Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Answering Critics with Laughter, Shakespeare and Toilet Paper: The Comedy of Alan Ayckbourn

In a preface to his 'Norman Conquests' Alan Ayckbourn writes that
"Few women care to be laughed at and men not at all, except for large sums of money".

This seems somewhat appropriate from one of the most successful and prolific playwrights ever to emerge from these shores. Ayckbourn's work has been engaging audiences with biting wit, flourishes of comic genius and well-tuned subtleties of pathos for over half a century and now the Borthwick Institute for Archives in York has been given the opportunity to delve into drafts, letters and scripts of a writer largely considered a national treasure.

Photograph copyright of Scarborough Theatre Trust/Stephen Joseph Theatre

Throughout an extensive career, it is perhaps Ayckbourn’s masterful use of comedy to illustrate what can sometimes be the ugly truth that has and will continue to immortalize him. For a playwright who walks the thin line between comedy and tragedy, often moving his audience to tears of laughter and sorrow in one sitting, the boundary between the two genres is often blurred. As one admirer put it, Ayckbourn’s writing is “a superbly funny and devastating commentary on corruption”.  This week, I have been looking though the many letters sent to Alan Ayckbourn by audience members who have come away from his theatre with an all-consuming discomfort that comes with the knowledge that everything you thought you knew has been challenged. Or, after an Ayckbourn play, ripped from your cradling arms with all the brutality of a powerful genius. And yet, in amongst countless letters of complaint and reproach, Ayckbourn fervently defends his artistic choices. 

“The balancing act is to say things that need saying without emptying the stalls. Tricky….My real fascination is in seeing just how much one can say through comedy. And sorry, yes, I also enjoy making people laugh….In this country, if we see pain coming, we close our eyes. Comedy is the Optrex of the mass
(Taken from a letter in reply to a complaint from a member of the audience of ‘A Small Family Business’. Dated August 1987)
It is in this vein that Ayckbourn answers his critics; with a careful balance of truthful response, seasoned with a (sometimes painful) pinch of wit. Although the majority of letters from his audience in this archive are overwhelmingly positive, Ayckbourn answers them all with the patience and grace of someone who truly understands and cultivates the relationship between playwright and spectator. With complaints ranging from the volume of the music, the acoustics of the theatre and the occasional expletive, Ayckbourn’s work never fails to come under scrutiny. One attentive member of the audience even wrote to Ayckbourn to inform him that the set designer had put the toilet roll on the wrong way around in the bathroom set.
But, it is precisely this wish to interact with and the boundless enthusiasm for Alan Ayckbourn’s work that has meant his enduring popularity. The audience feels it can write to this playwright of such repute and tell him their grievances because more often than not, they will receive a reply; albeit humorous, instructive and sometimes firm. Ayckbourn is a playwright willing to answer to his critics, but always ready to defend his craft. On receipt of a letter from a theatregoer complaining that they could only bear to stay for the first half of his play ‘A Small Family Business’, Ayckbourn replied by imagining the reaction of audience being subjected to one half of a Shakespeare play: “Just saw the second half of your play Hamlet. Really, Mr S, all those bodies…"
This post was written by Maddy Pelling, Ayckbourn Intern.
Read more about Maddy's work in her post Archiving Ayckbourn.

1 comment:

  1. The photograph is actually copyright: Scarborough Theatre Trust. It shows Alan Ayckbourn directing the world premiere production of Sisterly Feelings in 1979 at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough.


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