Alan Ayckbourn Ayckbourn, Alan (Vol. 5) - Essay

Ayckbourn, Alan (Vol. 5)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ayckbourn, Alan 1939–

Ayckbourn is a British dramatist, director, and actor. His plays, whether considered biting social commentary or ingenious farces, are always said to display technical virtuosity. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-22.)

[Ayckbourn] has … consistently and uncompromisingly avoided any suggestion of deeper meaning in his plays. Try as we may we cannot find any trace of social or political indoctrination masquerading as harmless diversion, let alone of cosmic anguish. His prime determination is unmistakably to make us laugh and keep us laughing, and all his considerable technical gifts are marshalled to that end alone. It is a tight-rope, and a particularly dangerous, vertiginous tight-rope at that, since if the writer stumbles he has no safety net of deeper significance to fall into: if his plays are not funny they are nothing. And while we are inclined to accept serious intent, however muffed, as a mitigating circumstance for a dramatist, unreasonably enough we see no merit at all in the dramatist who tries to make us laugh and fails.

Fortunately, this has not yet happened to Alan Ayckbourn. Even his less successful plays have always had at least that going for them. (p. 156)

Ayckbourn's particular specialty [is] the comedy of embarrassment, with its characters trying desperately to continue living normal, respectable, suburban lives in … very eccentric, public conditions. (p. 157)

John Russell Taylor, in his The Second Wave: British Drama for the Seventies (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1971 by John Russell Taylor), Hill & Wang, 1971.

Ayckbourn has a sixth sense for the familiar but unrecognised. He sets up a situation or a character so that we can anticipate what will take place. He then plays with our expectations, never letting us down but never losing his capacity to spring surprises….

Maintaining the balance between the predictable and the unexpected is the true skill of the farce dramatist. Ayckbourn, like Neil Simon, is a master of this art, so daring that he's prepared to stretch out the slight material of Table Manners over two further episodes. The play is part of a trilogy, The Norman Conquests, which takes place over the same weekend in the same house with the same characters, but in different rooms at different times. If we know so much already, what tempts us back to Greenwich? Partly perhaps our admiration at Ayckbourn's skill, the precision of his language and the timing of his wit, but partly too because we've started to feel affectionate towards his characters. He writes in such a way that his … cast can take hold of the situations and play around with them.

John Elsom, "Home County Table Manners," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1974; reprinted by permission of John Elsom), May 23, 1974, p. 677.

As in Absurd Person and the earlier Time and Time Again, [Alan Ayckbourn] tends to divide [his characters in The Norman Conquests] into two categories, those who exploit and those who are exploited, with scarcely a murmur from the middle ground between. (p. 778)

Mr Ayckbourn has once again succeeded in resuscitating that most comatose of genres, the 'farcical comedy'. Precisely why he's so funny is harder to say. It hasn't anything to do with farcical incident: no bumping into doors, hiding under beds, or mistaking another's identity. It isn't a matter of verbal ingenuity, though Mr Courtenay, in particular, has some neat lines to flourish. Nor is it the embarrassment inherent in the plot, though that adds tension to the evening. Rather, it's Mr Ayckbourn's canny ability to show us, with imperceptible exaggeration, the absurdity of behaviour we'd normally find unfunny and even unremarkable. (pp. 778-79)

Benedict Nightingale, "Family Affairs," in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), May 31, 1974, pp. 778-79.

Death … holds no horrors for [Alan Ayckbourn]. Indeed the most audacious thing he's yet written is the second act of Absurd Person Singular, in which a rejected wife is wildly misunderstood as she doggedly attempts suicide. Someone helpfully cleans the oven into which she's cramming her head, someone else nearly electrocutes himself mending the light from which she is hanging herself, a third Samaritan begins to replumb the sink where she is swallowing pills. We laugh nervously, perhaps a little guiltily, because the squeamishness and embarrassment we feel about death are being both exploited and undermined; but we laugh all the same. And so we did … at Absent Friends, three-quarters of whose hilarity depends on our remembering that the main character is in mourning for a beloved fiancée, lately drowned….

[Ayckbourn] has sometimes been called a cold and uncharitable dramatist; but … Absent Friends should squelch it for good. There is, as usual, much that's unattractive about his characters…. Mr Ayckbourn is certainly not an amoral writer: nor is he mocking, gloating, or gratuitously unkind. Compare the play with, say, Design for Living, and you'll rapidly see that, unlike Coward, he allows his people to have feelings, that these feelings can be hurt, and that this is cause for regret…. There are few sadder things than the slow destruction of youthful optimism, not to mention love, trust and other tender shoots: Mr Ayckbourn makes sure we realise it….

Mr Ayckbourn must at least be congratulated on showing us something we'd quite forgotten, that it is possible to write amusingly and intelligently for social categories A, B, C1, C2 and D. Absent Friends comes to us in a popular form, the 'farcical comedy'; its characters, with their subtopian accents, could hail from almost any terrace or housing estate in the country; its main concerns are common human ones, matching and dispatching; and its plot is exquisitely judged to give these two themes freedom and scope. Because Colin is in mourning, and therefore privileged, the others feel obliged to tolerate his intolerable sallies against their peace of mind. Thus, without any offence to credibility, their marriages can be shown in all their pretension and shabbiness, and their constrained, frightened attitudes to death and bereavement simultaneously satirised. The result is a memorable attack on several varieties of falsehood.

Benedict Nightingale, "Storms among the Teacups," in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), July 5, 1974, p. 24.

From the time of Relatively Speaking onwards I have been signalling … the merits of this alarmingly perceptive dramatist as very much more than those of an expert purveyor of light comedy. Some are still reluctant to accept this fact; others evade the issue by arguing the totally unimportant question whether he is a true writer of comedy or 'merely' an inspired farceur. (I suppose they would have wittered on in much the same way about Molière). But for the most part, with a paradoxical absurdity typical of cultural establishments down the ages, the opinion-formers have finally caught up with Ayckbourn's real quality (and with the general public) in welcoming The Norman Conquests, a trilogy which, although the best plays seen in London since his last play, sharply perceptive and almost unbearably funny, is in fact not absolutely on a level with the peaks reached in Time and Time Again and Absurd Person Singular.

For that matter it is quite possible that How the Other Half Loves may turn out to be as impressive as those two. London has not yet seen an adequate production of this one; but even in a mutilated form it drew a sharp picture of the social pressures (too complex to be subsumed under the tired label of 'class') at work on the different levels of middle management's domestic life in provincial English industrial society. Here the situation was seen as immutable, fixed as much by the characters' backgrounds as by their income and status. In Absurd Person Singular a similar arrangement of three layers is shown in a process of upheaval. Two professional families—one elderly and exhausted, the other young, half idealist, half destructive—are seen at the mercy of the man both despised, a lower-middle-class financial ferret who finally has them all dancing to his tune. In Time and Time Again the core of the play is more personal; against another middle-middle-class background Ayckbourn sets a central figure who is of it, but only in the most literal sense in it—a dreamer, a man of finer sensibilities than the others, but at the same time a corrosive egotist like Dostoievsky's Prince Myshkin, bringing disaster upon himself and everybody else he is involved with. The three plays which make up The Norman Conquests pivot upon another such figure. (p. 36)

Out of [the plot materials of The Norman Conquests], clearly, one could make a festering O'Neill-style, Freudian drama, a sub-Chekovian wry comedy of hardened attitudes and half-guessed-at disappointments, or the niftiest of television situation farces. It is Mr. Ayckbourn's remarkable achievement to have blended into his trilogy elements of all three genres, and the result—though falling a touch short of the poetry of Time and Time Again and the power of Absurd Person Singular—is on the simplest assessment a superb trio of entertainments, and beyond that a devastatingly perceptive comment on English middle-class life—on, that is, the lives of most of those who will most delight in it, and who will, in the words of the old song, 'pluck the rose and leave the thorn behind'….

Each play is virtually … the off-stage of the others, taking place respectively in the dining-room, the sitting-room and the garden…. Mr. Ayckbourn's ingenuity in thus constructing the plays positively makes the head spin if dwelt upon; but of course it should not be dwelt upon, for however valuable the challenge may have been to his inventive powers, it is to us only an incidental pleasure. The value of the work lies elsewhere—in its knife-sharp insights into the long littleness of life and in its unflagging comic exhilaration. (p. 37)

However inhibited or hesitant they may appear, Mr. Ayckbourn's women in these plays—individually called, I had better remember to record, Table Manners, Living Together and Round and Round the Garden—are pillars of certainty compared to the men…. [It is] the pregnant pause which more than anything else [provides] the unnerving element in Mr. Ayckbourn's plays which gives him so much in common with Harold Pinter. (p. 38)

J. W. Lambert, in Drama, Autumn, 1974.

Absent Friends … is well up to standard. Like most of [Ayckbourn's] work it is based on a simple, rather startling idea: a misunderstanding (as in, say, Relatively Speaking) but with a sharper and psychologically rougher edge to it. The theme is death, or rather grief. (p. 61)

Now what does Mr. Ayckbourn mean by all this? Something Sophoclean like no man being able to count himself happy until his wife (at least) is dead? Or Strindbergian? Mr. Ayckbourn isn't letting on. Like Pinter he just places the character before us and leaves us to draw our own conclusions. But the point is that he manages to make us believe in the sincerity of his hero's unexpected contentment; and, more unexpectedly, he brings it off within the terms of trivial-seeming middle-class comedy: tentative, tactful small talk, long embarrassed silences, evasions of true feeling, clichés which cover up emotional callousness, and a wonderfully timed sense of suburban detail.

We laugh freely at the comedy of English parlour manners: the tinkling of tea-cups and marital tensions, the polite pauses, the affectations, and the display of class characteristics. Then the laughter turns hollow, as if behind it unpalatable home truths had been brewing—and (a point worth remarking in the art of Mr. Ayckbourn) there is no toying with decanters, no need for alcohol to get his people to speak their minds persuasively. (pp. 62-3)

Absent Friends might be compared at certain moments to Old Times since its emotional values are so richly retrospective; and yet it seems ambitious to bring Pinter into it. Pinter is a poet, a stylist, and he practises an economy in his theatrical statements which would be out of Ayckbourn's element.

Ayckbourn is more homely, more comforting, more immediately accessible, more easily enjoyed. Witness the crowded audiences of laughing shirt-sleeved holiday-makers…. They are never made to frown or allowed to yawn. They are too busy recognizing Uncle Horace or Auntie Flo, young Harry or busybody Betsy—recognizing themselves, or at any rate each other. They are in fact what Mr. Ayckbourn calls his 'source material', and he means to stick close to it, despite his popular success and the wealth it has brought him. (p. 63)

Eric Shorter, in Drama, Autumn, 1974.

"Absurd Person Singular"… is a brilliant little comedy of domestic misadventure in which, if one troubles to listen closely, a sentence of death is pronounced upon the institution of marriage. Its author, Alan Ayckbourn, has made the play serve as a proof of Murphy's Law—"If anything can go wrong, it will"—and has let us glimpse, behind a shining scrim of jokes, sight gags, and hilarious sudden reversals of fortune, his view of life as nasty, brutish, and short….

From beginning to end, the play is a model of cunning stagecraft; the tiny material of one gag becomes the material for a second, and the second for a third; with each repetition, the material grows richer and more comic…. Mr. Ayckbourn, who is said to be able to compose a play of ordinary length in a day or so and a trilogy in a week, attracts our attention by his many hardworking jokes, but he holds it by the profundity of his contempt for how men treat women inside the bonds of marriage. [The] husbands behave viciously toward their wives; the wives suffer and deteriorate. (p. 58)

Brendan Gill, in The New Yorker (© 1974 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), October 21, 1974.

Alan Ayckbourn has been called the Neil Simon of England. In a series of successful comedies he has converted the social confusion of contemporary England into a fun house of absurdity—as in "Absurd Personal Singular." But Ayckbourn is much tougher than Simon; he's a behavioral psychologist with a savage streak of satire.

Ayckbourn uses his characters the way a flea-circus professor uses his fleas, making them jump to his bidding in a clockwork farce of sheer inanity. The play's three-part structure—Christmas past, present and future—parodies Dickens, as if to announce the final expiration of jolly old England, in which class tensions can no longer be sloshed over with plum pudding. In this three-Christmas shot the six characters carom off each other, changing their social and personal fortunes in the process.

Jack Kroll, "Christmas Cards," in Newsweek (copyright 1974 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), October 21, 1974, p. 56.

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 … [Ayckbourn is] much more the Mack Sennett of England—50 percent of Sennett, anyway.

Ayckbourn calls his play a comedy, but it is farce; and essentially it is not theater farce, it is film slapstick. The great farces of Feydeau and Courteline and Piñero are complicated machines of egocentric desire in monochromatic characters, people who desperately want something or other and bump violently into or frantically evade or breathlessly deceive others. Ayckbourn makes no such machine. His characters are monochrome, all right, but few of them want anything very much: they just behave in certain ways that are sharply and quickly defined. One wife is a compulsive housecleaner who has an addiction to cleaning, no matter whose house she's in. Another wife is a compulsive, socially pretending drinker. And so on. The result is a series of situations that lead to physical complications that lead to more physical complications. The play is so much like a series of Sennett set-ups that it could very easily be played completely silent with 15 or 20 subtitles.

Ayckbourn understands the secret of this kind of laugh-building. Each of his nests of structures begins with an action that is perfectly credible for its doer and then proceeds perfectly logically: the comedy comes from the fact that this logic has nothing to do with the logic of the other people. For instance, a husband angrily sends his wife out to buy the soda she forgot to get for the party going on inside in the living room. They are both anxious that the guests—business big-shots whom they are eager to impress—should not know of the lapse. The wife goes out the kitchen door, into pouring rain, with raincoat and big hat and boots, her evening dress underneath. When she returns the kitchen door is locked, and she hovers outside the window like a wet ghost, ducking when one of the guests comes in from the living room. Finally she has to go in the front door pretending to be someone else until she can get to the kitchen and change. She has behaved perfectly logically according to her pattern: that pattern simply has nothing to do with what the others, or we, would call sensible….

[Most] of the dialogue itself is quite unfunny. Ayckbourn almost seems to flirt with the idea of an Ionesco-like barrage of banalities, which may be the source of the "absurd" in his title, but the dialogue never quite gets to that level of self-knowledge. If this play were not well done, it would be worse than unfunny, it would be embarrassing. (p. 36)

Stanley Kauffmann, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), November 9, 1974.

Mr Ayckbourn is to be congratulated … on having done something which, so far as I know, is quite novel in the theatre. His three plays, Table Manners, Living Together, and Round and Round the Garden [which together compose The Norman Conquests] are not a trilogy in the usual sense. They are not three consecutive treatments of the same situation or characters, nor do they present a single problem seen from three different points of view. They are three fragments of the same play, enacted by the same six characters in different parts of one house. When we have seen all three, we know what A and B were doing in the sitting-room, while C, D, E and F were in the dining-room or the garden. The three parts fit together to make a space-time continuum, as one might reconstitute a wooden cube that had been carefully sawn into three complex segments.

This is ingenious, and there is some incidental pleasure to be derived from noticing how neatly the parts dovetail together. But what, aesthetically, is the point? I confess I don't see any; the device is a purely mechanical arrangement, which makes the same play three times as long as it might have been, and since the characters cannot develop—being caught at different points of the same week-end—by the third time round we have got to know them rather too well and can anticipate their quirks. One wonders if it would not have been better to take the more telling bits of each play to make a single work, with a change of locale in each act as in Absurd Person Singular. The characters themselves are not on a high enough level to bear such lengthy exposure…. In other words, a technical gimmick takes precedence over content.

The content itself is farcical comedy … [and] Mr Ayckbourn produces some excellent farcical situations. (pp. 64-5)

What, then, is wrong? In the first place, many of the jokes are brought in incidentally, without being properly fitted to the personalities of the characters who utter them or are the subjects of them…. In a superior comedy or farce, the jokes are not strung together like daisies in a daisy-chain, but are related to the theme, which they further imperceptibly. In the second place—and this is more important—the farce or comedy is not about anything in particular, except the nondescript muddle in a lower-middle-class household, which lives from minute to minute in a state of petty tension…. [The] trilogy is not absolutely different in kind from those dim old Aldwych farces, such as Rookery Nook and Turkey Time, which read so sadly today. In this respect, The Norman Conquests marks a regression since Absurd Person Singular, which had the redeeming feature of black humour and an Ionesco-like tingle of awareness. (p. 65)

John Weightman, in Encounter (© 1974 by Encounter Ltd.), December, 1974.

[One of the] outstanding critical and box-office hits of the season here [is] Alan Ayckbourn's The Norman Conquests … [which] is, in fact, three full-length plays—Table Manners, Living Together and Round and Round the Garden—which are shown on separate evenings. One may see them in any order without a sense of incompleteness. One may see (and enjoy) all three—as I did—without complaining of monotony, though the same six actors appear each night.

The tripartite arrangement is a continuum. When a character leaves the stage in Table Manners and goes into the garden, what exactly happens there? We get the answer in Round and Round the Garden. When several people leave the garden, they come together again in Living Together. There is no onstage or offstage development: all the action is presented in one or another of the triptych's segments.

This amounts to a dramaturgic tour de force. Alan Ayckbourn's remarkable skill may be explained not only by reference to a natural aptitude for stagecraft but by the fact that he is the staff playwright of a provincial theatre for which he is obliged to furnish one or more scripts every season. It is an old theatre tradition. (p. 286)

Harold Clurman, in The Nation (copyright 1975 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), March 8, 1975.