Absent Friends: Articles by Alan Ayckbourn

This section includes articles by Alan Ayckbourn on Absent Friends. All articles are copyright of Haydonning Ltd and can be accessed through the links in the right-hand column.

This article by Alan Ayckbourn was written for an unrecorded production of the play.

In Sympathy

It's based on a true event. It was a friend of my wife's, a woman, who had reached that age when it was fashionable to say "She's missed her chance. She's thirty five, poor thing, she's on the shelf, she should go and live in the country with big dogs".

But then she met someone. He was wonderful for her and they both glowed and we were all delighted. So they duly married and on the day of the honeymoon, they drove to Scotland. And he turned the car over and was killed. Instantly. She was fine but obviously stunned. And when we heard, we were just shattered. You know, poor girl. So a lot of people said "Oh, we must invite her round". And it was the tea party and everybody was saying, "I don't know what to say".
So she arrives and she has this complete serenity around her. And it took about half an hour before anybody liked to perk up and say "So sorry about ..." And she said, "That's alright. He's still with me." And we said "Oh, right, yes" and she said "No, he's still with me. He's here. In this room". So that was fairly freaky.

Then somebody got on to the area of "It Happened At The Worst Time" - on the honeymoon, both of you on the upward curve, given a few years it wouldn't have been so bad. And she said, "No. A few years wouldn't have made any difference, we'd have still felt the same". So people said, "No, come on be fair ! All marriages go through a rocky patch". She said "Well, ours wouldn't. He was perfect." And we were all getting angry! Saying "Come on, we have rows. We all have rows! Don't we have rows, darling? Yes! You see!"

And suddenly I was thinking, "This is much more interesting, what we're doing. She's just sitting there, telling us that she's got a perfect relationship and we're beginning to argue amongst ourselves about our own relationships!"

Colin is the man with the rose-coloured spectacles. He was based on somebody I knew who would anthropomorphise about people. He would talk to you and say "Ah, now... look, he's wondering whether to go out now". And you'd say, "No, I'm not. I'm really not".

And you would start getting cross with him. Because he would give people motives which they didn't have. Often quite sunny ones. His wife would be sitting there scowling about something and he'd say "She's bit grumpy 'cos she hasn't had her tea yet."

When I wrote
The Norman Conquests, which just preceded Absent Friends, I remember writing three quite heavily plot-dominated plays. But in the middle play, Living Together, for technical reasons I ran slightly out of steam. And I wrote a scene which I’d never done before where the characters simply sat down and talked. For about half an hour.

I remember being very nervous about it, thinking, “I don’t know if that works, because nothing much is happening - except people talking about themselves and their family.” I don’t know why I felt so embarrassed about it because it did work and became one of my favourite scenes. From that I thought it would be nice to write a 'sitting down' play - a play that didn’t have what I was at that stage known for, slightly manic action, big set pieces. The most violent thing that happens in
Absent Friends is when cream is poured over someone. That becomes huge. Everything else is happening below the surface.

It was a watershed play for me - a complete change of direction. I remember being very nervous about it, thinking “I don’t know if I can sustain this sort of play.
Absent Friends is a play that serious writers write and I’m the boulevard man - I’ve no business writing sub-Chekhovian plays with lots of subtext and not a lot of action.” I remember with the original Scarborough production, because the company had been working together for quite a long time, they were very loyal to it. There was a great commitment, which was very nice - especially since my commitment to it as the director was, secretly I hope, slightly less sure because I was so nervous.

The fun of it comes out of a strong strand of embarrassment that depends on an awful subtext. Sex used to be the great embarrassment in Victorian plays, but death remains a subject about which people go round the houses before mentioning. Phrases like 'mourning your loss' and 'passing on' with everybody talking about everything except dying. That was fun to explore. But what really interested me, beneath all that, was the effect the character of Colin has on those around him. He acts as a catalyst bringing out all the warring factions.

I think it was Benedict Nightingale who said, “This play is about the death of love”, and that is what it’s really about.

Anyway, that’s how I came to write it. It arose out of previous work and the great good fortune of writing for one theatre. There are plays along the way that are not themselves perhaps as good as others but are very important in leading towards plays that I hoped were better.
Absent Friends was for me a turning point. Other plays such as Just Between Ourselves and Woman in Mind would not have happened if I hadn’t had the confidence to write this play.

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