Absurd Person Singular: Character Notes by Alan AyckbournAlan Ayckbourn rarely makes detailed notes about the characters in his plays, not least because he believes all the pertinent details can be found in the play itself. The Ayckbourn Archive held at the University of York does contain a small selection of notes by the playwrights regarding the characters of Absurd Person Singular.
The Acting Challenges Of Absurd Person Singular
Absurd Person Singular suffers (if that's the word) from a reputation for being a very funny play. And yes, indeed in my first production of it in Scarborough in 1972 and the subsequent fine West End production by Eric Thompson in 1973 it did elicit huge laughs from the audiences (and even critics!) who saw it. But the reason it did this - and the reason that sometimes in later productions it doesn't or the reason the laughter wears a little thin - is that it was played with intense seriousness and even a certain venom.
In common with my later plays where the mix is much more obvious, it was an early attempt by me to run the contrasting strands of theatrical darkness and light almost parallel. This is especially evident in the second act of course. The comedy there entirely relies on the fact that Eva intends to kill herself. Once we, the audience, fail to believe that she has real death in mind (however pathetic her attempts), the tension evaporates and then so does 90 per cent of the laughter.
So it is in the first act with Jane and Sidney. What Sidney does to Jane is appalling. It is an act of calculated betrayal. In his anxiety to "make it" he is quite prepared to sacrifice the poor woman. It is a small gesture in the grand scale of things - a few minutes standing out in the rain, what's that after all? - but it is a symptom of something infinitely more sinister. Men who do that are men who will eventually rise ruthlessly to the top and finish up locking us all out in the rain.
Yes, it is a comedy and I hope people will laugh, of course I do, but it is also a sad savage reflection on the way we treat each other and the way - certainly in this life - the meek are very very unlikely to inherit the earth.
Of course the really awful thing about Act I is meek Jane's little rebellion that follows her final entrance - all of two lines - which is ruthless crushed by Sidney. Probably the last time she ever argues with him. From then on she follows him, a long suffering acolyte, enjoying the riches that accrue but in return having given up any shred of individuality or self determination.
Now, if that all sounds hopelessly heavy and ponderous, my apologies but that is really the way you have to approach my plays. In general the more seriousness, the more truth you bring to bear on the characters, the more they will bear fruit later.
In my own rehearsals I am somewhat of a joke in that I never allow us to dwell for a second on the subject of possible audience laughter. For, in truth, I have found that the more we disregard it, the more readily the laughter flows. And if it doesn't, well we have a very serious moment in its place.
Jane's return to the kitchen is very sad - and I think a lot of people, especially the women in the audience - might even be angered by it. How dare he treat her like that? Why the hell doesn't she punch him on the nose? Indeed, if you try to make it comic in the wrong way you may merely serve to antagonise them. Are they expecting us to find this funny? Because we don't.
But of course that is an isolated instance. And it is my hope that in any production it is indeed isolated. Really - if I can give a yardstick - it is this: You should never, never in a performance (in anyone's performance) have a single moment in the entire evening where a laugh becomes the be all and end all. You should always have the safety blanket of dramatic truth to sustain you. If you're ever caught bending this in pursuit of the gratuitously comic then you'll find you're on a downwards path to nowhere. And don't let anyone encourage you to do so or tell you otherwise.
It's difficult to put my views about Eva's attempted suicide in a few words.
She's fairly unstable. We see the seeds of this in Act I during her scene with Sidney. Her marriage is under great stress with the philandering Geoff. I suspect she found herself agreeing to a relationship where they, both of them, agreed they would have relationships outside their marriage and wouldn't mind the other doing so. An attempt to be both 'civilised' and 'adult'.
Such agreements only work when both parties actually manage to remain impervious. But, of course, they never do. Someone gets hurt or loses out. What's interesting, I think, is the result of her suicide. Inadvertently - because I don't think she planned it that way - by Act III she has Geoff right under her thumb, terrified lest she try it again. And also somewhat weakened in self-confidence by his own career setbacks.
I recently said to a director, 'Audiences are like furtive strangers standing outside school gates with bags of sweets. You follow them at your peril.' They lead you down the wrong path, and then they say, 'We don't believe you' at the end of it when they've laughed and laughed and encouraged you to be funnier and funnier. They drop you, and you're dumped as a character and as an actor, so always stay true. That's the point.
I saw the first preview [of a West End production of Absurd Person Singular], then I saw it again ten performances later, and it was appalling. In the first performance, she [Jane Hopcroft] was polishing away, and it was perfectly truthful polishing. By the time I saw it the second time, she's spraying her husband and polishing him as well. That's silly. Stop it! She was trying desperately to get a laugh from something that wasn't even true. It was sad. The play faltered from page five and got less and less credible as it went on. You can see the desperation setting in for a company like that. Where have all the laughs gone? And you want to say, 'Where's the belief gone? Where's the trust gone? We don't believe you. We don't really want to know about you anymore.'
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