Alan Ayckbourn Ayckbourn, Alan (Vol. 18) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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, Vols. 5, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.)

Guido Almansi

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ayckbourn's points of departure are most unprepossessing. Not for him the seedy ferment of an angry terraced house, but rather the sleepy atmosphere of a semi-detached, or the sluggish isolation of Annie's decaying mansion in The Norman Conquests. Nothing whatsoever seems to have happened or be likely to happen in these venues of mediocrity except the abrasive friction of quotidian boredom and the grinding noise of wear and tear. Out of this unattractive premise and featureless premises, Ayckbourn spins his cobweb of interrelated combinations. Whether or not one accepts him as a serious playwright, there can be little doubt that he stands peerless as an artificer of plots…. The Norman Conquests can be read either as three autonomous two-act four-scene plays, all dealing with the same characters and the same plot, and to be enjoyed on different evenings; or as a whole englobing experience including six acts and twelve scenes to be experienced in chronological sequence. A dogged search in the printed versions for some fracture points between the plots yielded me only two moments when the internal sequence within the single play was slightly at variance with the chronological sequence of the saga. (pp. 58, 60)

Anyone who has attempted combinatory operations [like The Norman Conquests] must know that this is no mean achievement. In the introductory note to the printed text of Relatively Speaking …, Ayckbourn modestly places himself in the wake of the Shaftesbury Avenue tradition: "I did set out consciously to write a 'well-made' play. I think this is most important for a playwright to do at least once in his life, since as in any science he cannot begin to shatter theatrical convention or break golden rules until he is reasonably sure in himself what they are and how they were arrived at." Notice the odd word: science…. But Ayckbourn is placing himself in the wrong company. The laborious attempts of the "well-made" play school of British dramatists to build up a convincing plot round the trivia of middle-class infatuations have little to do with Ayckbourn's structural acrobatics.

In terms of plot unity, only Shaw can be compared with Ayckbourn's clockwork combines. If instead we pay attention to the latter's search for a plot to defy all plots, an all-encompassing structure which challenges the limitations of narrative and dramatic equilibrium, then only our medieval ancestors knew such ecstasy and underwent such pangs…. (p. 60)

Apart from these symmetrical schemes with which the playwright, like a modern Houdini, intentionally fetters his freedom of movement in order to prove his command over the theatrical medium, Ayckbourn seems to exploit two main tactical devices: off-stage character and off-stage action—the latter being in his opinion more difficult to handle than the former. Out of view behind the wings, relatives, friends, pet animals, children are allowed to develop larger-than-life features from the safe abode of their absence on the stage. (p. 61)

Ayckbourn's most genuine contribution to theatrical technique, however, is his constant recourse to off-stage action. It is like a Velásquez painting which focuses on a peripheral point of reference—the kitchen table with a scullery maid for instance—while the real action is taking place elsewhere in an inconspicuous corner of the canvas…. [The] ultimate in off-stage action is … The Norman Conquests in which every single play feeds parasitically on the off-stage action of the other two. As we view the second and then the third play of the trilogy, our awareness of what is going on in the rest of the house and likewise the satisfaction of our curiosity grow concurrently. We enjoy guessing what preceded or what will follow the entrance or the exit of the actor from the garden to the lounge, or from the latter...

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Eric Shorter

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Alan Ayckbourn's comedies have become such money-spinners and he himself has won such general critical acclaim that it is difficult to think of him as an experimental dramatist. He has however probably done as much as any other living playwright to use the stage with an original sense of its scope—to stretch its scenic and dramatic possibilities. How The Other Half Loves, for example, with two separate dinners on different dates happening on the stage at the same time surely extended the range of theatrical craftsmanship.

And now in his latest piece Sisterly Feelings his ingenuity goes a step further in a direction which strikes me as having the most puzzling future yet. For if The Norman Conquests took us round the same domestic situation in three plays, each set in a different room, how is one to view Sisterly Feelings? Each of The Norman Conquests plays had a different title. You could be sure what you were going to see. With Sisterly Feelings you can't. Half the show depends on the spin of a coin while you are watching.

The point about this new work is that life is very chancy and that we often take up with people, especially the opposite sex, by the merest accident. So Sisterly Feelings has been composed with several alternative central scenes and you won't know which way the play will go in its middle passages until you get to those passages because the cast...

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Brendan Gill

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Alan Ayckbourn's "Bedroom Farce" is modestly named. It is indeed a farce, and an exceptionally good one … but instead of taking place in a single bedroom …, it takes place in three bedrooms…. Moreover, the play isn't content to concern itself with the three couples that most of us might consider a sufficient number to fill three beds; no, it provides a fourth couple, who in the course of a long Saturday night tirelessly trample upon the lives of all the others and bring much temporary misery into the world….

As a writer of farces, Mr. Ayckbourn is a faithful disciple of Molière. Trevor, the protagonist of "Bedroom Farce," is dominated by a single obsession: though he sees it as his fate to be a clumsy destroyer of people and things, he believes that he possesses a miraculous gift for putting things right. At all hours of the day and night, and under no matter what circumstances, he is sure that he will be able to patch things up by manfully confronting his victims and "communicating" with them. Characters in a farce are never altered by the events that befall them; as the plot unfolds, they become more and more intensely and outrageously themselves. Moreover, they are not intended to be observed in the round. They exhibit a single aspect of their natures, and amuse us by repeatedly calling attention to that aspect. Mr. Ayckbourn is diabolically clever at inventing funny scenes that obey these rules and yet seem to ignore them. In "Bedroom Farce," seven of the eight members of the cast are, by the author's design, paper-thin; the eighth—a housewife named Kate—continuously hints at having many sides. She amounts to an unexpected and enchanting enigma, and I hope we encounter her again, in some later Ayckbourn work, not as a cog in a clockwork but as a heroine. (p. 97)

Brendan Gill, "No Good Deed Goes Unpunished," in The New Yorker (© 1979 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LV, No. 8, April 9, 1979, pp. 97-8.∗

John Simon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

What makes Alan Ayckbourn's Bedroom Farce so utterly captivating is not any one thing but that joyous mix of quasi-mystical elements that makes soufflés rise, parties come off, and audiences leave a theater in a state of euphoria….

[Ayckbourn's people are] both silly and wise. They are neither unduly clever nor outrageously dim-witted, but of average intelligence and average stupidity in a sturdy amalgam. And they can make fools of others and themselves with equal ease, thanks to either quality. They are funny not because they are smarter or more foolish than the rest of us, but because they are exactly like us, only in a slightly tightened, sharpened version, to make a particular brand of lopsidedness reveal its bias more theatrically. Yet unlike, say, Neil Simon, Ayckbourn does not make neuroses and deficiencies appear more cutely epigrammatic, more wittily seductive, than they are. We do not have our egos stroked, only our noses rubbed in the truth—but rubbed jovially, as Eskimos allegedly rub their noses together by way of kissing.

And when Ayckbourn turns serious, he does not go preachy on us. When things in the end do not work out after all—as so often in Ayckbourn plays—Trevor and Susannah fail in a farcical way; the drama rolls in without a portentous shift of gears. So, too, when Kate reveals to Malcolm that he does not fully satisfy her in bed, this essentially sad revelation is kept well within the comic register. Ayckbourn extends the range of farce, without cheating, to cover situations that are not farcical—the fibrillations of the heart under the feverish laughter. And he keeps his characters characters, not walking stacks of interchangeable jokebooks. No one in Bedroom Farce could make someone else's quips or gaffes. (p. 88)

Whereas at your typical successful comedy I tend to laugh intermittently—and then inwardly, inaudibly—at Bedroom Farce my laughter was a veritable chain reaction, the characters and situations being so funny that I laughed even in between the jokes. (p. 89)

John Simon, "From Top to Botho," in New York Magazine (copyright © 1979 by News Group Publications, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of New York Magazine), Vol. 12, No. 15, April 16, 1979, pp. 88-9.

Harold Clurman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ayckbourn both celebrates and joshes the flat silliness and dim amiability of a stale middle-class England. His plays are presumed to have a special satiric bite but I find little sting in them. He is a most adept craftsman, very English in his balance between sly derision and a sort of bored compassion. In [Bedroom Farce], the second act, though still replete with laughs, grows a bit tiresome since everything has been said in the first. It nevertheless remains, especially for the English, a jolly good evening in the theater.

Harold Clurman, "Theater: 'Bedroom Farce'," in The Nation (copyright 1979 The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 228, No. 15, April 21, 1979, p. 446.

Anthony Curtis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[It would seem that in Joking Apart] beneath their outward charm and desire to help Richard and Anthea are monsters. They do not respect boundaries and without boundaries there may be prosperity but there will be moral chaos. Inexorably for all their good intentions they spread disaster around them. The author's serious exposure of their impact on others is so well covered by his comic strategies that you could sit through the whole play laughing your head off without realising that an acute moral assessment is being made. But even if we take the play at its surface value it must seem a remarkable piece of work. Do not be misled by those newspaper interviews in which Ayckbourn explains how much he dislikes the act of writing and how he steels himself to dashing off his annual play in a week or so. Here is the twenty-first work of a consummate master of the art of comedy, and one that is most ingeniously and professionally structured. (pp. 49-50)

Ayckbourn takes a twelve-year span in the lives of the couple: in four scenes he brings us at intervals of four years up to the present, when the daughter who was six in scene one is having her open-air eighteenth-birthday party using that same hard tennis court that was the setting for the children's fireworks more than a decade earlier. This sense of time passing, as different landmarks in the life of this familial group are reached, is brilliantly handled….

How much longer can Ayckbourn sustain this high level of artifice? [Somerset] Maugham wrote more than thirty plays. Ayckbourn is on his twenty-second and if he were to retire at the same age as the old master (60) he has about another twenty years to go!

Ayckbourn's career is shining proof that the well-made play is alive and well. (p. 50)

Anthony Curtis, "London: 'Joking Apart'," in Drama (reprinted by permission of the British Theatre Association), No. 133, Summer, 1979, pp. 49-50.

Benedict Nightingale

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

'If only' is one of the most pointless but least resistable phrases in the language…. Sisterly Feelings attempts in a small way to put some such proposition to the test. At the end of scene one, the toss of a coin determines whether unhappily-married Abigail or her spinster sister Dorcas gets off with loose-limbed Simon. There are thus two versions of scene two, though both are family picnics, and another two of scene three, though these are reached by choice, not chance….

The point … is that each and every version comes to an identical conclusion. Whether or not Abigail has spent scene three cavorting in and around a tent with Simon, she ends up opting for husband and motherhood....

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