August 10, 2011 by jamesessj
Of all the playwrights I’ve discovered, or read much more of, during my nearly-six-month-long immersion in theatricality, Alan Ayckbourn certainly stands out. I haven’t heard, or read, of him being called “the British Neil Simon” (or, for that matter, of Simon being called “the American Alan Ayckbourn,” though in fairness Simon’s career began first), but that is about as apt a brief description as I can think of for his oeuvre* — in his forty-plus-year career, he’s written something like 70 plays (no one seems to agree on the precise number), and yet I’d never heard of him prior to a few years ago, when I came across The Norman Conquests, a trilogy of plays he wrote in the early 70’s and that may still be his best-known works in the United States. Most of his plays feature British suburbanites dealing with the vagaries of suburban (or, hell, human) life, and are filled with wit, irony, and a terrific ability to juxtapose the sublime, the ridiculous, and the tragic.
One of Ayckbourn’s main claims to fame — and the reason many high-minded critics unfairly dismiss him — is his unending experimentation with theatrical form, from setting to character to time. One of his first big successes, How The Other Half Loves, features a single set that serves as two separate living rooms, with action simultaneously occurring in both, neither set of characters aware of the others, but moving in the same space. The Norman Conquests are three separate plays featuring the same set of characters and occurring over a single weekend; they can be seen and enjoyed separately, but together form a chronicle of one man’s roller-coaster relationships with three semi-related women. House and Garden are two plays featuring the same set of characters, but are meant to be played simultaneously in two separate venues — in other words, one set of actors juggling back-and-forth from one venue’s stage to the other. Communicating Doors and Time of My Life do interesting things with the concept of time, Doors featuring time-traveling from 2014 to 1994 to 1974 and Time of My Life featuring a couple’s birthday dinner at a restaurant counterpoised with action moving both backward and forward in time, showing both how we got here and where we go from here. Perhaps my favorite of Ayckbourn’s plays, Things We Do For Love, features a set that contains the ceiling of the first floor of an apartment building, the entire apartment above it, and the floor of the apartment above that. My other favorite, Henceforward…, has two actresses playing a human and a robot in the first act, and then in the second, ingeniously, switching to play a robot and a human, respectively. What may be Ayckbourn’s most infamous experiment is Sisterly Feelings, which has, literally, four versions, the one version of which the audience will see being entirely determined by a character’s coin flip. (I’m sure the answer to this must be Yes, but I wonder if the audience was informed — aside from extra-show publicity — that this coin flip was quite real, and quite determinative. I mean, if i saw a character flip a coin in a play, I would simply assume it was part of the story, its outcome predetermined.)
Ayckbourn’s brand of showmanship drives critics around the bend, but he always deploys it in service of his plot, his theme, his comedy. You may debate his success in doing so — no playwright is perfect — but in general I find his flights of theatricality to be extremely effective and more than slightly imaginative. I suppose anyone who’d written 70 plays would start to look around for new ways of doing things, but Ayckbourn has been pushing the boundaries from the very beginning, and is still doing so today. Which is not to say he doesn’t have his lapses. A play like Woman in Mind, while a worthy attempt to show a woman’s descent into madness, comes off as nothing that hasn’t been done better by, for one very famous example, Tennessee Williams. (But even in Woman in Mind, Ayckbourn’s creative juices are in full roil: the conceit is that we, the audience, see only what the main character sees, including her hallucinations and other misperceptions of reality.) And he does, at times, tread a path he’s trod before — Time of My Life incorporates some of the fiscal double-dealings that the earlier A Small Family Business handled so adroitly, and Just Between Ourselves anticipates Woman in Mind‘s woman-in-mental-decline, and his mid-70’s comedies Absurd Person Singular, Bedroom Farce, and Absent Friends (ironically available in a single volume called Three Plays) are so alike in style and substance that it’s hard to recall what happened in which play.
But as I say, in general Ayckbourn is a delight, not least because he shares — or at least his work shares — a tragic vision of the human condition. People are people, and will always be people…this is the essence of comedy, the essence of drama. We go to see ourselves reflected; to feel, for a moment, that at least we are not they; and then to remember that of course we are they, and they are we. Ayckbourn understands this. His plays are brilliantly crafted mirrors.
*A word I can never think of without hearing Professor Peter Schickele’s voice.