On this day in 1959, Alan Ayckbourn made his professional playwriting debut with The Square Cat.
The play opened at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, on 30 July 1959 and would launch an extraordinary playwriting career.
To mark the anniversary, I’ve dug up some facts about the plays which you may not know…
The Square Cat – Did You Know? by Simon Murgatroyd
○ Alan Ayckbourn wrote The Square Cat when he was just 19 years old. It was written whilst on the Studio Theatre Company’s 1959 winter tour, which included Harold Pinter’s self-directed second production of his play The Birthday Party – which featured Alan playing the role of Stanley.
○ Alan had written approximately a dozen plays before The Square Cat, most of which are now lost. By all accounts though, none of these were full-length and none were farces. The Square Cat was entirely new territory for the budding playwright.
○ In a letter dated 19 March 1959, the Library Theatre’s manager Rodney Wood discussed the coming season with Scarborough Library and no mention is made of The Square Cat; it must have been a very late addition to the season.
○ The Square Cat was co-written by Alan with his fiancée Christine Roland – they married later that year in May 1959. As a result, it was credited to the pseudonym Roland Allen (combining both author’s names) – although the first print of the production’s programme mis-spelt Allen as Allan.
○ Someone heads off for a clandestine meeting at a country-house, not knowing their partner has decided to follow them but who arrives first…. Sound familiar? It’s the set-up for both Relatively Speaking and The Square Cat.
○ Alan says he wrote the main role of a rock ‘n’ roll star for himself, despite knowing he couldn’t sing, dance or play the guitar. The original manuscript acknowledges this by ending the first act: “Wattis gives a triumphant twang on his guitar.” Unfortunately, someone – either writer or director – decided to be more ambitious as a handwritten note next to it reads “breaks into a number”. In desperation, Alan turned to a local guitar teacher who taught Alan the chords for that – ahem – ‘classic’ rock ‘n’ roll tune, I Gave My Love A Cherry…
○ Alan played two roles in the play, Jerry and his mild-mannered alter-ego Arthur Brummage, who was brought up in a “dull seaside town” – a sly dig at Scarborough perhaps?
○ Memorable quote: “If people carried on like they do in songs, the delinquency rates would get out of hand.”
○ Sidney Glover – the protagonist Alice’s husband – is definitely the prototype ‘Ayckbourn Man’; a husband who obsesses on DIY – and explains in detail the difference between water and gas pipes – and who is clueless as to how he treats his wife. He is almost a proto-Dennis from Just Between Ourselves and, of course, in name a pre-cursor to Alan’s most famous Sidney – Sidney Hopcroft from Absurd Person Singular.
○ The Square Cat was the first play at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, to run for two consecutive weeks.
○ According to financial accounts for the 1959 summer season, The Square Cat had a total attendance of 3,340 people. It was the second highest attended show of the year behind John van Druten’s Bell, Book & Candle with 3,349 people attending.
○ The play made £695, 8 shillings and 6 pence as compared to £696, 2 shillings and 6 pence for Bell, Book & Candle.
○ Alan estimates he earned £47 from The Square Cat – the most money he had ever earned in his life at that point!
○ The Square Cat was revived for the Studio Theatre Company’s 1960 winter tour with Barry Boys playing the role of Jerry Wattis due to Alan being called for a short-lived (3 days) National Service. It was never performed in its entirety again.
○ During the 1970s and 1980s, Alan insisted he had destroyed all copies of the play. However, original manuscripts are held in the Ayckbourn Archive at the University Of York, the John Rylands Library at the University Of Manchester and the Lord Chamberlain’s Collection at the British Library.
You can find out more about The Square Cat at the playwright’s official website here.
Article by Simon Murgatroyd and copyright of Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.