Absent Friends: Interview with Alan Ayckbourn

The interviews on this page were conducted by: Alan Ayckbourn's Archivist, Simon Murgatroyd (1997); Michael Cabot, Artistic Director of London Classic Theatre (2015); the Salisbury Playhouse (2007).

Absent Friends Interview: Alan Ayckbourn & Simon Murgatroyd (1997)

Simon Murgatroyd: Absent Friends is now seen as a pivotal point in your playwriting career, what are your opinions of it?
Alan Ayckbourn: I
t’s an interesting play for me because one sees certain plays in the chain as turning points, where I felt I took a positive step in a new direction. I’m rather fond of it because of its significance. When I got to The Norman Conquests, there was a moment when I ran out of plot - as all three plays are reliant on each other. It was a moment, I realised, when I had to have nobody doing very much. I was very nervous about that scene, just people sitting down and talking about their relationships. It sort of led me to write a play with a lot less visible action.

Was there any other inspiration behind writing a piece that, arguably, was a big departure for you?
It was actually inspired by a real event and to that extent it’s quite unusual, as I rarely write about an event from life. A friend had lost someone dear to them in terrible circumstances. A group of us had invited her around and she was better than we were. The tables were turned and our slightly strained relationships showed signs of breaking up instead. I realised this was good dramatic material and was rather guiltily putting it all away.

Were you worried about how the original audience might deal with such a different approach from you and of the subject matter?
I remember when I did it in the Library Theatre, being very nervous about it before the audience came in, as it didn’t have all the things I had become known for. People are now more used to that tightrope between embarrassment and laughter, which is the hallmark of the play.

What led to the decision to revive it?
It’s a very difficult play to do and I really wanted to do it again and set the record straight about what sort of play it was. I had the feeling it had got misinterpreted - normally through direction. It has a very delicate balance; it has the appearance of being a completely flat surface, quite clean. But when you dig under, it’s quite alarming what’s going on because everybody’s being terribly polite. Hopefully the audience is saying ‘Good Lord, what’s going on under there?’ It’s quite distressing by the end.

Are you approaching it differently to how you did when you first directed it in 1972?
I think I’ve brought something new to it as a director, which is a certain confidence, because originally it was such a new direction for me as a writer. It fortunately worked; now one has the confidence to approach it and say we’re going for it. The darker I make it, the funnier it becomes. It’s a comedy of embarrassment and I think it still remains funny.

Absent Friends is the first play where you really deal with a dark, even a taboo subject. What were you trying to achieve in writing about death in the play?
It looks at how we treat death. All the great farce writers used sex as a taboo incessantly and that really has passed it’s shock value now. At the moment people are relying on violence as shock. We’re reaching the point though where we’re going to have to find a way to shock through ideas, not exploding heads; Absent Friends is shocking in the way it deals with death, how we treat death. It is deliberately about a girl you don’t see, as far away from the centre of the action as you can get. Most of the characters don’t know her and have never seen her. It’s about our attitude to death and how we very easily become convoluted in our statements about it. They’re coping as best they can which is often in an apparently unstable manner. Somewhere in there, they haven’t learnt to deal with that sort of pain. I remember the death of Sophie Winter* here was devastating. It totally flattened the company, although some of us were pretty sure we could cope with it. But there was an extraordinary feeling that your emotions wouldn’t allow you to cope. I realised I had no preparation for that at all. Of course you don’t.

But it’s about more than death…
It’s about our inability to cope, but it’s less about death than of the death of love.

* Sophie Winter was an actress at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough, who died in 1995.

Absent Friends Interview: Alan Ayckbourn & Michael Cabot (2015)

Michael Cabot: Absent Friends premièred at the Library Theatre, Scarborough in June 1974. What are your memories of that production and how the first audiences responded to the play?
Alan Ayckbourn: I remember being rather nervous at the time. It was quite a departure for me at that stage of my career. It was very low key compared with earlier plays like Absurd Person Singular, How The Other Half Loves or The Norman Conquests. One of its central themes also concerns death of a loved one, possibly not the most obvious topic for a comedy at that time. As I watched the audience troop up the stairs for the first performance at the Scarborough Library Theatre, I noted that a high proportion of them were elderly. What were they going to make of it? In the event it was a huge success. No one was more surprised than the author.

Your were in your mid-thirties when you wrote Absent Friends and the characters in the play are at a similar stage in their lives. Through such a long and distinguished career, how much do you feel your age and life experience at the time of writing has impacted on your work?
In general, as many have observed, the work has gradually grown darker in tone. I put this down less to an increasing pessimism about human nature brought about by old age (though there’s certainly a bit of that) but more to the plays favouring exploration of character over plot. The deeper you dig, the darker it tends to get.

It has been said that all the characters, perhaps with the exception of Colin, are fairly unpleasant. As a playwright, do you like your characters, even those who seem to have no redeeming features?
I don’t agree at all. They all have their faults as people. There are victims in the women, Diana and Marge and even in Evelyn, who has to need our sympathy married as she is to an amiable wally like John. I concede Paul isn’t the most pleasant of men and Colin is a nightmare. Imagine spending an afternoon alone with him! But four out of six isn’t bad. Besides, I love all my characters even the awful ones. If you don’t start out writing them with affection, they’ll never hope to breathe off the page. It’s like how an actor approaches a new character, however awful they appear, you need to find something to love in them.

As a very early example of ‘comedy of embarrassment’, made so popular in recent years with The Office and its imitators, Absent Friends was very much ahead of its time. Were you aware that you were breaking new ground?
No, just looking around for a new approach, fresh characters, same as I have always done. My nightmare is always a horror of repeating myself. But after 79 plays, my options are narrowing!

Absent Friends is essentially a domestic drama where nothing really happens, a brave decision for a playwright to make. Were you at any stage tempted to divert from this path and introduce more ‘action’ into the play?
Not really. That was never my intention as I have already explained.

In terms of the characters, what do think lies ahead for them beyond the end of the play? Do you think any of the marriages would survive?
I think most of them will but whether they should is a different matter. Marge will stay with Gordon certainly, Di will stick with Paul for, so she will claim, the sake of the children. Evelyn might well leave John and take the baby with her but then she’s another generation. Only Colin had the perfect partnership, poor bloke.

Absent Friends Interview: Salisbury Playhouse (2007)

What inspired you to write Absent Friends?
Alan Ayckbourn:
Up until then, I had experimented with predominantly plot driven vehicles, Relatively Speaking, Absurd Person Singular, The Norman Conquests, etc. and I felt it was time for me to explore character driven writing. i.e events that largely developed because of, as a result of, the characters. That’s not to say that nothing happens in Absent Friends but it happens as a result of the inter-reaction and chemistry between the protagonists far more than in my earlier writing where events intervened.

What do you think explains its enduring appeal? Did you expect it to still be being performed over thirty years later?
I had no idea if it would be performed in 30 years. On the one hand, it would be nice to have thought so; on the other hand since it is still performed it means that its themes are still relevant. And that’s sad because it means that after all that’s happened in the intervening years men and women are still battling to understand each other and presumably treating each other, on occasions, equally badly. The battle lines may have been redrawn but the fight goes on!

The play is also sometimes described as being ‘a play about nothing’ or ‘a play about people sitting chatting’. Why did you decide to write a play of this kind and were you afraid it might not have worked?
Yes. I was extremely nervous about several things: first it was a play whose theme is death or rather our reaction to it. It was also, as one critic rather shrewdly pointed out at the time, a play about the death of love. Fairly dark themes for a dramatist who was currently regarded as a purveyor of so-called light comedy. But a man’s gotta write what a man’s gotta write.

Why did you decide to set the play in real time and was this difficult to get right?
I was (and still am) fascinated by the use of Time as a dramatic tool for storytelling. How if action is extended over a long period of time, this has the effect of placing the onlooker back a few paces viewing the action, as it were, in longshot. Alternatively, setting stories over a short period, has the reverse effect, the cinematic equivalent of a close up. Absent Friends is an extreme example of the latter. It is in “now” time where the drama is in the minute detail.

How fond are you of the play? How do you rate it compared with your other works?
I’m very fond of it. I think it has its place (as you put it - pivotal); for me, it’s a significant stepping stone to other things - the shape of things to come, if you like.

How do you feel the play was received by audiences when it was first performed? Was it everything you had hoped it would be?
In Scarborough where we first produced it, yes. A big hit with critics and public. In London, less so, but then it wasn’t performed by the Scarborough company and I wasn’t directing! Sadly, I feel the new concept got lost in the West End production. They tried to play it in the same style as The Norman Conquests. Disastrous!

Do you have any unusual stories or anecdotes associated with the play that you'd like to share?
We (the Scarborough company ) went on tour with it to Houston, Texas to the Alley Theatre. At one matinee, I recall, during the carefully blocked and rehearsed tea party scene, no one ate a single sandwich, but instead kept passing the laden plates around as it they were red hot. I discovered afterwards that the food, whilst waiting on the offstage prop table, had become invaded by roaches who were busily having an early tea of their own.

And finally, have you ever thought about what happens to your characters after the play ends?

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