Alan Ayckbourn 1939-
English playwright and lyricist. See also Alan Ayckbourn Criticism (Volume 5), and Volumes 8, 18.
One of Great Britain's most popular and prolific playwrights, Ayckbourn is best known for his intricately plotted and inventively staged plays that explore daily middle-class life and marriage. In works that successfully balance tragic subject matter with comic events, Ayckbourn frequently centers on what he perceives as the monotony and emotional torment underlying his characters' lives and examines such themes as loneliness, unintentional cruelty and self-interest.
Ayckbourn was born April 12, 1939, in London. Influenced by his mother, a romance-fiction writer, Ayckbourn began writing at an early age. He attended Haileybury School in 1952, devoting most of his time to writing plays and acting. Ayckbourn toured with several repertory companies and worked as assistant stage manager before he began his relationship with the Studio Theatre Company in the small resort town of Scarborough. There Ayckbourn gained experience in all aspects of theater under the direction of Stephen Joseph, an innovative stage manager who had introduced the concept of theater-in-the-round to England. During this period, Ayckbourn wrote several light comedies that he had admittedly created as vehicles to advance his own acting career. Ayckbourn's first significant work, Standing Room Only (1961), which concerns a London bus driver and his family who are caught in a twenty-year traffic jam, is his only absurdist drama. After receiving harsh reviews for Xmas v. Mastermind (1962) and Mr. Whatnot (1963), Ayckbourn took a financially secure position at the BBC in 1965, producing radio dramas while concurrently writing plays for the theater. His first success came when the farce Relatively Speaking (1967) opened in London to wide critical acclaim.
Ayckbourn's prolific output prompted numerous critics to remark that his total number of plays now surpasses that of Shakespeare. Many of Ayckbourn’s plays present the foibles of middle-class married life within the structure of the “well-made” play. For example, in such early plays as Relatively Speaking (1967) and How the Other Half Loves (1969), Ayckbourn utilizes the conventions of mistaken identities and misunderstandings, complicated plots and precisely timed exits and entrances to humorously explore marital infidelities. How the Other Half Loves also presents a good example of how Ayckbourn uses staging techniques to transcend space and time. The play has two separate settings that are superimposed onstage so that actions occurring in different places at different times are seen simultaneously. Time and Time Again (1971) and Absurd Person Singular (1972) mark the beginning of plays in which Ayckbourn created more fully developed characters in the context of what he termed “the truly hilarious dark play.” Absurd Person Singular, for instance, concerns three unhappily married couples who take turns entertaining one another on three successive Christmas Eves. One of the wives repeatedly attempts suicide by various ludicrous means in front of the other guests while they remain cruelly unaware of her pain. A Small Family Business (1987), which depicts the moral decline of an entire family through a series of humorous and complicated plot twists, is, nevertheless, noted for its unhappy conclusion: a drug-addicted daughter sits alone in her room injecting heroin while downstairs her family celebrates their entry into the drug trade. Continuing to emphasize the dark side of everyday existence, Woman in Mind (1985) charts the mental breakdown of Susan, the wife of a self-centered pastor. At first she fantasizes about an ideal family; however, her fantasy world eventually degenerates into uncontrollable hallucinations, and she is left utterly alone as her real family remains oblivious to her emotional needs.
Though Ayckbourn's reputation is based primarily on his ability to write entertaining comedies, most critics agree that his plays convey serious themes concerning the failures and tragedies of ordinary life as well as the moral and cultural decline of society. In particular, such plays as A Small Family Business and Woman in Mind not only depict the foibles of individuals, but are noted for addressing such social issues as drug abuse, the shortcomings Ayckbourn perceives in organized religion, and the manipulative qualities of the media, most evident in Man of the Moment (1988), in which a villainous character is made a hero by television journalists. Characterizing Ayckbourn's critical status, Michael Billington called him “the best comic dramatist since Molière,” while Peter Hall has asserted that, “in 100 years' time, when he's forgiven for being successful, people will read his plays as an accurate reflection of English life in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. They represent a very important social document.”