A Briefer History Of Women (2017)

This article by Alan Ayckbourn's Archivist Simon Murgatroyd, was published in the programme for Alan Ayckbourn's A Brief History Of Women at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in 2017.

Sir Peter Hall once noted that Alan Ayckbourn’s work provided a ‘social document’ of change during the second half of the 20th century.

More than that though, Ayckbourn has provided a theatrical record of how women in society have changed during the past 60 years, which has led to frequent praise for how he writes and portrays women.

He has always shied away from the term ‘feminist writer’, instead arguing that: “I think what I’m doing is trying to reflect women as they are.”

Strong female characters have long been hallmarks of Ayckbourn’s plays from
Relatively Speaking (1967) through to this summer’s A Brief History Of Women at the SJT and The Divide at the Edinburgh International Festival.

The inspiration for this he largely credits to his mother: “I was brought up in a single-parent family with a mother who gave me a somewhat biased slant on the world from the woman’s point of view. Most of her friends were women and I spent my formative years listening to women talking.”

It’s frequently noted how Ayckbourn, during the first two decades of his writing career, was deftly exploring gender issues to an extent not seen elsewhere in popular theatre of that period – even though it wasn’t overt nor intended to grab attention but driven by a desire to write interesting and believable characters.

Even in his earliest success,
Relatively Speaking (1967), we have recognisable female figures representing both the establishment and the young generation that embraced the women’s movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s. In both Sheila and Ginny, the playwright is already picking at the scab of society’s view of women.

Upper middle-class housewife Sheila is characteristic of an earlier period where women were still painted as the home-maker, rather than the younger generation of sexually liberated, professionally ambitious women represented by Ginny.

Yet even here, Ayckbourn is subverting convention, for only Sheila is able to figure out what is actually happening during the play and only she has the acumen to realise that Greg and Ginny are not entirely suited: “It’ll be a disastrous marriage but great fun for them while it lasts.”

Class expectations and how women’s attitudes were changing are also explored in
How The Other Half Loves (1969) with three different couples from different classes. And whilst middle class, Guardian-reading Teresa gets the most attention, it is working class Mary – seen only as a timid adjunct to her husband William – who has the most interesting journey, eventually turning the tables on her husband’s apparent superiority with her declaration: “It’s difficult for him, you see. He’s never been wrong before.”

The ‘70s are filled with memorable women in Ayckbourn’s plays from Annie, Ruth and Sarah in
The Norman Conquests (1973) through to the sisters Abigail and Dorcas in Sisterly Feelings (1979). However, Absurd Person Singular (1972) illustrates the start of an ongoing theme in Ayckbourn’s work.

Whilst it features the singularly horrific couple of Sidney and Jane – a marriage built on mutual need and ambition rather than love – it is wretched Eva who vividly etches herself into memory. Her torrid relationship with husband Geoffrey leads to a second act dedicated to her attempting suicide, whilst those around remain oblivious. Here not only do we get the epitome of the Ayckbourn couple and the continuing Ayckbourn mantra that men and women are just not designed to live together successfully without compromise, but also what these dysfunctional relationships can drive people to.

Eva is just one of many Ayckbourn women taken to extremes by their relationships and lives, a theme which would later find its natural conclusion in
Woman In Mind (1985), where the banalities of life as a vicar’s wife whose son has left and with no clear identity of her own lead Susan to create a fantasy world in which she is central.

Escaping into fantasy in Ayckbourn’s plays is always dangerous: Susan’s joyless and sexless marriage and her perceived lack of support lead to a climatic breakdown as the walls between reality and fantasy collapse, the stage dimming to siren lights.

The debilitating effect men and marriage can have on women is a recurring feature of Ayckbourn’s writing throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, from Diana in
Absent Friends (1974), barely coping in a loveless marriage once the children have left, to Vera in Just Between Ourselves (1976), driven into catatonia by an over-bearing mother-in-law and an utterly ineffectual husband whose idea of helping his wife is purely limited to DIY.

But the ‘70s also sees the rise of the woman pushing back, with Evelyn in
Absent Friends rebelling against her marriage and having a perfunctory affair with her husband’s best friend, likening it 'to being made love to by a sack of clammy cement’.

By the ‘80s, we see this progress further with the likes of Anita from
A Small Family Business (1987) and Jill Rillington in Man Of The Moment (1988): women who are succeeding in a male-orientated world even if they have to dominate – literally in Anita’s case – the men around them.

The portrayal of media professional Jill Rillington is particularly pertinent today, given the BBC’s recent revelations about the vast gender pay-gap, as she’s patently fought tooth and nail to get where she is and will do whatever is necessary to keep her place in this male-dominated business – even repurposing a celebrity death to suit the story she wants to tell.

Another decade, and just as Ayckbourn’s plays began to expand into new areas such as the state of the nation, so his approach to women also altered.

Body Language (1990) focused on the on ever-pertinent issue of how women appear, and in today’s parlance is a play which confronts body-shaming as a glamour model and obese journalist find their lives altered when an accident leaves the wrong head on the wrong body. The relationship that develops from animosity to sisterhood and appreciation by the end of the play is a touching exploration of female friendship in a world where the men judge only by appearance.

In
Wildest Dreams (1992), we have the first Ayckbourn LGBT character in Rick, a young woman who in her role-playing game life becomes the fearless warrior she desires to be in real life; and who finds momentary enlightenment in the first same-sex kiss in an Ayckbourn play following a fearless action. Sadly, she also discovers the sad truth that no matter who your partner is, anyone can be abusive and controlling.

A literal brief history of women takes place in
Comic Potential (1998) when a female android essentially achieves sentience. The play has been interpreted as a history of the ‘new woman’ from the 19th century to the present day: suffrage, emancipation, recognition, equality and even – it is suggested – superiority.

She’s a forbear of the women who dominate the plays of the ‘00s in such pieces as the
Damsels In Distress trilogy (2001) which focus on strong young women in fraught situations with only their wits and courage to aid them; there may be a man at hand, but they’re generally dragged along for the ride by the heroine, or are more of a hindrance to women who prove more than capable of dealing with anything life throws at them.

By the end of the decade, we essentially return to Sheila, but in a modern-day version.
If I Were You (2006) and Life & Beth (2008) both celebrate mature women – Gill and Beth – whose lives have been dedicated to their marriages and have not been as fulfilling as they might have desired.

Both women’s fantastical experiences offer the hope of a brighter, more liberated future. Gill swaps bodies with her husband allowing each to better appreciate then other, but making the sly observation that whereas a female will still be ignored in a male-dominated workplace, a woman in a man’s body is far more efficient at solving the company’s issues than any man.

Beth, meanwhile, has come to the end of a marriage after her husband’s death: except he’s not too keen to go, certain she cannot cope without him. Whether the ghost is real or imagined, the play is about a woman seen as just a wife but proving to herself and those around her that not only is she more than capable, she will likely bloom in her new found independence.

By the ‘10s, the Ayckbourn woman has become the dominant driving force in many of the plays such as
Arrivals & Departures (2013) and Hero’s Welcome (2015), which do not flinch from showing harsh realities – Ez’s rape and subsequent pregnancy in Arrivals & Departure – but portray women who are either fiercely self-sufficient or have become the driving force and stronger partner within a marriage.

In
Hero’s Welcome, Baba arrives in the UK, shy and dependent on new husband Murray and barely speaking a word of English. By the climax there is no doubt that she is the rock on which Murray will rely and that there is nothing he can’t achieve with her by his side.

We’ve travelled with with Alan Ayckbourn through 60 years and in
A Brief History of Women, we have the chance to see even more remarkable women and a potted journey through six decades of another man’s life: not just how women have changed in society, but how they have affected the course of that one man’s life.

It’s a remarkable journey.


Article by Simon Murgatroyd. Copyright: Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.