The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Absurd Person Singular takes place on the Christmas Eve of three consecutive years—past, present, and future—when three couples gather to celebrate the festive season. Each act takes place in a kitchen, with the events taking place in the rest of the house authenticated by offstage noises, the raucous laughter of Dick and Lottie Potter, who in fact never show their faces, and the Jacksons’ large, gruff-sounding dog.

Act 1 is set in the kitchen of Jane and Sidney Hopcroft. Husband and wife are in a state of panic, anxious to impress their guests. Sidney is struggling to climb the social ladder, whereas Geoffrey Jackson and Ronald Brewster-Wright are already successful businessmen. As Sidney and Jane bungle their way through the evening, the other characters find themselves in the kitchen for varying reasons, usually farcical. One of the first to appear, Marion, appears attractive but cynical. Her laudatory remarks about the Hopcrofts’ kitchen are so exaggerated as to be sarcastic and false, and her attitude epitomizes the overly polite scorn which the upper middle class feels for the merely respectable middle class. Ronald, her husband, is by contrast pleasant and relaxed, but incapable of standing up to Marion.

When they return to the living room, Jane Hopcroft enters the kitchen in a state of utter dismay; she has forgotten to buy tonic water. Always ready to play the martyr, she dons a ridiculous outfit consisting of a huge raincoat, a trilby hat, and outsized Wellington boots. In this ensemble, she launches herself out the back door, only to find herself exiled from the party for the rest of the evening. Her absence is remarked on only with the utmost politeness, and the evening continues with everyone being exceedingly nice to one another. Act 1 gives the audience an insight into the characters’ personalities as well as the relationships existing among the three couples. Eva Jackson establishes herself as a self-confessed pill addict, whose husband has led her to believe that she will go insane without tablets and who thinks that she is a spare part in their marriage. Only the Hopcrofts appear to have a stable marriage, based as it is on the purely practical. The act closes with the guests gone and Jane once again polishing the spotless kitchen surfaces, her equilibrium restored.

Act 2 is set in the present, this time in the kitchen of Geoffrey and Eva Jackson, which proves to be quite a contrast to the...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

In Absurd Person Singular, Alan Ayckbourn adopts the scheme made famous by Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843). The purpose of the scheme is to show the role of fortune in the lives of the three couples, but Ayckbourn’s approach is notably more realistic than that of Dickens. There is no magical formula or divine intervention to teach the characters the error of their ways: Real life is not like that. Modern middle-class life is a backbiting competition to keep up with one’s peers, and if one fails no one else will care; marriage is the same. The choice appears to be between alienation and participation in a set of corrupt social rules.

This realism is enforced by the set in each act. It is unusual to set a drama in a series of kitchens, but this stratagem illustrates Ayckbourn’s deliberate attempt to get right to the heart of English provincial domesticity, coupled with his desire to show the idiosyncrasies of each family through their physical surroundings. Each couple’s relationship is like their kitchen, and that relationship in turn dominates the act in which their particular kitchen is the setting. Ayckbourn economizes, however, by showing the social abilities of the other two pairs in relation to the pair on show. Thus, for example, in act 2 the desperation of Eva and the philandering of Geoffrey are obvious, but so is the insensitivity of the Hopcrofts.

As the detail of culinary scenery must be...

(The entire section is 451 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Bentley, Eric. The Life of the Drama. New York: Atheneum, 1964.

Dukore, Bernard. Alan Ayckbourn: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1991.

Hayman, Ronald. British Theatre Since 1955. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Joseph, Stephen. Theatre in the Round. New York: Taplinger, 1968.

Kerensky, Oleg. The New British Drama: Fourteen Playwrights Since Osborne and Pinter. London: Hamilton, 1977.

Page, Malcolm, ed. File on Ayckbourn. London: Methuen, 1989.

Tynan, Kenneth. Curtains: Selections from the Drama Criticism and Related Writings. New York: Atheneum, 1961.

Watson, Ian. Conversations with Ayckbourn. 1981. Rev. ed. Boston: Faber and Faber, 1988.