Alan Ayckbourn (born 1939), a prolific author of comedy plays about middle-class life in England, is considered one of the world's pre-eminent dramatists.
English playwright Alan Ayckbourn is a master satirist of middle-class manners who has often been compared to Noel Coward and Harold Pinter. He draws upon his own upbringing to paint scathing portraits of people leading dull, mechanical lives. Often his works straddle the line between comedy and farce. His plays have been translated into more than 25 foreign languages and have been performed all over the world. Harold Clurman, writing in the Nation, called Ayckbourn "a master hand at turning the bitter apathy, the stale absurdity which most English playwrights now find characteristic of Britain's lower-middle-class existence into hilarious comedy."
Alan Ayckbourn was born in Hampstead, London, England, on April 12, 1939. His father, Horace Ayckbourn, was an accomplished musician who served as deputy leader of the London Symphony Orchestra. His mother, Irene (Worley) Ayckbourn, was a journalist who wrote for popular women's magazines. When Ayckbourn was five, his parents divorced. He remained with his mother, who married a bank manager and moved to rural Sussex. The new marriage was troubled as well, however, and Ayckbourn endured a very unhappy childhood. "I was surrounded by relationships that weren't altogether stable, the air was often blue, and things were sometimes flying across the kitchen," he told the New York Times.
Ayckbourn spent much of his childhood in various boarding schools. At the age of 12, he received a scholarship to attend Haileybury, a respected public school. There he took an interest in drama under the influence of his teacher, Edgar Matthews. By the time he was 17, he had decided to pursue a career as an actor. He started out with small repertory theater companies, often working as a stage manager in addition to performing.
From Actor to Playwright
In 1957, Ayckbourn took a position with the Stephen Joseph Company in Scarborough. This experimental theater-in-the-round troupe specialized in so-called "underground" dramatic techniques. Originally, Ayckbourn was hired as a bit player and assistant stage manager. Like a lot of young actors, however, he began to lobby for bigger and better parts. Stephen Joseph, the leader of the company, thought Ayckbourn had more potential as a writer than an actor. He appealed to the actor's vanity. "If you want a better part, you'd better write one for yourself," Joseph told Ayckbourn, according to Drama magazine. Ayckbourn accepted the challenge, and in 1959 produced his first two plays, The Square Cat and Love After All. He refused to put his own name on these works and no longer allows them to be staged. Other plays Ayckbourn crafted during his time at Scarborough were Dad's Tale and Standing Room Only.
In 1959, Ayckbourn married Christine Roland. Their union produced two children, Steven Paul and Philip Nicholas. In 1961, Ayckbourn left Scarborough to found his own company, the Victoria Theatre Company in Stoke-on-Trent. From 1965 to 1970, he also worked for the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) as a producer of radio dramas. Meanwhile, he continued to write occasional plays for the Scarborough company.
First Taste of Success
In 1967, Ayckbourn enjoyed his first major London success with the play Relatively Speaking. Originally titled Meet My Father, it depicts the farcical complications that ensue when a young suitor visits the home of his girlfriend's former lover, believing it to be the home of her parents. The play introduces what would become one of Ayckbourn's stock devices, the interaction of major characters with incompatible characters, settings, and situations. Writing in The New British Drama: Fourteen Playwrights Since Osborne and Pinter, critic Oleg Kerensky observed that the play established Ayckbourn "as a writer of ingenious farcical comedy, with an ear for dialogue and with a penchant for complex situations … and ingenious plots."
In 1969, How the Other Half Loves, starring Robert Morley, was produced in the West End. The play features an ambitious set design in which the two halves of the set represent rooms in two different houses connected by one adulterous love affair. Comical complications result when a third couple becomes involved in the attendant cover-up. Like many of Ayckbourn's works, this one relies on a strange situation that grows increasingly absurd as its characters get tangled up in lies and misunderstandings. "How Mr. Ayckbourn contrives to get his people into such states and persuade us to believe that they are reasonable is a secret of his comic flair," wrote critic Walter Goodman in the New York Times.
Experiments with Staging
In 1970, Ayckbourn returned to the Scarborough Company on a full-time basis, in the post of artistic director. He used the company as a laboratory for his new comedies, which he then revised and handed over to a different director for production in London's West End. The fruits of this arrangement include some of his best comedies to date. Absurd Person Singular (1972) was a black comedy centered around a girl's attempt at suicide. Like How the Other Half Loves, the play relies on some experimental staging. The action takes place in a kitchen while a party goes on simultaneously in the nearby living room-outside the view of the audience. Only bits of dialogue can be heard from the living room scenes as the kitchen door opens. In fact, some important characters are talked about but never actually seen on stage.
Even more daring was The Norman Conquests (1973), a trilogy of plays, each featuring the same characters and dealing with the same events in the same time frame. The three parts cover an afternoon in the life of an unsavory character named Norman. ("Norman Conquest" refers to both the conquest of Britain by the French in 1066 and Norman's romantic conquests.) Each installment contains action that occurs offstage in the other installments. The first play, Table Manners, is set in a dining room; the second, Living Together, in a living room; and the third, Round and Round the Garden, outside in a garden. Characters drift in and out of each play, only to appear at that moment in one of the others. In order to understand the work in its entirety, it is necessary to see or read all three "pieces." But The Norman Conquests was more than a gimmick. Its complex plot was tied together by the unseen "presence" of Norman's cantankerous, bedridden mother. The various characters, most of them Norman's relatives or romantic partners, were archly drawn, and as Richard Christiansen noted in the Chicago Tribune, the three plays "fit together like Chinese boxes." Observed Guido Almansi in Encounter: "As we view the second and then the third play of the trilogy, our awareness of what is going on in the rest of the house and likewise the satisfaction of our curiosity grow concurrently … I dare surmise that this innovation will count in the future development of theatrical technique."
The Norman Conquest won the London Evening Standard's best play award for 1974, a prize Ayckbourn would claim several more times over the course of his career. He was soon recognized as one of Britain's leading playwrights, with some critics likening him to his American counterpart Neil Simon. In 1974, he produced two successful new works, Absent Friends and Confusions. The former featured a female protagonist driven to distraction by her uncaring husband, a common theme in Ayckbourn's work. Some critics related it to his own unhappy upbringing as the child of divorce. For these and his previous efforts, Ayckbourn was named 1974's "playwright of the year" by the Variety Club of Great Britain.
Ayckbourn wrote prolifically throughout the 1970s and 1980s, producing at least one new play every year. Some of his most important works during this period included Bedroom Farce, Way Upstream, and A Chorus of Disapproval, which was adapted as a feature film in 1989. Ayckbourn continued writing at a breakneck pace well into the 1990s. All of his works were first produced at Scarborough, then debuted in revised form on the West End in London. A series of omnibus volumes collecting all of Ayckbourn's plays was launched by Faber Publishing in 1985.
In 1997, Alan Ayckbourn was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for his contributions to British theatre. As Sir Alan Ayckbourn, he continued to write and produce his own plays, including Things We Do For Love in 1997. With each new work, he enhances his reputation as one of the leading lights in contemporary drama.
Further Reading on Alan Ayckbourn
Kerensky, Oleg, The New British Drama: Fourteen Playwrights Since Osborne and Pinter, Hamish Hamilton, 1977.
Chicago Tribune, July 17, 1982; July 15, 1983; August 2, 1987.
Drama, autumn, 1974; spring, 1979; summer, 1979; January, 1980; October, 1980; first quarter, 1981; second quarter, 1981; autumn, 1981; spring, 1982; summer, 1982; Volume 162, 1986.
Encounter, December, 1974; April, 1978.
Nation, March 8, 1975; December 27, 1975; April 21, 1979; April 8, 1991; June 8, 1992.
New York Times, October 20, 1974; February 16, 1977; April 4, 1977; March 25, 1979; March 30, 1979; March 31, 1979; May 1, 1979; October 16, 1981; May 29, 1986; June 15, 1986; June 25, 1986; October 3, 1986; October 29, 1986; November 26, 1986; July 20, 1987; April 15, 1988; June 5, 1988.