Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 811

One of the most inventive dramatists of his day, Alan Ayckbourn (AYK-bawrn) has been compared to Neil Simon for his hilarious and prolific output of popular plays.{$S[A]Allen, Roland;Ayckbourn, Alan}

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Ayckbourn’s father, Horace, was a violinist for the London Symphony Orchestra; his mother, Irene, was a writer of romance fiction known by her pen name, Mary James. His parents divorced by the time he was four years old; when Ayckbourn was seven, his mother married a Sussex bank manager. There were no siblings, though he had a stepbrother who was several years younger. In an interview, he later said that his early life was not completely happy, elaborating that “the air was often blue, and things were sometimes flying across the kitchen.” Ayckbourn escaped some of his tempestuous home life when he began to attend boarding school at the age of seven, though he returned home on weekends. By the age of eleven, when he won a scholarship to a prestigious preparatory school, he was already writing plays for himself as an actor. While in school, he briefly toured Europe, Canada, and parts of the United States with a youth theater group.

In 1956, at the age of seventeen, Ayckbourn, having decided to become an actor, began to work in repertory theater. Of this time he once said that “I never, in all my years of acting, was ever unemployed.” During this period, he married Christine Roland, with whom he had two children.

Ayckbourn eventually found an artistic home with the Stephen Joseph Company in Scarborough. Joseph, the son of the well-known British actress Hermionie Gingold, had great respect for playwrights, and he encouraged Ayckbourn to write. One of Ayckbourn’s early experiences at that theater was playing a role for, and working closely with, Harold Pinter on The Birthday Party (1958). His brief relationship with Pinter influenced many of his views on the creation of character and dialogue. The fact that the Stephen Joseph Company performed many of its plays in-the-round, which was highly experimental at the time, helped to define Ayckbourn’s views of the importance of the relationship between actor and audience.

Ayckbourn’s first large-scale play, Mr. Whatnot, was produced in London in 1964. A play told partly in mime, it failed financially but marked the beginning of a long professional association between Ayckbourn and his agent, Margaret Ramsay.

Ignoring England’s West End as a venue for the opening of his plays, Ayckbourn remained loyal to the Stephen Joseph Company in Scarborough, choosing to write his plays to please audiences there rather than the more sophisticated London theatergoers. His plays, among them Relatively Speaking, How the Other Half Loves, and Absurd Person Singular, genre comedies dealing with the foibles and values of the English middle class, thus to some extent reflected the audiences in Scarborough, but they were enjoyed by audiences everywhere.

Ayckbourn’s style developed into an unusual combination of farce, quick-witted dialogue, and intricate—almost mathematically precise—plot devices. He became highly ingenious in discovering new and complicated ways to carry out the action of his plots. In How the Other Half Loves, for example, three couples play three simultaneous scenes on one set. At one point, all three couples are physically eating dinner at one table, though the characters are supposedly eating separate meals in separate homes.

Time and again, Ayckbourn took as his theme the pitfalls of marriage and combined that with his clever plotting. He has said that his plays often contain a “plumber in the cupboard. . . . While a couple tears their marriage apart, an innocent third party overhears it all and doesn’t know whether or not to come out.” In The Norman Conquests, a trilogy of three full-length plays, he achieved a balance between the bittersweet and the hilarious. Each of the plays takes place within exactly the same period of time, but each in a different room of a country house. When one character exits offstage, the offstage “scenes” can be seen in one of the other plays. Taken as a whole, and seen over three nights, the work gives a complete picture of a weekend in a British country house, complete with crumbling marriages and secret affairs.

Ayckbourn’s success on Broadway, in London, and around the world made him one of the wealthiest playwrights of his day. He regularly wrote one play a year, which gave him one of the largest repertoires of any playwright. Ayckbourn often investigates the pain of his characters’ mediocrity and the constraints placed on them by rigid British societal expectations. Though his characters fight bitterly and often feel great sadness, they do so amid some of the most intricately crafted and highly amusing plot devices ever constructed for the theater. In 1987, Ayckbourn was made a Commander of the British Empire (CBE), an honorary induction into a British order of knighthood.

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