Ayckbourn, Alan 1939–
A British playwright, actor, director, and producer, Ayckbourn is best known for Absurd Person Singular and Time and Time Again. (See also CLC, Vol. 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.)
The best kind of comedy, we know, has an underpainting of darkness; the comic mask resembles nothing so much as a grinning death's-head. Alan Ayckbourn's Absurd Person Singular is well aware of this: a witty and resourceful comedy that imperceptibly darkens into a dance—not of death, but of death-in-life. It is, then, the best kind of comedy, yet fairly far from the best specimen of its kind. Still, as commercial theater goes (and it goes farther than some highbrows and avant-gardists would have it), this British comedy is not inconsiderable; with more such plays around, the theater would be undergoing not exactly a renaissance, but a good prodding into action. (p. 108)
John Simon, in New York Magazine (© 1974 by NYM Corp.; reprinted by permission of New York Magazine and John Simon), October 28, 1974.
[Absent Friends] centres round a tea party, though the phrase 'absent friends' is more usually coupled in English domestic ritual with the raised glass. (p. 26)
[The tea party] may have some emblematic significance as a national institution in Mr. Ayckbourn's mind. But wouldn't almost anybody you can think of surely break out the light ale, if not the champagne-style sparkling wine, to cheer up a long-time-not-seen chum whose fiancée has recently drowned? The aim is apparently a kind of muted, genteel Walpurgisnacht à la Albee. And, in theory, it could be more ghastly and touching to summon up the ghosts of the selves that might have been amid cream and cakes, with the pram in the hall, than with alcohol and horseplay, and a barman in a white coat. In practice, as a play in performance, these incongruities give the production the air of a charade played for laughs which are only half-intended.
This said, I must add that I respect the author's determination at the peak of his success as the British Neil Simon … to show us that what is funny to the audience can be tragic to the characters, and that there is no lump in the throat to equal a swallowed laugh which turns sour. And I admire his decision to forego obvious alarms and excursions, open breaches and unforgiveable wounds,… all the more disturbing and real for being never quite out of control….
Absent Friends is a serious, almost clinical, presentation of the nature of marriage where the most painful moments occur, not when the participants recognise its weaknesses, but when the outsider mistakes them for strengths….
Mr Ayckbourn's one flaw seems to me that in his concern to avoid facile sensationalism, and through his pity for his people, he has allowed them to carry on taking the pills. By tranquillising them, he has let us off the hook. What was needed at the end was the knife. Both we and they could take it. (p. 27)
Alan Brien, in Plays and Players (© copyright Alan Brien 1975; reprinted with permission), September, 1975.
The audacious Alan Ayckbourn has written a farce that in sheer, dogged length surpasses "Parsifal" and that tinkers with time and space in a fashion intricate enough to give an Einstein pause. And for what? Why, to tell us a story that could almost certainly be inscribed in longhand on the head of a ha'penny. If I forgive Ayckbourn for the outrageous disproportion between the grand scale of his handiwork and the meagreness of its content, I do so on the best and simplest grounds in the world—that he is a very entertaining writer, and that his farce, which consists of three full-length plays …, is likely to make you laugh far more often than it is likely to make you look at your watch. The over-all title of the work is "The Norman Conquests," and the Norman in question is an assistant librarian in a small English town. His conquests, unlike those of the warrior race to whom he presumably owes his name, are amorous rather than military; for this Norman, 1066 hints not of history but of the number of a bedroom in some seedy Sussex hotel….
Norman, who protests that his only goal in life is to make people happy, is Priapus incarnate. He woos women as other men breathe, and, alas, wins them. His victims are eager to believe the grossest flatteries on their way to his bed; however base his calculations, they invariably prove successful. This is indirectly to observe that Mr. Ayckbourn's merry comedies depict a misery seemingly ineradicable; as anyone familiar with his earlier "Absurd Person Singular" is aware, he regards human relationships in general and the marriage relationship in particular as little more than a pailful of cozily hissing snakes. Of the six characters that compose the dramatis personae of "The Norman Conquests," only one is capable in maturity of giving and receiving ordinary human affection, and it is a clue to our playwright's view of life that this person is the one for whom the worst deprivations of love and self-fulfillment are reserved. Well! It is surely late in the day to manifest astonishment over the pessimism that gives energy to our writers of comedy; what is astonishing is that we all go on laughing so cheerfully as the gifted Mr. Ayckbourn scourges us to the gallows. What is it that we are laughing at? (p. 60)
Brendan Gill, in The New Yorker (© 1975 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), December 22, 1975.
In a note appended to the program of The Norman Conquests, Alan Ayckbourn describes his trilogy as a set of plays relating its events from three different viewpoints, which can be seen in any order ("like a three-ended ball of string")…. I've never seen, nor would I rather see than be, a three-ended ball of string; and Mr. Ayckbourn's statement makes more sense than his set of plays only by virtue of its greater brevity.
The Norman Conquests is not much of three plays, and even less of three plays in one. It is, in fact, one play in three….
If you were to shuffle all three plays together, arranging all twelve scenes in proper time sequence, you would end up with one hell of a boring six-hour rewrite of your basic British weekend comedy (pace Noël Coward's Hay Fever). Then, armed with a large box of blue pencils, you could cut out the endless reiterations, the vampings-till-ready, the extensions via obvious and gratuitous slapstick, and end up with one moderately respectable comedy of manners. In all likelihood, your result would closely resemble Mr. Ayckbourn's first play, Table Manners, to which the two others have been appended as marginalia. You would also end up with the most polished work of the three, the one with the most consistent shape and the least reliance on brute force for its overall effect. You would not, however, have nearly as interesting a work as Mr. Ayckbourn's Absurd Person Singular.
The real deficiency in Norman is its lack of true comedy. Singular furnishes that in full measure and in wide range, and Norman is, by contrast, a gag show pure and simpleminded. In its full, protracted length, it further becomes an exercise in draping three sets of gags across the same skeletal plot, an exercise possibly valid in playwriting courses, but hardly stageworthy. Furthermore, Mr. Ayckbourn has an annoying way of rubbing our noses in even some of his most genial inventions. Perhaps inspired by Punch cartoon captions from around 1880, he often pads out his best gags with one line too many. Example: Annie to Sarah: "He (Norman) seduced me on the rug." Sarah: "Which rug?" Annie: "It doesn't matter which rug." In the theater, or even in print, the joke plays itself out with Sarah's response; Annie's added line pricks the comic balloon. Or again: Norman (sardonically, looking at an underfilled dinner plate): "Is this lettuce leaf all for me? I cannot believe my good fortune." Sentence number two is a redundancy; here, too, less would have been more.
Alan Rich, "Absurd Persons Triplicate," in New York Magazine (© 1975 by NYM Corp.; reprinted by permission of New York Magazine and Alan Rich), December 22, 1975, p. 75.
Alan Ayckbourn [is] a master hand at turning the bitter apathy, the stale absurdity which most English playwrights now find characteristic of Britain's lower-middle-class existence into hilarious comedy. He does this so well and so often … that perhaps only the English, in tune with the material, can sense the sorry state of moral flatulence that underlies the … laughter. (p. 700)
Harold Clurman, in The Nation (copyright 1975 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), December 27, 1975.