Alan Ayckbourn’s Wonderful Career
By David Gardner
Born on April 12, 1939, Alan Ayckbourn just recently celebrated both his 72nd birthday and the completion of his 75th full-length play, making him one of the most prolific writers of our day. But not only prolific, this London-born playwright’s body of work has earned over 35 awards and honors, including a Tony, two Olivier Awards, two Moliere Awards, and a Special Tony for Lifetime Achievement in the Theater. In 1997 Ayckbourn was knighted for his service to the theatre, and his plays—both new and revived—continue to delight audiences in both England and America.
Part of Ayckbourn’s success stems from his ability to strike a familiar chord by illuminating harsh truths about relationships. As Ben Brantley wrote of the recent hit revival of the sex farce, The Norman Conquests, “deeply unhappy people can generate profound happiness in audiences allowed to eavesdrop on their lives.” Ayckbourn’s own unhappy parents—who were never married—separated shortly after World War II, and his mother entered into a tumultuous marriage soon after that, giving a young Ayckbourn poignant examples of troubled relationships, which he observed, remembered, and artistically rendered in many of his plays. “I was surrounded by relationships that weren’t altogether stable,” Ayckbourn later told The New York Times. “The air was often blue, and things were sometimes flying across the kitchen table.”
Escaping this turbulent world of marital strife, Ayckbourn attended a number of prestigious boarding schools where he discovered his talent for acting. By the age of 17, he decided to pursue a career in theater, and in 1957 he landed a job as an actor and stage manager at Scarborough’s Library Theater. Here, artistic director and long-time mentor Stephen Joseph encouraged Ayckbourn—frustrated with playing a part he didn’t like—to write the kind of part he’d love to play. Ayckbourn did just that, and his first play, The Square Cat, opened in the spring of 1959—just as Ayckbourn turned 20 years old.
In addition to writing, he began directing plays in the early 60’s, and what really distinguishes Ayckbourn from other living playwrights is the way he uses his practical experience as a director and producer to structure his plays. Notably, Taking Steps (1979) is structured as a dark bedroom farce, but where farces are always supposed to be dependent on doors—either slamming or allowing surprise entrances—Taking Steps is performed with no doors—or walls. Instead, it takes place on three floors of a house, yet it gets performed on a single level with the floor plans superimposed on one another so that the actors exist in physical relationships that create new resonances for what is happening.
In his book, The Crafty Art of Playmaking, which details his techniques as a writer and director, Ayckbourn emphasizes his understanding of a playwright as a craftsperson, piecing together the different elements of character, theme, setting, and prop to create a tightly constructed whole. “Unlike in real life,” he writes, “practically everything that gets mentioned in a play has a relevance sooner or later.” There’s no room for superfluous lines in an Alan Ayckbourn play. In fact, Ayckbourn’s playwriting can be so intricately conceived that he has a nearly formulaic approach to seeking out the humor in serious situations and the gravity in comedic ones. “The darker the subject matter, the more light you must try to shed on the matter. And vice versa.” His works strike an enjoyable balance between serious and light-hearted, which aligns him with what is called “boulevard theater”—that is, theater for the middle class, intended not to affront our sensibilities, but rather to entertain us by showing us recognizable characters in unrealistic situations (but ones that seem credible).
However, despite his usual tendency to portray middle-class adults facing middle-class problems, Ayckbourn ventures into new territory with My Wonderful Day. He had written “children’s plays” throughout his career, but this was the first of his “adult” plays to feature a child—let alone a poor, black, third-generation Anglo-Caribbean girl. Here Ayckbourn refreshingly acknowledges race and class while simultaneously giving us the funny glimpse into troubled relationships that we’ve grown to expect in an Ayckbourn play. But by placing Winnie in the midst of an otherwise familiar British comedy of marital infidelity, Ayckbourn helps us see this domestic strife through new—and, we feel, devastatingly serious—eyes.