Relatively Speaking: The Well Made Play (2012)This article by Alan Ayckbourn's Archivist Simon Murgatroyd, was published to mark the 45th anniversary of Alan Ayckbourn's Relatively Speaking in 2012.
Relatively Speaking was Alan Ayckbourn’s first attempt at a ‘well-made play’, but this is a term relatively rarely heard in contemporary theatre. Which begs the question, what is a 'well-made play'.
At its most basic, a ‘well-made play’ is a play with a well-crafted plot. The title comes from a translation of the French phrase 'une piece bien faite' and it was commonly used in the 19th century to describe well-constructed plays.
It is often construed as being a formulaic play, which owes much to the French playwright Eugene Scribe (1791-1861) who developed the familiar structure of protagonists meeting with numerous complications which build towards a climax, followed by a denouement. Typically everything is resolved at the climax and all complications are unravelled.
The negative connotations of the ‘well-made play’ largely developed by the late 19th century, when the play came to represent a piece where characterisation was second to artificial actions that were largely manipulated and dependent on plot devices such as mistaken identities and coincidental meetings.
Playwrights most associated with the ‘well-made play’ are Sardou, Labiche, Feydeau, Pinero, Terence Rattigan and George Bernard Shaw.
It is worth noting that Alan Ayckbourn subverts the well-made play’ to some extent with Relatively Speaking. Although the classic ingredients are present with protagonists meeting with complications. Much is unresolved at the climax and further complications have also arisen: Ginny does not have the letters she came for, Greg is still blissfully unaware of who Philip and Sheila are, Philip believes Sheila is having an affair and Ginny may be having affairs with other unseen men!
“I can see now that Relatively Speaking was a fairly deliberately devised play. When I was writing it, Stephen Joseph said (and it's a good tip that I always try to pass on) that there's absolutely no harm whatsoever, whatever you think of the state of the theatre and playwriting in general, to try and write one 'Well-Made Play’; that is, a play that, in general terms, is fairly actor-proof, well constructed and which works. If you want to break the rules of theatre, he said, it’s very useful to know what the rules are. Breaking them by accident can lead to all sorts of trouble later. Relatively Speaking is a little machine of a play. Character plays a fairly secondary role in it - everybody's too busy trying to find out what's going on and 'character' doesn't have a chance.”
Although British writers such as Shaw and Rattigan are most commonly associated with writing ‘well-made plays’, Relatively Speaking is most frequently compared to the works of Oscar Wilde and Noël Coward.
It has been argued by several authors that Relatively Speaking’s closest influence is Wilde’s The Importance Of Being Earnest, not least both being fine examples of the ‘well-made play’. Both feature characters arriving in unfamiliar rural surroundings, mistaken identities and verbal misunderstandings. Alan turns much of Wilde’s play on his head though; in The Importance Of Being Earnest, Algernon visits the country to start a new relationship; in Relatively Speaking, Ginny goes to end a relationship. There may also be a nod to Wilde’s play where Algy learns of Cecily’s existence through a cigarette case inscription and the first act ends with him reading the address from a shirt cuff; while Greg discovers Ginny’s destination on a cigarette packet and the first scene of Relatively Speaking ends with him reading the address from it.
From there both plays embrace the requirements of the 'well-made play' with each character holding secrets unknown to others, conversations at odds with each other but apparently discussing the same person as well as mistaken or assumed identities. Albert E Kalson makes a strong argument for many similarities between the plays and the comparison in his book Laughter In The Dark, which is worth reading for anyone interested in the perceived similarities.
Kalson also makes the comparison between Relatively Speaking and Anouilh’s Dinner With The Family as both plays contrast the intensity of a new relationship with the disenchantment of a long standing one. Anouilh’s play falls firmly into the ‘well-made play’ category and he was an admirer of Wilde’s work and translated The Importance Of Being Earnest into French.
There is another antecedent to the play though and one which is far more common to Alan’s writing as a whole rather than specifically Relatively Speaking (which is probably Alan’s only attempt to write a traditional ‘well-made play’). The humour in Ayckbourn plays predominantly arises from the plot rather than specific lines; as the playwright has commented many times, he doesn’t tend to write quotably witty or funny lines such as dramatists like Neil Simon. The comedy emerges from the plot, the situation and the context of the dialogue. Arguably, this is something he shares with Noël Coward who believed the humour in his own plays was plot-driven: “To me, the essence of good comedy writing is that perfectly ordinary phrases such as ‘just fancy!’ should, by virtue of their context, achieve greater laughs than the most literate epigrams.” Of course, the comparison with Coward at the time of the launch of Relatively Speaking was double-edged. While it is true Coward was a phenomenal success, his star was in the descendent and his plays looked down upon in the wake of the rise of realist playwrights such as Osborne and Pinter. Fortunately, his place in English theatre history has been rightfully revised and restored and his playwriting skills are now fully appreciated.
If Relatively Speaking has only one thing in common with Alan Ayckbourn’s later plays, it is that the humour generally arrives from the context of the dialogue and the reaction to it, rather than from obviously funny dialogue.
Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.