Ayckbourn At 70: Good & Evil In Alan Ayckbourn's Plays (2009)

This article by Alan Ayckbourn's Archivist Simon Murgatroyd, was published in a souvenir programme to mark the Royal & Derngate Theatres' Ayckbourn At 70 celebration in 2009. It explores the presentation of good and evil in Alan Ayckbourn's plays.

Jill: Well, perhaps you ought to tell me something you do feel strongly about and we’ll try and include that in the programme.
Kenny: Jill, come on…
Jill: Illegal parking on double yellow lines? Any good? Dogs fouling footpaths? Free double glazing for senior citizens?
Douglas: (thoughtfully) I suppose evil, really.
Jill: Evil?
Douglas: Yes. I feel strongly about that,
Jill: That’s it? Just evil?
Douglas: Yes. Only, it’s often hard to recognise. But there’s a lot of it about, you know.
A silence. Suddenly, there in the garden gateway stands Vic Parks.

Man Of The Moment is a play which confronts good and evil and how we, the audience, perceive it. It is not the first nor the last time Alan Ayckbourn has written about good and evil in his plays, but it is the most significant play to tackle this issue and one of the most disturbing in its conclusions.
Alan’s first truly evil character was Vince in
Way Upstream, written in 1982. Vince is a totally amoral character who comes from nowhere to hijack the boat, the Hadforth Bounty, and who, when defeated, seemingly vanishes back into the river. Way Upstream is the first of Alan’s plays to venture into more metaphorical waters and Vince should be seen in this light. His character is given no motivation or definable background, he exists purely as an evil character and Alan once described him as a water spirit. Way Upstream is interesting in being the first of Alan Ayckbourn’s plays to really step out of the suburban home into the world at large; with this step it has often been commented that Alan’s plays begin to take on another dimension, that they are no longer confined to relationships but begin to tackle wider social and moral issues such as the nature of good and evil.
Man Of The Moment is part of a series of what the critic and noted Ayckbourn historian Michael Billington dubs the playwright’s social period and comes after A Small Family Business in the canon. Although the latter is not concentrated on good and evil, it is a play about morality and the nature of evil is raised in the background with regard to how we define our morality. The play is the first of Alan’s to feature a murder*, but concerns itself less with the distinction of whether the characters involved are good or evil, but the morality of their actions. The play traces the fall of a moral man into amorality where he is willing to condone and justify murder, extortion and drug-running without realising how far he has fallen or where his actions have led him. A play similarly predicated upon a moral balance is The Revengers’ Comedies in 1989, an epic two-part play in which an essentially moral man, Henry Bell, and a totally amoral and unstable woman, Karen Knightley, swap revenges. Karen’s increasingly murderous actions are evil, but the play is again more concerned with the morals of both the revengers and the social communities they find themselves in.
In 1995, Alan depicted the most evil (in a fantastic sense) character imaginable when he had the Devil feature in the play
A Word From Our Sponsor. The sex-shifting character Valda (Valder depending on which sex it chooses to be) is the motivating force behind this musical. Whilst not as serious a consideration of evil as Man Of The Moment, it is a play which still asks serious questions. The protagonist, a vicar, is aware very early on that Valda is evil incarnate and whose motivations are not only questionable but increasingly and obviously for its own ends and purposes. As he initially accepts the benefits Valda has to offer, the play questions how far we should go to achieve our desired ends, especially when it is increasingly obvious that moral (and artistic) integrity is being compromised.
Since
A Word From Our Sponsor, depictions of evil have not been common in Alan Ayckbourn’s plays. The closest to an evil character is Uncle Val In Sugar Daddies. Like Vic Parks this is a character with a dubious and criminal background - although the precise nature of his background is kept vague. Val is a character apparently trying to atone for his past by looking out for a young woman, Sasha. However, whatever his true intentions - and they too are deliberately kept murky - what becomes obvious is that Val is a character who can never escape his past and who tarnishes all he touches. As a benefactor, he is constrained entirely by his former criminal life and activities; in a reversal of Pygmalion, Sasha alters from apparent innocence and naivety into someone not out of place in Val’s underworld past. Although there are similarities to A Word From our Sponsor, the character of Sasha is different from the vicar in that while Val believes he has been a corrupting influence on her, Sasha notes that she has not been an unwilling victim and that Val has failed to consider how his actions have been motivated by what she wants.
Val also shares similarities to Vic Parks in that he is also rewriting his own history to better suit the man he appears to be now. Vic honestly believes himself to be a victim of circumstance - even the shooting during his bank robbery is cleverly justified and dismissed in his mind; much as Val has re-invented himself as a charitable old man, giving to good or what he perceives as needy causes - he first appears dressed as Santa Claus. Val may not be as evil a man as Vic and he may have honest intentions, but he is certainly cut from the same cloth as Vic.
Man Of The Moment is unique in Alan Ayckbourn’s play canon in that not only does it seek to tackle and portray evil on stage, but also good and what value society puts on these attributes today. Alan has noted that one of the difficulties in writing the play was not how to portray evil - that he concedes is relatively easy, the trick being not to make evil seem attractive - but how to portray a genuinely good man without him appearing either boring or condescending. Within the play, we have a confrontation between genuine good and evil. Douglas Beechey is a man without jealousy or desire for revenge, who has forgiven Vic’s actions and what Vic did to his wife Nerys. Vic is motivated entirely selfishly, everything and everyone revolves around him and within his world, he is able to control everyone - even the interviewer Jill is caught within his sphere of influence, although as an amoral character herself, she and Vic are similar bedfellows in their desire to shape the world to their perceptions and needs.
The crux of Vic’s character is how someone so patently evil and self-obsessed has become the man of the moment, whereas the true hero of the piece, Douglas, who thwarted Vic’s criminal intentions years before has been forgotten having had his brief moment of fame. The play is an indictment of modern society where evil is, in essence, rewarded or at the very least made famous, whereas good is consigned to the side-lines, ignored or there to be ridiculed. Yet it is Douglas who is the more interesting character, despite his absurdities and apparent naivety; when he finally opens up to Vic’s wife Trudy, Douglas’s experiences as well as his hopes and fears are far more fully fleshed than that of Vic and the good man has the more interesting and involving story. Vic’s fame is built on a lie, for while he apparently preaches to children about not falling into crime, he has both justified and excused himself for his crimes. Ironically, Vic’s portrayal of himself, despite his violent, drunken and abusive ways, is almost that of a good man who made a number of poor decisions. He has lost the self-awareness, highlighted by the presence of Douglas, that he is an utterly evil and amoral creature.
Of course, while the audience is aware of the true nature of Vic, the play’s ultimate irony is at the climax Vic is portrayed as the ultimate good guy as a result of Jill Rillington’s amoral decision to rewrite history to essentially benefit herself - the ‘man of the moment’ having passed from Douglas to Vic to Jill. Thanks to Douglas’s actions in attempting to save the nanny and Vic’s wife, he inadvertently elevates Vic to the status of hero performing the ultimate sacrifice in saving someone else’s life. Douglas is barely even a footnote in history now, his good intentions entirely forgotten in the need to perpetuate Vic’s legacy as Jill manages to finally make a programme about a ‘good’ man who was never less than evil.

*
It Could Be Any One Of Us is not considered as it is obviously a very different play to those being considered here (it being a comedy) and as originally written (and at the time Man Of The Moment was written), it did not feature a murder anyway. Only with its revision in 1999, did the play come to involve an actual death.

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