Absent Friends: Quotes by Alan Ayckbourn

"I mean how can we expect the audience we get to laugh at something like death? Then I realised the one section of people guaranteed to laugh at death are the old. They are the ones who have to come to terms with it."
(Daily Mail, 6 October 1974)

"My latest play,
Absent Friends, contains the double theme of death and the death of love. It also has a woman having a nervous breakdown. It's a comedy and people are laughing at it. Not I believe, in a cruel and heartless way, but with the laughter of understanding. Laughter in the theatre can be an amazing bridge. It can persuade people to keep their minds open long after their inherent prejudices have told them to close them."
(New York Times, 20 October 1974)

Absent Friends this man genuinely wants to sort these people out, but the fact is they don't want to be sorted out. What he's saying they know, and don't want repeated, but his motives come from a genuine affection. I tend to be optimistic about people anyway. I always assume they're nice until they've finally stolen my wallet. I believe basically that most people do bad things to each other mainly because of fear."
(Vogue, April 1975)

"It is much more of a character play than I have written before and has less of a watertight plot."
(Unknown publication, 1975)

"I am not very good at funny lines but I am quite good at presenting characters in a situation when viewed from the outside is funny but on the inside isn't. I was rather pleased with
Absent Friends - pleased to get comedy without actually working for it."
(Unknown publication, 1975)

"One can go on forever being a precocious juggler of shapes and patterns; I hope not too many people think that this time I've slipped up on the job of farcical comedy when that's not what I was aiming for at all. I've gone round all the jokes, deliberately stopped at points where, perhaps, one could have broadened into more obvious farce. I was trying to do something much more low-key. It seemed to me that, if I was going to progress as a dramatist, I must try and get more comedy from character and less from artificially induced situations. At the beginning of the second act of
Living Together the whole action pulled up with a jolt and the family sat and talked and read magazines. I'd never done that sort of thing before, with people just sitting and talking about themselves. Writing it, I felt nothing was actually happening; and it was wonderful to get it onto the stage and find a response coming off the audience. So I went back to Scarborough and attempted to write something that would involve the audience in an afternoon."
(Plays And Players, September 1975)

"I have soft spots for certain ones, but that may just be because they are not able to take care of themselves.
The Norman Conquests is perfectly all right. They are quite happy and can take care of themselves. Absent Friends I tend to stroke, because it's rather special. When it does work for someone in the audience and for an actor it works probably better than any of the others, but one was aware writing it it was never going to be a play that was going to appeal to a very broad spectrum. With Absent Friends I deliberately laid down all the safe apparatus one uses to ensure that something works. I can modestly now write a scene technically, a fast scene I know, which mechanically will make people laugh. I can write enough jokes into it to make it work. In Absent Friends one almost said no, I won't use that and I won't do that. It's like fighting and saying 'I'm not going to use my right hook because I know it's very strong, I'll use my left'. It sounds as if I deliberately tried to write a bad play, which wasn't actually true. I tried to write something different, and it's always dangerous because if you do change your spots, having gathered a fair public, you can make them very offended.
"It was not ever intended to be cruel, I think it does come over at the moment as being rather a savage play. I suppose it started with
Absurd Person Singular. The ending is certainly a bit sour and I think really it's a two-fold thing. First, one matures. I feel I've got a fuller range of emotions now than I had when I started writing at 19, and I hope a greater understanding of people derived from being around them a bit more. Secondly, having written 16 comedies altogether you get to a stage, where you've done most of it. Once you've established, which you can do fairly easily, that you can make people laugh over an evening, then you start to say now what about the quality of the laughter. It's very easy to get easy laughter. There's nothing like telling your audience an old joke to make them laugh. They love old jokes, woe betide the man who ever invents a new joke, he won't get a titter. Then you start to say 'well, in what other areas can I extend my craft?' One of the areas I wanted to write about, because it was a personal situation, was not about death itself but about people's attitudes to death, a very dangerous area to write comedies about. I'm dealing in topics which I suppose themselves are quite serious, but viewing them, I hope, in a sympathetically comic way. I believe that there's not a lot, excepting national and local disasters, that you can't say through comedy. There are specific touchy zones, obviously, which would be just bad taste. But most human existence, even if it's somebody trying take their own life, it is possible to see - in a sense - in a comic way, and let the whole impact of the actual deed also sour the sugar."
(The Times, 5 January 1976)

"I broke all my own rules in doing it [
Absent Friends], avoiding conventional comic set-pieces, etc. Most writers start with intense autobiographical works; I started with broad farce and I've been getting more and more gloomy ever since. Farce came to me naturally - the first ones were very derivative - and then I got interested in trying to enlarge my boundaries. You have to have been through at least one unhappy relationship to enjoy my plays now - married couples usually enjoy them particularly, recognising their own problems and their relations and neighbours in the stage characters. They hardly ever recognise themselves. You can at least make people see their fellows in a new light, and you can make them feel for the characters, without loving them."
(The New British Drama, 1977, Hamish Hamilton)

"I want to go further into the Chekhovian field, exploring attitudes to death, loneliness etc. - themes not generally dealt with in comedy."

(The New British Drama, 1977, Hamish Hamilton)

"None of the characters in
Absent Friends is directly modelled on myself or specific people I know. Obviously, any writer uses aspects of himself in his writing and draws from observations of people around him but it would be impossible to itemise the input. I did know of a girl whose future husband died in an accident and from that day on, she based her life on the assumption that their relationship would have been perfect if it had been allowed to happen. This might well have been true but, as it was never asked to withstand the ups and downs of everyday life, it was never put to the test. I suppose I have used her indirectly to create the character of Colin who is unutterably smug in his belief that he and Carol had the perfect relationship. And, consequently, although he thinks otherwise is unable to begin to understand the lives of his friends close to him."
(Personal correspondence, 1988)

Absent Friends is set in a lounge because I wanted to use 'real' time on stage i.e. what you see happening during the course of the play occurs in the time it actually takes you to watch it. Most plays take liberties with time which we accept. In this instance, by gathering a group of people together in the same room and at the same time, one could build up the tensions and inter-relationships before your eyes, and a formal tea party offered a nice counterpoint to the drama that was really going on beneath the surface."
(Personal correspondence, 1988)

"It's an open ending. Love has finally died between Diana and Paul - or rather finally been declared dead. I think there hasn't been much life left in it for some time but often we go on going through the motions of love, as if we 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."
(Interview, 1999)

"The dying fall ending is deliberate. It seemed, when I was writing the piece, the only honest ending. It would have been possible, I suppose, to bring Diana back which would have lifted the thing to a more conventional "grand finish". But I think in performance, the end is sort of inevitable, particularity if the thing is pitched on a very low key as intended."
(Personal correspondence)

"It's very short so you can explore the silences. I once described the play as a comedy of embarrassment - and the best embarrassments can both grow out of and then cause silences."
(Personal correspondence)

Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn