Absent Friends: Interviews with Alan Ayckbourn

This section includes interviews with 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 interview with Alan Ayckbourn was published in the programme for the 1997 revival of Absent Friends by the playwright at his home theatre, the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough.

Absent Friends (1997)

What led you to write Absent Friends?
Alan Ayckbourn: Absent Friends was first produced in Scarborough in 1974. It followed The Norman Conquests, which to all intents and purposes was the end of my exploration of offstage action. Three plays, two of which were happening offstage simultaneously with the one onstage, were quite enough. Absent Friends was almost a drawing-in of forces. It was significant for me in several ways. Its use of time, for one. The stage action matches real time almost second for second. Most plays have their own time span where hours or months can pass quite happily in the space of minutes. Absent Friends’ time-span, being what it is, had the intended consequence of making the play far more claustrophobic, almost oppressive. Its single set, its small detailed action, helped. It is a play for a small intimate theatre where one can hear the actors breathing and the silences ticking away. It was a terrifying risk when it was first produced. I’d never pitched anything in quite such a low key before. Happily, it worked. It has been produced all over the world and, on television, is possibly the most successful of my plays to have transferred into that medium.

Why did you decide to choose continuous time and the same setting in both acts?
Very early on in the plotting. In every play (certainly in the ones I’ve written) I make a very early decision as to the time span the piece will cover. This, you’ll understand, affects so many other decisions.

Were you disappointed that the play received such a mixed reception when it was first performed? [1]
Actually, the first Scarborough production got almost universally good reviews both locally and from the nationals that covered it. The London production (which I didn’t direct) did get a much more lukewarm reception. But then I didn’t care for it either. Significantly, it was one of the last shows of mine to go into London directed by someone other than myself. (I think there were two more, subsequently).

In the first draft you wrote some dialogue between Colin and Paul which you later removed, why did you remove it? [2]
I can’t remember the speech now. But I suspect that, like so many dramatists, (including Chekhov, so I’m in good company) I found that once the play was “on it’s feet” the actor could often express twice as much by what he/she didn’t say. The art of the unspoken.

Did you make any other significant changes to the text before performance / publication?
Can’t remember any.

Is the character of Evelyn deliberately a 'trouble-maker', consciously aware of the effect of her cynical remarks on Diana and Marge - or is she just morose, tactless and unintelligent. Can the actress choose which way to play her? [3]
Evelyn is from another generation. She despises the conventional female attitudes expressed by Diana and Marge. She is, if you like, an early example of the 'new' woman. One who didn’t automatically go along with the accepted subservient attitude to men. She’s not stupid. She just has no interest in making an impression. It’s probably a complete reaction to what she sees going on around her. I have a suspicion that she’s going to be a very good mother.

The 1970s were a time of great career opportunities for women, so why is it only Evelyn who had a part-time job?
The seventies were the turning point. Women were still divided into those who worked and those who didn’t. Diana doesn’t work because she is married to a man who would see her working as a sign of weakness; that he was unable to provide adequately for his family. Marge is largely housebound because of her invalid husband. She probably, again, has a part-time job; it’s just never mentioned.

Do you think that Diana's life has been wasted 'doing all the wrong things' as she says?
I think this was part of the seventies crossroads for women. Many of them were brought up by their mothers to believe that their responsibility was first and foremost to husband and family. I think they were only 'the wrong things' for Diana because they didn’t work out. She’d have been perfectly happy to be a wife and a mother only she’s not been allowed to pursue either function. Her children have been sent away and her husband is never there.

Most of the marriages in the play are unhappy; do you see the destruction of romance and love as inevitable?
Depends on your expectations. I think most marriages are doomed to be disappointing. The happy ones don’t make very interesting theatre, either.

What do you think is the funniest moment in the play?
Couldn’t say. Probably some of Colin’s (well-meant) long speeches.

Did you intend the ending of the play to be predominantly hopeful or pessimistic?
It’s an open ending. Love has finally died between Paul and Diana - or rather finally been declared dead. I think there hadn’t been much life in it for some time but often we go on going through the motions of love, as if we still loved someone, because the truth is too painful. It takes a catalyst like Colin to force us to review our lives. On the other hand, life goes on. In the face of everything, we continue to live our lives and even look forward to tomorrow.

Have you ever met someone like Colin?
Yes. Several.

Is there play still relevant 25 years on?
I think a lot of it is still very relevant. Human nature doesn’t change. We just adopt different hair styles.

Website Notes:
[1] It is a common mistake in interviews with Alan Ayckbourn for the interviewee to presume the West End production is a) the first production and b) the most significant production. In the vast majority of cases, this is incorrect. The majority of Alan Ayckbourn's plays are performed originally in Scarborough at the Stephen Joseph Theatre (or its previous homes) and the Scarborough productions are generally considered definitive productions and superior to the West End.
[2] The providence of this question is unknown as it seems unlikely the interviewee would have had access to the first draft of
Absent Friends - which was not made publicly accessible until 2011 when the Ayckbourn Archive was placed in The Borthwick Institute For Archives.
[3] This is a fundamental mis-reading of the play as there is nothing within the script which suggests Evelyn is 'stupid.'

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