Alan Ayckbourn: Grinning at the Edge by Paul Allen

“The structure of a play is always the story of how the birds came home to roost.”
— Arthur Miller

The author of plays like The Norman Conquests, Absurd Person Singular, and Woman in Mind, Alan Ayckbourn is a major figure in the remarkable post-war renaissance of English drama, having produced 57 plays, won countless awards including a knighthood in 1997, and had his work translated into over 30 languages. Yet Ayckbourn is intensely private, shunning the media in favour of his adopted home of Scarborough, Yorkshire, where he runs a successful repertory theatre. This biography attempts to reveal some of the personal histories behind the man and the plays, while at the same time situating Ayckbourn in some of the contexts of modern drama.

Paul Allen writes as something of an insider, being himself playwright as well as a long-term BBC Radio 4 Arts presenter. Allen’s familiarity with the mechanisms of theatrical production, and in particular with the financial and political dimensions of running a modern theatre, provides an informative framework through which the narrative of Ayckbourn’s life and development is allowed to display itself. Allen writes just about as clearly as possible, given the complexities of some of the intrigues and controversies he addresses, and the vast range of characters who feature prominently in Ayckbourn’s life.

One consequence of Allen’s familiarity is that this biography has a very ‘insider’ feel. While ostensibly oscillating between the intensely detailed and the more generalising, Allen tends to opt for the former. He offers in effect a series of close-up snapshots of Ayckbourn’s career that is liberally sprinkled with theatrical anecdotes and reminiscences but can also be rather chaotic for the reader unattuned to the delicate social and political balances that need to be sustained in theatrical company. At one point in this book, we encounter, in rapid sequence, Bob Peck, Robert Morley, Tom Courtenay, Richard Briers, Penelope Keith, John Alderton, Pauline Collins, Colin Blakely, Michael Gambon, Rosemary Leach and Constance Chapman, as well as the more ubiquitous figures of Stephen Joseph, Robin Herford and Heather Stoney (Ayckbourn’s partner).

Such a list surely cements Ayckbourn’s place in the centre of ’70s and ’80s dramatic production in England (nearly all these names are well-known for their television careers as well), but Ayckbourn himself remains, by the end of the book, a rather elusive figure amid this illustrious company. We learn something of his childhood and upbringing — middle-class unconventional, boarding school, Haileybury public school, where boys were trained “to be governors of what remained of the British Empire” — and then into the dramatic profession, interrupted only by the briefest of stints doing National Service.

Allen touches on some of the cultural influences on Ayckbourn’s development — in particular The Goon Show, and, slightly bizarrely, Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death. Ayckbourn’s comedy, which always treads that thin line separating it from the most vicious tragedy, derives in part from that weird post-war cultural mix of radio, cinema and a particularly English form of Surreal humour made up of equal parts of Donald McGill, early Carry On films, Round the Horne and the need for good humour in the face of perpetual rationing and declining national significance. And, of course, there’s the dramatic tradition: Sartre’s Huis Clos, Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, Ibsen, Chekhov, Anouilh, and the emergence in 1955 of Samuel Beckett — all have a significant role to play in helping to establish Ayckbourn’s own brand of English comedy.

Allen doesn’t quite do as much with these contexts as he could. The key year in post-war English culture, 1956, saw the first production of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger as well as the Suez crisis and the Hungarian uprising, and in that year Ayckbourn left school at 17 to begin his theatrical career. Allen makes the connection but doesn’t extend its possibilities. Ayckbourn’s drama is rarely directly political (except in its attacks on political correctness and, in particular, feminism, which Allen chooses to interpret as “satirical”) but instead is adept at raising political and moral issues through the devices of comedy. Where Osborne’s Jimmy Porter rails against the world outside, destroying that within in the process, Ayckbourn’s characters tear themselves and each other apart, and in doing so they unwittingly gesture toward the precarious external foundations of family and class ‘allegiances’ upon which English society is built.

Ayckbourn’s preferred territory is that of the English middle-classes at war with themselves, and he depicts that war in linguistic, moral and sexual terms. While avoiding any explicit political commentary (in contrast with his near contemporary Harold Pinter), Ayckbourn is given to expressing in his dramas a critical attitude to the prevailing social climate. The critic John Peter describes him as a “domestic political dramatist”, and Allen quotes Frank Rich, ‘the butcher of Broadway’, approvingly when, in the 1980s, he describes Ayckbourn’s plays as “an immensely disturbing vision of middle-class England poisoned by the rise of economic ruthlessness and the collapse of ethics”.

Allen’s biography successfully conveys some sense of the sheer labour that goes into theatrical production, from the writing through casting, rehearsals, the lighting and technical work, marketing, directing and acting. The reader is left with a strong sense of the often violent pressures that build up in situations demanding extreme commitment for little financial reward, and how these pressures can affect individuals as well as teams of people. Ayckbourn’s lifelong involvement in the game of cricket, another typically English, middle-class obsession, offers an interesting parallel here — cricket involves a similar balance between individual and team as theatre does, and the cricket captain has to both control his team and rely on each of them to perform individually at crucial moments.

Ultimately Ayckbourn’s notorious privacy remains largely in place despite this biography. It’s the comments of others that are more revealing, and more descriptive of his work. Allen defines Ayckbourn’s perennial theme as “our longing for paradise and our capacity for spoiling it”. The private life of a successful playwright, director and actor might just be that paradise that remains unspoiled.