Absurd Person Singular: Articles by Alan Ayckbourn
The Writer On Writing (Alan Ayckbourn's introduction to the Absurd Person Singular Longman Literature edition)
The kingdom of the Hopcroft is at hand...
Absurd Person Singular was the fourth of my plays to be performed in London's West End although, like its predecessors, it started life in Scarborough in a modest 250-seat theatre-in-the-round. The auditorium was a makeshift affair; borrowed seats on rickety rostra in a small airless room of the public library. On the hot evenings, senior citizens would be supported from the theatre gasping for fresh sea air. Small children would, when carried away by the action, occasionally slip through the gaps in the seating and require rescuing. The stage floor was parquet and treacherously polished; the walls covered in untouchable, light green flock wallpaper. All in all an unpromising venue to present - as we saw it at the time - new work in new ways to new audiences.
For, despite the fact that the company - the brainchild initially of its founder, Stephen Joseph - had been running for fifteen years, theatre in the early seventies was still thought of largely as something done on a picture-frame stage, set apart from the audience. Heaven knows why. The proscenium arch was, as Stephen pointed out at the time, a comparatively recent invention in the overall scheme of things. Certainly the Greeks or the Elizabethans would have looked on it with some amazement.
Here we were, then, in the unlikeliest of towns in the most improbable of buildings presenting plays in an unusual setting with young unfamiliar casts to largely non-theatrical audiences. I can't pretend it wasn't a challenge. When we produced some particularly dark play - a verse drama about a young girl's journey to suicide was such a one, I seem to remember - on an especially bright seaside day, it was not uncommon to find ourselves performing to crowds of eight or nine.
The problem was that, on top of all the other disadvantages we were saddled with, our policy was wherever possible to present new work by new authors.
It was against this hand-to-mouth, improvised theatrical background that I was encouraged to write. First, during the late fifties and early sixties until his premature death in 1967, by Stephen Joseph himself; and then, as I gathered confidence, through my own volition.
By 1972, with eleven plays behind me - three of them international successes - I had taken over the Artistic Directorship of the Scarborough theatre. As a director, I was enjoying myself enormously, playing with this new toy I had somewhat fortuitously inherited. As a writer, though, I was anxious - whilst still working under the general heading of comedy - to explore fresh territory. I'd established through my earlier work (especially Relatively Speaking and How The Other Half Loves) that I could construct plays and that I could make audiences laugh. More important, they were coming back and what's more bringing their friends. Which meant that the tiny Library Theatre was now beginning to fill - not only for my plays but, as people got to hear about the company, for those of other, newer writers as well.
I wrote Absurd Person Singular, I remember, as I tend to write most of my plays, in a great hurry. It was due to be the second production of the 1972 Scarborough season. Before that, for two weeks in London we rehearsed, with me directing, a new version by David Campton of the classic vampire tale, Carmilla. During the evenings, throughout that fortnight, I wrote Absurd Person Singular for the rehearsing company of three men and three women. We opened Carmilla at the end of the fortnight for a one week pre-Scarborough 'tour' in the studio of the newly opened Sheffield Crucible Theatre. There we also started rehearsals for Absurd Person Singular before moving on to Scarborough where, a week or so later, we finally opened the play to goodish, if not universally good, reviews.
I confess that it was, when it opened, half an hour too long. By the second night that had been remedied with some quite severe cutting. As it played in, too, it also gathered confidence and speed as the cast began to sense that they had a success. Audiences grew in size, and nightly response became increasingly enthusiastic.
Yet in rehearsal we had had our doubts - me most of all. The first act, at Sidney's and Jane's, seemed safe enough. I was pleased to have discovered the idea of 'offstage-action', to be sure. It seemed an interesting solution to set the scene apparently in the wrong room (the Hopcrofts' kitchen), in what was strictly speaking a 'backstage' area. Where we should have been, surely, was in the sitting-room. That's where the main action was happening - or so it seemed. Of course, it rarely was. The really interesting things, the things people want to say to each other in private were said in here by the sink. Besides, given that the other room contained Dick and Lottie Potter, it seemed an audience would only thank me for keeping us all out here, away from Dick's jokes.
None the less, although the act had one or two original constructional notions, it departed very little from the conventional lines of the comedy I had attempted earlier. Relating the play over three Christmases gave the play a sense of progression and, at the same time, a unity. I also liked the idea, following our glimpse of Jane's shiny, new-pin culinary unit in Act 1, of setting all the acts in various kitchens. It appealed to my sense of symmetry, besides supplying further dramatic unity. In addition, it was an ideal way to indicate the different social level that each of the three couples inhabited. Nowhere in the house says more about a person's habit and background, the nature of their day-to-day existence, than their kitchen. All well and good, so far.
It was in Act 2 that unknown, untried elements were introduced and fears began to arise. The idea of having the second act of a comedy centring on a woman trying to commit suicide (echoes of earlier verse dramas) seemed potentially very dangerous. Would we be accused of insensitivity and bad taste? Would the audience on the first night be filled with people trying to recover from their own unsuccessful suicide bids?
To counteract any charge that I was using human tragedy as a cheap way to get laughs - which was never my intention, of course - I resolved that, whatever happened, the humour would never be directed against the luckless Eva herself. The comedy would spring from a genuine, unmalicious misunderstanding; it would arise from the other misguided blunderers who had totally misread her intentions.
Indeed, as performances went by, I was to learn a vital comic lesson: namely that a single, truthful, serious event can become funny when set alongside a parallel series of equally serious, but contrasting events. The secret of the comedy in the second act (though I don't lay claim to having invented it!) is that all the characters - Eva, Sidney, Jane, Ronald, even the inebriated Marion - are behaving in a truthful, logical manner. All are unaware of the comedic possibilities of their plight. In order to appreciate it, they would need to be standing well back from it all; indeed, to be where we, the audience are.
More important, by taking their own situations entirely seriously, they present us with a choice of whether to laugh or sympathise: to recognise and relish or to identify and anguish. During the London run, Richard Briers, who played the ultimately crowing, vengeful Sidney with such demonic glee, told me that for every two visitors who came backstage to his dressing room, wet-eyed from seeing a performance, one blamed his or her condition on laughing, while the other blamed it on the shock of recognising either a close relative, or worse still, him or herself.
The second act became, despite our fears, the comic high point of the play.
In Act 3, I was again moving into fresh territory. The tone here is much more muted. A cold, bleak icebox of a kitchen. A dead central heating boiler and a dead marriage. Ronald, ironically, having lost any feelings he ever had, mournfully reads a soft porn novel with little sign of pleasure. Dick and Lottie have taken away for Christmas the sons he and Marion have never understood or bothered to communicate with much.
The underdogs are baying outside. Sidney and Jane are soon to arrive and demand that the others dance, literally, to the Hopcroft tune. Geoff and Eva have, meantime, fought each other to a standstill. Eva, now withdrawn, no longer presents anyone, most especially Geoff, with a vulnerable emotional target - or, conversely, with the smallest glimmer of warmth. Geoff, for his part, is emasculated by the failure of his work and the ultimate hollowness of his sexual infidelities.
Not perhaps the most promising of material upon which to build the last act of a comedy. Yet there is laughter, if of a more salutary kind. By now, we can no longer hide the fact entirely that we are not heading for the happiest of endings. Marion's emergence like a drunken spectre at a wake provides the final bleak-comic moment. All have been brought down by a weakness in their character. Marion through her vanity, Ronald his remoteness and indifference, Geoff his sexual and professional arrogance and Eva her self-centred self-obsession.
Only Sidney and Jane survive - but at what cost? Through an increasingly loveless, unfeeling, social-climbing partnership where the pursuit of material success is everything.
And the moral? Not that the Hopcrofts of this world will always rise and conquer. They needn't. But given the world we have where materialism does often seem to matter most, given what flawed emotional muddles most of us are anyway, the odds seem stacked heavily in favour of those with the least feelings or scruples and those with the strongest, most uncaring ambitions. I wheel and deal, therefore I am. Beware: the kingdom of the Hopcroft is at hand!
"I mean, in this world it's dog eat dog, isn't it? No place for sentiment... when the chips are down its every man for himself and blow you Jack, I regret to say."
*It was actually his fifth play following Mr Whatnot, Relatively Speaking, How The Other Half Loves and Time & Time Again.
Alan Ayckbourn's Introduction To Three Plays
Absurd Person Singular - the title was originally intended for a play I didn't write and subsequently, because I rather cared for it, given to the play I did write - was first produced in Scarborough in 1972.
At that time, I remember, I was becoming increasingly fascinated by the dramatic possibilities of offstage action. Not a new device, granted, but one with plenty of comic potential still waiting to be tapped. Very early on in my career as a dramatist I discovered that, given the chance, an audience's imagination can do far better work than any number of playwright's words. The offstage character hinted at but never seen can be dramatically as significant and telling as his onstage counterparts. Offstage action is more difficult. Unless care is taken, if the dramatist chooses to describe rather than show his action, the audience can rapidly come to the conclusion that they're sitting in the wrong auditorium.
Thus, when I came to write Absurd Person Singular and started by setting the action in Jane and Sidney Hopcroft's sitting room, I was halfway through the act before I realised that I was viewing the evening from totally the wrong perspective. Dick and Lottie were indeed monstrously overwhelming, hearty and ultimately very boring, and far better heard occasionally but not seen. By a simple switch of setting to the kitchen, the problem was all but solved, adding incidentally far greater comic possibilities than the sitting room ever held. For in this particular case, the obvious offstage action was far more relevant than its onstage counterpart.
As a footnote: since I was writing about parties and guests arriving, it also relieved me of the tedium of all that hallo-how-are-you-good-bye-nice-to-see-you business.
Absurd Person Singular, then, could be described as my first offstage action play. It is also, some critics have observed, a rather weighty comedy. Its last scene darkens considerably. I make no apologies for this. As I've grown in confidence as a dramatist (confidence, that is, that I can get most of the techniques right most of the time), I have also grown in the conviction that I owe it to the characters I've created to develop and therefore to a certain extent to dictate how a play should run.
I've always had an aversion to comedies that rely upon natty, superimposed denouements in order to round off the evening. Why comedies should have to do this whereas dramas are allowed to finish as they like is beyond me. As a nation, we show a marked preference for comedy when it comes to play-going, as any theatre manager will tell you. At the same time, over a large area of the stalls one can detect a faint sense of guilt that there is something called enjoyment going on. Should we, people seem to be asking, be sitting here laughing like this? It's to do with the mistaken belief that because it's funny, it can't be serious - which of course isn't true at all. Heavy, no; serious, yes. It would therefore seem unwise to compound this guilt feeling by artificially resolving the play. In other words, it can be funny, but let's make it truthful.
Absurd Person Singular (Unrecorded production programme note)
Absurd Person Singular was written, like all my plays, especially for the Scarborough Theatre Company which, at that time, 1972, was still doing purely summer seasons at its tiny Library Theatre in the Round. It opened, I remember, in a heat-wave and the theatre with its flock wallpaper, parquet flooring and somewhat precarious temporary seating rostra was like a furnace. But then it was a Library Lecture Room and had never been built as a 250 seat auditorium.
Despite its enormously long running time that night - I think our technical staff were stretched to their limits creating three kitchens on the first floor of a library - it remains one of the most successful first performances of mine that I’ve ever not sat through. It was, I suppose, particularly satisfying because it was the first time I’d ever had the courage, as a writer, to weave some slightly darker threads in amongst the comic tapestries. In fact, the first time I allowed the characters their own destinies rather than like, say, the puppet master I’d been in Relatively Speaking to dictate their destinies. It’s ironic in retrospect that having voluntarily given up that role as a writer, I handed it to one of the characters, Sidney Hopcroft.
The play also contains two of my own personal favourite offstage characters, Dick & Lottie Potter. I always feel that whatever criticisms may be levelled at me now and in years to come, in my defence I can say that at least I left the Potters in the wings. This was not always the case. When I first started the play it was intended that it should be set in the sitting rooms of the three households. After only a few pages, along with the rest of my characters, I fled to the kitchen in order to escape the awful Potters.
Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.