Annual Interviews: Plays & Players (1972)

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.

Alan Ayckbourn: The Joan Buck Interview
by Joan Buck
Plays & Players, September 1972

Once, in Scarborough, Alan Ayckbourn was introduced to a twelve year old boy who wanted to become a playwright. The little boy was very nervous, and so was Mr Ayckbourn: "I got terribly smooth and suave, I was enquiring what the little lad wanted to know about playwriting, and lit a cigarette. He was agog as I reeled off great paeans about playwriting. Then I managed to reverse the cigarette, and stuck the wrong end in my mouth. But I didn't do anything, didn't say 'ouch'; I just felt this thing burning, took it out, turned it around, brushed my blistered lips and carried on talking. He was too nervous to ask me if that hurt, and I wasn't going to dispel my image. I had to keep my self importance going. He must wonder if all playwrights eat cigarettes."
If it weren't for the inhibitions that make up what is termed English politeness, Alan Ayckbourn would never have anything to write about. His plays revolve around an unasked question, which, though it is probably only 'Who are you?', has none of the philosophical implications of, say, a Pirandello or a Brecht. But those are names that it is bitchy to bring up in this context; Alan Ayckbourn writes very nice, funny plays, and they all end up delighting the West End audiences.
Relatively Speaking and How The Other Half Loves both were tremendous London successes, the latter is still running. Relatively Speaking (1967) is about a case of mistaken identity, where a young man thinks his girlfriend's middle aged ex-lover is really her father and his wife almost gives the game away. How The Other Half Loves is about two couples, one rich, one struggling, the poor husband having an affair with the rich wife, while the stupidity of the rich husband and the irascibility of the poor wife help the confusion along, to say nothing of a mousey couple caught in the middle who get blamed for everything. These plays have been described as meringues, but, although I would not call them trifles, one might (to stay in the elementary vein) think of them as fry-ups, or perhaps very knotted spaghetti. The kind that only needs a determined soul with a knife to cut through the tangles and figure it all out. Which none of the characters do, so bent are their upon their own loss of face.
Time & Time Again, now at the Comedy is his twelfth play [1]; a little mellower than most of the ones he has written. He says he has a reputation for being a 'high jinks and technical-stuff writer', and admits to a fondness for off-stage action. This will be apparent when his latest play Absurd Person Singular comes down from Scarborough next year.
Were it not for his plays, there would be very little happening these days in the West End. Relatives of influential people write some quite sweet plays, but after a play, which shall remain nameless, in which a nice old lady is about to commit suicide in an equally nameless, mysteriously secret way, I tend to disregard what is said about the humour of nice-old-fashioned-drawing-room-comedies. There is none, unless it's to be found in the astringent Guardian reviews the next morning, but they do always drag in politics, don't they? Such nice young men too, I'm sure. But I digress.
Therefore, we have drawing room comedy, agonising both in the stalls and outside the french windows, and Otto Muhle killing pigs in Amsterdam and the French staging revolutions and Liquid Theatre dribbling all over the place, and what's a mum to do? Thank god for the marital infidelities of the Fosters and the Phillips (
How The Other Half Loves). I don't think that Alan Ayckbourn planned it that way, but his little comedies, written quite modestly to amuse bored wet holidaymakers in Scarborough, are making him the Neil Simon of England. Certainly, sitting in his living room in his London house, just a souvenir's throw from Keats' house, dressed in purple (Well, I was looking pretty odd that day myself), he doesn't have the wolf-hungry look in his eyes that those New York people called Sondheim and Simon (John too) wear as a badge of their fame. He scratches his scatty black hair and lunges into an apricot tart that his wife has made, almost missing it in his eagerness not to seem too hungry in front of this lady from Plays & Players.
"
Time & Time Again. It's a very odd play really, odd for me. Anybody who has seen the two others might expect to see a fair old mess-up, people mistaking each other for each other's grandfathers - that sort of thing. This is about a sort of misfit (Tom Courtenay) in a rather conventional family who thinks he has fallen in love with a girl who thinks she has fallen in love with him; and neither of them have really, and he finishes up without her. How's that for a plot; it really isn't a story. Some people say the ending is sad, others say it's about how men can do perfectly well without women if they have to. I don't think it's about that. Some people can do without some people. This just happened to finish the way it did. One avoided the boy gets girl ending because it was dishonest, having worked a whole play about two people who are not destined to get together."
He directed it at the Library Theatre in Scarborough last year - a theatre he has been writing for regularly - then Michael Codron bought it, and the London version is directed by Eric Thompson (
Journey's End).
"The interesting thing about
Time & Time Again is that I have upset the balance. The central character should be the driving force. I wanted to write a total vacuum, a central character who took no decisions, did nothing, everything was done for him and by simply taking no decisions he affects the whole course of the play. Doing nothing, he upsets about five lives. He comes through it in the most extraordinary way; everybody else ends up miserable. Like certain characters in life, he attracts people who have an irresistible impulse to push him in one direction, but he slides out of the push. Some people get angered by this type, others get concerned."
Looking uncertainly about him he offered me some more tea, and I asked him if he considered the part autobiographical. "A little bit. I have never made any decisions, they have always been made for me. I started out as an actor, and I was incredibly lucky, never out of work. Not that I was that good, but somehow I never wrote a letter or did an audition in my life, it just went from the end of one season to the beginning of another, bonk, bonk, bonk. Entirely due to circumstances and possibly because I never did take any action. I could look back on my life and say I planned it that way, but I didn't plan to be an actor, nor a director, nor a writer. They ran out of writers. I didn't plan to get married."
His first play came out of an argument that he was having with the manager of a theatre where he was working as a young actor. He complained about some West End cast-offs they were doing and said the dangerous words, "I could do better myself", and the manager offered to put it on if Alan Ayckbourn would appear in it. It was a farce about a pop singer.
[2]
From that he went on to a play called
Mr Whatnot [3], which was on at the Arts, and was also his first - and so far only - disaster. It was almost all mime, with which he could indulge in the wildest flights of fancy; a tea party turning into a war through a change of lights and buns becoming bombs, a tennis match with neither net nor balls. But, according to him, too much money was spent on It and it was just awful.
After that he spent three years developing what he calls his aural sense, producing radio plays for the BBC up at Leeds, where he lives most of the time. He believes in the small company system, actors working for months together and operating as a team.
"All my plays are written under tremendous pressure, which is why I still use Scarborough. I reckon that with a bit of luck I've got one play in me a year. That's all! I never write anything else. Even then I only do it under extreme protest. In February I make out a playlist for Scarborough and announce a play by me so I make up a title which usually has nothing to do with the play. This year we had literally started rehearsals before I wrote
Absurd Person Singular. I met the cast on a Sunday night in my house and mine was the second play that was going to be rehearsed in a fortnight. I suddenly got nervous, all these actors in the room saying "I'm dying to read yours" and they're asking me what sort of clothes are they going to need, and I'm saying "Well, sort of a suit, but it could be a pair of jeans."
Ayckbourn has no problems with plots; those crossed designs of different characters which seem to defeat most contemporary playwrights hold no mystery for him. He directs each play himself in the Library Theatre, which is set up each summer in the lecture room
[4] of Scarborough's library. Each play has, he says, an instinctive shape that one feels. Stephen Joseph who was director of production there, "and a giant of the then experimental in-the-round theatre", gave him this advice on plots: "You must have a central character A who wants B and if he gets it it's a comedy and if he doesn't then it's a tragedy." But he likes breaking rules; witness the Tom Courtenay character in the latest comedy who doesn't get what he wants.
He is most concerned with the new play
Absurd Person Singular, and keeps on telling me about the three kitchens he has written into it ("Driving the stage managers wild that is; three gas stoves. Just imagine all the props!"). It is a study of three couples; two who slide imperceptibly down, while the third keeps on coming up, and is about to take over the world in the fourth act (which isn't yet there).
"I like to keep ahead. I think it is just defensive on my part. One says 'Well,
Time & Time Again will be coming into London in three weeks and everybody may hate it.' Now if that was the last play I'd written I'd say where do I go from here, but I've got another one and I can say 'Well this is just an old play; I just know that my new one is the best ever' and so if they don't like the second best, well...."
His greatest admiration is for novelists, for the volume of words they turn out. His mother wrote books, and magazine articles, to keep them both after his father, a musician, had left them. Little Alan spent a good deal of time in the foyers of Women's magazines, and the woman's press club as a child, and while his mother was typing out their daily bread he would sit in a corner and write too. His writing now is so completely integrated into his Scarborough life that he sees it only as part of a chain. "You've got producers and directors and even audiences to consider, so you're only a sort of architect writer." The diffident 'you' is used when he talks about work; the first person singular being reserved for anecdotes.
How The Other Half Loves was, for him, an attempt to push back the frontiers of the much maligned light comedy; which he did by superimposing two sets, and having two dinner parties on two different nights in two different houses played simultaneously on the stage. Who knows what telescoping there will be in Time & Time Again? But one can be sure that what delighted Scarborough audiences, uncritical as they are, unsophisticated as they may be, will not fail to amuse the jaded, critical sophisticated Londoners. And the man who seems to have hit upon the philosopher's stone - well, perhaps not that, perhaps it's just the self raising flour that all playwrights are searching for (in the kitchens of their minds?) is still only 35 years old. So the avant-garde can breathe easy there is still time for a conversion. But I think that, versed as he is in the craft of making people laugh, he is not going to give up his nice little themes of marital infidelity and confusion for anything.
Talking about
Absurd Person Singular, he sums up what might be his view of life: "People who throw themselves into life with their emotions raw and really try to live it, often end up wrecks. If you really want to succeed, you don't have to look any further than the unimaginative, humourless, grabbing sort of guy, the opportunist who does not worry about other people's feelings, who looks neither to the left nor to right. One must be very lucky to not feel. I wish I were like that.'

Website Notes:
[1]
Time & Time Again is actually Alan Ayckbourn's 11th full length play.
[2] Alan Ayckbourn actually complained about a new play by the Library Theatre's resident playwright, David Campton, called
Ring Of Roses. The complaint led to Stephen Joseph commissioning Alan to write his first play, The Square Cat.
[3]
Mr Whatnot is actually Alan Ayckbourn's fifth play and was written in 1963, four years after The Square Cat.
[4] The Lecture Room at Scarborough Library was generally only converted to the Library Theatre for winter season performances when the larger Concert Room was not available.
Absurd Person Singular, like the vast majority of Alan's plays staged at the Library Theatre, was premiered in the Concert Room not the Lecture Room

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