Alan Ayckbourn Biography
(1939– ), Relatively Speaking, Time and Time Again, Absurd Person Singular, The Norman Conquests, Absent Friends
British playwright, born in London, the son of a musician and (his mother having remarried) stepson of a bank manager. He spent his formative years ‘plumb centre of where I write about now’, in company flats in small towns in south-east England. After working as an actor, he had four plays produced at the Theatre-in-the-Round in Scarborough, where he became artistic director in 1971 and where he presents the premières of almost all his new work. His first substantial success, the farce Relatively Speaking (1967), has been followed by transfers to London almost every year. Among the plays which have made him the most commercially successful contemporary British dramatist, as well as one of the most critically respected, are: Time and Time Again (1971), about a young man misused by women and by his insensitive brother-in-law; Absurd Person Singular (1972), which involves social mobility and personal change, and is set in three kitchens on three consecutive Christmas Eves; The Norman Conquests (1973), three self-sufficient plays showing the events of a fraught family weekend from the stance of different rooms in the same house; Absent Friends (1974), a comedy about the impact of a recently bereaved young man on unhappily married friends; Bedroom Farce (1975), another play about marital pains and confusions; Just Between Ourselves (1976), about a woman reduced to catatonic insensibility by her husband and envious mother-in-law; Joking Apart (1978), about the ability of the happy and successful to damage those around them; Sisterly Feelings (1979), a comedy about sibling rivalry, and also a play of chance and permutations, since the cast is required to play alternate scenes, depending on the fall of a coin tossed at the beginning; Way Upstream (1981), about events on a cabin cruiser hijacked by a modern pirate in the Norfolk Broads; A Chorus of Disapproval (1984), about the destruction unwittingly wreaked by a newcomer to an amateur operatic society; Woman in Mind (1985), another tale of a woman who retreats into hallucination and fantasy rather than face her unpleasant family; A Small Family Business (1987), about a respectable company which turns for profit to the drug trade; Man of the Moment (1988), a critique of media people who have made a bank robber a celebrity while relegating to obscurity the hero who disarmed him; The Revengers Comedies (1989), a picture of emotional destruction, distantly indebted to the Jacobeans, large enough to need two linked plays; Wildest Dreams (1991), about a group of suburbanites who escape from their drab existences by playing the fantasy-game Dungeons and Dragons; Time of My Life (1991), involving the disillusioning events that follow, and the ironically hopeful ones that precede, a cataclysmic family celebration; Communicating Doors (1994), a comedy-thriller which starts in the war-torn London of 2014 and concerns a prostitute who travels back through time in hopes of preventing a series of murders, including her own; and A Word from Our Sponsor (1995), another futuristic piece, this time centring on the havoc wreaked by a devil who agrees to finance and direct a nativity play.
As this description should show, Ayckbourn's work is notable for an adventurousness unusual in a popular playwright, and extending to both form and content. He enjoys setting himself tricky stylistic tasks, as in How the Other Half Loves (1969), where two living rooms co-exist on a single set, so that characters have only to swivel their chairs to participate in consecutive dinner parties. More importantly, his artistic aspiration is to ‘write a completely serious play that makes people laugh all the time’. Accordingly, his comedies tend to be pessimistic in tone, and to treat harsh and even sombre subjects, among them domestic strife, conscious and unconscious cruelty, madness, and death, usually in a suburban middle-class setting. A good example of his methods would be the second act of Absurd Person Singular, in which a distraught wife, sick of her husband's adulteries, attempts to poison, gas, knife, electrocute, drown, and defenestrate herself, only to have each action amiably misinterpreted by helpful friends. Though Ayckbourn's later work has taken on a greater social and political edge, it is personal trouble and disaster which have characterized his most effective writing.