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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 126

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Absurd Person Singular can be seen as an analysis of the vanity that defines the human condition. Alan Ayckbourn utilizes a domestic setting, a holiday defined by middle-class consumerism, and married couples in order to poke fun at our obsession with keeping appearances.

Each act takes place on Christmas Eve, inside a kitchen where most of the drama involving the couples occurs. By adding in the marriage dynamic, Ayckbourn is further suggesting that adhering to societal norms is one of the many ways in which humans compete with one another for the absurd purpose of stroking one's ego while ignoring their flaws. And that while marriage is depicted as being the melding of two souls, in the end, we are truly all about our own self-worth.

The Play

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1005

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 Hopcrofts’ gleaming showpiece. It has the usual homespun look of the comfortable, trendy middle-class home. In this untidy room, the scene opens on an equally unkempt Eva Jackson, who is intent upon writing something on a notepad. Geoffrey, her husband, is pleading with her to be reasonable and to let him go off and live with his mistress. He tries to arouse her pity by referring to his desire to be unfaithful as a dreadful burden, as if it were an affliction with which he was born. Eva remains silent, even when Geoffrey leaves to fetch the doctor for her. Next, Eva embarks on a series of ironically ridiculous suicide attempts in the presence of her guests: Sidney, Jane, Ronald, and Marion. They all manage in one way or another accidentally to deter Eva from killing herself, while remaining oblivious to what she is actually doing or to how she might feel.

In this act, Geoffrey establishes himself as a weak womanizer, Eva as one who has sunk to the depths of despair, and Ronald as impractical and still unable to control Marion. Sidney and Jane are unbearable as the neighborly do-gooders, with Jane repeating almost everything her husband says as if her life depended on it. The climax finds Jane pouring greasy water over Sidney, and Marion wondering why Ronald is looking so queer when she has just nonchalantly electrocuted him. Act 2 ends with Sidney losing control and yelling at Eva, who is as detached as she was at the start. Surprisingly, she begins to sing and ends up conducting the rest of the company from her prone position on the kitchen table. At that moment, Geoffrey returns.

The final act portrays Christmas future, and this time the scene is the kitchen of the Brewster-Wrights, who live in a large, fine Victorian house. The heating has broken down, but Ronald is reluctant to have it fixed. Marion has taken to spending all of her time in her room, with three electric fires blazing, and the scene hints that the Brewster-Wrights are not as affluent as they first appeared. Eva and Ronald seem on friendly terms, and Eva is a changed woman since Christmas Eve the year before. She is more demanding of her husband and more assertive generally. The Brewster-Wright marriage has definitely cooled. Ronnie remarks that he cannot quite understand why his first wife left him, and Marion’s drinking is worse than ever. Geoffrey has failed in a mission to recover some money owed to him, and Eva reprimands him for his weakness. They argue about the merits of borrowing from Sidney and about the social repercussions of the physical collapse of a building designed by Geoffrey.

Marion arrives in a negligee, still displaying her usual cutting humor, and maudlinly drunk. She is distracted from self-pity by a ring on the doorbell. There follows an excruciating scene in which those inside attempt to pretend that the room is empty and that no one is in, while the Hopcrofts, the unwanted guests, go to every length to invade the house and eventually succeed—much to the embarrassment of everyone else, caught in the act of trying to hide as Sidney finds the light switch. What follows is more Hopcroft insensitivity and tactlessness. They produce presents for the Brewster-Wrights but not for the Jacksons, and Sidney finally gets his wish (expressed two years previously) to have everyone play party games. Because he now is the most influential member of the party, instead of the one trying most to impress, he is able to carry it off.

Dramatic Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 451

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 observed to gain insight into these people’s lives, so the dialogue must be listened to and the silences noticed. Eva, for example, is the focus of act 2, yet she barely says a word. She simply utilizes the set to the full and eventually involves all the other characters in similarly ridiculous activities. The Potters have a status similar to that of the other couples but they are never seen. Ayckbourn uses them as a device to give the pretense of a party atmosphere, with their loud laughter, outside the kitchen setting.

The Jacksons’ dog adds to the farce and also serves to suggest a world beyond the kitchen. The dialogue itself creates myriad misunderstandings and reveals superbly what is socially important to the middle classes, as well as typifying how married people behave toward each other. There is much sexism from the men and a fair amount of subservience from the women, revealing a socially conditioned masculine bravado and a corresponding female desire to encourage it, with both sides believing themselves failures if they cannot live up to these roles. The hearth has always been the symbolic center of the home; in this “kitchen drama” Ayckbourn manages to reach the center of middle-class conditioning.


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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.


Critical Essays