Absurd Person Singular: Articles by Other AuthorsThis page contains articles on Absurd Person Singular by authors other than Alan Ayckbourn. The articles are the copyright of the respective author and should not be reproduced without permission.
Absurd Person Singular: The Broadway Experience (by Simon Murgatroyd)
During his long career, Alan Ayckbourn has had few genuine hits in New York. Absurd Person Singular stands as his most commercially successful Broadway production and one that is still remembered today.
Prior to Absurd Person Singular, only one of Alan’s plays had been produced on Broadway. How The Other Half Loves, featuring Phil Silvers of Sergeant Bilko fame, opened in March 1971 and was a respectable success but had hardly made Alan a household name.
In 1973, Absurd Person Singular opened in London and quickly looked set for a long and successful run. As a result, it was only natural the play’s producer, Michael Codron, should look to transfer the play to Broadway to capitalise on its success. Codron teamed up with The Theatre Guild, specifically Philip Langner and Armina Marshall, and the John F Kennedy Centre For The Performing Arts, to produce the play in New York. Founded in 1919, the Guild’s original purpose was to produce non-commercial plays by American and foreign playwrights and it was responsible for a number of significant premieres on Broadway.
Eric Thompson, director of the London production, agreed to direct it for Broadway with an American cast - which caused some initial confusion as Alan was not told whether the play was to be Americanised in location and / or characters and no doubt feared a repeat of a previous painful attempt to 'Americanise' Relatively Speaking for an aborted transfer. Alan also had misgivings as Philip Langner had some vocal issues with the play, despite investing in it.
In a lunch with Alan, Langner had seriously suggested acts two and three be swapped so the play ended on a comic high. Alan refused as the play had been written with a dark dying fall and when contracts were signed it forbade any major changes to the play and noted: “[The] Guild shall not make nor permit others to make any alterations in the text of said Play without the written approval of the Author”; the contract also forbade major changes to the action and structure of the play.
Despite this, in pre-production Langner suggested to Thompson “the set should collapse at the end of the third act to give the show a big finish” and that drawers and cupboards in the second act should jam to make it obvious how inadequate Geoff was as an architect. That these would not go down well were, according to the director, met with the rebuke from Langner that Alan was contractually obliged “to make such alterations and additions as the Producers deem necessary.” Alan was naturally furious with this news and could not understand why The Theatre Guild was producing the play if they were so unhappy with it.
Codron, who Thompson had also contacted, was quick to set the record straight and dismissed Langner’s intimation of Alan’s obligations by quoting the Guild's clause (see paragraph above) to him. He also subtly noted it was in everyone’s interest for this play to go well as The Theatre Guild had already expressed interest in producing The Norman Conquests, which had recently opened in London.
The cast was remarkably strong and featured Tony award winners Richard Kiley, Sandy Dennis and Larry Blyden, the Golden Globe and Emmy award winning Geraldine Page and two well known actors Carole Shelley and Tony Roberts. Alan himself commented: “They were all top-rate actors who very cannily knew how to play a New York audience.” The play was set in England with English characters with the only notable deviation being the acts were subtitled “Christmas Past”, “Christmas Present” and “Christmas To Come.”
The play opened in late August for a week-long try-out at the Westport Country Playhouse, which had coincidentally staged the American premiere of Relatively Speaking in 1967. The play had a record-breaking run before moving to the John F Kennedy Centre in Washington from 4 to 28 September. This also sold out and was greeted by several strong reviews.
The play moved to New York on 27 September and Alan was brought in to help promote the play and, Langner hoped, to edit acts two and three and add some humour to the final act. Alan, of course, did not make any notable alterations to the play with the published American script offering little evidence for any notable changes and in an interview, Alan noted: “I personally haven’t done anything with it.”
The play opened on 8 October 1974 at the Music Box Theatre to excellent reviews and it was soon obvious this was a genuine Broadway hit. The notable cast combined with the strong reviews for the play quickly led to strong a box office. Rather unfortunately, for whatever reasons, The Theatre Guild had not put Alan’s name on any promotional material or even the programme cover. As a result, the only identifiable people concerned with the play were the actors.
Even though the play was a success, Langner’s views on swapping the two acts led to the very famous story that statisticians were brought in to count the laughs in the play. Preposterous as the story sounds, the figures are held in Alan Ayckbourn’s personal archive and can be revealed here.
Quite what Langner intended to prove is a mystery. The experiment was conducted six weeks after the play had opened and all it confirms is there are fewer laughs in the third act than the second; something which Alan was patently aware of as the play had deliberately been written that way.
The success of the play was reflected when the Tony Award nominations were announced with Larry Blyden, Geraldine Page and Carole Shelley all nominated in the Best Featured actor category. The play was also nominated for the Drama Desk Outstanding New Play (Foreign) and while the play did not win any of these awards, it demonstrated Alan had his first true major hit on Broadway.
The play would run until March 6 1976 and during that period it became the longest running comedy on Broadway at that time. Although the cast did go through a number of changes, Geraldine Page and Sandy Dennis worked on the show for the majority of its long run. On 28 January 1976, a month before it closed, 45th street was renamed Ayckbourn Alley for the day to mark the fact Alan had four plays running on Broadway with Absurd Person Singular and The Norman Conquests trilogy.
Absurd Person Singular ran for 592 performances and was the most successful comedy on Broadway by a British author since Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit, which ran from 1942 to 1943. It was, according to Philip Langner, who was seemingly obsessed by statistics, the 141st longest running production to have been mounted on Broadway at that time.
Despite the success of Absurd Person Singular, it did not propel Alan to the heights of fame he had achieved in London. Although The Norman Conquests opened in 1976, again directed by Eric Thompson, it did not reach the same magnitude of success and Alan did not achieve as high a profile hit in New York again until 2005. Then he took the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s production of Private Fears In Public Places to the Brits Off Broadway festival, which generated a once-in-a-lifetime reception and reviews. On Broadway, the only Ayckbourn production which can be said to have had similar success is The Old Vic's 2009 transfer of The Norman Conquests, which was critically acclaimed and received a number of significant awards including the first Tony for an Ayckbourn play.
Coincidentally a revival of Absurd Person Singular opened on Broadway soon after Private Fears In Public Fears on 18 October 2005. It closed on 4 December 2005 having received some unflattering comparisons to the original Broadway production and perhaps suffering from the success of Private Fears In Public Places, which had shown American audiences how Ayckbourn plays should be directed and performed.
It certainly could not touch the success and obvious affection for the original production: Alan’s original and still most commercially successful Broadway production.
Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd 2007 (amended: 2012)
Off-Stage On-Stage (by Simon Murgatroyd)
Absurd Person Singular is notably Alan Ayckbourn’s first off-stage play; a play which eschews the obvious setting for somewhere ultimately more revealing.
The play was originally set in the living rooms of the three couples, showing both the actual opening act party and, presumably, the fourth couple Dick and Lottie Potter. Quickly realising the play was not working, Alan decided to move the action into the kitchen instead, thus removing the tedium of showing the party and taking Dick and Lottie out of view, who arguably might have absorbed all attention had they been left on stage. In his book on Alan, Michael Holt offers Alan’s explanation for the change: “There is far more comedy, he [Ayckbourn] insists, offstage than on. The social mask is most likely to be dropped here and the true picture of the occasion revealed.” For example, in the apparent privacy of the kitchen, Sidney feels comfortable approaching Ronald about his business plans - which is ultimately the real motivation behind the first party. Moving the action to the kitchen, as Ayckbourn himself notes, is also a simple way of dispensing with all the introductory pleasantries and social niceties that would otherwise be an obligatory part of a party.
The kitchen is generally not the centre-stage of a party and while the living rooms would have been cleaned and tidied for the guests, the kitchens are out-of-sight and act as a staging area. As a result, the kitchens of Absurd Person Singular offer additional insight into their owners and vividly illustrate the decay of society that has been argued as one of the predominant themes of the play.
The Hopcrofts’ kitchen is meticulous and modern, the Jackson’s kitchen shambolic and the Brewster-Wright’s kitchen antiquated and largely not functioning. If we examine the kitchens with regard to the characters, we see their owners reflected in them. Spotless and well maintained, over-loaded with the latest gadgets, the Hopcroft kitchen shows Jane’s obsessiveness and Sidney’s controlling streak. Nothing is out of place, everything perfect. Sidney’s aspiration to rise the social ladder reflected in the abundance of mod-cons, which - at least to his mind – reflects how he feels wealthy and influential people’s kitchens should be while implying how successful he is. Of course, no-one is taken in by this and it also reflects the sterility of the couple’s relationship. There is no warmth or human touch in this kitchen.
The Jacksons’ kitchen is a better reflection of a socially successful couple. Trendy in an under-stated way, yet uncared and unkempt. Geoffrey has no need to try and prove his success, he is not proving a point. It is also a snapshot of Geoffrey and Eva’s relationship: there is little care of this kitchen and as little regard for it as Geoffrey has for Eva and Eva has for herself.
The Brewster-Wrights’ kitchen is set in the past, the Aga cooker a reflection of a couple that has not moved with the times. The kitchen, like the couple, is dysfunctional.
As has been noted, moving the play ‘off-stage’ removed Dick and Lottie Potter, but allowed Alan full rein with off-stage characters that by the end of the play feel every bit as real as the on-stage characters. Dick and Lottie cleverly indicate the opening party is actually taking place and make it clear why people want to escape into the kitchen. Dick and Lottie in effect provide the reason why the first act is set in the kitchen as everyone wants to escape them. A third off-stage character is George, the dog. In the first act he is stuck in the Jacksons’ car and less important, but in the second act he takes the place of Dick and Lottie as the reason why everyone is in the kitchen. The couples are trapped due to this practically rabid dog patrolling the hallway. The combination of off-stage characters also leads to the extremely vivid moment where Dick Potter is savaged by George. So clearly have these characters and their actions been built up, the moment is almost as vivid as had it been shown on stage.
This would be the first time Alan would write an off-stage play, but he would return to the device in later plays such as Bedroom Farce (where Dick and Lottie again lurk off-stage), Just Between Ourselves and, notably, Life Of Riley. Arguably, Alan develops the idea of the off-stage play to its limits as well in The Norman Conquests and House & Garden where the audience witness the same characters in the same period over several locales.
Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd 2007 (amended: 2012)
Absurdly Successful (by Simon Murgatroyd)
Forty years after it premiered, Alan Ayckbourn’s Absurd Person Singular is considered to be one of the playwright’s most significant early plays.
It is regarded as his first tragi-comic play and the first time he used off-stage characters to great effect. It is also the single most successful Ayckbourn play both in the West End and Broadway and some would argue it even predicted the ruthless entrepreneurial capitalism of the Thatcher years.
And yet in 1972, it was a play whose dark edge meant the playwright was not convinced it would survive the summer season, never mind the next four decades.
Absurd Person Singular followed in the footsteps of Alan’s previous play Time And Time Again, which he considered his first character-driven play, but drawing on a far darker element and venturing into the tragi-comic genre which the playwright has since become synonymous with.
”I've tried to explore people a little more, and at the same time to cut back some of the high jinks.”
The title - apparently thought of whilst in an elevator - was announced in early 1972 without a play attached and was itself recycled from another unwritten work. It was actually written through the night whilst he directed another play during the day and was delivered to the latest possible deadline: the first day of rehearsals!
The writing process did not get off to a good start and was so unpromising that, ten pages in, Alan tore up the script and started again. Although the theme was sound with regards to the social rise of one ruthless couple at the expense of others, he felt his original structure of four couples in three living rooms over three Christmases was tedious and boring; the location was wrong and one couple was overwhelming the play. He decided to locate the action ‘off-stage’ in the kitchen and relegate Dick and Lottie Potter to off-stage. This was an elegant solution as the playwright realised the moments of interest at these parties (indeed, any party!) were being said in private in the kitchen and the Potters were far more effective in limited, unseen doses.
”In terms of content it was quite interesting... but there was an edge missing off it, and transferring it into the kitchens - setting it backstage, as it were - made it much more interesting. I think it lifted it from being a reasonable play into a better play.”
That the play was by far the darkest piece he had ever written was something that even concerned Alan. He realised he was venturing into new territory whilst dictating it for transcription to his partner - now wife - Heather Stoney, and raised doubts about the second act, centred as it is on a suicidal character, to her. She urged him to have confidence in the act and keep it unaltered feeling the audience would understand and appreciate his dramatic intentions.
There’s little doubt Alan knew this departure into darker territory was a risk, but in its counterpoint of the serious against the comic, he also felt it marked a considerable step forward for him as a writer and encouraged his company to have faith in the play.
Absurd Person Singular opened at the Library Theatre on 26 June 1971 and despite being half-an-hour too long in Alan’s eyes, it was well-received.
”Despite its enormously long running time that [first] night – it remains one of the most successful first performances of mine.”
He pruned the play for the second night and with good word-of-mouth behind it, audiences grew and it became the most successful production in a season which reversed the losses of the theatre’s previous summer.
Critical opinion was mixed with the most prescient review from Michael Billington, who compared Alan’s writing to that of Chekhov; something which has become commonplace since.
The producer Michael Codron picked the play up for London and reunited Alan with director Eric Thompson. The pair had previously worked together on Time And Time Again and their relationship hit its stride here. Thompson gathered a cast which included Richard Briers, Sheila Hancock and Michael Aldridge and the production was a spectacular success; eclipsing even the extraordinary heights of Alan’s previous West End hit, How The Other Half Loves.
Critics were gushing in their praise and it would run for 26 months; it holds the record for the longest interrupted run of an Ayckbourn play in London (the National Theatre’s production of Bedroom Farce - which was commissioned as a result of Peter Hall seeing Absurd Person Singular - ran for longer, but was in repertory). It also received the Evening Standard Award for Best Comedy; the first Ayckbourn play to be recognised with an award.
”It is also, some critics have observed, a rather weighty comedy. Its last scene darkens considerably. I make no apologies for this.”
Such success did not go unnoticed on Broadway - where Alan had yet to make a notable breakthrough - and Eric Thompson was offered the chance to repeat his London success in New York.
This led to one of the strangest moments in the play’s life. Although the American producers had professed enthusiasm for it, they were not over enamoured with the play’s structure and demanded that acts II and III be swapped round so it did not end on a dying fall; going so far as to commission a laugh count to support their case that the second act was funnier and should not only be the final act but should also be accompanied by the kitchen collapsing for some unspecified reason.
"They had this idea that it should have a guaranteed number of laughs, and they had two men sitting in the house, counting the laughs... They got in touch with me and said, ‘There are 92 laughs in the first act and 75 in the second, but only 51 in the third. What do you make of this?’"
Alan refused to alter the play and the producers had the tenacity to suggest it was not his decision to make! They hadn’t bargained for Alan’s fiercely protective agent Margaret Ramsay though, and soon reconsidered their stance!
Absurd Person Singular was successful beyond anyone’s imaginings on Broadway, opening to more than half-a-million dollars in advance bookings. It ran for 592 performances and was the most successful comedy by a British playwright on Broadway since Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit in 1941. To this day, it remains the longest running Ayckbourn play to have been produced on Broadway.
Absurd Person Singular has since become the only Ayckbourn play to have multiple productions in the commercial West End and on Broadway with London revivals in 1990 and 2008 and New York in 2005. It is also one of only two plays Alan has directed in Scarborough at all three homes of the Stephen Joseph Theatre.
With adaptations in both radio and television as well as being a perennially popular revival for both professional and amateur companies around the country, there is little denying that Absurd Person Singular stands not only as a classic Ayckbourn, but also one of his most successful plays.
It also - with the hindsight of 40 years - marks the point where the true voice of Alan Ayckbourn can clearly be heard. Where comedy and tragedy precariously balance on a knife-edge and at which much guilty laughter is heard for the first time, but definitely not the last, at an Ayckbourn play.
This is a slightly revised version of an article first published in the SJT Circular in April 2012. It is copyright of Simon Murgatroyd and should not be reprinted without permission.