With labels flourishing during the new era in drama (Osborne’s angry theater, Beckett’s Theater of the Absurd, Pinter’s comedy of menace, Arnold Wesker’s kitchen-sink drama), Alan Ayckbourn, too, has been honored with his own label, the comedy of embarrassment , based on the increasingly black comedy in his later farces. The term derives from the unease of audiences as their laughter is deflected by the intrusion of realities underlying that hilarity. For example, the accidental murders in A Small Family Business and Man of the Moment obtrude through the farce, giving it a hollow ring. This jarring union of farce and tragedy, alien to standard farce expectations, in fact, is subtly present even in early comedies such as How the Other Half Loves, markedly so in A Chorus of Disapproval, and shatteringly so in A Small Family Business and Man of the Moment. Ayckbourn has become the hilarious tragedian of contemporary life, not unlike Ben Jonson, whose seventeenth century farces about greed seem ancestors to Ayckbourn’s. Ayckbourn met the charges of early critics who faulted him for his commercially viable formula plays, commenting that one “cannot begin to shatter theatrical conventions or break golden rules until he is reasonably sure in himself what they are and how they were arrived at.” The rules to which Ayckbourn is referring are the time-honored ones practiced by Greeks and Romans, Shakespeare, Jonson, Molière, George Bernard Shaw, and Oscar Wilde.
With the acknowledged influence of William Congreve, Wilde, Georges Feydeau, Anton Chekhov, Noël Coward, Terence Rattigan, J. B. Priestley, and Pinter, Ayckbourn has forged a style of old and new that has given his plays their unique quality. Using the farce conventions of his predecessors, he has experimented with the mechanics of traditional plotting by challenging its limits and extending its boundaries. One of his most noticeable changes in farce techniques is his avoidance of the linear movement of the plot and his replacing it with a sense of indefiniteness. The outcome is a circular movement, resulting in a play structure that is more akin to the static quality of Chekhov’s plots than to the active one of Wilde’s and Shaw’s plays. His disarrangement of linear plot lines creates the illusion of a standard farce, deceiving the audience in its usual comic expectations. His technique is partly explained by the tripling, sometimes quadrupling, of the number of potentially comic couples or comic situations in the conventional farce. The standard use of the double takes what seems a quantum leap in Ayckbourn’s farces.
The tripling extends to the overall architecture of plays, a number of them taking the form of trilogies. In The Norman Conquests, each of the three plays treats the same character and situations, one being the offstage action of what happens onstage in another. The order of performance of the three plays, thus, is of little consequence, for each is essentially repetitious of the other two. The chief difference among them is their locale: One occurs in the dining room, the second in the living room, and the third in the garden. The difference is diversionary, suggesting a traditional plot movement where there really is none. Ayckbourn’s trilogy Sisterly Feelings goes even further in its structural inventiveness, with each play’s conclusion in a given performance being determined arbitrarily by a member of the cast. Still another sometimes confusing plot invention is Ayckbourn’s use of the same stage space at the same time by two or more different sets of characters (frequently couples), most prominently illustrated in How the Other Half Loves, Bedroom Farce, and Taking Steps. The single most famous of these scenes, in How the Other Half Loves, involves two different dinner parties by two different middle-class couples (one having achieved social status and the other desperately trying to do so) seated at the same table, their only common element a third couple who are the guests at both dinners.
Ayckbourn’s ingenious plotting strategies provide him ample room to comment on his favorite theme: a satire on the foibles of individuals functioning in suburbia, his chosen slice of middle-class society. His satire has its brief, unrelieved grim moments as in A Small Family Business and Henceforeward, plays in which the families’ children become victims of the pervasive greed of individuals and their society and are helpless to extricate themselves. The artificially happy ending of a farce is replaced by a realistically sober ending in which the comic surfaces of the plot are maintained, even as they cannot disguise the underlying tragic realities. Thus the play stylistically satisfies the farce’s requirement for a happy ending while substantively changing the genre to an ironic farce at its best and a black comedy at its most pessimistic. It is appropriate that the title of one of Ayckbourn’s late plays, The Revengers’ Comedies, derives from Thomas Middleton’s seventeenth century title The Revenger’s Tragedy (pr. 1606-1607, pb. 1607), with the obvious parallel of the earlier era with Thatcherite England of the 1980’s.
The traditional purpose of comedy has been to reveal and thereby correct the vices of the society that it portrays by exposing them (usually with a deus ex machina ending), thereby bringing about correction of behavior in that society. The exposure involves stereotypical characters whose mechanical behavior engenders laughter. Mere exposure is the punishment for the perpetrator of the vice, either reform or prison frequently being the result of that exposure. The vices of the age have no such corrective results in Ayckbourn’s farces.
In his exposure of rampant acquisitiveness, however, Ayckbourn does realize half of the farceur’s aim. At the same time, he admits to an unease about the corrective results of prevailing farces. Of the Thatcherite regime he says, “It’s no coincidence that you hardly ever see members of the present Government in the theatre. . . . The arts and gentle, civilized living are rapidly being downgraded for the fast buck. It has a narrowing effect. It creates an uncaringness.”
The traditional purpose of tragedy has been to cleanse the body politic of its moral stain and to affirm life through increased self-knowledge on the part of the hero, a process in which guilty and innocent alike suffer. As realistic rather than stereotypical characters who embody the values of their respective societies, characters evoke, according to Aristotelian precepts, pity and fear in the polis even as they endure individual punishments and rewards. There is no such individual or collective affirmation in Ayckbourn’s plays. Again, the darker elements only continue in their nonresolution, in character-generated farces, such as Jack McCracken of A Small Family Business and Douglas Beechey of Man of the Moment. Societally, business and mass-media corrupters conspire in their lack of awareness of the morality or immorality of their actions. Individually and collectively, characters continue in a context in which punishment and rewards in a moral sense do not exist.
Ayckbourn regards Absurd Person Singular with its three Christmas Eve celebrations as his first “offstage action” play, one in which two socially aspiring couples land in the thick of adversities of the most successful couple. The offstage importance increases with every play, with further inability on the part of the characters to extricate themselves from their adversities. For example, the celebratory tableaulike ending to A Small Family Business coexists with a tableau of the young daughter in her drug-induced pain in the bathroom. John Peter describes an Ayckbourn play as “a requiem scored for screams and laughter.”
As a dark farceur par excellence of contemporary suburbia, as an ongoing reinventor of farce technique, and as the most prolific of a huge number of new dramatists in the second half of the twentieth century, Ayckbourn continues to be a force on the world stage.
Ayckbourn’s first London success, Relatively Speaking, illustrates his roots in the traditional mechanics of the well-made farce, such as abundant coincidences, well-timed exits and entrances, complicated romantic intrigues, central misunderstandings, quid pro quos, secrets known to the audience but not to the characters, and the crucial use of an object to progress the plot. At the same time, Ayckbourn rejects the suspense-creating, teeter-totter action, the big revelatory scene, and the ending that neatly ties together the loose ends of the plot. Instead, as a keen observer and creator of character, he treats familial and marital situations whose problems are revealed rather than resolved. The results are Chekhov-like revelations of states of being, contained within the guise of farce and an increasingly bitter satire on the moral bankruptcy of contemporary society. Deceptively embodied in the local, his farce is ultimately universal in its depiction of human foibles that know no bounds of time or place.
With echoes of the exploits of Oscar Wilde’s Jack and Ernest in The Importance of Being Earnest (pr. 1895, pb. 1899), Relatively Speaking, a four-character play, involves a young unmarried couple who set off for the country, each for secret reasons withheld from the other. Ginny wishes to retrieve letters from her former lover (and employer) to put a definite end to that affair. Unbeknown to her, Greg, her current lover, suspicious because of the flowers and chocolates cluttering Ginny’s flat and the address he notices on her cigarette pack (like the cigarette case in Wilde’s play), follows her on a...
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