Time Of My Life: Time Was… (1992)This article was written by Alan Ayckbourn for the programme for the world premiere of Time Of My Life at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough, in 1992.
I am hardly the first dramatist to be fascinated by time.
Time, I mean, as an aid to dramatic story telling.
I first started exploring its possibilities early on in How The Other Half Loves. That, if you remember it, was the play of mine in which two couples held separate dinner parties on different nights (both in different rooms occupying the same space, but that's another chapter). The plot was further complicated by the arrival of the same guests to both dinner parties simultaneously, one on Wednesday, one on Thursday. Stage time gone mad.
A great deal of my interest, I confess, was first fuelled when I encountered the work of the father of the twentieth century Time Play, J.B. Priestley. It was largely thanks to his adventurous experiments with stage time that I became aware of its huge narrative potential. Nearly a quarter of a century on, I'm still fascinated.
Often in theatre we accept a seemingly impossible stage time simply because the dramatist and actors have successfully gained our consent to enter with them some new, illogical universe.
A temporary state of affairs where Time can be condensed (as in Bolt's A Man For All Seasons), or extended (many of Chekhov’s plays), accelerated (most of Shakespeare's) or slowed down (Waiting For Godot), made into loops (Dangerous Corner), chopped about (Time And The Conways), split into alternative strands (Rashamon), flashed back (Miller's A View From The Bridge), or even reversed (as in Pinter's Betrayal).
Indeed there are few plays that don't make use of Time as a device somehow or other, however subtly, even the most seemingly naturalistic drama.
How else can we hope to cram a lifetime of events into two or three hours? Whereas the average farce is a veritable cat's cradle of different time threads.
A few months ago, I was appointed Cameron Mackintosh Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Oxford. It was my hope when I accepted the post that during my year in office I would be able to pass on some of the innermost secrets of playwriting to a new generation of dramatists. I pictured myself giving lectures for example on, say, The Inner mysteries of Stage Time and its Importance in Modern Theatre ...
For whilst accepting that a lot of what I practised was instinctive and unconscious, born purely out of experience. I did assume that a modicum of hard fact could be passed on.
Alas, I'm rapidly discovering, just how truly instinctive it really is, the dramatic use of things such as Time. There are, in the end, no secret formulas to hand over, no set rules to lay down. Time is just one colour in the playwright's palette to be spread, mixed, thinned and splattered as required. Just how it's used is down to each person's individual, unaided choice. They themselves must finally hold their own paint brush.
On the other hand, to know it's available, to understand its possibilities is important. And that one can pass on. For I do suspect that the choice of time scale in a dramatic structure is often one of the most important basic decisions a dramatist needs to make about their play.
We see this clearly from the results left behind by others. For truly the difference between two plays both with potentially strong dramatic narratives - the one engrossing and constantly surprising, the other predictable or utterly baffling - can usually depend on a right or wrong choice of time frame.
The elusive ingredient which can cause an audience at the end of a performance to remark that they genuinely lost all sense of time. Or all sense of real time, perhaps...
Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn. Please do not reproduce without the permission of the copyright holder.