A Chorus of Disapproval, Sir Alan Ayckbourn’s twentieth play—and one of his most successful— premiered at the Stephen Joseph Theater in the Round in Scarborough, England, in May, 1984. Following the sell-out season in Scarborough, the play opened in a large-scale production at the National Theater in London in August, 1985. The success of the play earned Ayckbourn three major British theater awards including the London Evening Standard Award, the Olivier Award, and the Drama Award.
Ayckbourn’s first great success, Relatively Speaking, was a farce modeled on Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest; A Chorus of Disapproval is not modeled on, but rather is based around, another play: John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, which in the play is to be performed by a local dramatic society. The play describes the ups and downs of provincial life: as the rehearsals for The Beggar’s Opera advance, real life increasingly imitates art. As well as being a modern version of the classic ‘‘play within a play,’’ A Chorus of Disapproval also explores the attraction of the theater for ordinary people, whose apparently unremarkable lives are revealed to be unexpectedly eventful.
Ayckbourn’s contribution to the theater is impressive. Although his comedies were initially considered unfashionable, they have always been wellreceived by critics and audiences alike, all of whom have recognized Ayckbourn’s technical prowess and his unusual ability to balance comedy and pathos. A Chorus of Disapproval, which explores ordinary people’s aspirations and disappointments, confirmed that reputation. Ayckbourn was knighted in 1987 in recognition of the extraordinary quality of his writing and his contribution to the British theatre.
Act I Summary
The structure of A Chorus of Disapproval exemplifies Ayckbourn’s modernity: the first scene, for instance, is chronologically the last. The play begins with the tail-end of PALOS’s performance of The Beggar’s Opera. From there, the play unfolds like a cinematic flashback. The flashback structure maintains tension throughout the lighthearted ensemble piece: the audience, certain in the knowledge that the opera will be performed successfully, nonetheless fears that calamity will unfold, for after the curtain falls, Guy is abandoned by his fellow cast members.
In the second scene of Act I, Guy auditions by giving a fumbling rendition of the only song he knows, ‘‘All Through the Night.’’ He is shown up by the director, Dafydd, who interrupts him to sing the song in Welsh. Although Guy’s singing is obviously not up to standard, Dafydd immediately accepts him, partly because he is short one actor and partly because he is a warm, generous man.
During the audition, other cast members enter. A quick scene and lighting change follows, and the cast adjourns to a local pub named The Fleece (the name of the tavern suggests that the customers will be ‘‘fleeced’’ or conned out of their money). This pub parallels Peachum’s tavern in The Beggar’s Opera: indeed, the proprietor’s daughter, Bridget, acts rather like Gay’s Lucy, fighting with customers and stealing lovers.
Following this sociable occasion, Dafydd invites Guy home. A brief scene change finds the characters in a pleasant, comfortable living room. Dafydd offers Guy the part of Crook-Fingered Jack. Although it is only a one line part, Guy is thrilled and accepts. Then Dafydd’s neglected wife, Hannah, enters. She is to play Polly Peachum in the Opera. Hannah has suffered in the shadow of her talkative and unobservant husband. Hannah and Guy connect emotionally—he is polite and attentive, which she appreciates, and she is sensitive about his recent loss, which he appreciates.
Another scene change finds PALOS again rehearsing. For all his enthusiasm, Dafydd is a disorganized director: the cast has only rehearsed the first fifteen pages of the script. Amidst the confusion, Guy receives an alluring invitation to dinner from the lascivious Fay, seconded by her reluctant husband, Ian. Jarvis Huntley-Pike, a jovial Northerner, persists in his mistaken assumption that Guy is a Scotsman. Meanwhile, the romantic tension between Guy and Hannah increases. The rehearsal ends with an unexpected boon for Guy: after a cast member drops out, he is promoted to the meatier role of Matt of the Mint.
The next scene is set in Fay and Ian’s house. Guy arrives, assuming that he has been invited to dinner. Fay, however, has other plans. She is amused when Guy’s friend arrives—a seventy-year-old woman whose presence is a considerable shock to Ian. The Hubbards, as well as the Huntley-Pikes, mistakenly think that Guy can help them in their scheme to fleece Guy’s company, BLM.
The last scene of Act I, a rehearsal, is set one month after these initial scenes. Dafydd comments to Guy that ‘‘these dramatics’’ are ‘‘doing you good,’’ and Guy does indeed seem more confident. The Act ends with a song from the Opera. Although the actresses are meant to be focused upon Crispin, who is playing Macheath, they turn to Guy. Their unconscious mistake prefigures the second act’s major development: Guy’s elevation to the role of Macheath.
Act II Summary
The second act opens with a tense conversation between Guy and Hannah, conducted in a local cafe. Guy appears to have undergone something of a transformation in the last few months. He is no longer a hang-dog weakling but rather a local Lothario. He has been carrying on two affairs— one with Hannah, who is in love with him, and another with Fay, who is still trying to involve him in the BLM land scam. Hannah tries to badger Guy into choosing between her and Fay.
Suddenly, Fay appears. The cat-fight between the two women comically imitates a similar conflict between Polly and Lucy in The Beggar’s Opera. Hannah departs in fury. Fay points out that it was she who handed Guy the role of Filch (another role upgrade), then hints threateningly that he must ‘‘come up with the goods’’ in return for the favor.
In the next scene, the conflict between Hannah and Fay is repeated in the struggles between Bridget, as Jenny Diver, and Linda, both of whom fight over Crispin, as Macheath. After Hannah and Linda depart the stage, Guy tries to inform Jarvis that people are scheming to profit from his land, but Jarvis is too busy telling Guy an old story about his grandfather to pay much attention.
Dafydd re-enters. He is oblivious to Guy’s affair with Hannah, and, to make matters worse, confides in Guy that he is having trouble in his marriage. He complains that Hannah is ‘‘a bloody deep-freeze of a woman.’’ However, since Guy knows that she is not, the audience is left to conclude that the fault lies with Dafydd. The scene ends in a now-familiar pattern: following Crispin’s rude departure, the role of Macheath is vacant. Rebecca suggest that Guy accept it, and sure enough, he weakly agrees to step in.
A song from Guy, as Macheath, bridges the scene change to Rebecca Huntley-Pike’s garden. It soon becomes clear that Rebecca is the source of the mysterious rumor about the BLM land deal. Guy is tempted to accept Jarvis’s pay-off of five hundred pounds and does in fact pocket it. He is becoming more and more like Macheath.
A lighting change finds the cast involved in a final dress rehearsal. Guy changes into his costume for Macheath. The subsequent scene, in which he rejects Hannah, is in keeping with his stage character: his transformation is complete. The parting between the two lovers is repeatedly interrupted by a still-oblivious Dafydd, who is frantically trying to rig the lighting for the performance.
When Ian enters with the news that BLM is closing, all hell breaks loose. The land scam will not take place, and the disappointed cast members turn against Guy. Ian informs Dafydd of Hannah and Guy’s affair, and Dafydd too turns against Guy.
The final scene of A Chorus of Disapproval is the last scene of The Beggar’s Opera. The players enact the final reprieve of Macheath. The curtain falls and the actors embrace one another. But the audience, recalling the play’s opening scene, knows that this scene will shortly be followed by their rejection of Guy. The ending is ambiguous—both a celebration of Guy (Macheath) and a rejection of the change he has wreaked upon their lives.