On stage, a depressed married woman is wandering the kitchen looking for ways to kill herself. She tries several times to jump off the windowsill, attack a bread knife, overdose on sleeping pills, stock up in the oven and hang herself from an outlet. At every point, she is thwarted by people rushing and taking her away from her single-minded task with careless good cheer and accidental worry. “That oven can wait. You clean up later,” she said, pulled back from her prone position. A glass of wine is produced later, in the split second when she is ready to swallow a bottle of paint stripper. And so on.
The material of sober and serious drama? No, actually the wildest laugh. The second act of Alan Ayckbourn’s Absurd Person Singular – 50 years old on Sunday – is one of the most surprising black comedy sequels ever seen on stage. Eva Jackson, worn out by her marriage to flirtatious architect Geoffrey, says nothing during the scene, she’s so focused on the mission at hand. But the roars that fill the auditorium when the play is in progress can be almost deafening.
At least, that’s how Sheila Hancock remembers her London debut in 1973. Hancock played Marion, the grandest of the three wives in Ayckbourn’s dark winter comedy. The play involves three successive Christmas gatherings with the presence of three couples – each from a different place in the social hierarchy, denoted by the male professions (merchant, architect, bank manager). The action takes place in their respective kitchens and not in the living room.
“It produced some of the biggest laughs I’ve ever heard in theater,” reflects Hancock in disbelief. “Here’s a girl trying to take her own life, and yet it’s somehow hysterically funny. There used to be applause during that suicide scene, which was extraordinary.”
“It was a dangerous laugh,” is how Anna Calder-Marshall puts it. She was Eva in the first season in the West End, alongside her real-life husband David Burke as Geoffrey. It might sound like a shocking reaction from another era. But Absurd Person Singular stayed in the repertoire and still makes people laugh.
Or do for now. You don’t have to be constantly on the lookout for criminals to wonder if, in an age when hassle is the prize and protests can escalate virally, a job like this might fall out of favor with the Twitter crowd, or find itself in disuse among the theater chiefs who are so often slaves to the latest liberal devotions.
The irony, of course, is that beneath the play’s glee are serious points about intimidating husbands and the tension that women often experience within a marriage. “Ayckbourn is a great master of domestic violence,” says Maureen Lipman, who played neurotic housewife Jane Hopcroft to triumphant effect in the BBC’s 1985 adaptation. “He’s more believable than Pinter because he’s based so much more clearly on real domestic life.”
There were no harrowing arguments between the cast when they recorded their version, says Lipman. “We didn’t ‘wake up’ in the dark ages,” she adds. “It was before it was triggered. I worry that too much wonderful drama is not allowed. If you stop the comedy, the serious point will not be made.”
That the play was written from a feminist point of view is confirmed by the author himself. “I have Jane Austen’s point of view. I write from the kitchen,” he explains from his home in Scarborough. Growing up around women (his mother Lolly was the main father figure in his life, his violinist father wasn’t around very much in his childhood), he saw that “they weren’t getting a good deal. And when I was young I was shocked by the inequality of things.” Some critics see the play as an anticipation of Thatcherism in showing the rise of the selfish Hopcrofts, but it is also possible to see it, in Eva’s new self-composure in the third act, as a harbinger of female empowerment.
Ayckbourn acknowledges that the climate has changed. “There’s a lot of nervousness right now about bringing comedy into areas traditionally taken seriously. There’s a lot of ‘You can’t say that’ in terms of comedy. You read about comedians running up against brick walls. It’s a delicate directing act these days.”
Not that he was blasé about it. It was tiring waiting for the response from opening night (at the Library Theater in Scarborough). “I had that nightmare: what if the entire audience on the first night had relatives who had recently made suicide attempts? I was anxious but also confident,” he admits.
“Laughter is aimed at those who help Eva. The actress [in 1972, the late Jennifer Piercey] You have to play it right, otherwise you’re saying ‘Aren’t people trying to kill themselves funny?’ and that’s a disaster.”
Christopher Godwin, who played bank manager Ronald in the original 1972 run, remembers the relief when it became clear that the audience was alert and alert. “You weren’t sure how they were going to handle it,” he says. “You get this weird feeling of them finding out what they were laughing about.”
The play transformed Ayckbourn’s reputation. His two initial big hits, Relatively Talking (1965) and How the Other Half Loves (1969), evinced a gift for ingenious social comedy. Singular absurd person blew up assumptions about him being a mere boulevardier. In the West End, it became his biggest feature, and went to Broadway as well, where it was the longest-running British import since Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit (1941).
It has been performed all over the world and translated into over a dozen languages. And you can see its influence, I suggest, in work as lauded as the BBC sitcom Noughties Nighty Night, Julia Davis’ wickedly funny evocation of a heartless salon owner exploring her husband’s terminal cancer, or After Life, in which Ricky Gervais’ hero hound struggles with grief following the death of his wife, the bubbling mood of the worst circumstances. Interestingly, the first script written for Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton’s comedy series Inside No.9 was the episode Nana’s Party – consciously modeled on Ayckbourn.
The characters were based on real people. “I’ve met a lot of guys like Geoffrey and a lot of depressed, manic actresses,” says Ayckbourn, 83. ). Her agent, the legendary Peggy Ramsay, reported Marion’s airs and graces. “She swept my house like a whirlwind, opening doors and saying, ‘Oh, what beautiful closets!’ She was making all the right noises, but not interested in any of it.”
As a document, the piece shows how much things have changed. Just in terms of social convention, this takes us back to a more tense time. “You had to make a big effort, didn’t you? If someone asked you out, you had to ask them back – ‘Oh no, we’re on a treadmill’.”
“It’s interesting to have lived this long as a writer and to see not just the rise of women, but the decline of men,” he adds. “The alpha male is an endangered species.”
We learned a lot from the play and from Ayckbourn’s work as a whole. But it’s as if we need to be reminded of its value and importance. French filmmaker Alain Resnais loved Ayckbourn, and you can detect philosophical depth in his heavily theatrical formulations of the human condition, the way in which the imposed social order reveals us.
Tracy-Ann Oberman, who played Eva in a 2011 regional revival, possibly speaks for many in admitting that she entered the production not being Ayckbourn’s biggest fan, but says she “walked out of the first rehearsal realizing he’s our Chekhov. He understands so well the absurdity and tragedy of existence.
“Sexual politics is smart,” she adds. “In the 1970s, audiences might have laughed at Eva, but my feeling was that they understood where the [suicidal] comes the impulse. My uncle used to say that even in Auschwitz there was laughter – there is a hair between laughter and tears. The release in the audience every time an attempt went wrong was palpable.”
Writing as busy as ever, Ayckbourn is looking to the future, but underscores the value of presenting work from a bygone era. “The only way to move forward is to look at the past and be honest about it,” he notes. Only by saying ‘this is how we were’ can we begin to discover who we will be”.
There will be a 50th Anniversary Reading of ‘Absurd Person Singular’ on Sunday at the Stephen Joseph Theater in Scarborough. Alan Ayckbourn’s new play ‘Family Album’ runs from September 2nd to October 1st. Details: 01723 37054; sjt.uk.com