With labels flourishing during the new era in drama (Osborne’s angry theater, Beckett’s Theater of the Absurd, Pinter’s comedy of menace, Arnold Wesker’s kitchen-sink drama), Alan Ayckbourn (born 12 April 1939), too, has been honored with his own label, the comedy of embarrassment, based on the increasingly black comedy in his later farces. The term derives from the unease of audiences as their laughter is deflected by the intrusion of realities underlying that hilarity. For example, the accidental murders in A Small Family Business and Man of the Moment obtrude through the farce, giving it a hollow ring. This jarring union of farce and tragedy, alien to standard farce expectations, in fact, is subtly present even in early comedies such as How the Other Half Loves, markedly so in A Chorus of Disapproval, and shatteringly so in A Small Family Business and Man of the Moment. Ayckbourn has become the hilarious tragedian of contemporary life, not unlike Ben Jonson, whose seventeenth century farces about greed seem ancestors to Ayckbourn’s.
Ayckbourn met the charges of early critics who faulted him for his commercially viable formula plays, commenting that one “cannot begin to shatter theatrical conventions or break golden rules until he is reasonably sure in himself what they are and how they were arrived at.” The rules to which Ayckbourn is referring are the time-honored ones practiced by Greeks and Romans, Shakespeare, Jonson, Molière, George Bernard Shaw, and Oscar Wilde.
With the acknowledged influence of William Congreve, Wilde, Georges Feydeau, Anton Chekhov, Noël Coward, Terence Rattigan, J. B. Priestley, and Pinter, Ayckbourn has forged a style of old and new that has given his plays their unique quality. Using the farce conventions of his predecessors, he has experimented with the mechanics of traditional plotting by challenging its limits and extending its boundaries. One of his most noticeable changes in farce techniques is his avoidance of the linear movement of the plot and his replacing it with a sense of indefiniteness. The outcome is a circular movement, resulting in a play structure that is more akin to the static quality of Chekhov’s plots than to the active one of Wilde’s and Shaw’s plays. His disarrangement of linear plot lines creates the illusion of a standard farce, deceiving the audience in its usual comic expectations. His technique is partly explained by the tripling, sometimes quadrupling, of the number of potentially comic couples or comic situations in the conventional farce. The standard use of the double takes what seems a quantum leap in Ayckbourn’s farces.
The tripling extends to the overall architecture of plays, a number of them taking the form of trilogies. In The Norman Conquests, each of the three plays treats the same character and situations, one being the offstage action of what happens onstage in another. The order of performance of the three plays, thus, is of little consequence, for each is essentially repetitious of the other two. The chief difference among them is their locale: One occurs in the dining room, the second in the living room, and the third in the garden. The difference is diversionary, suggesting a traditional plot movement where there really is none.
Ayckbourn’s trilogy Sisterly Feelings goes even further in its structural inventiveness, with each play’s conclusion in a given performance being determined arbitrarily by a member of the cast. Still another sometimes confusing plot invention is Ayckbourn’s use of the same stage space at the same time by two or more different sets of characters (frequently couples), most prominently illustrated in How the Other Half Loves, Bedroom Farce, and Taking Steps. The single most famous of these scenes, in How the Other Half Loves, involves two different dinner parties by two different middle-class couples (one having achieved social status and the other desperately trying to do so) seated at the same table, their only common element a third couple who are the guests at both dinners.
Ayckbourn’s ingenious plotting strategies provide him ample room to comment on his favorite theme: a satire on the foibles of individuals functioning in suburbia, his chosen slice of middle-class society. His satire has its brief, unrelieved grim moments as in A Small Family Business and Henceforeward, plays in which the families’ children become victims of the pervasive greed of individuals and their society and are helpless to extricate themselves. The artificially happy ending of a farce is replaced by a realistically sober ending in which the comic surfaces of the plot are maintained, even as they cannot disguise the underlying tragic realities. Thus the play stylistically satisfies the farce’s requirement for a happy ending while substantively changing the genre to an ironic farce at its best and a black comedy at its most pessimistic. It is appropriate that the title of one of Ayckbourn’s late plays, The Revengers’ Comedies, derives from Cyril Tourneur’s seventeenth century title The Revenger’s Tragedy (pr. 1606-1607, pb. 1607), with the obvious parallel of the earlier era with Thatcherite England of the 1980’s.
The traditional purpose of comedy has been to reveal and thereby correct the vices of the society that it portrays by exposing them (usually with a deus ex machina ending), thereby bringing about correction of behavior in that society. The exposure involves stereotypical characters whose mechanical behavior engenders laughter. Mere exposure is the punishment for the perpetrator of the vice, either reform or prison frequently being the result of that exposure. The vices of the age have no such corrective results in Ayckbourn’s farces.
In his exposure of rampant acquisitiveness, however, Ayckbourn does realize half of the farceur’s aim. At the same time, he admits to an unease about the corrective results of prevailing farces. Of the Thatcherite regime he says, “It’s no coincidence that you hardly ever see members of the present Government in the theatre. . . . The arts and gentle, civilized living are rapidly being downgraded for the fast buck. It has a narrowing effect. It creates an uncaringness.”
The traditional purpose of tragedy has been to cleanse the body politic of its moral stain and to affirm life through increased self-knowledge on the part of the hero, a process in which guilty and innocent alike suffer. As realistic rather than stereotypical characters who embody the values of their respective societies, characters evoke, according to Aristotelian precepts, pity and fear in the polis even as they endure individual punishments and rewards. There is no such individual or collective affirmation in Ayckbourn’s plays. Again, the darker elements only continue in their nonresolution, in character-generated farces, such as Jack McCracken of A Small Family Business and Douglas Beechey of Man of the Moment. Societally, business and mass-media corrupters conspire in their lack of awareness of the morality or immorality of their actions. Individually and collectively, characters continue in a context in which punishment and rewards in a moral sense do not exist.
Ayckbourn regards Absurd Person Singular with its three Christmas Eve celebrations as his first “offstage action” play, one in which two socially aspiring couples land in the thick of adversities of the most successful couple. The offstage importance increases with every play, with further inability on the part of the characters to extricate themselves from their adversities. For example, the celebratory tableaulike ending to A Small Family Business coexists with a tableau of the young daughter in her drug-induced pain in the bathroom. John Peter describes an Ayckbourn play as “a requiem scored for screams and laughter.”
As a dark farceur par excellence of contemporary suburbia, as an ongoing reinventor of farce technique, and as the most prolific of a huge number of new dramatists in the second half of the twentieth century, Ayckbourn continues to be a force on the world stage.
Ayckbourn’s first London success, Relatively Speaking, illustrates his roots in the traditional mechanics of the well-made farce, such as abundant coincidences, well-timed exits and entrances, complicated romantic intrigues, central misunderstandings, quid pro quos, secrets known to the audience but not to the characters, and the crucial use of an object to progress the plot. At the same time, Ayckbourn rejects the suspense-creating, teeter-totter action, the big revelatory scene, and the ending that neatly ties together the loose ends of the plot. Instead, as a keen observer and creator of character, he treats familial and marital situations whose problems are revealed rather than resolved. The results are Chekhov-like revelations of states of being, contained within the guise of farce and an increasingly bitter satire on the moral bankruptcy of contemporary society. Deceptively embodied in the local, his farce is ultimately universal in its depiction of human foibles that know no bounds of time or place.
With echoes of the exploits of Oscar Wilde’s Jack and Ernest in The Importance of Being Earnest (pr. 1895, pb. 1899), Relatively Speaking, a four-character play, involves a young unmarried couple who set off for the country, each for secret reasons withheld from the other. Ginny wishes to retrieve letters from her former lover (and employer) to put a definite end to that affair. Unbeknown to her, Greg, her current lover, suspicious because of the flowers and chocolates cluttering Ginny’s flat and the address he notices on her cigarette pack (like the cigarette case in Wilde’s play), follows her on a different train. Ginny’s lie about a visit to her “parents” begins a series of deceptions multiplied at breakneck speed, deceptions that stretch out to include an older couple, Philip and his wife, Sheila. A sine qua non of any farce, the seemingly unstoppable piling up of deceptions, misunderstandings, and coincidences is absurd, one of the most comical being Greg’s misinterpretation of Sheila’s truthful insistence that she is not Ginny’s mother. To Greg, Sheila is merely eluding potential embarrassment at having to reveal the illegitimacy of Ginny’s birth.
Like all farceurs, Ayckbourn bases his suspense on secrets known to only some of the characters and on not having all characters on the stage at the same time until the play’s end. Consequently, all characters act on the basis of only a partial knowledge of things. While observing this convention, Ayckbourn ignores the artificial disclosure scene (also known as the big scene, obligatory scene, or scène à faire) in which all secrets are revealed, all misunderstandings cleared up, and a happy ending contrived. For even as Ginny and Philip depart happily, neither Greg nor Philip is fully apprised of what has happened, the former of Philip’s deceptive vacation plans having included Ginny and the latter of Sheila’s untruthful claims to having a lover. Thus the turning point in the conventional farce (two of the most famous occurring in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The School for Scandal, pr. 1777, pb. 1780, and Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest) gives way even in Ayckbourn’s early farces to a Chekhovian technique of the undramatic.
How the Other Half Loves
In How the Other Half Loves, Ayckbourn takes his technique one step further, this time in the use of stage space in a simultaneous depiction of two separate dinner parties. He superimposes the dinner party of one upwardly mobile couple (the Fosters) on that of a more affluent couple (the Phillipses) so that both couples are hosts to the same dinner guests (the Featherstones). In an eye-defying sequence of movements, the audience witnesses the two couples preparing for their guests in the same stage space, the distinctions between the relative affluence of the aspiring sets of hosts made clear only by a change in a few minor furnishings, such as pillows. The hilarious scene in which two separate dinner parties at two separate times are staged at one table is Ayckbourn’s most inventive climactic scene. Their common guest, Mr. Featherstone, is the victim simultaneously of Teresa Phillips’s thrown soup (intended for her husband) and the leaking upstairs toilet at the Fosters’ home. Unwitting victim of the accidental physical high jinks of his hosts, Mr. Featherstone is victim in another sense, for although the fortunes of the Phillipses and the Fosters seem to be put to rights at the end of the play, the Featherstones—clearly the couple to be impressed— reveal their own marital problems, foreboding, ironically, similar problems for their younger, aspiring hosts.
Time and Time Again
Upto Time and Time Again, Ayckbourn’s inventions focused on plots and staging areas. About this play, however, Ayckbourn speaks of “upsetting the balance,” an upsetting involving the nature of his main character. Normally the driving force in the plot, the protagonist, Leonard, is upsettingly passive. According to Ayckbourn, he “attracts people who have an irresistible impulse to push him in one direction, but he slides out of the push.” Some audiences, Ayckbourn continues, are “angered by this type,” while “others get concerned.” Hence, Ayckbourn himself supplies yet another basis for the label applied to him as a writer of the theater of embarrassment.
Leonard’s “sliding” in the play is his refusal to be drawn into the banalities of middle-class social lunches and teas. He has developed his own system of quiet resistance. At one point, he relates the story of a telling of a tale from his former marriage. A schoolteacher at the time, Leonard arrives home one day to find his wife sampling homemade wine with a male friend. Unable or unwilling to react, Leonard spends the evening in the local jail, regaling the officers with his story and retelling it to every fresh batch of police officers as they arrive for duty. Leonard is the first of a series of Ayckbourn’s passive heroes, the most humorous being Norman of The Norman Conquests; the most sympathetically satiric, Guy Jones in A Chorus of Disapproval; and the most devastating, Douglas Beechey in Man of the Moment.
There is an aggressive element in Leonard’s passivity as he forces others to respond to his lack of involvement. From his school days, he tells yet another story of having developed a system of quoting a line or two of poetry, an “infallible system to fool all headmasters and school inspectors.” He continues this pattern of behavior even as an adult. Bored by the others and interested by Leonard’s erratic behavior, Joan, his current interest, joins Leonard in his game. In the meantime, Graham, a husband also attracted to Joan, pushes Peter, another admirer of Joan mistaken by Graham as her lover, into a physical fight. Leonard, as a result of the mistake, goes scot-free. The play ends with Leonard eventually leaving Joan (as he earlier had left his wife and her lover to entertain the local police officers) and walking off compatibly with Peter to the playing field, Graham and Peter still laboring under their misunderstanding.
Absurd Person Singular
Another Ayckbourn technique becomes more apparent with every play: his inventive use of the room. As character becomes more important than plot, Ayckbourn utilizes the room (frequently the kitchen) as a microscope under which he examines contemporary middle-class behavior in all of its acquisitiveness and sexual rituals. The kitchen, its appliances emblems of materialistic greed, is an appropriate setting for his examination.
In his Absurd Person Singular, structured loosely as three one-act plays, three couples celebrate Christmas Eve in three successive years in three different homes, the kitchen winding up as the room in which most of the action takes place. In the first act, the first host-couple, lowest on the social rung, aspire to the social status of their guests. In the second act, the hosts have to some extent realized their social aims. In act 3, the hosts, having played the social-status game longer than their guests, have long since been in a state of total noncommunication, a direction toward which the other two couples seem to be heading. The final scene of act 3 finds all three couples crowding the kitchen, each person in a wild frenzy of attending to chores such as replacing a light bulb, completely ignoring the suicide attempt of their hostess, with her head in the gas oven. The three couples are a variation on those in How the Other Half Loves.
The Norman Conquests
Rooms continue to be the means of Ayckbourn’s microscopic examination of suburban rituals in The Norman Conquests. Here, Ayckbourn locates the similar actions in three different places: the dining room in Table Manners, the living room in Living Together, and the garden in Round and Round the Garden. The family consists of Annie, who is single and the caretaker of their sick mother, her married sister Ruth, and her married brother Reg (and the spouses of the latter two). All convene in the family’s country home to provide some relief for Annie. Norman, Ruth’s husband, enjoys hilariously romantic encounters with the women in each location of the three plays.
Like Leonard of Time and Time Again, Norman attracts female attention and finds himself in situations not of his making. A Chekhovian immobility asserts itself in Annie’s abortive plans for a “dirty weekend” with Norman in East Grinstead. There is a sixth character, an outsider in the person of a slow-witted local veterinarian, played in the original stage production with exquisitely hilarious dullness by Michael Gambon, who would later become a regular actor in Ayckbourn’s plays. He is a foil to Norman, whose sexual attractiveness and agility drive the women to respond to him. Each of the three plays is complete in itself, and the order in which they are performed (or seen) is more or less immaterial to the audience’s understanding of each play because the action in each does not essentially depend on that in the other two and because the actions in all three are essentially the same, their different “rooms” creating different perspectives on the same situation.
Taking Steps and Bedroom Farce
Two plays, Taking Steps and Bedroom Farce, revert to Ayckbourn’s reliance on hectic physical stage business as in How the Other Half Loves. The action of Taking Steps occurs on three different floors of an old Victorian house, but one stage space is used to represent all three floors of the house. Hence the actors must take a variety of steps in imitation of stair climbing. Similarly, in Bedroom Farce, one stage area is occupied by three large beds to represent three different bedrooms. The potential audience confusions as to who is doing what in whose bed and the risk of actors in making false steps as they maneuver their way through time and space create suspense and keep the play’s pace lively. At times, Ayckbourn’s risk taking with physical matters seems its own excuse for being, an entertaining ploy to avoid the greater risk of banality potentially inherent in his repetitive marital and extramarital situations.
In the plays of the 1960’s and 1970’s, Ayckbourn’s ingenious strategies of plot, space, and character dominate, and laughter governs the plays’ moods. In the 1980’s, however, the hilarity, although remaining intact to the end of the play, is mixed with increasing audience uncertainty—to laugh or not to laugh. For example, in Season’s Greetings, a stranger (a writer with only one book to his credit) becomes the romantic object of attention of the females. A guest of the single sister at a Christmas family gathering, he is a later version of the outsider, Leonard, in Time and Time Again. When the women of the household (including his hostess, the unmarried sister) are attracted to him, an angry husband shoots and almost kills him. The intrusion on farce of a potential disaster changes the nature of the laughter into the kind produced by Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, whose shot at his rival misfires.
Chekhov-like also in his use of a family gathering as the central event of a play, Ayckbourn has commented on that event as unimportant. It is, rather, “the response to the dinner party, not the dinner party itself.” He spoke to author Bernard Dukore of the inevitable line in that response: “Wasn’t that a boring dinner party?” In that line and as a consequence of it, revelations occur, not only of the problems of those couples who have succeeded but also of the pending fate of those who have not yet arrived but are on the same path. An attractive outsider acts as a catalyst to reveal the Chekhovian inner states of being that lie beneath the politely banal surfaces.
A Chorus of Disapproval
The outsider in A Chorus of Disapproval is Guy Jones, a lonely bachelor drawn into a provincial production of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (pr., pb. 1728), when the leading role is suddenly vacated. A fuller version of dull Tom in The Norman Conquests, he rises to the occasion, though untalented and inexperienced, and becomes the hero not only of the production but also of the women who thrust themselves on him as a result of dissatisfactions in their own marriages. He is the means by which they respond to the emptiness of their suburban lives.
A Small Family Business, Henceforward, and Man of the Moment
In three later plays—A Small Family Business, Henceforward, and Man of the Moment—the farce is increasingly ironic in Ayckbourn’s progressive shift to emphasize the emotional and moral bankruptcy of middle-class family life in Thatcherite England of the 1980’s. In all three, outside forces exert pressures on family situations, pressures that the family finds difficult or impossible to control.
In A Small Family Business, the pressure is money, involving a family furniture business in which greed corrupts completely, simultaneously involving a hilariously stereotyped, Mafia-like quintet of Italian brothers. In Henceforward, a gang-infested neighborhood is a refuge for a divorced composer of electronic music, who contests his wife for custody of their daughter. In a stunning move, Ayckbourn deploys a female robot, the composer’s means of assuring the social worker of the presence of a maternal influence in his daughter’s life. Ayckbourn compounds this bit of theatricality with the appearance of the teen daughter in full regalia as a member of one of the neighborhood gangs. In Man of the Moment, the theatricality takes the form of an overweight woman who accidentally kills a most repulsive character when she steps on him rather thansaving him, as was her intention. Individual greed and corruption, although present, are given societal approval in the impunity and impersonality with which a television crew exploits personal tragedy in the name of a good news story. Both business and television interests conspire in a cover-up of the real story.
In these three plays, the laughter caused by coincidences and central misunderstandings is still there, but now the plays are darkened by their context of a pervasive societal hypocrisy. The problems are no longer those of innocently human complications but of socially accepted amorality. In A Small Family Business, the last person with any scruples, Jack, the new head of the business, cannot extricate himself from its corruption. The gang-infested neighborhood of Henceforward and the moral vacuum of the mass media in Man of the Moment remain. Ayckbourn provides no artificial resolutions to the problems, only a microscopic examination of them. Amid the farcical humor that is sustained to the end in two of the plays, two teenagers, as a result of their being ignored because of other family problems, become innocent victims, one a drug addict and the other a gang member. In the third play, an adult innocent, dull and passive Douglas Beechey, is a subject for both hilarity and tragedy, as he is made into a massmedia hero through no attempt on his part. He belongs to a long gallery of Ayckbourn characters who have their roots in the early outsider characters such as Tom in The Norman Conquests.
Despite widening his settings, for example to the Costa del Sol in southern Spain in Man of the Moment, to ethnic restaurants, in Time of My Life, even to imaginary landscapes, as in The Revengers’ Comedies and futuristic households, as in Henceforward, Ayckbourn’s themes and theatricality have developed naturally. He has never lost sight of the little man and his desire for self-fulfillment in domesticity, even though evil may lurk abroad.
The Square Cat, pr. 1959 (as Roland Allen); Love After All, pr. 1959 (as Roland Allen); Mr. Whatnot, pr. 1963 (revised version pr. 1964); Relatively Speaking, pr. 1967, pb. 1968 (originally as Meet My Father, pr. 1965); Ernie’s Incredible Illucinations, pb. 1969, pr. 1971 (for children); How the Other Half Loves, pr. 1969, pb. 1972; Time and Time Again, pr. 1971, pb. 1973; Absurd Person Singular, pr. 1972, pb. 1974; The Norman Conquests, pr. 1973, pb. 1975 (includes Table Manners, Living Together, and Round and Round the Garden); Absent Friends, pr. 1974, pb. 1975; Confusions, pr. 1974, pb. 1977 (five one-acts); Bedroom Farce, pr. 1975, pb. 1977; Just Between Ourselves, pr. 1976, pb. 1978; Ten Times Table, pr. 1977, pb. 1978; Joking Apart, pr. 1978, pb. 1979; Men on Women on Men, pr. 1978 (lyrics; music by Paul Todd); Sisterly Feelings, pr. 1979, pb. 1981; Taking Steps, pr. 1979, pb. 1981; Suburban Strains, pr. 1980, pb. 1982 (music by Todd); Season’s Greetings, pr. 1980, pb. 1982; Way Upstream, pr. 1981, pb. 1983; Me, Myself, and I, pr. 1981, pb. 1989 (music by Todd); Intimate Exchanges, pr. 1982, pb. 1985; A Chorus of Disapproval, pr. 1984, pb. 1985; Woman in Mind, pr. 1985, pb. 1986; A Small Family Business, pr., pb. 1987; Henceforward, pr. 1987, pb. 1988; Mr. A’s Amazing Maze Plays, pr. 1988, pb. 1989 (for children); Man of the Moment, pr. 1988, pb. 1990; Invisible Friends, pr. 1989, pb. 1991; The Revengers’ Comedies, pr. 1989, pb. 1991; Body Language, pr. 1990, pb. 2001; This Is Where He Came In, pr. 1990, pb. 1995 (for children); Wildest Dreams, pr. 1991, pb. 1993; My Very Own Story, pr. 1991, pb. 1995 (for children); Dreams from a Summer House, pr. 1992, pb. 1997 (music by John Pattison); Time of My Life, pr. 1992, pb. 1993; Communicating Doors, pr. 1994, pb. 1995; Haunting Julia, pr. 1994; The Musical Jigsaw Play, pr. 1994 (for children); Plays, pb. 1995-1998 (2 volumes); A Word from Our Sponsor, pr. 1995, pb. 1998 (music by Pattison); By Jeeves, pr. 1996 (music by Andrew Lloyd Webber); The Champion of Paribanou, pr. 1996, pb. 1998 (for children); Things We Do for Love, pr. 1997, pb. 1998; The Boy Who Fell into a Book, pr. 1998, pb. 2000 (for children); Comic Potential, pr. 1998, pb. 1999; Gizmo, pr. 1998, pb. 1999; “House” and “Garden,” pr., pb. 2000. 2000 Virtual Reality, 2000 Whenever, 2001 Damsels In Distress, 2001 GamePlan, 2001 FlatSpin, 2001 RolePlay, 2002 Snake In The Grass, 2002 The Jollies, 2003 Sugar Daddies, 2003 Orvin – Champion Of Champions, 2003 My Sister Sadie, 2004 Drowning On Dry Land, 2004 Private Fears In Public Places, 2004 Miss Yesterday, 2005 Improbable Fiction, 2006 If I Were You , 2008 Life & Beth, 2008 Awaking Beauty, 2009 My Wonderful Day, 2010 Life Of Riley, 2011 Neighbourhood Watch, 2012 Surprises, 2013 Arrivals & Departures, 2014 Roundelay, 2015 Hero’s Welcome, 2016, Consuming Passions, 2017 A Brief History of Women, 2018 Better Off Dead, 2019 Birthdays Past, Birthdays Present
Other major works
Screenplay: A Chorus of Disapproval, 1989 (adaptation of his play).
Teleplay: Service Not Included, 1974.
Allen, Paul. Alan Ayckbourn: Grinning at the Edge. New York: Continuum, 2002.
Billington, Michael. Alan Ayckbourn. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990.
Dukore, Bernard. Alan Ayckbourn: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1992.
Holt, Michael. Alan Ayckbourn. Plymouth, England: NorthcoteHouse, 1999.
Kalson, Albert E. Laughter in the Dark: The Plays of Alan Ayckbourn. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Press for Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1993.
Page, Malcolm. File on Ayckbourn. London: Methuen Drama, 1989.
Watson, Ian. Conversations with Ayckbourn. Rev. ed. London: Faber and Faber, 1988.
White, Sidney Howard. Alan Ayckbourn. Boston: Twayne, 1984.
Categories: Drama Criticism, Literature
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