Absurd Person Singular: Absurdly Successful (2012)This article by Alan Ayckbourn's Archivist Simon Murgatroyd, explores the success of one of his most famous plays, Absurd Person Singular.
Forty years after it premiered, Alan Ayckbourn’s Absurd Person Singular is considered to be one of the playwright’s most significant early plays.
It is regarded as his first tragi-comic play and the first time he used off-stage characters to great effect. It is also the single most successful Ayckbourn play both in the West End and Broadway and some would argue it even predicted the ruthless entrepreneurial capitalism of the Thatcher years.
And yet in 1972, it was a play whose dark edge meant the playwright was not convinced it would survive the summer season, never mind the next four decades.
Absurd Person Singular followed in the footsteps of Alan’s previous play Time And Time Again, which he considered his first character-driven play, but drawing on a far darker element and venturing into the tragi-comic genre which the playwright has since become synonymous with.
”I've tried to explore people a little more, and at the same time to cut back some of the high jinks.”
The title - apparently thought of whilst in an elevator - was announced in early 1972 without a play attached and was itself recycled from another unwritten work. It was actually written through the night whilst he directed another play during the day and was delivered to the latest possible deadline: the first day of rehearsals!
The writing process did not get off to a good start and was so unpromising that, ten pages in, Alan tore up the script and started again. Although the theme was sound with regards to the social rise of one ruthless couple at the expense of others, he felt his original structure of four couples in three living rooms over three Christmases was tedious and boring; the location was wrong and one couple was overwhelming the play. He decided to locate the action ‘off-stage’ in the kitchen and relegate Dick and Lottie Potter to off-stage. This was an elegant solution as the playwright realised the moments of interest at these parties (indeed, any party!) were being said in private in the kitchen and the Potters were far more effective in limited, unseen doses.
”In terms of content it was quite interesting... but there was an edge missing off it, and transferring it into the kitchens - setting it backstage, as it were - made it much more interesting. I think it lifted it from being a reasonable play into a better play.”
That the play was by far the darkest piece he had ever written was something that even concerned Alan. He realised he was venturing into new territory whilst dictating it for transcription to his partner - now wife - Heather Stoney, and raised doubts about the second act, centred as it is on a suicidal character, to her. She urged him to have confidence in the act and keep it unaltered feeling the audience would understand and appreciate his dramatic intentions.
There’s little doubt Alan knew this departure into darker territory was a risk, but in its counterpoint of the serious against the comic, he also felt it marked a considerable step forward for him as a writer and encouraged his company to have faith in the play.
Absurd Person Singular opened at the Library Theatre on 26 June 1971 and despite being half-an-hour too long in Alan’s eyes, it was well-received.
”Despite its enormously long running time that [first] night – it remains one of the most successful first performances of mine.”
He pruned the play for the second night and with good word-of-mouth behind it, audiences grew and it became the most successful production in a season which reversed the losses of the theatre’s previous summer.
Critical opinion was mixed with the most prescient review from Michael Billington, who compared Alan’s writing to that of Chekhov; something which has become commonplace since.
The producer Michael Codron picked the play up for London and reunited Alan with director Eric Thompson. The pair had previously worked together on Time And Time Again and their relationship hit its stride here. Thompson gathered a cast which included Richard Briers, Sheila Hancock and Michael Aldridge and the production was a spectacular success; eclipsing even the extraordinary heights of Alan’s previous West End hit, How The Other Half Loves.
Critics were gushing in their praise and it would run for 26 months; it holds the record for the longest interrupted run of an Ayckbourn play in London (the National Theatre’s production of Bedroom Farce - which was commissioned as a result of Peter Hall seeing Absurd Person Singular - ran for longer, but was in repertory). It also received the Evening Standard Award for Best Comedy; the first Ayckbourn play to be recognised with an award.
”It is also, some critics have observed, a rather weighty comedy. Its last scene darkens considerably. I make no apologies for this.”
Such success did not go unnoticed on Broadway - where Alan had yet to make a notable breakthrough - and Eric Thompson was offered the chance to repeat his London success in New York.
This led to one of the strangest moments in the play’s life. Although the American producers had professed enthusiasm for it, they were not over enamoured with the play’s structure and demanded that acts II and III be swapped round so it did not end on a dying fall; going so far as to commission a laugh count to support their case that the second act was funnier and should not only be the final act but should also be accompanied by the kitchen collapsing for some unspecified reason.
"They had this idea that it should have a guaranteed number of laughs, and they had two men sitting in the house, counting the laughs... They got in touch with me and said, ‘There are 92 laughs in the first act and 75 in the second, but only 51 in the third. What do you make of this?’"
Alan refused to alter the play and the producers had the tenacity to suggest it was not his decision to make! They hadn’t bargained for Alan’s fiercely protective agent Margaret Ramsay though, and soon reconsidered their stance!
Absurd Person Singular was successful beyond anyone’s imaginings on Broadway, opening to more than half-a-million dollars in advance bookings. It ran for 592 performances and was the most successful comedy by a British playwright on Broadway since Nöel Coward’s Blithe Spirit in 1941. To this day, it remains the longest running Ayckbourn play to have been produced on Broadway.
Absurd Person Singular has since become the only Ayckbourn play to have multiple productions in the commercial West End and on Broadway with London revivals in 1990 and 2008 and New York in 2005. It is also one of only two plays Alan has directed in Scarborough at all three homes of the Stephen Joseph Theatre.
With adaptations in both radio and television as well as being a perennially popular revival for both professional and amateur companies around the country, there is little denying that Absurd Person Singular stands not only as a classic Ayckbourn, but also one of his most successful plays.
It also - with the hindsight of 40 years - marks the point where the true voice of Alan Ayckbourn can clearly be heard. Where comedy and tragedy precariously balance on a knife-edge and at which much guilty laughter is heard for the first time, but definitely not the last, at an Ayckbourn play.
Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.