, radio only attracts me slightly as a writer, films but mildly and television not at all.
At least with a stage play, with any luck, there will be a second and even third, fourth and fifth chance. There is always the slim possibility that, one night somewhere, the chemistry will be right. The right cast will meet the right audience in the right theatre and something rich and rewarding will be shared between them.
As a final footnote to this, I have resolved with any future plays I write to give them no description at all. Henceforth, they will all be plays. I will leave others to brand and pigeon-hole them if they want to. Ultimately, what matters is whether the play is good or not. Unfortunately, it's possible to gain only an inkling of a play's merit from reading it. The real test occurs on a stage or rather on several stages after many performances in different productions. Only then can a stage play's true quality begin to be assessed.
Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn. Please do not reproduce without the permission of the copyright holder.