Alan Ayckbourn discusses his background and career
BROADCAST: May. 27, 1994 | DURATION: 00:51:26
His total love for the theatre began when Alan Ayckbourn worked backstage, and then worked the lights. He eventually began writing plays. To date, he has written 47 of them. Ayckbourn admits that his plays may be dark but he explained that he tries to add some humor into them, too. When writing a play, and without any notes, Ayckbourn said, he'll take four or five days to write out an entire play on a word processor.
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Studs Terkel You know, he's called the Moliere of the middle class. In short there, barbs and darts and all sorts of insights. In this case, the English middle class, but I think it could be any class, anywhere in the world. In fact, Alan Ayckbourn, whom you may have known and do know, is probably the most prolific playwright who's been around in years, perhaps centuries. [laughing] Forty-six plays.
Alan Ayckbourn Forty-seven
Studs Terkel And perhaps what distinguishes your plays, too, is the way, the manner in which you write them aside from the content, first point out vital statistics. One of your recent plays called "Communicating Doors" is now part of the--opens the Chicago Theatre Festival, and it's been quite acclaimed as most of your plays are by critics, as well as by the audiences. So--but yourself, how does that happen? We'll start that, how you became the playwright and the town you're in and the playhouse you're in, this is all part of the story.
Alan Ayckbourn It's all part of it, yes. I was--my background is that my mother, who is still alive, but was an active writer in her active period. She was a short story writer. My father was a musician, but my grandparents were both music--one was a musical comedian. She was a male impersonator.
Alan Ayckbourn My grandmother. My grandfather was a rather unsuccessful Shakespearean actor who then became a producer of plays. And I think there's sort of mixed blood, you know, as it were, with a musician father thrown in, brought me first of all to wanting to be a writer and then the theatre drew me. And I think it was inevitable that the two ambitions would combine. And so what better than to write for theatre?
Alan Ayckbourn I am a sort of man of theatre, if you like. I think from working from the bottom up, which I started as a very junior assistant stage manager and I worked in the lighting department, the sound department, and so on and even painted scenery. So I know a lot or a little about a lot of things. But the two I settled for eventually were to be a director and to write my own plays. I used to act, which was very, very useful and I think most of our successful dramatists, certainly in Britain, have been actors, Harold Pinter and John Osborne and so on are all ex-actors.
Studs Terkel Moliere was an actor. You see, so we come back--let's come back to Moliere of the middle class. [laughing] The nature of your plays, that they vary very much. But we should talk about the play at this moment, "Communicating Doors.
Alan Ayckbourn It's interesting because I've been writing quite dark plays of late. They've been getting, according to critics and I think they're right, progressively more into the darker corners of human nature and I think "Communicating Doors" in some sense is a step back towards the light, if you like. It's a farce in some senses. I mean, I don't like to call it purely a farce because it has other elements in it, but I think its laughter content is slightly more and it even has a happy ending, which one can't reveal, but for me is a very rare event. Most of my plays are either slightly unresolved or indeed they end like a play like "Henceforward" ends, very darkly. This was--
Studs Terkel We'll come to that play "Henceforward" because I have a very strong feeling toward that, simply reading the synopsis. Not really, but a strong feeling for reasons that will be forthcoming. "Henceforward". Back to to this play, even though you do plays with bleak themes, there is still this crazy laughter. There's still humor in it, even in the most adverse of circumstances, or perverse
Alan Ayckbourn I mean, I think what interests me and interests me more and more, and it's something that obviously was practiced by people like Moliere and indeed by some of our own Jacobean dramatists and even Shakespeare, is this juxtaposition of the comic with the tragic. And indeed I think in the 20th century particularly, we've tended as theatre people to separate into comic and tragic in a way that I think would be unacceptable to Elizabethan audiences. They'd say, you know, "We want a play that has a lot of blood in it and some fighting and death and tragedy and also a lot of laughter." And so I've tried to bring back that feeling of a mixture that we walk, if you like, upon a razor blade on one side of which is the tragedy of life and on the other side is the humor. And this way, I think it keeps an audience from either feeling that they've had nothing but marang all evening and on the other hand, you know, there's some good steak in the mixture, as
Studs Terkel In this play, and also that, but also something called a science fiction Hitchcock. [laughing] It's a play--let's for the moment at least bear out onto the plot. The play deals with time jumps.
Alan Ayckbourn Time
Alan Ayckbourn It's the--I mean, the main theme of the play is something I suppose most of us must have wished at one sec. Wouldn't it be wonderful to go back and change something in our life? Some terrible decision we made, some slight we gave someone, or even worse than that. In this case, it's about a woman who--a prostitute who visits a very old man in his hotel room, she thinks just for business, but you find she turns out that he wants her to witness his signature to a terrible confession, a confession that he has murdered both his wives. And the girl is just anxious to get out of there really. She's not interested in this, but finds herself through circumstances a bit too complicated to describe that she's projected back in time to meet the second wife when she was still alive and she is able to warn her against her--once she's made the woman actually understand that she's not a lunatic who's arrived in her hotel bedroom. It's all set in a hotel. And so the loops of time, we then travel back to the youngest wife, the first wife, who also has to be warned and it gets very complicated. I think when one sees it, hopefully the narrative is very clear. To tell it is like describing how to make a cat's cradle.
Studs Terkel Oh
Studs Terkel Oh
Alan Ayckbourn Yes.
Studs Terkel Oh
Alan Ayckbourn And it leads to--and you often try it. I always do, I always try every door in my room and you wonder what'll happen. And in this play, in this case, you go through the door. Certainly the three women do, and they come out of it again and they appear to be in the same room. But, in fact, because hotels in my experience never change their decor from decade to decade, they find themselves back 20 years.
Studs Terkel You know, well you don't mind if we digress and parenthetically say something, then come back to the theme because, as you said that, in hotels are connecting doors. Is that the way you get an idea? I mean, sometimes from a simple [snapping] daily every event, suddenly [snapping] a connotation, some crazy other dimension comes to it.
Alan Ayckbourn Yes, I always think of myself like an open camera or a tape recorder. I just--I'm running all the time and things come along and I pick them up and I probably don't even register them. And then a few months, a few years later, I'm concentrating on a theme for a play, in this case a play about time travel, looking for a place to set it, somewhere where I could move between the periods. I didn't want huge sets trundling on and off saying "this is 1974" because I wanted it to move very, very quickly and I decided on a neutral territory, hotel rooms. Perfect. I mean, you can move into a hotel and not know what year you're in, what century you're in sometimes. And so that seemed the perfect setting. And then the communicating door followed from there.
Studs Terkel So you had the idea of time travel in mind to begin with. Now the question is what would be the ground. And then as you're in a hotel when traveling, say directing one of your plays as you're here in Chicago or somewhere in Los Angeles, comes down to play there, you're in a hotel. And there's a door that connects--we all have this experience, the hotels connect, but it doesn't open, you know this. And that's the place for the time travel sequence.
Alan Ayckbourn What if it does open? What if you apparently walk through it and apparently you find yourself back in the same room? Would you think for a minute that it's the same room? And then people come out and say, "What are you doing in my room?" And they're dressed differently. They are people you've heard of, but are supposedly dead. And then you slowly convince that person that you are from the future and that their life is in danger. That person initially doesn't believe you, but after you've gone, she goes through the door to check whether you're lying and she finds herself in another room, which is back another 20 years. And there's another young honeymoon couple in this room who say, "What are you doing in our bedroom?" And she says, "Oh my god, that's my husband's first wife!", who is also dead. And so [laughing], the plot from there becomes very [unintelligible].
Alan Ayckbourn Yes.
Studs Terkel What if the door opened? Now you've got time travel in your head. What if the door opens and suddenly it's another century, a past century? And that terrible thing that happened, would it have happened had I been there? Isn't that the idea?
Alan Ayckbourn It is, and that feeling of all of us of wishing once somebody postulated the possibility of time travel, H.G. Wells or before that even, one began to consider the possibilities of changing the worst things of history, of arriving at the right time and persuading someone somehow to change a decision which we know subsequently was disastrous, to take care of themselves, to avoid stepping off that traffic--into that traffic.
Studs Terkel If I can be political for a moment, I mean, you don't like that, I know you don't, but if I could be for a moment. What if, and I start thinking of World War II and what if there was--preceding was the Spanish Civil War in 1936. What if the Republicans, Republican people who fought the monarchy and then were overthrown, what if they had help from the United States? What if Franco did not win, after Hitler and Mussolini were testing things? Would there have been a World War II? This is again, "what if".
Alan Ayckbourn Yes, yes. I think the message of the play, if there is one, is that we do get a chance because history has this incredible--I mean anyone who's lived any length of time will know that there is this cyclical feeling to history and there are things happening now that we both recognize, and of course you do very much, that are occurring, and we still have a chance to avoid certain mistakes which are being made again now.
Studs Terkel But one thing over and above all this with Alan Ayckbourn is that it's theatrical. Now we come back to theatre, don't we? You are a playwright and a director, and so it is theatrical. Yeah.
Alan Ayckbourn Sorry, no, I mean I've been in love with theatre. I've never written for film or for television or indeed even for radio. And I just adore theatre and, of course, theatre has been throughout this century under threat and its death knell is being sounded so many times. It's always survived and I think it always will survive as long as we know in our hearts that it is a human experience. It is the only place where you can--a group of three dimensional breathing human beings can watch hopefully in quite close proximity another group of three dimensional spontaneous human beings performing. And while that exists, that is the sole ingredient of theatre that really is never going to be replaced.
Studs Terkel We're talking to Alan Ayckbourn, who is remarkable as a playwright. But the energy, as well as how these characters and plays come to be, is part of our theme, as well. At the moment, this moment in Chicago, there's a chance to see Mr. Ayckbourn's--one of his more recent plays called "Communicating Doors", which has been described as science fiction, suspense, or a million names to it. "Back to the Future", but nonetheless provocative and that's what theatre's about to prov--and funny, of course we come back to the humor. [pause in recording] Playwright and director and man of the theatre, Alan Ayckbourn, the play is your "Communicating Doors". Now we come back and we have to ask another question. How it came--we got the idea of you in a hotel and the event we take for granted or phenomenon, the connecting door [snapping] suddenly becomes something else to you. You in writing, a playwright or writing a play, in many cases the playwright works out a case history for the character. You don't do that, do you?
Alan Ayckbourn No, a lot of planning does go on in my head and I obviously need to know my characters pretty well and the structure of the story. I need to know the narrative. But I leave a lot. Now, I think it is like being an experienced motorist. I mean, this is my 46th of 47 plays, so it is likely that technically I'm reasonably adroit. The difficult bet and the unvaryingly challenging piece is, of course, the newness and the new ground you're breaking with each play. But what I try to do each time is to plan as far as I can in my head. I don't take many physical notes, no writing down. And then I just--these days just switch on the word processor and I write day and night for maybe four or five days, it's probably no longer than that.
Alan Ayckbourn Yeah.
Studs Terkel Now it's--got to stay with us, this is for an hour. There's a word processor, but it's you. At four or five days, you have the thought. Let's say we come to a play. This is the one that's interesting. It's called--one of your plays is called "Henceforward", that has been playing in theaters in the United States, West Coast and elsewhere. Now you have an idea. And you get an idea from something you heard, in this case a bit of conversation you may have heard at a party somewhere, a gathering. And you put that--it's etched in your head and you start thinking. You don't write anything down. No, notes here and there.
Alan Ayckbourn No, I mean, "Henceforward" is about a composer. It was very difficult to write about the creative process on stage. I mean, a man sitting and writing a novel is a very uninteresting thing to watch, and even a composer is very difficult, but the modern composers who have all that technology at their fingertips can compose very rapidly and therefore it was possible to suddenly see the act of composition. But I wanted to write, more importantly, just about creative people and the way we do, as you say, pillage from our lives, steal sometimes quite personal moments from our dearest ones and private moments and so on, and in a most merciless way. Every writer does it and every writer somehow is guilty of this tremendous--I mean, we disguise names and we change sex of people sometimes, but, you know, there's still--as somebody said to me once, "That was a private conversation." I said, "No one will ever know." And she said, "I did!" [laughing] So, but this is about a man who just--who goes beyond that. He records, he samples with tape recordings and digital sampling, he samples his family, he samples, he has microphones in every room including the bathroom and he listens to them all the time and he cuts them together to make music and he samples his baby daughter. And then in the end his wife says, "I have no privacy at all. I can't stand this house." [laughing] And she leaves. And he is left with just an unsuccessful banned robot. It's been banned because it was supposed to be an automatic babysitter and nursemaid. It actually accidentally put a baby in a microwave because the microwave had been moved. It didn't mean to kill it. It was supposed to put it in the cot, but someone had rearranged the room without telling the thing. Anyway, it was banned by the government. There was just one model left that Jerome the composer reprograms as his companion and it clanks around the room falling to pieces. [laughing]
Alan Ayckbourn Yes. He's reprogrammed it more and more with pieces of his wife. So it is very similar because the trick of the play is in the first act. This girl comes to see him whom he wants to pretend to be his girlfriend in order to get his child back whom his wife has taken away. And the robot is really just clanking around the room incidental, but is, in fact, played by the actress who in the second act plays his wife, if you follow me. [laughing] The actress eventually leaves. She decides not to do the job. So the guy reprograms the robot and reshapes its face so that it looks like the girl in the
Studs Terkel See the reason I asked this question, what you just said is interesting. The same actress plays both roles. And he reprograms this robot so that it becomes human and his wife. Something must happen to this guy, not necessarily in your play, but must--do you watch TV commercials now and then? During great sports events, there are automobiles advertised and you got two guys looking at a car. Now don't forget this. Two guys are looking at some unseen object on the TV screen and they're looking with lust. [laughing] Did you see--and the phrase is something like this, I paraphrase, but not too far off. "Look at her! Oh wow! Oh my god!" [laughing] You think they're going to cream, you know, because they think you're looking at a girl. It turns out to be a car. And I thought to me, maybe that's what's happening too. We're becoming things and things are becoming more "us". And so in a way, what you're doing here is calling the shot, you're rather prescient. You know, you calling the shot with this guy and this robotic babysitter.
Alan Ayckbourn He's looking--that the irony of the play is he's trying to write a piece about love. He wants to write a piece of music that will--anybody, because music is an international language, anyone can hear and the world by now, this is a futuristic play you understand, the world is a desert of ganglands and violence and he wants to create a piece music that somehow everyone will recognize as love. But the point is he never recognizes love in his own life. I mean, that's the irony and his wife that eventually leaves him saying "love" to Jerome and he doesn't recognize
Studs Terkel By the way, he lives in this area. He lives in this area, this desolate wild area. But he also as--now we come to the question of new forms of art, new approaches to art, a contemporary, or a composer like John Cage or Stockhausen who picks up all kinds of stuff everywhere. So he's that kind--he's also part of [unintelligible], like a found--an artist writing with found stuff.
Alan Ayckbourn Yes. I'll tell you where the story came from because it's quite interesting. At Christmas a few years back, a man came to stay with us with his girlfriend who I'd never met before, and it transpired he lived in just such an apartment block of which the top floor was the only inhabited part, the rest had been gutted and abandoned long before. And it was in the North of England. It was an urban wasteland roamed by gangs and very, very violent and nobody really wanted to cross it even in the daytime let alone at night, and he lived at the top. He was an art historian and he wrote books about the most beautiful things in the world or great paintings and so on. And his girlfriend used to pick her way through this terrible wasteland to see him and she said, "I don't know how long I can keep doing this. I'm very frightened and I can't stay after dark." And I said to him, I said, "Fred, why do you still live there? I mean, why do you try and practice this in this terrible area?" And he said, "This sounds pretentious," he said, "but I feel I'm doing something that's generating light. I'm sitting up here working with things of beauty." And he said, "If I go, the last light bulb goes out in that area." And I was stuck with this image of a man trying to keep a light bulb alive in a dark world.
Alan Ayckbourn And it's very difficult. You have to hold onto that sometimes because there are a lot of arguments against art, certainly in our country. Why do we need it? Why, what--it's not a practical thing, it has no end product. You know, often, you know, it's because it's there, because we don't actually talk very much these days, certainly not in Britain, about the spiritual side of life. I mean, in the Thatcher ages it was totally forgotten. I mean, under this great need for the material success, and that whole bubble is bursters, as you know, and suddenly a lot of people who were going to be millionaires are not millionaires and a lot of people are now unemployed and have lost their jobs and so that way is closed.
Studs Terkel You know, I want to pay tribute to you too now too because I know this is misunderstanding. No it's not. You're apolitical, I understand that, and you don't like a lot of Times guys pressuring you to write something. We'll name a playwright, David Hare for example, we know is political, but the fact is you are. See, to me you are because the very--what you just described, see, the very air we breathe is political!
Alan Ayckbourn Yes.
Alan Ayckbourn I think what I do is I write from the personal point of view. I tend--David will often--David Hare will often tackle a huge theme on a much wider area. What I tend to do is to look at it from the point of view of the guy in the front room. But nonetheless as you say, he breathes politics. Politics affect him. And indeed, I think probably if my plays are done a lot, that's probably the secret of them is that people say, "Yes, that's my viewpoint. That's where I'm standing too."
Studs Terkel So we're talking to Alan Ayckbourn, who--I can't get over the fact 46 plays and doing some in five days. They come off theatre, theatrical, but there's always the aspect of humor in the bite. And all the matter how bleakly are the climate and the framework might be they, the playwright now, "Communicating"--this is what number? Where was
Studs Terkel Alan Ayckbourn, playwright, not--the Chicago Theatre Festival, this opens the festival. You know, the plays in different societies will be there and other forms and one person theatre and [unintelligible] from the Gate Theatre of Dublin. But we come now to your group. We'll asking about Norman, I'm saving "The Norman Conquests" for later. [laughing] We've got to talk about those characters. But Scarborough, we're worried about that, the theatre, the place, and the nature of it, how this
Alan Ayckbourn I discovered the North. Britain is a tiny, tiny country, certainly compared with this one. And yet it--to the British, it appears to be the biggest country and a lot of Southerners know nothing about something that's only two or three hundred miles away. And I discovered Yorkshire when I was about 17 or 18 when I went up for a job there and I fell in love with it immediately. It's, as I say, on the East Coast on the North Sea. It is a seaside resort. It had no tradition of theatre at all apart from Variety theatre. But the man who formed the theatre, Stephen Joseph, who was--who came back actually, came back from the States, I think from the University of Ohio, with this new idea. In fact, an old new idea of theatre in the round, which in the mid '50s really wasn't being practiced at all in Britain. It was just a stranglehold of proscenium arch theatre, conventional end staging. So he reintroduced this, the theatre of Shakespeare, the theatre of our ancestors. And he chose to start it in this funny little seaside town, partly because it was the only place that would give us headroom. We started in the library on the first floor and I joined him in about the second season as a young man and I was very lucky. He was a very dynamic man. He was the son of Hermione Gingold and who was--and his father was Michael Joseph who was a huge publisher, very successful publisher in Britain. And so he had this mixture of theatricality and business acumen, which was to hold him in very good stand. But he was a very dynamic, very exciting man, certainly to a 17-year-old kid who just, untrained, just come into theatre. And he had this big idea of not only this theatre in the round, which was unusual, but of integrating the author back into the theatre. In those days in Britain, the author was someone who phoned in and said, "How's my play going?" And he may get invited to the first night if he was very, very famous. [laughing] And in fact, he was a completely remote distant cousin. And again like--unlike the theatre of Shakespeare where the man was actually working within the theatre and was an actor and of course in the company. So Stephen reintroduced this and he tried to encourage virtually anyone from the box office manager through to the actors to the cleaners to write plays, and I was one of those and I already had a propensity to want to write, so it wasn't to make it big [unintelligible]. I started to write plays for myself as an actor and I--the first four or five plays were unashamed vehicles for this young actor.
Alan Ayckbourn Yes and I wrote them, I wrote bigger and bigger parts and I got greedier and greedier in my youth and I thought I could do anything. Fortunately the actor in me--I think in my case, the actor was not as good as my writing. And I sucked and the author sat up one night and said, "I think we can do with a better actor in these roles because the plays are not being seen." And I moved from acting into directing and I became what I am now. And when Stephen died, he was only in his 40s, he died in 1967, I was asked if I'd just carry on. I think I was the only director the people there knew, and I--in 1970, I became full time artistic director there and I'm probably the longest serving artistic director in one theater in
Alan Ayckbourn Yes and it's as I say, even today people are astonished. I mean, it doesn't look like a place that should house an experimental theater doing new work. I mean, we continue that tradition. I mean, we have a season running at the moment there. Eight plays will be in repertoire, seven of them are new, quite young--
Studs Terkel Like you have some big time--in "The Norman Conquests", we'll come to that later. Three plays, one theme, same cast. There you have rather celebrated actors, they come and go like Tom Courtenay.
Alan Ayckbourn Yes, of course Tom Courtenay, and when the Normans was done, which was 20 years ago now. He was the only established star at that time and Penelope Keith, Richard Briers, Felicity Kendal, they were all virtually unknown. I mean, they--
Alan Ayckbourn I think I have it at the back of my head. Even though I'm primarily a writer while I'm writing, I have that little technical mind saying "how are you going to solve this?" I mean, and I do set myself, a play like "Way Upstream" where I asked for a cabin cruise floating on water moving around and then I wanted it to rain at will. The director in me was shouting somewhere at the back of my head, "Whoa, I'm going to have to sell this in about two weeks!" [laughing]
Alan Ayckbourn I've always got that theatre in mind. Yes, it's very much--I mean, it's a tremendous luxury. I say that since Stephen died, I've never had a play turned down, partly because I'm the artistic director so there's no way. Hopefully the dramatist has the responsibility of burning the text before he even gives it to the artistic
Studs Terkel So with--now, of the 46 plays, we've touched on a couple. The current play, "Henceforward", and now we come to three plays, one theme, "The Norman Conquests". When I first heard of you through that and not reading the script, there are three different plays, one called "Table Manners", one called "Living Together", one called "Round and Round the Garden". Now, we've got to start with that, the six same people.
Alan Ayckbourn Yes. It was an idea of trying--which sprang I think from the days when I was an actor. A lot of actors tend when they're discussing their characters to say, "What does he do while he's off stage here? What does he do in the sitting room while the action's happening in the dining room?" And, you know, you sometimes improvise or suppose what might have happened. I thought it would be rather interesting to see this. So what the "Normans" are is one weekend seen three times from three different angles from the viewpoint of each room or area with, as you say, the dining room is "Table Manners", the living room, the sitting room is "Living Together", and of course, the garden is "Round and Round the Garden". And although you do revisit the same events, it's like a little jigsaw puzzle because every time you see another play, another piece clicks and you say, "Oh! That's why she was angry with him earlier!" And occasionally action overflows from one play to the other, and there's this one scene where the [unintelligible] man and wife have a terrible row and she throws a huge tin of biscuits at him and then there's this tremendous crash in the dining room. And in the next evening when you can go and see "Living Together", the people in the living room are talking and suddenly there this is tremendous crash and the sound of biscuits flying around them. If you haven't seen the other play, you wonder what it is, but the audience who have seen the other play all laugh like drains, you know, [laughing] say, "That's what's going on."
Studs Terkel Not through the eyes of a--so there are six now. By the way, these are six people of a certain class. We say--here we come to the middle class, in some cases maybe not the uppermost because they have a rough time now and then, but here they are. And as I think of each one--you named two actors, Tom Courtenay was Norman. And what do we say about him? Norman and his wife, whose mother is an old biddy up above whom they're coming to take care of or to visit. She's had a gamey old life herself, and Norman is a librarian, but not a librarian. I mean, he's something else.
Alan Ayckbourn Norman, I tried to write this--I think he was my--the sort of man I sometimes wish I was, but I don't--I'm rather glad I'm not, if you know what I mean. He's a bloke who genuinely believes that he's a Lothario or Romeo, and he had--he approaches every woman with the idea that he's infinitely desirable. And he was based on the fact when I was young, I had a friend who seemed to pick up on every woman he met and he bedded hundreds of them. And I was very unlucky, I never seem to get anybody. I said to him, "What's the secret?" He said, "Have you ever asked them?" And I said, "No." He said, "You know, a refusal doesn't necessarily offend." He said, "I get turned down every day, but there's always one who says yes." Norman works on this principle and I always think with women who like Norman that they know exactly what he's doing. They did, and that's just rather the charm of the "Normans". They know he's being manipulative and sly and a little bit deceitful. They see that and they still play the game with him. And it really--I don't know who controls who.
Studs Terkel Well now, that's interesting you say they play the game, but now and then I have the suspicion that he may score on occasion here, you see. But there is a game here, but also is there--do I sense a mean spirit in him now and then? There's a mean-spiritedness too. There's laughter throughout, by the way. But didn't you raise--wait a minute, people are pretty mean here. Like Norman, I'd like to smother him [laughing] with the pillow of the saint. Beware of certain foibles all of us have at one time or another. And now we come to his sister-in-law. She's married to--
Alan Ayckbourn She tries--she represents the order that the English middle class love to try and arrange things, that the correct knife and the correct fork are surrounding the correct plate and the placement. And probably the key comic scene of it is, in "Table Manners" certainly, is when she arranges a supper party and because as Ruth the--her rather more cynical sister-in-law says, "None of us--well I don't know why you're bothering." And she says, "Because why shouldn't I?" She said, "Because none of us like each other very much, that's why." And she starts on a dinner party we know is going to be doomed from the word "go". And it starts the moment she tries to seat people and nobody will sit in the right seat and she must have man, woman, man, woman all the way around the table because that's the way it has to be. And the men refuse to sit next to the women and so. [laughing]
Studs Terkel I thought she was Mrs. Thatcher [laughing] in the living room in a way that order, order, proper, prior--whatever proper things must happen. And she's there. Now she I wanted to strangle. [laughing] He's smothered. And now we come to Annie. Rather, I assume, rather attractive sister, daughter of the woman upstairs whose brother is married to Sarah. And Annie--she seems kind of easy, almost round-heeled, doesn't mean to be, but seems that way.
Alan Ayckbourn She's the one who really has been left, like a lot of women are, to look after the mother. The others have conveniently moved away. She does all the hard work, she trails in and out, and she's engaged or not engaged. We never really know, to a very dull, but worthy man. It's the sort of engagement that's never going to lead anywhere, Tom the vet, who is a dear man. I mean, he's very likable, but infuriating and is now--is a little bit Chekhovian and he's never ever going to propose to her. And in a way, she doesn't even know if she wants him now to propose to her. [laughing] And when he does at the end because somebody tells him he ought to, she says, "I don't know. You're going to have to wait for an answer."
Studs Terkel Yeah, he isn't easy. He's a guy who says get going, get going. [laughing] He's a Chekhovian. He fits that. Alan Ayckbourn is my guest and his play "Communicating Doors". [pause in recording] We have several people, there's two others in it. There's an easygoing kind of guy, blimpish, and that's Reggie, the husband of Sarah, the son of that woman upstairs.
Alan Ayckbourn Yes. He's an estate agent. He is very--he's another aspect of me, I suppose. He said--he used to as a kid, and even as a young man, he would sit in the bedroom and make models of things. And he likes the easy life and he's married. I think he's opposite of the great organizing brain Sarah, mainly to organize his life. I mean, we spend--quite a few of us marry our opposites in order to make life easier for ourselves and in fact, it often makes life more difficult because we both infuriate each other to death. I mean, Sarah longs for Reg to be organized. Reg really just refuses to be organized, he just shambles from one place to the other.
Alan Ayckbourn Ruth is the brainy one, the one who probably has more intelligence than any of them. She's a professional woman, she's an accountant. She has the career. And in fact, considering it was written in 1973 which is quite early to see a relationship where the woman was the main breadwinner, because she undoubtedly is. Norman is on a pittance. He says quite often, "I'm a kept man." You know, "I'm a nothing." She, again, is the total opposite to Norman. But they have actually underneath it a very loving relationship. She's very fond of him, but she is also very, very irritated by
Studs Terkel So this is--these are the six, and each one in a way comes through. There's a recognizable aspect of them, though they're scrapping--by the way, there's a lot of darts and humor, and of course, the two dart shooters would be Norman and Sarah the organizer, since he's wholly unorganized or seems to be.
Studs Terkel And he has these fantasies, of course. But the end--there again, there's something happening not too removed, I suspect, from the ending of "Communicating Doors" as far as the women are concerned. There seems to be a coalition [laughing] or an understanding.
Alan Ayckbourn I think he is confronted, the only time in the play really where Norman is left alone onstage with the three women together, and it becomes painfully clear of the game he's been playing. And although it's been convenient for them to shut their eyes to the fact that they've been played off one against the other, when they're confronted with it, their own pride won't allow them to go any further with it. And Norman is genuinely--I mean, I would say to the actor who is playing it, you know, his last words are, "I only wanted to make you happy." And he really believes that their happiness lay in his hands. This is a tremendous piece of ego, but he genuinely believes it and he's very, very hurt at their rejection.
Alan Ayckbourn Yes.
Alan Ayckbourn Yes, I suppose so. I think there are several reasons. I mean, there are very few dramatists who write about happy marriages. One of the reasons is they're not very good theatre. One tends to look at things where conflict is there. I mean, it would be comedy or tragedy. I mean, a totally happy marriage dramatically is two people sitting on the sofa holding hands and smiling at each other, and we'd all get rather irritated after about a quarter of an hour of that. We rather like--I would say that people like my plays because they come and say, "Well, we may have a bad time, but at least we're better off than them. You know, at least my husband isn't as bad as that man."
Studs Terkel I was thinking of the plays, just touching again, those who haven't seen or read "Norman Conquests", yes, but one--is it that--what's the one where two guys meet and they want to commit suicide and they come to a conclusion?
Alan Ayckbourn And it's a big filmic sort of thing because, in fact, it starts with the premise of strangers on a train where they are both going to jump off the Albert Bridge in London. There's this one wild girl who's a sort of debutante in very scatty masses of money, and actually in the end it turns out very, very dangerous, and a rather sweet sort of middle-aged businessman who's just--his life's come to an end. His wife's left him, his business has gone broke. And he's going to jump and she says, "Let's not do that. Let's do something positive. I've been jilted, you've been fired. I'll take revenge on your firm, your big city firm. You go down to the country and you take revenge on my--on the woman who stole my boyfriend." And so they swap revenges. And, of course, he's like us. He goes down there and he doesn't have revenge in his heart at all. He's not that sort of person. He just falls in love with a woman, whereas Karen, the girl, wreaks terrible revenge. She destroys an entire multimillion corporation, just goes through floor after floor, not just--there are executives lying dead in all the offices. [laughing] And she's a--it's a really black comedy, but very funny. And it contrasts, as I say, between the countryside, the tranquil countryside of Dorset, and big business in London.
Studs Terkel So there's a comment there--now, when you do this, when you come to the idea of a play, as you have in these ones we've talked about, there is some spark that touches it off, a conversation, an event, a door in a hotel. But from there you take off. What, and I suppose the phrase "what if" is the key, isn't it? "What if?"
Alan Ayckbourn It's usually that in a play, isn't it? "What if that didn't happen?" There was a play--there was a moment in a restaurant, which is a great place to observe people, particularly the people at the next table, not at the table you're at. And I was having a first night party with a group of actors who had just opened and it was a very happy event and we were all very cheerful. And across the room, I saw a woman and a man sitting down to have dinner on their own and they looked very tense, and I thought no more and we carried on talking and I looked up again about 15 minutes later and they were arguing. The man particularly was--he was--you couldn't hear what they were saying. I looked up again. We'd now gotten through another course, and the man had left. The woman was just sitting there looking at her hands, and I thought he's gone to the John or whatever. So I looked up again. He still hadn't come back and she was just crying, she was--and the tears were running down her face into the remains of a meal. And the waiters were looking very embarrassed because she was making no attempt and I just stared in horror. And then--our table was so happy and the jokes were flying and somebody said, "What's the matter? I mean, you look as if you're not enjoying yourself." And I said, "I'm sorry, I've just seen somebody's life end. I mean, somebody's whole relationship." I mean, it may have just been a row, but in my mind it was "oh my God, you know, in the same room while this happy event was having, there was this terrible tragedy of rejection or something". And then she left and that was the end of the little play.
Alan Ayckbourn I wrote a play in a restaurant about just that, a woman. I turned it into a slightly comic scene, but people didn't find it very funny, where her husband tells her he's leaving her for a younger woman. And she sits there, and as she's sitting there, the waiter with the sweet trolley comes up and tries to persuade her to have some pudding, and he doesn't see the state she's in because she's nodding her head trying to hold herself together. He keeps assuming she wants more and he piles this plate high with food. [laughing]
Studs Terkel You know, I was just saying that I was thinking, this is not related to it and yet it is. See, you saw a play. A play came out of that rather seemingly tragic incident. I'm on a plane and it's leaving Milan to go to London. And there's a woman sitting next to me, I assume she's Italian, and someone is waving at her and crying and she's crying bitterly. I saw, oh she's never going to see her daughter again or somebody close to her again. And the flight attendant comes along. I said, "I'll have a Scotch whisky. Maybe she'd like some. Would you like a little scotch?" I said. She just nodded like that and she gets the scotch and I feel good about it later on. I said, "You feel a little better?" "Oh, things are fine indeed. [British actors?] I left my daughter here a month ago and [unintelligible]." [laughing] I bought her a scotch, and so in a sense, there's plays different ways. You saw that there.
Studs Terkel What other thought, before the hour is--as we say, the hour is going. We're talking to Alan Ayckbourn, and just get an idea of how you write and what--how themes, how plots come to be. And the actors and your company. What other thoughts come to your mind as you go and--you have various sparks that take off on it.
Alan Ayckbourn Incongruous sparks. I mean, sometimes you think "I don't know where that came from", but I mean, a play like "Man of the Moment" came about because I passed a newspaper holding advertising a film called "Buster". It was a film that Phil Collins the rock star made about one of the Great Train Robbers who became folk heroes in our country. They robbed the train and they stopped the train. They hit the driver of a train on the head. He subsequently died, but that gets sort of forgotten. And I thought it's ironic. They're never gonna make a film about that man, that train driver who was just doing his job and got hit on the head, and yet he's the good man in the film. I mean, he's supposed to be and yet we're not interested in him. Driver Mills, his name was, and he died some months later. And the men who robbed that train were all villains and thugs and it was ever thus. And it's not just the media who do it, although they obviously inflame that. But the from the penny dreadfuls of Victorian times and all our great folk heroes, Robin Hood was a bank robber, Hereward the Wake, Dick Turpin, they were all villains.
Studs Terkel And they're the ones who are described as colorful. [laughing] The other guy, this gentle guy, dull. Raffish, randy, more than outlaw, brutish kind of guy. Colorful. We do that often in Chicago with our politicians. The guy could be as crooked as a corkscrew but colorful.
Alan Ayckbourn Yes,
Alan Ayckbourn Yes.
Studs Terkel Well any base we haven't touched before we say goodbye, just to remind the audience again of "Communicating Doors", my guest Alan Ayckbourn, the playwright, one of his more recent ones. Any base, Sir?
Alan Ayckbourn Well, one little one. I mean, that we are moving theaters at the moment in Scarborough. We are actually, hopefully in the next year, going to permanently. I mean, we're still in a temporary building where we're--
Alan Ayckbourn Yes, we're in a school on the first floor. We've made a very good conversion, but it's a very incongruous place to be, given our reputation now. But we are actively raising money at the moment to open the new building, which is going to be very exciting, two auditoria. I think we'll keep our same character. So if anybody listening's got a few million they want--and they want their name put on a theatre building, we'd be happy to accommodate.
Alan Ayckbourn I think so. I think often my plays appear very English because of the sort of trimmings on them, people sitting down having tea and things. But in fact, once you go down below that very surface level there--I call them the births, deaths, and marriages column of theatre, you know, [laughing] they usually deal with things that touch most of us.