How The Other Half Loves: Articles by Other Authors

During the 1980s, there was a re-evaluation of Alan Ayckbourn and his plays. His tenure at the National Theatre combined with critical acclaim for plays such as A Small Family Business, Woman In Mind and Man Of The Moment led to an extensive re-appraisal of Ayckbourn’s contribution to British theatre. As a result of this, many of Alan’s early plays were re-appraised and found to be far more substantial than original reviews might have given credit for. There had always been long-term and insightful support of Alan’s work by writers such as Michael Billington and Paul Allen, but essays such as the one below by Paul Allen show that it was only in the light of Ayckbourn being considered as a ‘serious’ playwright, that more weight could be put on his earlier plays.

How The Other Half Fights

by Paul Allen
After the BBC showed Way Upstream at Christmas a viewer wrote in from the Isle of Wight to say she was totally "unprepared for the vicious violence that erupted on her screen". Vicious? Violent? But he always seemed such a nice man ....
Pressed by a particularly insistent editor, I once asked Alan Ayckbourn why there were no politics in his plays. The reply was patient (he is unfailingly friendly in interviews, considering) but a little terse: "There are politics in every line." I'm afraid there is violence in every line too; it has taken us rather a long time to face up to it, dazzled by the comedy and the element of crafty invention that has made each play a new departure. Perhaps that is why he spelled it out in
Way Upstream, where the real shock is that a good and gentle, if also weak and indecisive, man has to take terrible action with a tin of baked beans in order to stand up to an even greater evil. There is more mayhem still in A Small Family Business, now in the repertoire at the National Theatre, which begins with a situation of minor and almost amiable corruption and ends with heroin addiction and murder. The irony, the point at which Ayckbourn himself does violence to our sensibilities, is in the way the plot is moved from mild immorality to the extremes of vice by one man's zeal for honour and truth. This is the writer who acknowledges Ibsen as an influence, given that he also believes there is terrible comedy in The Wild Duck.
These are of course plays of the 1980s and the received wisdom is that the playwright has moved from light to dark in the two decades he has been an established maker of hit theatre. Are you telling us, I hear you ask, to watch out for violence and the influence of Ibsen in
How The Other Half Loves? Just when we thought we were safe to count on a carefree night out at the theatre?
I don't want to wreck the argument by overstating it and I certainly don't want to blight the sheer fun in which Ayckbourn delights more than most theatre practitioners. It is after all "play" time. But if you accept that violence can include intellectual, mental and psychological cruelty as well as physical aggression with a baked bean tin, the answer is well, yes.
Remember
Just Between Ourselves? It dates from 1976 and is what people describe as the Morris Minor play. The aforesaid car is on stage throughout and much of the time its owner, Dennis, is tinkering with it, cherishing it, pampering it, loving it. He is doing none of these things with his wife, Vera, and the result is what Michael Billington has called "an uncompromising study of uncomprehending destructiveness." It isn't all Dennis's fault - he is imitating his father and clearing a space from his unsurprisingly possessive mother. It isn't anybody's fault, but Vera is being driven mad, destroyed. The violence is emotional and it is an absence, a neglect, of action. But it is real. The play is also bitterly funny, as a TV production with Richard Briers and Rosemary Leach a few years ago made clear. Asked for help by Vera, Dennis can only think of DIY jobs around the house. Dennis laughs a lot.
Let's go further back.
Absent Friends in 1974 is peopled entirely with miserable characters except for Colin, recently bereaved, whose unembarrassed readiness to talk about his dead fiancée inevitably brings everyone else's emotional skeletons rattling out of the cupboard. The Norman Conquests, memorably produced at Greenwich the same year, with the events of one household on one afternoon seen in three different but simultaneous plays according to which part of the house or garden the audience is supposed to be in, chronicled the emotional wreckage left in his wake by a not-especially-prepossessing librarian who pursues his own needs at whatever cost to anyone else. He does them violence.
Mostly the violence is done by men to women and our sympathy is therefore earned for, and some of the best parts are written for, Ayckbourn's female characters. What that analysis leaves out is that Ayckbourn doesn't show men in a bad light simply as men: what he really dislikes about them is that they have the power to impose their views and purposes and requirements on others. They stick their oars into other people's business and where their own business is involved they grant no rights and freedoms to others. Where those rights are taken, they curtail and inhibit and belittle the exercise of them. Emotion being the biggest threat to the order they demand, they cut out emotion. Sound anything like Frank Foster in
How The Other Half Loves?
The way the plays have changed, I think, is not in their subject matter or the point of view Ayckbourn takes. They have become more complex. It is getting less and less easy to find the easy single phrase that makes everyone remember each play, the code under which tonight's becomes "the dinner party play." Where once you felt able to make a distinction between the farces and the others - though even
Taking Steps has a man in tears on stage at precisely the moment the laughter is loudest - now he integrates comedy and painfully serious comment.
Has he written anything funnier than the first time two all-at-odds married couples try to dock a boat in
Way Upstream? It is ruthlessly truthful too. Or a better opening sequence than that in A Small Family Business in which a businessman comes home with a pressing urge to take his wife to bed only to discover when he's already got his trousers off that she has a surprise party waiting in the darkened sitting room? Each of course was assuming the supremacy of his or her plan - assuming that no other plan could exist. The link between comedy and violence has long been as obvious as Tom and Jerry but it has generally been recognised at that unthreateningly simple cartoon level. It would be unthinkable for Tom and Jerry to live and let live, still less for either to want the other to find fulfilment. We aspire to better things; when we fall short it is still funny, but rarely is it only funny.
Any assessment of Alan Ayckbourn is in the nature of an interim report, as Michael Billington has also pointed out. He is prolific and he is forever playing new games, always a jump or two ahead. What, for instance, do you make of a creative artist who, without qualms, puts real and vulnerable human experience on stage for the rest of us to laugh at? He's thought of that. It's in
Henceforward… the play seen in Scarborough last summer and now on a British Council tour to Europe and the Middle East.
How The Other Half Loves remains a play of 1969, set in 1969. I merely suggest we can find more in it, knowing what we know now, than we did then. In another 18 years, if we are all here, we shall certainly have more to bring to it still.

Copyright: Paul Allen. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.