Alan Ayckbourn: Master of Marginalia

alan-ayckbournPlays are quick to read, can be read aloud by your group at the meeting, and are fascinating to discuss. More groups should put them on the agenda.

Sir Alan Ayckbourn is a hugely successful English playwright, some say the most frequently performed since Shakespeare (although this is difficult to prove or disprove). Still, I’m not sure that most contemporary Americans know his work. His heyday was in the 1970s, but he’s still alive and writing. A recent revival of his three play cycle The Norman Conquests was a huge success both on the West End and on Broadway. That’s leading to new productions of his work in many communities, and a great chance to rediscover a major talent.

Try an Ayckbourn play at one of your upcoming meetings. You could invite him, but I can’t help but think that if Ayckbourn came to a book group, he’d hover over the refreshment table, or linger in the wings before the meeting began. I’ve been to meetings where the best discussion was held on the fringes, and Ayckbourn is the master of such marginalia.three-plays

Ayckbourn’s plays work as both comedies and dramas, sliding gracefully between wicked dark situational humor and poignant insights about the follies of human behavior. His characters are for the most part unhappy members of the middle class. He often sets the action in their bedrooms, kitchens, or gardens–places that are supposed to be secondary to the main events of life, but where the real discourse often quietly takes place. The Norman Conquests includes three different plays, each staged independently, but happening concurrently in three locations–living room, dining room, and garden–on the same weekend. When a character leaves one play, he or she reappears in one of the other plays in another room.

Absurd Person Singular is set in the kitchen of three dysfunctional couples on Christmas Eve over the course of three years. The middle act is a masterpiece. When her husband proposes to leave her, one of the wives spends the entire scene trying to kill herself in various ways, but she is consistently thwarted by the other two couples, despite the fact that they are merely bumbling in and out of the room and have no idea about the impending suicide. For instance, when Eva has put her head in the oven, the clean freak Joan comes in, looking for a reason to escape the party, and thinking Eva is ineffectually cleaning the dirty oven insists on cleaning it herself. It’s dark and hilarious, wonderfully evocative of the absurdities of everyday life.

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About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

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