Man of The Moment: Articles

This section features articles by Alan Ayckbourn and other authors relating to Man Of The Moment. Click on a link in the right-hand column below to read the relevant article.

This article by the noted theatre critic and Ayckbourn commentator Michael Billington was written for the programme for the world premiere of Man Of The Moment at the Stephen Jospeh Theatre in the Round, Scarborough, during 1988.


Billington On Ayckbourn

Alan Ayckbourn is unique amongst modern British dramatists. Not only does he go on writing. He simply gets better and better. Where many of the generation before him, such as John Osborne, Harold Pinter, Arnold Wesker and Peter Nichols, enjoyed a fruitful span of around fifteen years and have since diversified into film-writing, autobiography and directing, Ayckbourn still manages to combine the dual roles of dramatist and theatre director. The only parallel I can think of is with George Bernard Shaw who wrote his first play in 1893 and his last in 1949; and even Shaw's later work tailed off into a dubious hero-worship of supermen.

My point is, however, that Ayckbourn is still maturing as an artist. The popular view is that he started as a boulevard lightweight and has since gone on to write increasingly dark and sombre plays. But that is not what I mean by maturity. I would say that he began as a ruthless and unsparing observer of sexual politics and middle-class manners: now his subject is, more often than not, the state of the nation and the decline of our culture. He has broadened his canvas and refined his technique to the point where an audience is often caught between laughter and horror and finds the smile freezing on its lips. Chekhov did this to perfection in a play like
Uncle Vanya where the hero's bungled attempt to shoot the Professor is both farcical and tragic. Ayckbourn is not yet Chekhov but the accidental killing of the slimy sleuth, Benedict Hough, in A Small Family Business, has the same capacity to leave the spectator experiencing two reactions at once.

The real difference between early and late Ayckbourn, however, is not that the tone has got darker but that the texture has got richer with the years. It is fascinating to see the revival of a 20-year-old piece like
How The Other Half Loves now on at the Duke of York's in London. It manages to pack in an awful lot about the way our social and sexual attitudes are dictated by class. The famous scene, for instance, in which the hapless Featherstones dine simultaneously with two different couples on two different nights is funny not because of its technical ingenuity (that joke lasts about a minute) but because of what its says: that the Featherstones behave like nervous sycophants in one household and like outraged observers of marital crisis in the other. Even attitudes to adultery, Ayckbourn suggests, are determined by class: polite, circuitous enquiries at the upper end of the social scale, smashed crockery and brandished crowbars in the messy middle of the English pecking-order.

The difference between this and Eighties Ayckbourn, however, is that he now seems more concerned with taking the moral temperature of the nation. The turning point was
Way Upstream in 1981 which began as the story of a jolly middle-class river-cruise and ended up as a fable about evil. The message was clear: that there is a nebulous hatred abroad in the land and that it is up to the sheepish, the shy and the ineffectual to do something about it before it is too late (I can imagine the play going down well in any country living through a right or left wing dictatorship). A Small Family Business has also been written about simply as if it dealt with domestic crisis and the moral abyss that opens up when you start to compromise. To me, it is as much a political play as Caryl Churchill's Serious Money. The very title invokes the entrepreneurial values we are all supposed to endorse. But what Ayckbourn shows, with the startling clarity of a moral fabulist, is that those who make material wealth their God end up endorsing theft, drug-trafficking and murder. In the greed-oriented climate of the late Eighties the family that preys together stays together.

Henceforward…, seen in Scarborough earlier this season, takes the process a stage further. It posits a future where the streets are patrolled by menacing vigilantes, where the social welfare officer exerts a judicial power over people's lives and where individuals have retreated into computerised bunkers filled with videophones, synthesisers and screens. It is a prophetic farce that is both apocalyptic and funny. The sight of an android programmed to behave as the perfect sexual partner is chillingly hilarious and took me back to a play I saw in childhood called The Perfect Woman. At the same time, there is a desperate pathos about the composer hero choosing the sound of the word 'love' as reproduced by his machines in preference to the real thing as offered by his wife and family. Ayckbourn is both warning us that we are in danger of using hi-tech as a substitute for true feeling and, I believe, writing a play about the plight of the modern artist: a cocooned hermit with the machinery to say everything but with nothing left to say.

Ayckbourn is now writing from a position of social concern as I suspect
Man of the Moment will confirm. At the same time, he is still a shrewd pragmatist who knows that audiences want to be constantly surprised and delighted. He told me this year that his brief to new writers is the one he himself received as a beginner from Stephen Joseph: "By all means write whatever you want but for God's sake say it in a way that is going to appeal to people who come to the theatre. Let's see how clever we can be at saying unpalatable things in a palatable manner."

That to me is Ayckbourn's supreme talent. He uses drama to say disquieting things while still taking his audience with him. He is a comic pessimist, a farcical Diogenes who takes a pretty harsh view of the state of modern Britain while still giving audiences the tonic of laughter and a good night out.

Article by Simon Murgatroyd. Copyright: Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.
Stacks Image 10