Life & Beth (2008)This page contains an interview with Alan Ayckbourn about Life & Beth, conducted by Simon Murgatroyd in June 2008.
Simon Murgatroyd: The 2008 features three supernatural plays - Haunting Julia, Snake In The Grass and your new play, Life & Beth, how did the idea of a supernatural season come about?
Alan Ayckbourn: It all came about when the actors Susie Blake and Liza Goddard - old friends - found themselves on tour together with High Society. Liza was rehearsing, covering Susie before taking over from her. They spent quite a lot of time together and started discussing Snake in the Grass. Susie, I think it was, who had been in the original production got in touch with me and said: "We think it would be a great idea to revive Snake In The Grass. Liza's read it and thinks it's just her part and I'd love to do it again." I said, "That's an interesting number!" So that was the seed that planted the season. Then when I was working on If I Were You with Liza, I said to her: "Look, I've an idea to write a third play using all six of you. Leave it with me." And out came Life & Beth which unites both companies and is a completion of the three plays. It's also the lightest of the three.
Life & Beth is quite different from the other two, although I think they all have quite a different flavour: Snake In The Grass is a thriller - a supernatural thriller with some spooky moments; Haunting Julia is a dark play with suspense in a darker register even than Snake In The Grass. I’m not quite sure where Life & Beth stands, although there may be one or two jumps in it! They are a united team though: Snake In The Grass and Haunting Julia are obviously about what parents do to their kids. But even Beth has her problems there, she has a son who is a bit of a wally! Life & Beth is, like the others, a play about closure too.
Life & Beth deals with a different type of death though to the previous themes of suicide and murder in the other plays: Beth deals with the entirely natural death of a partner, a husband of many years. Can you tell us a little bit about the play?
Beth and Gordon’s wasn’t an unhappy marriage; nonetheless, there is a certain closure with death, which finishes a chapter in your life and you don’t suddenly want to be plunged back into that last chapter again, much as you may have enjoyed it. You want to go on with the story and mentally we are equipped to do that. Yes, there are those real loving couples who drop dead within three days of each other, which is obviously a sort of rather touching but rare occurrence. But most widows go on from strength to strength having got rid of a husband they loved and supported through their span. Then its cruise ships and holidays, spending their last few years with abandon as the mother does in Time Of My Life.
In most of my plays people delight in letting each other down; but Beth is a woman who’s done her duty. It’s a pleasant duty, but she has kept her bargain which I think a lot of men and women do - they enter into a pact and see each other through it. But that does mean at the natural termination of it - not like Miriam bumping her father off in Snake In The Grass! – you’re naturally allowed to move on.
On the surface, Beth is very much a typical Ayckbourn woman: middle-aged from middle-class suburban England. Yet she’s not really the same, is she?
Beth is amazingly level-headed, quite shockingly so, she’s also quite dry and funny. She’s kind but tough and I like her. She’s very together. I think she could have given lessons to some of my earlier women such as Vera from Just Between Ourselves.
One of the major themes of Haunting Julia and Snake In The Grass is dysfunctional parental love, does this theme extend into Life & Beth?
There’s also a subtext in Life & Beth where we present a boy from this ostensibly very happy marriage where both parents are present; where the mother is supporting her husband and he knows everything, which she is quite happy to defer to – “Don’t ask me, ask your father.” The father is apparently very knowledgeable and the boy is very drawn towards trying to emulate this man who has been held up to him as the picture of the perfect male by his mother and even his father: “I am the perfect male, copy me.” Because he sees this apparently ideal relationship, because all the cracks have been very carefully papered over by Beth to conform with conventions, the son tries to emulate that relationship with obviously quite catastrophic results. He’s picking up girls who totally get driven mad by him, even on a short car journey home.
Which is Ella...
She’s one of my few characters who never speaks. I never intended her that way: I started writing her and she came in the door and said “oh” once and I thought she hasn’t got anything to contribute. It’s a colour the play needs to have very clearly and these characters can be very strong. She starts in distress and ends in high dudgeon! The only time you hear her is through the door.
I noticed that Life & Beth also shares a spiritual angle with If I Were You, which seems new to your plays. In both plays, there is an appeal to a higher power which only serves to complicate matters further. In the end, it's Beth or Jill who have to take control.
I thought I’d introduce someone to support Beth and I thought of this wretched man who’s attracted to her. He's a vicar who obviously lives with his mother and he’s a lonely man - vicars get a very bad time on stage very often, I hope not from me though - and this man is completely vulnerable. He’s not the brightest button in the box, but he tries, he really genuinely wants to help and he prays which leads to all sorts of problems for Beth. I think in the end it’s as you say, God helps those who help themselves: Beth grabs the nettle and makes the choices and the decisions. She says, right, I’ve been given this problem. I don’t mind if someone prays for me to ask for help but in the end I’d better go ahead and try and solve it myself because I’m not going to wait for answers to come drifting down the chimney.
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