Alan Ayckbourn (2459 words)

  • Paul Allen (Independent Scholar - Europe)

Alan Ayckbourn is the author of 70 full-length plays of which roughly half have been national and international successes, translated into more than 30 languages; five ran simultaneously in London’s West End and four simultaneously on Broadway, an unmatched record. He is thus the most popular of a generation of British playwrights who have chosen to deal with serious issues largely through comedy.

Alan Ayckbourn was born in Hampstead, London, a few months before the outbreak of World War II. His father was a prominent violinist and his mother a novelist and short story-writer. Unusually for the period, even for the more Bohemian classes, they never married, though Ayckbourn was unaware of this until his fifties. The relationship was full of separations, stormy and short-lived. Ayckbourn saw his father mainly on flying visits in his trademark open-topped sports car. Sitting beside his mother as she wrote at the kitchen table, hammering away at the small typewriter she bought to keep him quiet, he took it for granted that a woman might be a better breadwinner than a domestic provider and that a living could be made through creative writing. When she married her bank manager for financial security, however, he saw an assured and gifted woman enter a life of deep and increasing misery, and which culminated in a severe nervous breakdown, thus completing the emotional education which made Ayckbourn into the premier theatrical observer of man’s inhumanity to woman. Though he has since acknowledged that his mother was a difficult woman to live with, he had formed the mental habit of perceiving the world through his mother’s experience: in his plays, there crop up, again and again, somewhat raffish absent fathers, domineering authority figures and women whose sanity is threatened by men who bully them (or, more commonly, are completely insensitive to their needs).

Ayckbourn was writing and performing throughout his schooldays (he was a boarder at Haileybury public school), leaving with a modest academic record in 1956 to work for the veteran actor-manager Sir Donald Wolfit as an Assistant Stage Manager (including some acting) at the Edinburgh International Festival. In subsequent jobs in small repertory theatres (Worthing, Oxford, Leatherhead and Scarborough) he learned how to perform all the backstage tasks in theatre, especially sound recording, for which he retains a strong personal interest. In Scarborough he came under the influence of the theatre pioneer Stephen Joseph, a missionary for theatre-in-the-round which he had discovered in American campus theatres. Ayckbourn has inherited his fervour along with Joseph’s commitment to new writing. Joseph invited Harold Pinter, whose The Birthday Party had been mauled by the London drama critics, to direct his own work, and Ayckbourn, who appeared in that play, was to be profoundly influenced by the older man. It was typical of Joseph that in 1959 he should allow Ayckbourn, still only 20, to try his hand at directing and writing. After Joseph died in 1967, Ayckbourn eventually took over his role in running the Scarborough company that now bears Joseph’s name, and in due course bought his house too. Although he is world famous as a playwright, more of his time is taken up by his work directing plays and leading the company in this small seaside town.

The earliest plays of Alan Ayckbourn are no longer available for production, and reveal a writer chiefly concerned to give himself showy parts as an actor, but they also make plain his preoccupation with, and anger at, marriage as an institution into which social convention forced young people to make promises they could barely understand, let alone keep. It is no coincidence that he himself had married, at 20, the actress Christine Roland, who collaborated with him on his first scripts; she was pregnant at the time. His first play to be seen in London was Mr Whatnot in 1964, which contained no acting role for himself but was still designed to show off his skills as a director and stage magician; the principal character is a piano-tuner who never speaks but mimes his actions (to well over 100 sound cues) and casually destroys the wedding celebration of an aristocratic country-house where he ends up in bed with the bride. It failed in London in a misguided production but has been successfully revived since.

It was with Relatively Speaking (Scarborough 1965, London 1967) that he established a pattern that was to dominate British theatre for more than two decades. The situation is cleverly contrived: Ginny and Greg are happily in love but she is still being pursued by a married former lover who possesses embarrassing letters from her. Unable to tell Greg about him and that she is going to try to get the letters back, she pretends to be going to visit her parents to tell them she wants to marry him. After a mix-up with a taxi it is Greg who gets to the house and “parents” first, assuming that the woman’s assertion that she has no daughter means she has puritanically cast Ginny aside for having sex before marriage. The narrative development is chiefly to do with mistaken identity, but the play develops as a comedy of character rather than plotting, and allows Ayckbourn to show both the bitter disillusion of the middle-aged and how poorly-founded is the unshakeable optimism of young lovers (an unexplained pair of slippers suggests that Ginny has other secrets from Greg).

Most assessments of Ayckbourn’s work argue that he began as a comedian or even farceur, writing about the middle classes for the middle classes, and turned to darker subjects and a darker mode as the years went by. In fact his only real farce is Taking Steps (1979) and even that deals with the possibility of suicide; and the modulation of class in his plays is as complex as the British class system itself and it never swamps the wider human relevance of his subjects. It is not only middle-class men who shut themselves away with their gadgets as their wives grow gradually more desperate. Viewed with hindsight, the plays reveal his anger from the outset. This anger is not compromised but it is sometimes obscured by the volume of laughter and the sheer ingenuity of the story-telling: the scene in How the Other Half Loves (1969) which shows two dinner parties in two different houses on different evenings simultaneously, with one couple present at both; the trilogy of plays in The Norman Conquests (1973) which show the events of one week-end as they develop in the living room, dining room and garden respectively of a house in the country; the way Time of My Life (1992) unfolds its story both backwards and forwards from the family dinner party to which it keeps returning or House and Garden (1999), which trumped The Norman Conquests by being played simultaneously in two adjacent theatres with characters leaving the set of one by the French windows and arriving at the ornamental pond in the other. Sometimes casually dismissed as safe or conventional, in fact Ayckbourn makes every play an experiment: in Garden one character plays an entire scene in French but the character is so adroitly written that the audience understands it completely and never feels it is being experimented upon. Although Ayckbourn is wholly committed to drama as a form, he is also driven to test its nature as an artificial construct. Aware that life does not divide into two-hour segments in which a handful of characters’ lives revolve round each other – and only each other – until a resolution is reached, he often leaves plays hanging, their characters facing an uncertain future, barely at the centre of their own lives, let alone anyone else’s.

What is true is that as his career has developed Ayckbourn has found other preoccupations besides marriage, though the nature of human relationships continues to provide not only much of the comedy but also the very texture of the plays. Way Upstream (1981) was set on a small boat on the River Orb as it headed to Armageddon Bridge and was a parable of good and evil. A Small Family Business (1987) anatomised the enterprise culture of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain through the fortunes of a small company whose idealistic new boss finds himself endorsing the drugs trade. Man of the Moment(1988) was both funny about the actual workings of a television programme and furious about a culture in which a criminal could become more of a celebrity than the decently inarticulate hero who thwarts him. But from the beginning, Ayckbourn’s great craft has been to generate the volume of comedy that has, on occasion, burst the backstage loudspeaker systems of theatres and then, in a split second, jerk the emotional carpet from under the audience’s feet so that we are appalled to realise what we have been laughing at: the sometimes suicidal misery of the victims of others’ selfishness or their own emotional ineptitude. He achieves this not through one-liners fired off in Neil Simon-style gags or Wildean paradoxes but by gradually building a wholly recognisable world through broadly naturalistic dialogue and then suddenly shifting the audience’s perspective. A vulgar, drunken businessman at whom we can all jeer is seen to crumple at the prospect of losing his wife. A bossy and obsessive woman who seems to deserve the full-blooded mockery of others is revealed to have a husband who pretends not to know the names of his own children: as she admits to “nervous trouble” the laughter dies in our throats. Ayckbourn’s influences – Ibsen, Chekhov, Pinter – all lead him to create a world (even when he sets a play in the future, even when he pushes the theatre to its most filmic possibilities) in which there is a fully self-contained logic; if not realism exactly, a reasonable conviction. Only occasionally do his plays deal with matters of life and death, but from the start they have dealt with the things that can drive any of us insane with unhappiness.

If they show any underlying philosophy it is a version of the Judaeo-Christian story of the Fall of Man: life is potentially something akin to paradise but we muck it up. This is not necessarily through malice, though this exists, but more often through the kind of hapless destruction wrought by seemingly innocent young men who never quite say “no” to malice. Ayckbourn is never linked to the group of writers defined as Angry Young Men, who emerged in the mid-1950s and 1960s, but in Comic Potential (1998) a veteran and embittered film director, now reduced to working on television soap operas with carefully programmed robots instead of actors, gives an intermittent master class in comedy. Its first secret is surprise, he says, and gives a copybook demonstration of a custard pie in the face, which will be mimicked later by a robot actor on a ruthless television executive. Nobody asks what the second secret is, so he tells them anyway, before walking out: “anger”. It is not so much an attitude expressed in the plays as the source of their energy. But perhaps the most personal of all Ayckbourn’s plays is Woman in Mind (1985) which, at its conception, was to be about a man but which somehow morphed during the writing. A vicar’s wife, and therefore expected to be a model of sanity as well as morality, Susan is going mad because she is no longer needed; her husband is wrapped up in his history of the parish, her sister-in-law has taken over the kitchen (disastrously using Earl Grey tea to make an omelette aux fines herbes) and her son is embarrassed by her. She is hallucinating, has lost control of her own language and there is nobody to give her the help she needs except one of Ayckbourn’s feckless doctors who is also a secret admirer. Inspired by the author’s mother but also his own moments of angry depression, this funny but bleak revelation of the deep unhappiness of women the world scarcely notices is as much one of the defining plays of its time as the more obviously public-themed works juxtaposed to it.

In 1986 Ayckbourn took a sabbatical from running the theatre in Scarborough to join Peter Hall at the Royal National Theatre in London. A Small Family Business would be the first play premiered elsewhere since Mr Whatnot, which had opened in Stoke-on-Trent. At the National he directed a memorable production, endorsed by the author, of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge and the wider theatre world was alerted to his qualities as a director. Ayckbourn had already been writing musicals, largely to add to his programming range in Scarborough, and shortly after this he began to write plays aimed not exclusively at children but at families who might want to introduce children to the theatre. Owing nothing to the subdued agit-prop and issue-based drama of much theatre-in-education, or the ambiguous content and tawdry glamour of pantomime, these plays recognise that the core quality of theatre – imagining and representing – is a staple of children’s lives so that, as long as the internal logic is adhered to, his young audiences will “get” imaginative narratives faster than adults: heaven help the playwright, he has remarked, who invites an audience of children to accept a set of rules and then breaks them himself.

In 1987 Alan Ayckbourn was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) and ten years later he was knighted by the Queen. He and Christine Roland divorced in 1997, after living apart for many years, and he married Heather Stoney. Some of his plays have been produced on radio (a medium he worked in for six years in the 1960s), television and in the cinema, but he has played very little part in the process and is generally unimpressed by the results, remaining thoroughly preoccupied by theatre. The regular pattern of plays opening in Scarborough and transferring to London the following year and then maybe New York was never as automatic as it seemed and his three plays known collectively as Damsels in Distress (2002) led to a falling out with his usual commercial producer Michael Codron. In the last few years, after plays have premiered in Scarborough, the original productions and companies (without “star” names) have successfully toured England and, in the case of Private Fears in Public Places (2004), gone on to great acclaim in off-Broadway New York, leading one American critic to suggest he and his colleagues should all make a bee-line for Scarborough.

In 1992 Ayckbourn followed Stephen Sondheim and Ian McKellen as the Cameron Mackintosh Visiting Professor of Contemporary Theatre at the University of Oxford and the highly practical workshops he led were followed in 2002 by publication of his book, The Crafty Art of Playmaking (Faber and Faber).

Allen, Paul. "Alan Ayckbourn". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 23 February 2006
[, accessed 30 April 2017.]

Save this article

If you need to create a new bookshelf to save this article in, please make sure that you are logged in, then go to your 'Account' here.