Absent Friends: Articles by Alan Ayckbourn

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.

What's The Time? (Stephen Joseph Theatre 1997 production programme note)
One of the tools available to the stage dramatist (and in my view one of the least understood) is time. Not the running time of a play - though that’s important - but the time frame within which the author has chosen to set the play.
In the occasional lectures I give on playwriting I invariably stress that there are essential questions a writer must ask before putting pen to paper or indeed word to processor.
Dispensing with the first and more obvious,
Why? You’re writing it (you need the money) and How? You write it (initially in my case, at school, with a torch, under the bedclothes, in pencil) we approach more serious and weighty decisions.
Foremost of these is
What? In other words, what do you want your play to be about? (Also referred to as The Theme or, if you’re a particularly serious dramatist, The Social Content). Following that:-
Who? Comes a close second, or even supercedes What? If your play is a dramatised biography of, say, Attila the Hun, it might well be Who? is your starting point. Whatever. Next probably comes:
Where? That is to say, what is to be your choice of stage setting, or settings? Is it a single set play which all takes place in Attila’s tent? Or will it range over various European battlefields demanding a more filmic approach. What nowadays we grandly term multi-locational but which Shakespeare probably called a bare stage production.
However, somewhere in amidst all this, you should be asking the question:
When? in other words, dramatically, what is your intended time frame? Over what period of time do you wish to tell your story? Over minutes, weeks, months, years or even decades?
The choice of
When? although perhaps not quite as obvious to a new dramatist can be vitally important. For When? includes such decisions as when to start and finish the play. Start too soon and you’ll have the audience shuffling impatiently waiting for something to happen. Start too late and you’ll have them buried in their programmes seeking some clue as to what the hell’s going on.
Beyond this, is the choice of your story’s actual time-span. Some plays demand they take years (stage years!) to tell.
The Life And Times Of Attila The Hun perhaps.
In general, the rough rule is to try and tell the story within the shortest period you can. If you can condense events into one night, say all you need to say about Attila in one swift night of brutality and passion, then do. It binds your drama together, gives a sharpness and focus just as surely as does a single location.
If you must cover years, try to avoid mixing the two time frames. It rarely works. Plays with scene breaks that jump minutes between scenes one and two, then decades between three and four can sometimes give your audience the equivalent of time travel sickness. If you’re unsure about this, do what Shakespeare did and rarely if ever refer to it at all.
So what will be the dramatic result of your choice of
When? Briefly, it is this. In a long time span (Scene 2: Another Battlefield. Ten Years Later) you tend to get what could be termed a “long lens” feel to the piece. You are in effect placing your audience at a distance from the action. They are watching it, as it were, in “long shot”. Whereas the more your apparent elapsed stage time matches the actual time by your audience’s wristwatches, the nearer you might be deemed to have moved them to the action. In effect, you create the equivalent of a “close-up” lens.
In tonight’s play,
Absent Friends, both times actually match. Stage time equals audience time. Which is about as close as I could get in 1975. Mind you, I’m working on one where stage time actually runs slower than real time. Now that will be some close-up!

Alan Ayckbourn's introduction to Three Plays
Absent Friends, first produced in Scarborough in 1974, followed The Norman Conquests, which to all intents and purposes was the end of my exploration of off-stage action. Three plays, two of which were happening off-stage simultaneously with the one on-stage, 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.

Absent Friends (unrecorded production programme note)
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 to that medium.

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