He’s a Home Counties boy who flays the middle-classes from his base in Yorkshire, a shy man whose inner turmoil comes out in his plays, a comic writer of world renown – yet the critics are divided about his reputation. Simon Fanshawe on a very modern Molière
Alan Ayckbourn was explaining how his plays become hits to a man who runs amusement arcade slot machines in Scarborough . First, they’re tried out in the resort’s theatre, next they transfer to the West End, “then, if I’m lucky, they go to America or Holland or wherever. And each place they go, I get paid.”
The slot machine man, “a bit of a wide boy,” Ayckbourn admits admiringly, was intrigued – “but how do you get the actual money?” There was no mystery, said the playwright, with his usual anxious modesty, “the theatre collects a percentage and just sends it to my agent”. The slot-machine man bellowed, “they just hand over the money? That’s fucking brilliant. I have to empty these machines myself, every day. ‘Ere, George!” And Ayckbourn had to describe the whole system to George again.
During rehearsals for his 54th and 55th plays, the linked House/Garden, Ayckbourn said: “Suddenly I’ve got credibility in Scarborough – for this scam. And I’ve managed to explain what I am doing there now: I am running an international racket.” And he laughs, not his guffaw, but his other one – the funny internal sort of gurgle, an almost private sign of some personal satisfaction.
It’s a revealing tale. In the theatre world Ayckbourn is decisively a man of the people. His friends say he feels it is important to be accepted by ordinary people with ordinary jobs for doing something real. So his plays are designed to be immediately accessible. Nothing matters to him more than getting the audience in. It always has. It was a ground rule imparted by his mentor, Stephen Joseph, after whom Ayckbourn’s theatre-in-the-round in Scarborough is named. He was the wild and inspiring son of Michael Joseph the publisher and Hermione Baddeley, the great revue comedienne of the 30s and 40s. Joseph’s brief to the then 20-year- old actor was “to write plays that would fill the theatre”. He’s been doing that for 30 years. But Ayckbourn adds now: “They also had to be worthy of my peers and colleagues who were sharing the dressing room with me in Scarborough. They’d mostly come a long way up from London and made quite big cuts in their living standards to do so. If I’d given them tacky seaside stuff they’d say, ‘Look, I could have been doing telly.'”
Ayckbourn is acutely aware of the importance of his adopted home town. The Stephen Joseph Theatre has been his laboratory all his working life. Sir Peter Hall, who vigorously championed him at the National in the mid-80s, describes it as “a large playroom for him to work out his fantasies and anxieties”.
Ayckbourn first went there as an actor aged 18; then in 1970, three years after Joseph died, he became its director. His artistic policy has always been dictated by the need to fill the theatre. But Scarborough isn’t London, where there’s an audience for anything – for a while, says Ayckbourn. So if he were to do a season of Beckett, he’d probably have to close the theatre down: “They wouldn’t come. There would just be a few from the technical college saying, ‘Great. You should do more of this.'”
This determined populism has been the basis for his theatrical credo, combined with the playfulness of his technical craftsmanship, a belief in comedy as a vehicle for his social comment, and his uncanny ability to flirt with the middle classes’ sense of themselves – to flay them alive before their eyes and yet have them come back time and again to watch.
The milieu of his plays was set very early. Despite having lived in Yorkshire since he was 19, almost all his work is set in the south of England, where he was brought up. He always says that most of his plays are located “somewhere north of Reading”. They are populated by ruthless little go-getters, philanderers, small men, brave women, bullish opportunists, dreadful do-good ers and, often the only admirable characters, the feckless and the failures. They are all sharply aware of their place in the pecking order and most of them are determined to change it to the disadvantage of others. Men torture their wives emotionally and women go quietly mad through neglect.
There is a darkness in his view of human relationships. He watches us inflict awful cruelty on each other, more often than not during the family rituals of birthdays, Christmasses, meals, funerals and marriages. He appears to be deeply pessimistic about the state of relationships between men and women. And in his own tentative way, he’s a moralist. He was shocked by the 90s, by what he has called “all that Thatcherite money-making on everybody else’s back, which made us a completely uncaring society”.
He told the cast rehearsing the new plays: “You’ll notice in my plays that anyone who mistreats, misbehaves or deceives tends to get their comeuppance. [However] I am probably guilty of tidying up the world a bit because things tend to happen rather quicker in plays than in the real world. Although Robert Maxwell did fall overboard.”
Perhaps his greatest distinction is as an experimenter with comic form and theatrical diversity. He is a puckish manipulator of dramatic structure, deriving enormous pleasure from the fact that audiences go along with the devices. “The myth that you have to write sim plistically for the masses is so patronising. Audiences love to be challenged.”
And he has altered the rules quite considerably by taking light comedy and using it to tackle ideas and subjects that, when he started as a dramatist, wouldn’t have been included. A Small Family Business, possibly his best work, which in 1987 took £1m at the National Theatre box office, was a comedy which nonetheless ended with a girl dying of an overdose on a lavatory seat while a party was in full swing downstairs. As he says: “It might have been written in a lighter moment by Sarah Kane”.
His daring with dramatic structure is reflected in the form he has constructed for House/Garden, which open at the Royal National Theatre in London next Wednesday, where the two plays are performed simultaneously in adjacent auditoriums. Members of the cast appear in both, running between them backstage. In House/Garden each audience knows there is another play going on and that feeds the sense that it is all happening at that moment specifically for them, which Ayckbourn believes is what his job is about – “giving people the impression that they have arrived at just the right moment, in just the right seat, to see the right sequence of events”, as he wrote in 1993.
Alan Ayckbourn was born in London in 1939. His father, first violin in the London Symphony Orchestra, ran away with the second violin when Alan was only five. His mother then embarked on what he has called “a series of highly unsuitable and unrewarding relationships”, including marrying the local bank manager when they moved to West Sussex. He went as a boarder to the local prep school and then, from the age of seven, to the minor public school Haileybury . “It was quite strange. You had no family really. Your life became more and more about those months at school because you came home and you knew no-one. Women were a bit strange, too, because you didn’t see them much.”
His father, Horace, “was a great philanderer. I liked him very much, though. He was quite a bit older than my mother. He lived in Norfolk and bred St Bernard dogs. He died when I was 12 or 13.”
The major influence in his life was undoubtedly his mother, Irene, who supported herself and the young Ayckbourn by writing for women’s magazines under the pen name of Mary James, although, to most family friends, she was always known as Lolly. Her attitudes and experiences determined much of what he has written. It is seen in what the Guardian critic Michael Billington calls “his frankly feminist viewpoint”. Ayckbourn confirms this: “If you live with your mother after a succession of men have left her, you tend to be slightly biased. Men are pretty unreliable.” On the front cover of his collected plays is a seaside postcard with a rhyme – Mother’s Boy – about a boy kissing a girl and being teased by her about what his mother will think.
He left school convinced he was going to be an actor. At Haileybury he did a great number of plays, including the Brian Rix farce Reluctant Heroes. It was an ambi tious project for a 16-year-old. He was lucky to have one master who was “a theatre nut” – Edgar Mathews. Every year in the summer holidays he took the boys on tour abroad with a play. But Ayckbourn’s housemaster was pushing him towards higher education. “He called me in before I left and said ‘What do you want to be?’. I said ‘an actor’. I remember him slamming the careers book shut and saying, ‘Well, my friend, if you want to make a howling ass of yourself, who am I to stop you?’.”
The school now has a fully equipped theatre named after Ayckbourn. When he opened it he met the housemaster again, but didn’t mention the incident to him. As he tells it, “he just said ‘My friend, you seem to have done very well for yourself’.”
Ayckbourn was married at 19, to Christine Roland, and by 25 he had two sons, Steven and Philip, and was a drama director at BBC Radio. Both boys now work in theatre, Steven in Scarborough. The marriage did not last. It made Ayckbourn very angry that people so young were pushed into marriage. “I still think we never allow kids to consider what it means to have children. It’s an unbelievable responsibility for the rest of your life, if you’re going to do it seriously. And if you’re not, then have a dog or a canary or something. You end up with abandoned babies or girls who want to kill themselves. But when I was growing up it was all about finding someone and promising yourself to them for life. And I was very angry that anyone allowed me to make that sort of vow. It wasn’t an easy thing to walk away.”
Eventually he did, after about six years, although he didn’t get divorced for another 35. “I went through a stage when I thought it would be good to stay married to Christine so that she couldn’t marry anyone else. I couldn’t let anyone else go through that.” He married his long-time personal assistant, Heather Stoney, in 1997. Legend has it that, with a knighthood possible, he waited until the honour was bestowed so that he could divorce and then remarry: that way there would be two Lady Ayckbourns. He doesn’t demur.
Ayckbourn is undoubtedly a writer for women. His men are emotionally stunted and, you imagine, small in every way. His women are a much richer canvas. Julia McKenzie, who had particular success in Communicating Doors and Woman In Mind, says simply, “he likes women, he understands women and he does write for women. You just feel with him that you could chat about any women’s problems. He’s in no way not butch, but I can natter on to him like I would to a girlfriend.” She also confirms something everyone says about him, that he is very shy. Roger Glossop, the designer, who has now worked with him since 1986, says, “He’s still a bit of a mystery. I really don’t think I know him. His mind is elsewhere a lot of the time.”
The shyness masks an emotional turmoil. Ayckbourn says of himself, “I have a great cauldron of emotional mess and it all spews out in the plays.” Mackenzie says. “You feel he might blow, although I’ve never seen him do so.”
There is particular vehemence about a set of recurring characters in his plays who apparently have no emotions. There is one in House/Garden, a speechwriter, obviously Tory, and in Ayckbourn’s tradition of characters with names like Marmion Cedilla, Lester Trainsmith, or Carla Pepperbloom, is called Gavin Ryng-Mayne.
Ayckbourn describes him as “able to control his feelings, unlike the rest of us who fall in love, care, sometimes feel vulnerable. But these people manage to turn away. And they’re frightening. They watch and they have a strength as a result of that. They’re the people I fear I might have been, could have been or even am.” Peter Hall rather grandly calls this his “divine discontent with himself”, and adds that as he gets older Ayckbourn’s plays “reveal more and more of himself”.
This ability to experiment and stretch as a dramatist comes from his position in Scarborough, where he writes, produces and directs. As he says, “I am not the best director of my plays, but I’m the best one I know. It cuts out the middle man.” Michael Billington points out “there are simply no other writers who have their own theatre”. Ayckbourn constructs a company around him, and people work with him again and again – Glossop, the designer for 14 years; Michael Gambon, his star actor for 20.
But Scarborough gives him more than control. It gives him a regular audience which allows him to practise theatre in a community where he belongs. He has, in the way of those who are rootless in childhood, zealously adopted this Yorkshire seaside resort as home. And it colours his view of what theatre is and why it matters. “I strongly believe – I’m a regionalist of course – that theatre is the forum where we discuss ideas and also ourselves. And we do it in a way that you cannot do in the movies, which are one-sided arguments made by someone a million miles away, purveyed by people who are 17 times your size. Which is just nothing like watching Hamlet die a few feet in front of you.”
In an eight-month season, the theatre produces one new show of his a year – said to be gestated for months but actually written at great speed in just four weeks – and as much new writing as it can risk at the box office. It seeks out new work by writers who wish to reach a wider public, the people Ayckbourn describes as the ones who believe they’re not theatregoers.
For this the theatre gets £450,000 a year from Yorkshire Arts, £53,000 from North Yorkshire Council, and £207,000 from Scarborough Council. Despite the theatre also earning £650,000 in commercial income, the town has wobbled in its commitment. In 1997 there was the celebrated “luvvies versus lavvies” dispute when the redoubtable philistinism of the British reared up in the form of a local councillor who said that the theatre grant would mean closing the town’s 22 public lavatories. The headline writers could hardly believe their luck. The local paper was full of inarticulate praise for the public conveniences as a major Scarborough attraction, and Ayckbourn lost his rag. “If you happen to be teetotal in this town, then God help you – because there is little else to do apart from get drunk and buy shoes,” he wrote. The council later relented.
For all the ongoing debate about the best way of keeping theatre alive, in his book it comes down to one thing: “I have been out to lunch with successive arts minis ters who say, ‘OK, Alan, tell us what the problem is’. And I say, ‘money’. And they say ‘Apart from that’. It’s nothing to do with anything but money. I feel like a man in a house with no roof, the rain pouring in, and people offering money to build a conservatory. I just want some roofing tiles.”
In the town, Ayckbourn retains the affections of a great number of locals. Ian Grundy and Bob Harris, who run the guesthouse, Interludes, whose clients come just to see the plays, say, “Scarborough can’t buy the kind of publicity Alan brings”. They have seen every play and their verdict is that “he is getting even funnier”. Bob Watson, a retired local English teacher, was a reluctant convert, chaperoning his wife and daughter under protest to his first Ayckbourn, Confusions, in the early 70s. “I was just staggered,” he says, starting the kind of knowing commentary on the writing that can only come from an intense involvement in the whole body of work.
Ayckbourn is richer than he admits. His agents put the royalties alone at “well over a million a year”. Ayckbourn says “a million a year? I wish it was. I work in theatre, you know, I don’t do movies.” But he also gives a lot to his theatre. It is a matter of record that he has worked as artistic director without drawing a salary for 30 years, and that he pays for a casting director. But, according to friends, he also donates a considerable amount of his royalties to the Stephen Joseph and he bought the lease on the current building for an estimated £200,000, in partnership with Charles McCarthy, the UK chairman of McCain’s chips, and Lord Down, both great local supporters of the theatre. Some estimate that his personal contribution to the bid for National Lottery funding which enabled them to buy and open the new building in 1996 was about £400,000.
Ayckbourn is not only part of a great but now-fragile tradition of regional civic theatre, but also of the stream of English dramatists from Shakespeare through the Restoration to the Kitchen Sink, although perhaps not yet including the smack and sodomy kids of Shopping And Fucking and Blasted. But he grew up in theatre’s changing landscape. Emerging as an actor just after 1956 when Osborne, Pinter and Wesker were beginning to get established, he also had the advantage of playing Coward and Rattigan in weekly repertory. It is clear that he feels part of both movements but ultimately he decided on a commitment to popular work and to write plays which he says “are simply about people”.
It is that which, out of snobbery, prevents some people taking him seriously.Peter Hall says that there “is still some feeling that if a play is commercial it somehow doesn’t belong in the subsidised theatre and that we should be doing plays about distant indigenous tribes in loose poetic rhyme”. If you want a reputation of significance, that’s a fatal error. And it’s compounded if you not only choose to write comedies but produce one a year – and then in the provinces. Yet, as a writer in English, Ayckbourn is second only to Shakespeare in terms of the number of times his plays are produced around the world. Every year in Britain there are 25 to 30 professional productions of Ayckbourn, and his work goes around the world, with translations in 34 languages. Later this year the National Theatre of Taiwan in Taipei will revive its hugely successful national tour of Communicating Doors in Cantonese. The German theatre critic Gerhard Stadelmaier called Ayckbourn, whose popularity in Germany almost tops that in Britain, “the Molière of the middle classes”.
Critics, however, are divided about his reputation. Is he just a “pretty farceur” – a populist boulevard writer churning out commercial comedy hits based on theatrical trickery, and a writer with no sustainable claim on posterity? Or does a body of work which contains Relatively Speaking, Absurd Person Singular, The Norman Conquests, Absent Friends, Bedroom Farce and A Chorus Of Disapproval, make him “one of our most serious dramatists, comparable with Pinter, Hare and Stoppard”, as Michael Billington described him?
The two new plays are about the deceptive nature of reality; they show people from different angles, so certain things appear funny until you see them from a different perspective. Ayckbourn is reluctant to intellectualise, but will admit that his work has some kind of philosophical impact. But he has a horror that people will draw back from going to his shows if they feel they’re going to be preached at.
He saw this happen to one of his contemporaries, Harold Pinter, early on in his career. Ayckbourn says, “to me, he wrote wonderful plays. But they became so studied, so interpreted that you couldn’t walk near them without having a BA.” Analysis clouded the theatrical experience, and even Pinter himself resisted that. In his early days as an actor, Ayckbourn was once directed by Pinter in one of Pinter’s own plays. As he was feeling his way into the part, he asked the playwright, “Where does this guy come from?” Pinter replied: “Mind your own fucking business.”
Despite the critics’ snobbery it is clear that he is one of the nation’s most intuitive chroniclers, particularly foreshadowing what would come to fruition in the 80s with the decline of the professional classes before the advance of thrusting opportunists. As Hall says, “He has an acute social sense of what it was like to live in England in the last half of the 20th century. And for that, as much as any dramatist, he is required reading”.
• House/Garden open at the National Theatre, Upper Ground, London SE1 on August 9
Life at a glance – Alan Ayckbourn
Born: April 12 1939, Hampstead, London
Educated: Haileybury, Herts.
Married: 1959 Christine Roland (two sons, Steven, Philip), dissolved; October 1997 Heather Stoney.
1957 actor, Theatre-in- the-Round, Scarborough; 1962-70 BBC radio drama producer, Leeds; 1971- artistic director, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough; director, National Theatre 1986-7.
Some plays: 1959 The Square Cat, 1965 Relatively Speaking, 1972 Absurd Person Singular, 1973 The Norman Conquests, 1977 Bedroom Farce, 1979 Joking Apart, 1982 Way Upstream, 1985 A Chorus Of Disapproval, 1987 A Small Family Business, 1996 Communicating Doors, 1998 Things We Do For Love, 2000 House/Garden.
Honours: 1987 CBE; 1997 knighted.
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