Henceforward… & Back

This article by Alan Ayckbourn's Archivist, Simon Murgatroyd, was published in the programme for the Stephen Joseph Theatre's revival of Henceforward… in 2016.

Henceforward… & Back
by Simon Murgatroyd

“I thought it would be interesting to write a play about a man who whilst searching desperately, personally and professionally, for real love fails to recognise it from his own family. It is also a play about the creative process.
“And how dangerous it can be.”


During the 1980s, Alan Ayckbourn’s plays stepped out into the world at large.
And found it wanting.
Prior to 1981, the majority of Alan Ayckbourn’s plays had been set within the confines of the suburban home - occasionally venturing out into the garden.
With
Way Upstream, the playwright set sail from the domestic environments he was associated with. It coincided with a more prominent darkness in the plays, the introduction of more fantastical elements and a look at the wider issues affecting society.
It began a period of writing that the critic Michael Billington felt reflected the “prevailing moral, ethical and religious vacuum’ in society at the time. He argued Ayckbourn was exploring “the state of the nation and the decline of our culture.”
The period of most interest is between 1985 and 1988; which includes the plays
Woman In Mind, A Small Family Business, Henceforward… and Man Of The Moment. During much of this time, Alan was based in London having taken a sabbatical from Scarborough to become a company director at the National Theatre.
Whilst there, he would premiere two devastating plays,
A Small Family Business at the NT and Henceforward… in Scarborough.
The former is now regarded as one of the decade’s most incisive plays about the legacy of Thatcherism in which morality is sacrificed in a world where a decent man becomes corrupted to the point where he can accept murder, drug-dealing and corruption without feeling he has left the moral path.
It was followed by
Henceforward… and although on the surface the plays appear to have little in common, the playwright contends there is a connection.

“Henceforward... is on the surface a comedy but it does present a gloomy prediction of a possible future world where society, maybe as a direct result of the behaviour portrayed in A Small Family Business, has all but collapsed.”

Set in a dysfunctional near future, where society appears to have broken down completely,
Henceforward… follows Jerome, a composer searching to create the ultimate definition of love. A masterpiece about something he has long since lost and would not recognise even if it were spoken bluntly to his face.
There is no doubt this is a bleak piece, but it is one suffused with shades of light. It was not always so though and nearly never staged.
Having written the piece in 1987, Alan showed it to his partner, now wife, Heather Stoney, who was appalled by the bleakness of the play. Alan would later describe it as “a very brutal, very unremitting and very dark piece.”
Uncertain about the play, Alan apparently deleted the entire play and notified the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round he would instead be writing an entirely different piece called
Meeting Like This.
But
Henceforward… was still on his mind and not all was at it seemed.
Although the playwright suggested in contemporary interviews he had destroyed the play and rewrote it from scratch, he had actually kept a back-up of the play; these being the very early days of Alan using a word-processor. He returned to
Henceforward… looking to find a way to bring some light into its dark places.
And that it was dark one can be in little doubt.

“I’d written it and the speech at the beginning, Jerome says, ‘I want to write about the misery and despair in the world and what I want to do is make everyone aware of how dreadful life is.’

Not a premise one suspects that would drag people off the streets to see a play. But following Heather’s reaction to the original draft, the playwright wrote down the subtext and themes of the play and realised what he needed to make the play palatable and much more interesting.
Love.
And to show what a difference this simple change can make, compare what Alan originally intended to present above with the same speech from the actual play.

“I want to express the feeling of love in an abstract musical form. In such a way that anyone who hears it - anyone - no matter what language they speak - no matter what creed or colour - they will recognise it - and respond to it - and relate it to their own feelings of love that they have or they’ve experienced at some time - so they say - yes, my God, that’s it!”

With this, the course of the entire play changed and rather than dwelling in misery, the play shifted focus to a more traditional Ayckbourn theme of what people do to each other - particularly within relationships - alongside a new theme for the playwright of the nature of creativity and how it is influenced by those people around the artist.
That this exploration of creativity was possible was largely due to the way music was being affected by the rapid progression of technology and the possibilities it provided; in this case, sampling.
Today, sampling is something we probably experience in some form every day in the music we listen to or the programmes, films and adverts we watch. In 1987, it was very much a nascent technology restricted by the cost of the machines capable of utilising it. But this provided a solution to a problem Alan knew was the bane of all dramatisations of creation.

"It seemed to me that a writer, or a playwright or a novelist, on stage is one of the most boring characters you can think of because there is nothing to see. Somehow or other I wanted an audience to get as close to an act of creation as they could. It seemed important that in the end, he, my hero should do something.... One of the major elements of the play is the way a writer pirates the personal experiences he has. And in a sense can sometimes betray them. I wanted to say this not too ponderously but at the same time make a point. A man who kept digital recorders running all the time in every single room in the house including the bathroom seemed to me the ultimate - the man obsessed with 'the right sound'."

Jerome is a man obsessed with finding the sounds he needs to compose his ‘masterpiece’; Alan knew that new technology could believably give the impression of instant creation on stage. And his music director knew how to achieve this.
At the time, there were four Yamaha state-of-the-art Synclaviers in the UK, each valued at £250,000 each and Paul Todd arranged access to one - out of office hours - through which he with the aid of a programmer could create a piece of music from samples of the word ‘love’.
The final piece of music ran for five minutes and took more than eight weeks to create in a room filled with equipment dedicated to the Synclavier.
In context, Alan has composed the music for his 2016 revival himself on a Mac laptop.

Henceforward… opened at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The round, Scarborough, on 30 July 1987 with Barry McCarthy playing the composer, Jerome. It was a huge hit and was revived the following year before embarking on a European tour.
The same year, it transferred to the West End with Ian McKellen starring as Jerome where it again drew plaudits and would win the Evening Standard Best Comedy Award, confirming it as one of Alan Ayckbourn’s seminal pieces of the 1980s. It would be followed by the equally hard-hitting
Man Of The Moment, arguably topping a period of several years where - at least from the perspective of London’s critics - Alan reached a high as both writer and director.
Whilst the scale of the plays of this period has precluded them from being as regularly revived as other Ayckbourn plays, there is no doubting that
Henceforward… and its ilk defined Alan Ayckbourn for the ‘80s and that they have as much, if not more, to say today as they did when written.

“Ayckbourn began the decade with Way Upstream and a group of characters drifting aboard a cabin-cruiser towards Armageddon Bridge. He went on to tackle sanctioned greed in A Small Family Business, social disintegration and the technological nightmare in Henceforward..., the cult of the criminal in Man Of The Moment.
“Ayckbourn's genius is to make us laugh while exposing the moral bankruptcy of the age.”
Michael Billington.

Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.