Published in Pasadena Magazine November 2000
He’s the Energizer bunny of the theater world. In his 61 years, Alan Ayckbourn has penned 56 plays — and maintaining the rabbit metaphor, there’s always another one on the way. But surprisingly, he hasn’t devoted his life exclusively to playwriting. He’s also served as actor, stage manager, sound technician, scene painter, lighting technician, propmaker and director.
He’s the world’s most frequently produced playwright — except for Shakespeare, whom he’s far surpassed in productivity. His works have been translated into 35 languages, and have been performed on stage, screen and television in more than 50 countries. He’s won numerous awards, including several for his plays for children. In 1997, he became the first living playwright to be knighted since Noel Coward (1970) and Terrence Rattigan (1971).
Ayckbourn’s creative output conforms to the calendar. For 48 weeks a year, he is a director (of all his own premieres, with additional forays to the BBC, the Royal National Theatre or U.S. regional theaters). The remaining month is spent writing a new play. The first three weeks are devoted to organizing the ideas, characters and situations that have occurred to him since he wrote his last play. He then writes the entire new work in one sleepless week. Rehearsals begin immediately, with opening night usually following completion of the script by less than a month.
Although Ayckbourn wrote his first play at age 10, he started his theater career as an actor. Performance is in his blood. His grandfather did some acting and ran an ice rink. His grandmother was a male impersonator. His father was a violinist with the London Symphony Orchestra. But he considered his primary influence to have been his mother, a novelist and short story writer. He always knew he, too, would grow up to be a writer.
Nonetheless, he likes to think of himself primarily as a director. All his own works premiere in the new Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, a seaside town about 250 miles northeast of London. He not only writes and directs there; he also runs the place, serving as artistic director since 1970. At any given time, he tries to have one play in production, one play starting and one in rehearsal.
Ayckbourn, who’s been called “the English Neil Simon” and “the Molière of the middle class,” is known for his dark, cynical comedy and incredible stage gimmickry. His “Bedroom Farce” is set in three different boudoirs at once; “Absurd Person Singular” takes place in three different kitchens on three consecutive Christmas Eves. “The Norman Conquests” is a trilogy of interlocked plays chronicling one weekend’s activity from various points of view. “Things We Do for Love” is enacted on three levels simultaneously. Many of his plays have various optional endings.
“How the Other Half Loves” considers three couples, all tangled up in a web of lies and infidelities, a meatgrinder of misunderstandings. The audience watches events unfold concurrently in the living room of a middle class couple and the drawing room of an affluent couple. In his stage directions, Ayckbourn specifies a “composite setting… with two rooms contained and overlapping in the same area.” Audiences remember this play most for its famous “dinner party scene,” in which two couples arrive simultaneously to dinners on the one set which represents two dining rooms in two different houses on two different nights.
One reason for all the staging gimmicks, the playwright has conceded, is to find fresh slants on his “relatively simple” tales of people and their relationships. “It’s necessary,” he has said, “to find new ways to tell those stories.”
Ayckbourn uses farce to highlight the banality and numbing pain of everyday existence. His characters are often trying to maintain their suburban gentility in the face of a collapsing culture, what he calls Britain’s “magnificent inefficiency.” The common characteristic among Ayckbourn’s people is the inability to communicate, particularly with one’s spouse.
Ayckbourn himself was married at 19, and soon after, had two sons. Divorced for years, he recently married his long-time assistant and companion, Heather Stoney. Still, marriages don’t fare well in his plays. He told his biographer Ian Watson that “the marriages I …see are either fraught or dull… I think a big piece of us dies in a marriage.”
Ayckbourn’s women, seeking to escape loveless or unsatisfying marriages, are generally miserable and frustrated. His men, in turn, are foolish, incompetent or deceitful. What keeps his audiences enthralled, he says, is that “there’s always a relationship worse than theirs onstage.”
Over time, Ayckbourn has confessed, his plays have gotten, if not darker, then deeper. “How the Other Half Loves’ is one of his earlier efforts, premiering in Scarborough in 1969, then moving on to Broadway, to become America’s introduction to Alan Ayckbourn. It was, in fact, his second big hit, following “Relatively Speaking,” which made a splash on London’s West End four years earlier. [His output was obviously sluggish in the early days].
“How the Other Half Loves” is often considered one of his lighter works. But it uses and updates traditional themes and techniques of farce. In classic farce, for example, adultery is hungrily plotted but almost never consummated; here it is a sordid and distasteful reality.
Ayckbourn reveals just enough of the naked, ugly truth to provide a sobering shock of recognition. His brand of farce is dependent not on repressed sexuality and terrified respectability, but on the frustrations and agonies of petty, alienated and desperate little people.
“How the Other Half Loves” dovetails the lives of three couples to create a clever counterpoint of class values and attitudes. But the play is not only about differences in status and rank; it’s about the way people’s lives are inextricably linked to each other, not in a smooth, sane, orderly way, but in jumbled, broken bits. This, of course, supports the contention that Ayckbourn writes “serious farce” or “bitter comedy.” He’s said that he finds a spiritual vacuum in modern society; his greatest fear is that people will become isolated from each other, cut off by technology. But he clings to the belief that they’ll come back to the community of theater in the new millennium. Here’s hoping he’s right.
Pat Launer is resident theater critic for KPBS-FM, San Diego, and writes regularly for On Air Magazine and theatermania.com. She is the host of “Center Stage,” a thrice-annual, live-audience, KPBS radio and television show devoted to theater.
©2000 Patté Productions Inc.