Relatively Speaking: Articles by Other AuthorsThis page contains articles on Relatively Speaking by authors other than Alan Ayckbourn. The articles are the copyright of the respective author and should not be reproduced without permission.
Relatively Speaking: The Aftermath
by Simon Murgatroyd
The extraordinary success of Relatively Speaking had repercussions for Alan Ayckbourn both in the short and the long term.
In the West End, the play bucked the current trend for heavyweight playwrights and realism, demonstrating that while it may be unfashionable, there was still an audience eager for well-written and produced comedies. As many critics noted, Relatively Speaking was head and shoulders above recent comedy fare in the quality of the script and production, which would lead to demand for more plays of this type from Alan.
The next of his plays to open in London was How The Other Half Loves, which if anything was even more of a success than Relatively Speaking. However, Alan and seasoned critics such as Michael Billington have no doubt that in some respects, the success of these two plays set Alan’s career back. Both plays are essentially comedies which border on farce - Relatively Speaking is, strictly speaking, a high comedy and How The Other Half Loves nearer to farce. As a result, Alan was stuck with the label of farceur for many years to come despite that as early as 1971, he was no longer writing the light comedies he was most associated with. Despite the fact Alan was phenomenally popular and often received glowing reviews, he would not be viewed as a ‘serious’ playwright for many years to come.
On the other hand, the success of the first two plays began an extraordinary run for Alan Ayckbourn, making him one of the most successful British playwright of the 20th century. Between 1965 and 1989, Alan would write 32 plays, 28 of which would go on to London productions in either the West End or the National Theatre. As of 2017, he has written 81 plays with 39 having gone on to open in London. A remarkable achievement by anyone’s standards.
An unexpected consequence, but possibly the most far-reaching, is the effect this success had with regard to Scarborough. In 1967, Alan’s mentor Stephen Joseph died and the Library Theatre, Scarborough, was left without an obvious future nor direction. At the same time, Alan became its first appreciable success. It is hard to imagine this was not an attraction to Scarborough Theatre Trust looking for a way to not only survive, but move forward whilst preserving Stephen’s legacy. With Alan’s commitment to writing new plays for Scarborough, the theatre had both a natural successor and a public figurehead supportive of the cause. In such circumstances, his appointment as Artistic Director in 1972 seems inevitable. With the benefit of hindsight, this decision seems obvious, but had Alan not had such success when he did, the future of the theatre might well have been very different.
For Alan, the lessons learnt from writing a ‘well-made play’ led to increasing experimentation with theatrical structure and form, which he has continued throughout his writing career. Alan would not write another ‘well-made play’ and its closest companion is probably Taking Steps, Alan’s purest version of a farce. However, Relatively Speaking introduces one of the most common themes found throughout Alan’s writing career: the relationship between men and women. At its heart, no matter how insubstantial, Relatively Speaking concerns the relationships of two couples. Practically every subsequent play deals with men and women’s relationships, marriages, infidelities, crises and so on. As a recognisable theme, this begins in Relatively Speaking. The play would also mark the beginning of the end of writing gag-lines; Alan feels that prior to Time And Time Again in 1971, he did slip gags into his plays (which he also felt he wasn’t very good at). There are very few such lines in Relatively Speaking and the play demonstrates his growing maturity as a playwright where the comedy develops from dialogue, situation and context rather than overtly witty or comedic lines.
What can not be forgotten is how popular Relatively Speaking was and still proves to be. Demand from professional and amateur companies, first in the UK and then around the world, established Alan’s popularity on a wider basis and arguably led him to become such a well-loved and popular playwright. It is a mark of the success of the play, that more than 50 years on, it is still a widely produced and popular play.
Alan Ayckbourn, The Well Made Play And Precedents
by Simon Murgatroyd
Relatively Speaking was Alan Ayckbourn’s first attempt at a ‘well-made play’, but this is a term relatively rarely heard in contemporary theatre. Which begs the question, what is a 'well-made play'.
At its most basic, a ‘well-made play’ is a play with a well-crafted plot. The title comes from a translation of the French phrase une piece bien faite and it was commonly used in the 19th century to describe well-constructed plays.
It is often construed as being a formulaic play, which owes much to the French playwright Eugene Scribe (1791-1861) who developed the familiar structure of protagonists meeting with numerous complications which build towards a climax, followed by a denouement. Typically everything is resolved at the climax and all complications are unravelled.
The negative connotations of the ‘well-made play’ largely developed by the late 19th century, when the play came to represent a piece where characterisation was second to artificial actions that were largely manipulated and dependent on plot devices such as mistaken identities and coincidental meetings.
Playwrights most associated with the ‘well-made play’ are Sardou, Labiche, Feydeau, Pinero, Terence Rattigan and George Bernard Shaw.
It is worth noting that Alan Ayckbourn subverts the well-made play’ to some extent with Relatively Speaking. Although the classic ingredients are present with protagonists meeting with complications. Much is unresolved at the climax and further complications have also arisen: Ginny does not have the letters she came for, Greg is still blissfully unaware of who Philip and Sheila are, Philip believes Sheila is having an affair and Ginny may be having affairs with other unseen men!
“I can see now that Relatively Speaking was a fairly deliberately devised play. When I was writing it, Stephen Joseph said (and it's a good tip that I always try to pass on) that there's absolutely no harm whatsoever, whatever you think of the state of the theatre and playwriting in general, to try and write one 'Well-Made Play’; that is, a play that, in general terms, is fairly actor-proof, well constructed and which works. If you want to break the rules of theatre, he said, it’s very useful to know what the rules are. Breaking them by accident can lead to all sorts of trouble later. Relatively Speaking is a little machine of a play. Character plays a fairly secondary role in it - everybody's too busy trying to find out what's going on and 'character' doesn't have a chance.”
Although British writers such as Shaw and Rattigan are most commonly associated with writing ‘well-made plays’, Relatively Speaking is most frequently compared to the works of Oscar Wilde and Noël Coward.
It has been argued by several authors that Relatively Speaking’s closest influence is Wilde’s The Importance Of Being Earnest, not least both being fine examples of the ‘well-made play’. Both feature characters arriving in unfamiliar rural surroundings, mistaken identities and verbal misunderstandings. Alan turns much of Wilde’s play on his head though; in The Importance Of Being Earnest, Algernon visits the country to start a new relationship; in Relatively Speaking, Ginny goes to end a relationship. There may also be a nod to Wilde’s play where Algy learns of Cecily’s existence through a cigarette case inscription and the first act ends with him reading the address from a shirt cuff; while Greg discovers Ginny’s destination on a cigarette packet and the first scene of Relatively Speaking ends with him reading the address from it.
From there both plays embrace the requirements of the 'well-made play' with each character holding secrets unknown to others, conversations at odds with each other but apparently discussing the same person as well as mistaken or assumed identities. Albert E Kalson makes a strong argument for many similarities between the plays and the comparison in his book Laughter In The Dark (see Further Reading), which is worth reading for anyone interested in the perceived similarities.
Kalson also makes the comparison between Relatively Speaking and Anouilh’s Dinner With The Family - later acknowledged by he playwright himself - as both plays contrast the intensity of a new relationship with the disenchantment of a long standing one. Anouilh’s play falls firmly into the ‘well-made play’ category and he was an admirer of Wilde’s work and translated The Importance Of Being Earnest into French.
There is another antecedent to the play though and one which is far more common to Alan’s writing as a whole rather than specifically Relatively Speaking (which is Alan’s only attempt to write a traditional ‘well-made play’). The humour in Ayckbourn plays predominantly arises from the plot rather than specific lines; as the playwright has commented many times, he doesn’t tend to write quotably witty or funny lines such as dramatists like Neil Simon. The comedy emerges from the plot, the situation and the context of the dialogue. Arguably, this is something he shares with Noël Coward who believed the humour in his own plays was plot-driven: “To me, the essence of good comedy writing is that perfectly ordinary phrases such as ‘just fancy!’ should, by virtue of their context, achieve greater laughs than the most literate epigrams.” Of course, the comparison with Coward at the time of the launch of Relatively Speaking was double-edged. While it is true Coward was a phenomenal success, his star was in the descendent and his plays looked down upon in the wake of the rise of realist playwrights such as Osborne and Pinter. Fortunately, his place in English theatre history has been rightfully revised and restored and his playwriting skills are now fully appreciated.
If Relatively Speaking has only one thing in common with Alan Ayckbourn’s later plays, it is that the humour generally arrives from the context of the dialogue and the reaction to it, rather than from obviously funny dialogue.
Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.