Relatively Speaking: Articles by Alan Ayckbourn

Relatively Speaking

(Windsor Theatre Royal 1968 production programme note)
My only contact with the Theatre Royal until now was a rather embarrassing one. My mother-in-law, determined to see her daughter's newly acquired, un-employed actor husband established as a second Terence Rattigan, besieged John Counsell's office with 'phone calls, letters and visits insisting they presented a play of mine. Mr. Counsell politely but firmly declined the invitation. But all that was several years and six plays ago. The fact remains though, that when we heard that Relatively Speaking was to be presented here both mother-in-law and I glowed smug with contentment.
I thought it might be worth devoting these columns to describing exactly how a play comes to be written. In particular this play, since every single one is different, and the actual process of writing it down devious and mysterious. Some write in pencil; some directly on to typewriters; some at dawn, some at midnight. Some wait for inspiration, some, like me, bash on with page one and hope they reach page ninety-five without confronting a major obstacle. Plays are sometimes written back to front with the first scene the last to be completed. This play, for the record, was written in pencil over several midnights, the second scene first and the first scene last and was completed in ten days flat. I remember I had a large woolly cat for company who didn't really belong to us but seemed to like basking in the heat generated by my creative processes. The creature rejoiced under the unlikely name of Pamela and sat unmoved as I tried out sections of newly written dialogue in her direction.
This was my seventh play to be produced for the stage and was written as a result of a 'phone-call from the late Stephen Joseph in October 1964. He asked if I could provide him with a play for his forthcoming summer season in Scarborough's theatre-in-the-round. The only conditions were that the cast should not exceed four in number and the budget for the production not more than ten pounds. Undaunted by these technical hazards (I once wrote a play for two entirely separate companies who never met up until the first rehearsal, it was disastrous) I immediately set to work in my usual manner and forgot the entire project.
A 'phone call the following February and a polite enquiry about the play's progress brought forth the usual cascade of unashamed lies about the unwritten work. I resolved to set to without delay.
In May the pre-publicity posters were due and Stephen by now sensing that a helping push was required suggested that he bill the play
Meet My Mother a new comedy by.... That night I sat up till 4 a.m. trying to think of a play which might possibly suit that title and finally decided it wasn't very inspiring. I 'phoned back the next morning and, on impulse rather than anything else, asked if the proof copy of the poster could be amended to read Meet My Father. It was bolder and had a good ring to it. By the middle of May, exactly a fortnight before rehearsals were due to start, one quiet midnight Pamela and I sat down to write. I remember little of this period, other than I have described, apart from calling the wife in the play by the same name as the woman who lived next door to us and then wondering vaguely if it was libellous. But I do know that whatever good qualities the piece has are almost entirely due to this pressure. The devious plot was the result of sheer frenzy and the dialogue, of tearing haste. In just over a week the play was written aided by my wife's blue pencil, her constant suggestions and her cups of coffee. It was posted to Stephen, who posted it to his manager, who posted it to the Duplicating Bureau and as far as I know the dear lady who typed it finally was the first person ever to read it through. By the following February the play having been re-christened Taken For Granted, Father's Day and finally Relatively Speaking was in rehearsal in London.
Which is not the way most plays are written thank heaven but is more or less the story of this one. Mind you, my latest play started life on the posters as
The Silver Collection as I hadn't begun work on it when the publicity was due. It was later presented as The Sparrow but I'm not really happy with that title either. Please send your suggestions on postcards only please to....

Relatively Speaking

(Leeds Civic Theatre 1970 production programme note)
Oddly enough this, the most well known of all my plays, is the only one till now that I have never directed myself.* I wrote it originally as a result of a phone call from the late Stephen Joseph, a truly remarkable man of the theatre, without whose unrelenting deadlines this would never have been written and to whom I dedicate the play, sadly, but with great affection. He asked me then simply for a play which would make people laugh when their seaside summer holidays were spoiled by the rain and they came into the theatre to get dry before trudging back to their landladies This seems to me as worthwhile a reason for writing a play as any, so I tried to comply. I hope I have succeeded.

Relatively Speaking

(Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round 1977 production programme note)
In general, the people who liked this play when it was first seen remarked that it was 'well constructed'; those that didn't called it old-fashioned. If the latter is true, then I suppose it's because, as the song goes, I am too. As to whether it's well constructed, well, in a way I hope it is, since I did set out consciously to write a 'well made' play. I think this is important for a playwright to do at least once in his life, since as in any science, he cannot begin to shatter theatrical convention or break golden rules until he is reasonably sure in himself what they are and how they were arrived at.
And this knowledge is really only acquired as a result of having plays produced, torn apart and reassembled by actors and held up to public scrutiny for praise or ridicule. I suppose I am extremely lucky, writing for a small theatre company as I did for so many years, to have had almost a dozen plays put through this very process before reaching the age of thirty. Not only this, but to have had to fight all the limitations of a small theatre - the number of actors available, difficulties of staging, even lighting complications - and, most important, being aware that if my play didn't at least break even at the box office, we'd all be out of a job on Monday. I wrote, in a sense, to order, and there was no harm in this, since the order was always of a technical nature and dealt only minimally with content. But there is no sharper lesson for a dramatist than to find himself sharing a dressing room with an actor for whom he has written an impossible quick change.

*This wasn't true. Alan Ayckbourn has never directed productions of his first three plays.

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