Keeping the World's Theaters Busy
Alan Ayckbourn writes dark comedies about the middle class and the gulf between the sexes
LONDON — ONE of Britain's leading newspapers recently published a 1,000-strong list of the "makers" of the 20th century - in science, politics, sports, and the arts. Toward the beginning of that list, with W. H. Auden, Yasser Arafat, and Woody Allen for company, is Alan Ayckbourn.The man is a major force in theater. With 43 shows under his belt, the British stage dramatist has now surpassed Shakespeare as the most prolific playwright in the English language. And, barring the Bard, he is currently the nation's most popular, holding the all-time London record of having five plays on the go simultaneously. His work has been translated into 24 languages and performed in over 50 countries. Argentine gauchos, Chinese junk-riggers, and Polish shipyard workers are said to be among his ma ny fans. "I suppose in the end husbands [in these places] are just as beastly to their wives," he muses, "and the wives are, occasionally, equally as beastly to their husbands. And the children are just as difficult as they are here. So my plays ring bells." Indeed, it is estimated that every day, somewhere in the world, a passel of Ayckbourn's imperfect characters is pounding the boards. Typically, he holds up a magnifying glass to middle-class foibles and the still undiminished chasm, as he sees it, between the sexes. Ayckbourn's style is comedy with a dark edge that has increased over the years. While splitting theatergoers' sides, he usually manages to weave in such themes as today's moral confusion resulting from the decline of religion as a means of effective social control; the tendency to retreat from reality through elaborate game-playing when things become at all difficult or painful; and the media glorification of bad over good. "No sooner has there been a guy going mad with a machine gun in the road," he obs erves with palpable exasperation, "than we're making movies about him." A few years ago Queen Elizabeth II bestowed a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) on Ayckbourn. He has, in fact, chalked up virtually every stage honor, award, and accolade going. "A popular moralist who reaches our conscience via our funny bone," summed up the Sunday Times, the newspaper that published the roster of the 1,000 greats. Playwrighting aside, for over 30 years Ayckbourn has been artistic director at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, located in the remote northern coastal fishing town of Scarborough. It's an unlikely spot for a thriving stage company, particularly when, as the dramatist puts it, two thirds of his audience are fishermen. Yet the company always has a packed repertoire and, even more amazingly, manages to consistently stay in the black. This past summer, for instance, it had at one point a staggering nine productions, most of which were new works - the theater chief's standard but risky policy. Yet he's able to pull it off, so strong is his following. Apart from personally directing some of the repertoire each season, Ayckbourn is forever busying himself with almost every aspect of production. It's not surprising to find him up at the crack of dawn inside the theater fiddling with sound equipment. And he habitually spends six weeks out of the year in London bringing to life his latest West End transfer. Added to this, Ayckbourn will soon fill, for the duration of 1992, the prestigious Cameron Mackintosh Chair of Contemporary Theatre at Oxford University, teaching young tyros the nuts and bolts of playwrighting. Despite the many lucrative offers to write for both films and television, he isn't tempted: "They can't touch theater for being live," he says. Catching this calliope of a man during a lunch break between rehearsals for his newest London offering, "The Revengers' Comedies" (Ayckbourn is himself directing the five-hour production at the Strand Theatre) I learned that he takes all the inevitable praise with a large pinch of salt. "I'm a bit dull, really," he insists. "I just get on with the next job. I don't consciously remember having celebrated any of the successes. On the other hand, the nice thing is that I've never really been hung up by the failures. And there have been some." Ayckbourn readily acknowledges his idiosyncracies. Indeed, they provide the seam from which he mines his material. "A lot of people think, misguidedly," he says, "that writers, and particularly playwrights, are very outgoing and observant. I think they're not." Yet he immediately provides a counterexample from the previous evening. Ayckbourn was sitting with a group of people having dinner, yet his attention was riveted to a nearby couple. One minute they were laughing; the next, she was crying and abruptly got up and left. The man remained by himself, digging his dinner knife into the tablecloth. "It's a tiny incident," says the playwright, "but that just fascinated me. I thought: What on earth happened? It was a very jolly table that we were on, and behind us was this terrible tragedy." And did he take equal mental note of all the jolliness around him? "No, I'm never interested in the table I'm sitting at!" he exclaims, laughing. While his underlying themes burble up from a well-concealed anger at the vagaries of human folly, his "The Revengers' Comedies" has evolved from a wholly different impetus: to entertain. "I hope it says something about the human condition," comments Ayckbourn, "but I wrote it for fun, really. "I was suddenly aware that everyone was asking me, 'What issue are you going to address with this play?' And I don't want to address an issue. I want to tell a story; I want to write a good thriller, which is sort of unfashionable now. Nobody ever asked what issues Alfred Hitchcock addressed. He just addressed the idea of scaring you. " In brief, "The Revengers' Comedies" is about two strangers, a man and woman, who meet on a London bridge, where both have gone in despair to end it all. The chance meeting turns into a mutual pact: Instead of doing themselves in, they will wreak revenge on each other's nemeses. With 42 scenes, the plot takes many black comedic twists and turns. "It was an attempt to get back to a narrative play," says Ayckbourn. "All of Shakespeare's plays - all the great classic plays - start with a story, and everythin g else happens around that.... It's very easy these days to lull yourself into thinking that character and character development are enough." Ayckbourn's concern for the renewal of stage narrative is also an outgrowth of his recent interest in writing for children. He began to notice awhile back a curious phenomenon: Kids were coming in ever-increasing numbers to see his so-called "adult" plays. "It suddenly struck me that there was a huge and unnecessary gap between what we were providing for children and what we were providing for adults," he notes. Ayckbourn says that writing with children in mind has helped to liberate him from the kind of "hard-nosed realism" that he's used to. "My theory is that you can write for children and encourage them into all sorts of dark corners and cupboards.... You shouldn't be afraid to involve them in the darker aspects of life. But, unlike adults, you shouldn't leave them in the cupboard at the end of the play. I always try to take them out again and back into the garden, and say, 'Well, that's what could happen. Your options are still open.' "