Alan Ayckbourn Ayckbourn, Alan - Essay


(Drama Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.”

Principal Works

(Drama Criticism)

The Square Cat [as Roland Allen] 1959

Love After All [as Roland Allen] 1959

Dad’s Tale [as Roland Allen] 1960

Standing Room Only [as Roland Allen] 1961

Xmas v. Mastermind 1962

Mr. Whatnot 1963

Meet My Father 1965 [also performed as Relatively Speaking] 1967

The Sparrow 1967

*Mixed Doubles: An Entertainment on Marriage 1969

How the Other Half Loves 1969

The Story So Far 1970 [also performed as Me Times Me Times Me (revised edition), 1972, and Family Circles (revised edition), 1978]

Ernie’s Incredible Illucinations 1971

Time and Time Again 1971

Absurd Person Singular 1972

**The Norman Conquests 1973

Absent Friends 1974

Confusions 1974

Bedroom Farce 1975

Just Between Ourselves 1976

Ten Times Table 1977

Joking Apart 1978

Men on Women on Men [with Paul Todd] 1978

Sisterly Feelings 1979

Taking Steps 1979

Season's Greetings 1980

Suburban Strains [with Paul Todd] 1980

Way Upstream 1981

Intimate Exchanges 1982

It Could Be Any One of Us 1983

A Chorus of Disapproval 1984

The Westwoods 1984

Woman in Mind: December Bee 1985

Henceforeward … 1987

A Small Family Business 1987

Man of the Moment 1988

Mr. A's Amazing Maze Plays 1988

The Inside Outside Slide Show 1989

Invisible Friends 1989

The Revengers' Comedies 1989

Body Language 1990

This Is Where We Came In 1990

Wildest Dreams 1991

Time of My Life 1992

Dreams from a Summer House1992

Communicating Doors 1994

Haunting Julia 1994

The Musical Jigsaw Play 1994

A Word from Our Sponsor 1995

By Jeeves 1996

The Champion of Paribanou 1996

Things We Do for Love 1997

*This work includes the plays Countdown and We Who Are About To.

**This work includes the plays Table Manners, Living Together, and Round and Round the Garden.

†This work includes the one-act plays Mother Figure, Drinking Companion, Between Mouthfuls, Gosforth's Fete and A Talk in the Park.

John Russell Taylor (essay date 1971)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: “Three Farceurs: Alan Ayckbourn, David Gregan, Simon Gray,” in The Second Wave: British Drama for the Seventies, Hill and Wang, 1971, pp. 155-71.

[In the following excerpt, Taylor examines the works of Ayckbourn, David Cregan, and Simon Gray—playwrights who, in Taylor's opinion, are re-examining traditional theatrical genres.]

We tend to expect plays by new writers to be in some sense avant-garde, and the newer the writer the more avant-garde the play. We even sometimes seem to suggest that it is the young writer's duty to be avant-garde, and chastise him if he is falling short of this ideal by writing straightforward, old-fashioned...

(The entire section is 2483 words.)

J. W. Lambert, E. Shorter, R. Craig, J. Peter (essay date 1973)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: “Plays in Performance,” in Drama, London No. 110, Autumn, 1973, pp. 17-29.

[In the following excerpt, the authors discuss trends and review plays in London theater.]

Time to sober up, to return to the straight, though luckily not the strait, and still less narrow, theatre. In particular to the commercial (or as it would prefer independent) theatre, which has produced a by no means contemptible clutch of comedies. Unquestionably first among them is Alan Ayckbourn's tongue-twistingly titled Absurd Person Singular (Criterion). Those of us who have managed ever since Relatively Speaking to enjoy Mr. Ayckbourn's plays without condescension must...

(The entire section is 564 words.)

John Russell Taylor (essay date 1981)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: “Art and Commerce: The New Drama in the West End Marketplace,” in Contemporary English Drama, edited by C. W. E. Bigsby, Edward Arnold, 1981, pp. 177-88.

[In the following excerpt, Taylor discusses whether the New Drama loses its ideals in an effort to be commercially successful, pointing out that Ayckbourn has maintained the ideal while achieving success.]

… The main distinguishing feature of the New Drama was that in various ways its writers challenged our view of reality, or even denied that it existed at all (‘What have I seen’, inquired one of Pinter's characters, ‘the scum or the essence?’). Traditional dramatists, on the other hand, however...

(The entire section is 2543 words.)

Elmer M. Blistein (essay date 1983)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: “Alan Ayckbourn: Few Jokes, Much Comedy,” in Modern Drama, Vol. XXVI, No. 1, March, 1983, pp. 26-36.

[In the following excerpt, Blistein praises Ayckbourn's comedies, focusing on his use of setting and time.]

As The Comedy of Errors unties all its knots, as it finally reaches a moment of repose after a hectic and bewildering sequence of events, only two members of the dramatis personae are left on stage. They are identical twins, and they have just been reunited after thirty-three or twenty-five or twenty-three years. (Shakespeare is very precise about hours in this play, but he is cavalier in his treatment of years.) These identical twins, servants,...

(The entire section is 4571 words.)

Malcom Page (essay date 1983)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Serious Side of Alan Ayckbourn,” in Modern Drama, Vol. XXVI, No. 1, March, 1983, pp. 36-46.

[In the following excerpt, Page discusses how Ayckbourn's work deals with the many serious aspects of being human.]

The comedies of Alan Ayckbourn have featured prominently in the British theatre in the last fifteen years. His earliest plays were the lightest and purest of comedies, giving him the reputation of being the most undemanding of entertainers. This initial reputation has obscured the depth and the seriousness of some of his plays, particularly those of 1974-78: Absent Friends, Just Between Ourselves, and Joking Apart.


(The entire section is 4788 words.)

Richard Allen Cave (essay date 1987)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: “New Forms of Comedy: Ayckbourn and Stoppard,” in New British Drama in Performance on the London Stage: 1970 to 1985, Colin Smythe, 1987, pp. 56-100.

[In the following excerpt, Cave examines how Ayckbourn's focus on character development has blurred the dividing lines between the different styles of comedy.]

If Nichol's and Frayn's experiments with the form of domestic comedy and farce seem intent on defining the nature and function of these two styles, Alan Ayckbourn's prolific output seems designed to question whether what till now were believed to be necessary limitations in these styles of comedy, the “carefully engineered partial” views of...

(The entire section is 2693 words.)

Thomas M. Disch (essay date 1991)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Henry IV and others, in The Nation, New York, Vol. 252, No. 13, April 8, 1991, pp. 458-60.

[In the following excerpt, Disch attributes Broadway's future to plays written by Ayckbourn, Neil Simon and others.]

The good news from Broadway comes in the familiar form of comedies by Neil Simon and Alan Ayckbourn, the most consistently popular and prolific purveyors to commercial theater in New York and London. Ayckbourn's plays have not had nearly the success on Broadway that they’ve had on the West End, and so for two of them to be playing at once is almost like having an Ayckbourn festival, albeit of a retrospective nature, since both plays...

(The entire section is 831 words.)

George Weales (essay date 1991)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: “Downstairs, Upstairs: Lost in Yonkers, Steps and Friends,” in Commonweal, Vol. CXVIII, No. 9, May 3, 1991, pp. 293-94.

[In the following excerpt, Weales compares and contrasts Ayckbourn and Neil Simon in reviewing Lost in Yonkers, Taking Steps and Absent Friends.]

One of the commonplaces of casual criticism is to suggest or to deny that there are strong similarities between Neil Simon and Alan Ayckbourn. Benedict Nightingale was in the denial column recently (New York Times, February 10) in an article preceding the opening of two early Ayckbourn plays, Taking Steps (1979), which is still playing at the Circle in the...

(The entire section is 742 words.)

Richard Hornby (essay date 1992)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: “Ayckbourn in New York,” in The Hudson Review, Vol. XLIV, No. 2, Summer, 1991, pp. 285-91.

[In the following essay, Hornby praises Ayckbourn's plays.]

The plays of Alan Ayckbourn have the reputation in New York of being box office poison. Fabulously successful in the rest of the world, whether in English or in translation (the Germans are especially fond of him), they have usually flopped here, when they have been done at all. One production was so bad that the audience ended up prompting the lead actor. We have thus managed to miss out on some of the most stimulating, unusual, and hilarious British plays of the past decade.

The first sign...

(The entire section is 2017 words.)

Hugh Rorrison (essay date 1994)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: “Reception of and Critical Response to Botho Strauss and Alan Ayckbourn in Britain and Germany,” in History of European Ideas, Vol. 20, No. 1-3, 1995, pp. 43-7.

[In the following essay, Rorrison compares and contrasts Botho Strauss of Germany and Ayckbourn of Britain, concluding that while both are successful in their own theatrical cultures, it may be difficult to become mainstream in both.]

Botho Strauss and Alan Ayckbourn both write comedies, both are prolific, Ayckbourn rather more so than Strauss, though Strauss as a writer of fiction and essays has the wider range. Both are commentators on contemporary manners, both are satirists of the consumer...

(The entire section is 2267 words.)

Alan Ayckbourn (essay date 1987)

(Drama Criticism)

A lecture delivered on October 21, 1987, in Drama, No. 167, 1988, pp. 5–7.

[The following excerpt highlights a talk given by Ayckbourn, in which he voices his concerns about the future of the commercial play.]

Most of my talks start off with different titles and end up roughly the same—a sort of history of me. Anyway, this time I wanted at least to start differently, even if I end up in the same place. I want to draw your attention to what I consider to be an endangered species; it’s called the good commercial play. There are still a few of us practising it out there, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to develop. There are several reasons why.


(The entire section is 2899 words.)

Reva Klein (essay date 1991)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: “Plotting Success,” in The Times Educational Supplement, No. 3898, March 15, 1991, p. 34.

[In the following essay, Ayckbourn discusses Invisible Friends, a work he considers to be a morality play.]

“I may not have a lot of things, but I do have technique.” I suppose it comes from doing the same job for 33 years. Despite his standing as one of the most successful playwrights in the English-speaking world today, Alan Ayckbourn is nothing if not humble. The award-winning writer and director who describes himself as someone who is “known for making plots like watches” is in London rehearsing his new family play Invisible Friends at the...

(The entire section is 524 words.)

Criticism: Absurd Person Singular

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: “New Plays: Absurd Person Singular,” in Persons of the Drama: Theater Criticism and Comment, Harper & Row, Publishers, 1976, pp. 245-48.

[In the following excerpt, Kauffman favorably reviews Ayckbourn's Absurd Person Singular, pointing out that the play should be categorized as film slapstick rather than comedy or farce.]

Alan Ayckbourn has been trumpeted as the Neil Simon of England. Untrue. Neil Simon is a master of middlebrow, smart-cracking social comedy, a manufacturer of character comment that probes just enough to make us laugh indulgently and like ourselves a wee bit more. To judge by Absurd Person Singular, the first...

(The entire section is 1453 words.)

Criticism: Absent Friends

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Absent Friends, in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4663, August 19, 1992, p. 16.

[In the following review, Walker suggests Ayckbourn's Absent Friends leaves an audience less than satisfied.]

Absent Friends is not one of Alan Ayckbourn's funniest plays, but then, nor was it intended to be. When it came to London from Scarborough in 1975, with Richard Briers in the role of Colin, the happy innocent who creates havoc in the lives of his old friends, the play met with a mixed critical reception, one reviewer dismissing it as “woefully limp”, with a weak plot and unconvincing characters. Despite this, the play achieved a...

(The entire section is 802 words.)

Jeremy Gerard (essay date 1992)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of A Small Family Business, in Variety, May 4, 1992, p. 191.

[In the following essay, A Small Family Business and its supporters are given a harsh review.]

Those who feel that subsidized theater ought to do more than subsidize Broadway have a great new case study with A Small Family Business. Why, critics might reasonably ask, is the Manhattan Theater Club devoting its considerable resources to the lavish staging of a middling comedy by England's most prolific playwright?

To be fair, the company created a commercial subsidiary, MTC Prods. Inc., to co-produce Business directly on Broadway. But the principals...

(The entire section is 613 words.)

Stefan Kanfer (essay date 1992)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of A Small Family Business, in The New Leader, Vol. LXXV, No. 7, June 1-15, 1992, p. 31.

[In the following excerpt, Kanfer reviews Ayckbourn's A Small Family Business.]

Alan Ayckbourn's A Small Family Business, a British import, can be enjoyed on two levels: The action takes place upstairs and downstairs in a suburban house. Jack McCracken (Brian Murray) is a British executive with a short fuse and a vast ego. His father-in-law, Ken Ayers (Thomas Hill), has grown too potty to carry on at Ayers and Graces, a failing furniture manufacturing concern. So Jack leaves the frozen food business and takes over, gathering the family around...

(The entire section is 577 words.)

Criticism: The Revengers' Comedies

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Revengers' Comedies, in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4622, November 1, 1991, p. 18.

[In the following review, Morris unfavorably reviews The Revengers' Comedies, focusing on the play's weak plot and unbelievable characters.]

Every character in this play is wound up, placed on the stage and allowed to potter to its doom without turning to right or left. Although Alan Ayckbourn invokes the rich heritage of revenge tragedy, and his promoters have spattered the programme with portentous quotations from Nietzsche, Heraclitus and Gaboriau, this kind of fatedness is the natural province of farce. The humiliations of his hero, well...

(The entire section is 666 words.)

Criticism: Time Of My Life

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Time of My Life, in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4715, August 13, 1993, p. 17.

[In the following review, O’Connor describes Ayckbourn's Time of My Life as a horror story filled with symbolism.]

Alan Ayckbourn's forty-fourth play, Time of My Life, is a horror story, set in “Calvinu's restaurant—Time: past, present and future”. The Stratton family—parents, two sons, daughter-in-law and the younger's son's new girl-friend—are gathered to celebrate mother's birthday. During the course of the evening a table on either side of the stage, the centre of which is occupied by the family banquet, shows the progress of the...

(The entire section is 663 words.)

Further Reading

(Drama Criticism)


Ayckbourn, Alan. Three Plays. New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1977.

A collection of plays by Ayckbourn with a preface by the writer discussing his views on the works.

Evans, Barbara Lloyd, and Garth Lloyd Evans. Plays in Review. London: Batsford Academic and Educational, 1985.

A collection of critical reviews of authors and their work including Ayckbourn and his plays.

Hanks, Robert et al. Reviews of Communicating Doors, by Alan Ayckbourn. Theatre Record, no. 16 (September 3, 1995).

Provides a number of reviews on Ayckbourn's play. Communicating...

(The entire section is 168 words.)