Regarded as his first true tragic-comedy – the genre for which the majority of Alan Ayckbourn’s most significant works fall into – it would go on, the following year, to achieve the longest unbroken run of any Ayckbourn play in the West End.
It is considered both a classic of the Ayckbourn canon and of 20th century British theatre. To mark its anniversary this week, this is an amended article by the playwright discussing how Absurd Person Singular came about, first published in The Guardian in 2012.
How We Made Absurd Person Singular by Alan Ayckbourn
My play Absurd Person Singular, now 40 years old [in 2012], was a step in the direction of a darker me. The plays before it – How the Other Half Loves, Time and Time Again – were relatively light, but this one really moved into the shadows.
It’s set over three Christmasses, following the fortunes of three couples. The first pair are very nouveau riche, and are patronised by the other couples, who come over for drinks on Christmas Eve. During the course of the play, the others drop out while the first couple, who have absolutely no scruples, become extremely wealthy and dominant. It’s about the socially mobile. It was my shot at mammon.
I wrote it for a summer season in Scarborough, for six actors. During the day we would rehearse another play, then in the evening I would go home and write. In those days I would write plays right up to the deadline. The title was something I’d thought of in a lift. I’ve read theses justifying it and thought: “Oh God, I don’t want to tell them it was just an accident.”
The most famous act is the second: one of the wives is attempting to kill herself. She puts her head in the gas oven, and one of the other women thinks she’s trying to clean it; she tries to hang herself, but one of the men thinks she’s trying to change a bulb. I was frightened about that scene because, really, how funny is that? I had this image that there would be 200 people in the audience, all of whom had had brushes with suicide. It could really have backfired. In fact, it’s a riot. I realised that if you run that sort of darkness alongside comedy it can cause enormous laughter.
Eva’s suicide scene is one of my first experiments in the use of dramatic counterpoint, i.e. using a deeply serious action against a background of comic events (or is it the other way around?) Both serving to strengthen the other but hopefully neither selling the other short. Jane is just as serious about cleaning her oven as Eva is to commit suicide. It’s all a question of priorities.
The play ends with a version of musical chairs: the characters had to dance, then freeze when the music stopped, with the last person to stop paying a forfeit. While I was writing it, I asked the actors to tell me all the forfeits they could remember from children’s party games. They dished up all these ridiculous, humiliating little things, like dancing with a spoon in your mouth or a tea cosy on your head. They all went into the play. The first time we ran it through in the theatre, it struck me what a chilly ending this was: it’s like a dance of death.
It’s a running joke that I never change anything in a script during rehearsals. But when we first put Absurd Person Singular in front of an audience – a three-act play, with two intervals, in a tiny room in a library, with no bar – I thought: “We can’t ask them to sit through that again. I don’t want to sit through that again.” So I cut it, and the play became a hit.
You can find out more about Alan Ayckbourn’s play Absurd Person Singular at his official website by clicking here.
This article by Alan Ayckbourn was published in its original form on 19 March 2012 in The Guardian – it has subsequently been amended and is copyright of Haydonning Ltd. Images copyright of Scarborough Theatre Trust. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.