Annual Interviews: The Guardian (1970)The Annual Interviews reproduces one significant interview with Alan Ayckbourn from 1969 to the present; 1969 being the year which saw the start of regularly published interviews with the playwright. The interviews are drawn from a variety of sources (of which they remain copyright of) and a variety of subjects.
This interview is the earliest major broadsheet article about Alan Ayckbourn held in archive.
Farceur, Relatively Speaking
by Robin Thornber
The Guardian, 7 August 1970
"Alan Ayckbourn?" said the lady in the corner shop. "Oh yes, isn't he a literary gentleman? Something to do with the theatre? We're all very interested in the theatre in the round in Scarborough…."
Every tripper-packed summer Mr Ayckbourn directs a repertory season of theatre in the round at the Library Theatre there. And although the lady in the corner shop didn't know it, the literary gentleman's flat is at the end of her street.
Last year the dignified civic room behind the library saw the first performance of Mr Ayckbourn's new play, How The Other Half Loves, which opened at the Lyric this week. And it was here he launched Relatively Speaking into a world which appears to have been aching for a revival of marital comedy. Since that hit the West End in 1967 it has been televised as a Play of the Month and won a bronze plaque in Mexico. His agent said the takings there were nine million pesetas. "And I got a cheque for 7d."
But the translations of Relatively Sneaking, from Turkish to Argentinian, have enabled Mr Ayckbourn to resign his job as a BBC radio drama producer in Leeds "after five happy years" to write and direct for the theatre. "I was hardly ever there, anyway," he said. "It has been helpful - one gets experience of new writing and production and it also makes one examine one's own writing criteria."
Alan Ayckbourn began writing when, as an actor in Stephen Joseph's theatre in the round company at Stoke-on-Trent , he questioned the programme. Joseph said that if he could write a better play they would stage it with him in the lead.
"I started as a farceur," he says, "people really did lose their trousers. The light comedy style has evolved out of my own capabilities, my own particular experience - which happens to be complicated relationships. And other people's are even more funny, so I try to help them laugh about it." The spiral of misunderstandings in How The Other Half Loves - like the house-bound, social conscience-striken wife who is suspected of having an affair with the editor of The Guardian because of her compulsive correspondence with him - was written while he was being drawn into "the comet's tail of somebody else's breaking marriage."
"If you're writing comedies," he says, "the object is to have them put on." Although not at any price - he refused a Broadway production of Relatively Speaking (which would have led to film rights) because the Americans insisted that a couple who lived together had to be hippies, and wanted to rewrite the dialogue in phoney "cool" slang. Which is not what Alan Ayckbourn is trying to do. "I'd like to finish up writing tremendously human comedies - Chekhovian comedy in a modern way."
The comment in Ayckbourn's plays is human rather than social, although his "theatre of embarrassment" is based on putting his characters through the social hoop. This comedy of good intentions, of conformity to other people's norms leading to embarrassing results, derives from his own droll attitude to life.
When he went to Leeds, he points out, he was drenched in the last of the Northern wave, the "steaming underclothes, on the stove" school of theatre." It was rather like my education - I had to say I hadn't been to public school." Now that Mr Ayckbourn's type of play seems to be coming back into fashion, people are surprised that he won't allow his works to be performed in South Africa. Writing light comedy doesn't mean that you're totally flippant - but "the things that alarm me I don't write about."
Boulevard comedy he says is still quite respectable on the Continent: there were 32 productions of Relatively Speaking in Germany. Bringing it back into this country will mean bringing it up to date. Mr Ayckbourn turned down one comedy he was asked to direct because "it was so empty. I don't want to shout about Vietnam, but there was no recognition of the changes that have gone on during the last 30 years."
Robert Morley, who stars in the London production of How The Other Half Loves, wanted to know why his character didn't have a butler. Which has Alan Ayckbourn twitching with frustration: in his view of light comedy butlers went out through the French windows. "The people who come to the theatre have never even seen a real butler," he said. "Light comedy must be recognisable to people in the street. The difficulty is to make it relevant and still funny."
Ayckbourn plays, in seeking a modern style for light comedy, become concerned with the comedy of permissiveness, with frustrated housebound graduate wives, with women who don't want to be equal. "How do we keep up with the permissives?" he asks. " What has all this welter of free living done to the little middle-class couple?"
As well as up-dating the subject matter, Ayckbourn is concerned with "new things you can do with staging "light comedy." How The Other Half Loves, for instance, has the homes of two couples (one Guardian-reading the other taking The Times) superimposed on the same set, with two separate dinner parties taking place simultaneously at the same schizophrenic table.
"I'm interested in theatrical time in the Priestley sense," he says, and after being fascinated by working with Pinter, he is experimenting in "farce with menace drawing from the heavier boys, the Pinter-esque as comedy."
"But," he says, "you can become more complicated and more damned ingenious until no one understands the plot at all." As a check on this risk, he uses the Scarborough theatre as a laboratory for experiment, encouragement, and exposure. "How do you bring comedy up to date for an audience that isn't theatrically sophisticated? It's got to be accessible without being corny. This is the value of the Scarborough brief of writing plays that will entertain the people who come in in 'Pakamacs' without insulting the intelligence of the actors."
At Scarborough they have built up a company who will leave "the £35-a-week kick" to do a summer season on £20 a week, playing The Glass Menagerie at a holiday camp and a prison as well as in the Library. They're hoping to build a new, permanent, theatre in the round as a memorial to Stephen Joseph. The site they want, in the Georgian Crescent overlooking two bays, is unfortunately being resisted by Crescent residents who heard the theatre might be used for jazz concerts.
Meanwhile, another Ayckbourn comedy will open at the Library on August 20 - although he only began to write The Story So Far... a few weeks ago in a state of slight panic. Which is one reason why, in spite of Relatively Speaking and doubling offers from television, Alan Ayckbourn won't think of himself as a full-time playwright. "My output's too low. I'm pathologically lazy. I only write one play a year and if that happens to flop…."
 Although the story is correct, the location is wrong. Alan Ayckbourn was acting in Stephen Joseph's company at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, when he made the complaint about the quality of roles he was receiving (specifically his role in David Campton's Ring Of Roses in December 1958). Stephen issued the challenge which saw Alan's first play, The Square Cat, premiere at the Library Theatre in July 1959.
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