The Crafty Art of Alan Ayckbourn
Of the plays that opened on Broadway last season, the one that stirred the most talk was the British revival of The Norman Conquests, Alan Ayckbourn’s 1973 comic triptych about the travails of a quarreling suburban family. Not only did the production, which transferred to New York from London in April, win a Best Revival Tony, but it met with critical favor on both sides of the Atlantic. Richard Zoglin, writing in Time, went so far as to call Ayckbourn “the greatest living English-language playwright.” While few other reviewers were prepared to make so sweeping a claim, it was evident that the author of The Norman Conquests is now seen as an artist of the first rank.
What is striking about this development is that it came so late in the playwright’s career. In England, the 70-year-old Ayckbourn had long been dismissed as a prolific purveyor of joke-slinging, crowd-pleasing comedies for suburbanites, and it is only in recent years that English drama critics have started to forgive him his popularity. In America, Ayckbourn’s profile is much lower—The Norman Conquests was the first of his plays since 1979 to have a successful Broadway run—and despite the efforts of a stalwart band of critical advocates, including Zoglin, Frank Rich, and John Simon, he is still widely viewed here as the English counterpart to Neil Simon, a light-minded farceur whose idiom is too distinctively British to go over with American audiences.
In fact, Ayckbourn’s plays are regularly staged by such noted regional companies as Connecticut’s Westport Country Playhouse, Theatre Three in Dallas, and the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, which has performed The Norman Conquests not once but twice. But few New York–based drama critics are aware of Ayckbourn’s popularity elsewhere in America, and it was only when his Private Fears in Public Places (2004) was produced off-Broadway in 2005 that he began to attract the critical attention that led four years later to the Broadway transfer of The Norman Conquests.
Why has it taken so long for Ayckbourn to win recognition as a playwright of importance? One reason is that comic artists rarely find it easy to persuade critics of their underlying artistic seriousness. In the case of Ayckbourn, however, another factor is in play. Unlike most comic dramatists, he specializes in funny plays about sad people, unsettlingly dark farces whose middle-class characters lead lives of frustration and regret. That he should play their sorrow for laughs—and do it so well—can be disorienting to playgoers who regard comedy as little more than a species of diversion. Few of his plays, and none of the best ones, come down decisively on either side of the line that is widely (and wrongly) thought to separate comedy from tragedy.
Like most comic artists, Ayckbourn came from a family whose foibles would furnish him with much of the subject matter for his work.1 Born in 1939, he was the illegitimate son of Lolly Worley, a sexually adventurous woman who made a living writing short stories for women’s magazines. Lolly met and fell in love with Alan’s father, an orchestral violinist, when she was 13, married another man at 24, left him for Horace Ayckbourn a few years later, and gave birth at 33 to Alan without bothering to wed his already-married father. The couple parted ways soon afterward, and Lolly raised Alan alone until 1948, when she married a bank manager who had a son of his own.
Ayckbourn would describe his childhood as “lonely but not particularly miserable,” a typically wry bit of phrasing that hints at the nature of his relationship with his mother, who (in his words) “gave me far more complexes, hang-ups, phobias, prejudices, inspirations, and self-insights than any writer has a write to expect from a parent.” She treated him capriciously, making it clear that motherly love was low on her scale of priorities.
Theater, the most social of art forms, has provided countless lonely teenagers with substitute families, and Ayckbourn took to it early and unhesitatingly. He made his first stage appearance at 15, decided to become an actor instead of going to college, and by 1957 was working under -Stephen Joseph, the founder of a theater company in Scarborough, a smallish seaside resort town in Yorkshire. The son of one of Lolly’s lovers (his mother was the actress Hermione Gingold, who sang the duet “I Remember It Well” with Maurice Chevalier in Gigi), Joseph encouraged Ayckbourn to write plays of his own. After a string of variably successful attempts, the young author produced a mistaken-identity farce called Relatively Speaking that opened in Scarborough in 1965, moving to London’s West End two years later. Noël Coward called it “beautifully constructed and very funny,” and the public agreed. The commercial success of Relatively Speaking and How the Other Half Loves (1969), Ayckbourn’s second hit, established him as one of England’s most popular playwrights.
Unlike most commercial playwrights, Ayckbourn was interested in staging his own work, as well as that of other authors, and five years after Stephen Joseph’s death, in 1967, he became the artistic director of the Scarborough Library Theatre, the company founded by his mentor that performs in the round. All but four of the 72 full-length plays that he has written to date have been premiered by the Stephen Joseph Theatre (as the company is now known). Though 40 of them would later transfer from Scarborough to London, Ayckbourn has remained unshakably loyal to the theater and the city that gave him his start.
The fact that Ayckbourn has spent virtually the whole of his writing career simultaneously running a regional theater has conditioned his approach to what he calls “the crafty art of playmaking” (the title of his 2002 book about writing and directing). Not only are most of his plays intended for presentation in the round on an intimate scale by starless ensemble casts, but they are written with the goal of entertaining their audiences. As Ayckbourn has explained:
I’ve always had audiences if not uppermost then at least prominent in my mind. I would never dream of writing a play unless I considered what the audience might or might not enjoy at some stage. I might then decide to baffle them or push it a bit beyond them but I would always have them in the frame.
But if Ayckbourn is an audience-aware pragmatist, then he is one with a strong experimental streak. Fascinated in his youth by the avant-garde dramaturgy of Eugène Ionesco and Luigi Pirandello, he is drawn to conceptual storytelling techniques so stylized as to approach the surreal. The best-known example is The Norman Conquests, which consists of three interlocking plays that feature the same six characters and take place during the same period of time—a single weekend—set in different parts of the same country house.
Even in Ayckbourn’s more conventionally structured plays, nothing can be taken at face value. In Time of My Life (1992), the curtain goes up on a birthday party whose six guests appear to be enjoying themselves. But as the author explains in his preface, the surface appearance of happiness is as deceptive as the way in which he manipulates the play’s chronology to show what is really happening on stage:
My intention was to perceive a single moment in life—in this case where the characters are apparently very happy. I then proceed to look at that moment through the eyes of the three pairs of protagonists. One pair remaining for two hours in the present, one pair proceeding two years into the future and one pair receding two months into the past.
What sounds fearsomely knotty in the telling, however, proves to be wholly lucid in the playing. Within minutes, it becomes obvious that the members of the Stratton family are at war with one another, and the more we learn about their uneasy past and unsure future, the more clearly we see how hollow their present laughter is.
The bleakness of Time of My Life is quintessentially Ayckbournian, as is the quicksilver brilliance of its comic invention. “The darker the subject,” he wrote in The Crafty Art of Playmaking, “the more light you must try to shed on the matter. And vice versa.” For all their irresistible humor, most of his best plays are studies of middle-class marriages on the brink of collapse, comedies with unhappy endings whose jokes all cut to the quick. “I’m wondering which is the cleanest and quickest way to finish myself off,” asks a character in The Norman Conquests, to which his brother-in-law replies, “Well, don’t get married. That’s long and messy.”
Not that Ayckbourn is much given to joking. Almost without exception, his plays are pure comedies of situation whose humor arises from the interaction of plot and characterization, and they work best when staged in accordance with his own oft-quoted advice to “concentrate on the truth of the scene. Let the comedy take care of itself.” The funniest scene in Absurd Person Singular (1972), for instance, is an extended piece of slapstick in which one of the characters tries repeatedly but unsuccessfully to commit suicide. It is impossible not to laugh at her increasingly preposterous attempts—but no less impossible to forget that she is totally in earnest.
As Ayckbourn has grown older, his “comedies” have grown bleaker still. Private Fears in Public Places, written in 54 crisply cinematic scenes and acted on a small stage divided into five playing areas, tells the stories of six lonely Londoners whose lives intersect in a variety of unpredictable ways, some zany (one of the characters is a Bible-toting secretary who turns out to be an amateur stripper) and others desperately sad. What makes the play far more than a farce-flavored comedy is the slate gray background of disappointment against which the six characters do their dance of thwarted love.
The profound seriousness of Ayckbourn’s portraits of love gone wrong has always been visible to those with eyes to see. Yet it has only been in the past few years that he has begun to be compared to the great playwrights of the past who are the logical reference points for anyone seeking to gauge his theatrical achievement.
Kevin Spacey, the American film actor who made it one of his first priorities to revive The Norman Conquests when he assumed the artistic directorship of the Old Vic in 2003, set the bar high in a recent interview:
His reputation has suffered from the snobbery of others. Because he writes comedies, there is the incorrect assumption that he is not part of the same canon as Beckett or Chekhov or Mamet, writers to whom he is closer to in terms of the genius with which he weaves webs between his characters.
To my mind, it is Spacey’s mention of Anton Chekhov that is most telling. Specifically, I find it impossible to think of The Norman Conquests without also recalling The Cherry Orchard, Chekhov’s tale of a family of feckless Russian aristocrats at the end of their financial rope. The playwright himself is known to have disliked the first production of his theatrical masterpiece, directed by Konstantin Stanislavsky in 1904, claiming that its unrelievedly tragic tone was ill-suited to what he intended as “a comedy, in places even a vodevil.” Scholars generally translate that last word not as “vaudeville” but as “farce,” which leads most English-speaking readers to expect something altogether different from the elusive commingling of humor and melancholy that is The Cherry Orchard. Like The Tempest or Jean Renoir’s film The Rules of the Game, Chekhov’s masterpiece is many things at once—a tale of class conflict, a meditation on middle age and its discontents—but it is also a comedy, and any production of The Cherry Orchard that fails to bring out this aspect is foredoomed to failure.
Could it be that Ayckbourn is “the Chekhov of our time,” as Matthew Warchus, the director of the Old Vic revival of The Norman Conquests, has claimed? At the very least, I believe he is not a commercial playwright but a kind of poet, a craftsman of genius who never lets you forget for a moment that his often ludicrous characters, like Chekhov’s, are trapped in a world that has failed to live up to their expectations. His work is full of breathtaking moments of stillness when the laughter dies away and all you can hear is the keening sound of sorrow.
1 Ayckbourn is the subject of a very fine journalistic biography, Paul Allen’s Alan Ayckbourn: Grinning at the Edge (2001), on which I have drawn extensively in writing this essay.