Absurd Person Singular: The Broadway Experience

To mark the opening of Alan Ayckbourn’s classic play, Absurd Person Singular, on Broadway on this day in 1974, the blog has an article exploring the play’s bumpy path to success in New York.

The production, which opened on 8 October 1974, remains the longest running Ayckbourn work to have played on Broadway and was extraordinarily successful for a playwright who was largely unknown to North American audiences at the time.

Drawing from documents held in the Ayckbourn Archive and the playwright’s own recollections, this article has been written by the playwright’s Archivist, Simon Murgatroyd.

Absurd Person Singular: The Broadway Experience by Simon Murgatroyd

During his long career, Alan Ayckbourn has had few genuine hits in New York. His single most successful Broadway production is, undoubtedly, Absurd Person Singular in 1974. (i) 

Prior to this, only one of Alan’s plays had been produced on Broadway – How The Other Half Loves featuring Phil Silvers of Sergeant Bilko fame – which although it had been a respectable success when it opened in 1971, it had hardly made Alan a household name.

In 1973, Absurd Person Singular opened in London’s West End to critical acclaim and strong houses, which assured it of a long and successful run. As a result, it was only natural the play’s producer, Michael Codron, should look to transfer the play to Broadway to capitalise on its success. To achieve this, Codron joined forces with The Theatre Guild, specifically Philip Langner and Armina Marshall alongside the John F Kennedy Centre For The Performing Arts. Founded in 1919, the Guild’s original purpose was to produce non-commercial plays by American and foreign playwrights and the organisation had been responsible for many significant premieres on Broadway.

Flyer for the Broadway premiere of Absurd Person Singular in 1974

Eric Thompson, director of the London production, agreed to direct Absurd Person Singular for Broadway with an American cast. However, this casting decision led to some initial confusion as Alan Ayckbourn was not told whether the play was to be Americanised in either location and / or characters (ii) and he no doubt feared a repeat of a previous painful attempt to produce an Americanised version of Relatively Speaking on Broadway. (iii) 

These concerns were hardly alleviated by producer Philip Langner, who – despite investing in the play – had some very vocal misgivings about the piece.

The playwright recalls that during a lunch meeting with Langner, the producer seriously suggested acts two and three be swapped so the play ended on a comic high. Alan naturally refused, arguing the play had been written with a dark, dying fall. In this, he also felt his position was strong due to his contract which stated: “[The] Guild shall not make nor permit others to make any alterations in the text of said Play without the written approval of the Author”. The contract clearly stated no major changes to the action or structure of the play could be made. (iv)

Despite these obvious misgivings on the part of both playwright and producer – albeit for entirely different reasons – the production was given the go-ahead and Eric Thompson began pre-production on the play. He too met Langner, who now suggested to Thompson that “the set should collapse at the end of the third act to give the show a big finish” (v) and that the drawers and cupboards in the Jackson household during the second act should jam to emphasise Geoff’s inadequacies as an architect.

Thompson was astonished at the suggestions, who told Langner that they would not go down well with Alan. Langner, according to the director, rebuked Thompson by saying Alan was contractually obliged “to make such alterations and additions as the Producers deem necessary.” (vi)

Alan Ayckbourn in 1974 (Photograph by Alec Russell © Haydonning Ltd)

Thompson alerted Alan to this, who was naturally furious with the news and could not understand why The Theatre Guild was producing the play if they were so unhappy with it. Faced with a producer apparently intent on substantially altering the play, Thompson contacted Michael Codron who was very quick to set the record straight. He dismissed Langner’s argument quoting the contract signed by Alan, whilst also subtly noting it was in everyone’s interest for this play to go well given The Theatre Guild had already expressed interest in producing The Norman Conquests, which had recently opened to phenomenal acclaim in London.

Thompson, meanwhile, had proceeded with casting and had assembled a remarkably strong company which featured Tony award winners Richard Kiley, Sandy Dennis and Larry Blyden, the Golden Globe and Emmy award winning Geraldine Page and two well known actors Carole Shelley and Tony Roberts. Alan himself commented: “They were all top-rate actors who very cannily knew how to play a New York audience.” (vii)

The decision was also made to keep the play set in England with English characters with the only notable deviation from the London production being the subtitling of the three acts as “Christmas Past”, “Christmas Present” and “Christmas To Come”; this has actually now become a standard feature for productions of the play

Absurd Person Singular opened in late August 1974 for a week-long try-out at the Westport Country Playhouse, which had coincidentally staged the American premiere of Relatively Speaking in 1967. The play had a record-breaking run before moving to the John F Kennedy Centre in Washington from 4 to 28 September. This also sold out and was greeted by several strong reviews.

The production moved to the Music Box Theater in New York for previews on 27 September with Alan brought in to help promote the play and, Langner hoped, to edit acts two and three and add some humour to the final act. (viii) Naturally, Alan didn’t touch the script or alter it for Broadway, noting in an interview at the time: “I personally haven’t done anything with it.” (ix) The published American script re-enforces this as it is no different to the original published manuscript.

Absurd Person Singular premiered on 8 October 1974 to excellent reviews and it was soon obvious this was a genuine Broadway hit; having already generated half a million dollars in advance ticket sales. (x) It was not all smooth-running though as, much to Alan’s irritation, he recalls The Theatre Guild had initially not put his name on any promotional material or even the programme cover. As a result, the only identifiable people connected with the play were the actors!

Playbill cover for the Broadway premiere of Absurd Person Singular

Despite the success and popularity of the production, Langner apparently still strongly favoured swapping the final two acts. This led to the oft- recounted and extraordinary story that he had statisticians brought into count the number of laughs in the play. Preposterous as this sounds, the figures and original document are held in the Ayckbourn Archive at the Borthwick Institute for Archives at the University of York. (xi) The figures are reproduced below.

6 November PerformanceAct 1Act 2Act 3
Chuckles14913095
Belly-Laughs564128
Roll-Em In The Aisles41
Total205175124
Entire Total504
The figures quoted in the laugh count document – the original is held in the Borthwick Institute for Archives at the University of York

Quite what this survey was intended to prove is a mystery. The experiment was conducted six weeks after the play had opened and all it confirms is there are fewer laughs in the third act than the second; something which Alan was patently aware of as the play had deliberately been written that way. It is a play, as Alan Ayckbourn has frequently noted, that has less of a dying fall than a dying plunge! Needless to say, Alan did not alter the play at all which was attracting excellent reviews and strong audiences regardless of the producer’s thoughts about the script.

The success of Absurd Person Singular was reflected in the various 1975 theatre awards. At the Tony Awards, Larry Blyden, Geraldine Page and Carole Shelley were all nominated in the Best Featured Actor category. The play was also nominated for the Drama Desk Outstanding New Play (Foreign) and while it did not win any of these awards, it certainly indicated Alan Ayckbourn had made a mark on Broadway with his first genuine American hit.

Absurd Person Singular would run until 6 March 1976 and it became the longest running comedy on Broadway at that time. On 28 January 1976, a month before it closed, 45th street was renamed Ayckbourn Alley for the day to mark the fact Alan had four plays running on Broadway with Absurd Person Singular and The Norman Conquests trilogy.

Ayckbourn Alley for a day on 28 January 1974 (Photograph by Sam Siegal)

Absurd Person Singular ran for 592 performances and was the most successful comedy on Broadway by a British author since Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit, which ran from 1942 to 1943. It was, according to Langner, the 141st longest running production to have been mounted on Broadway at the time.

Despite the success of Absurd Person Singular, it did not propel Alan to the heights of fame he had achieved in London. Although The Norman Conquests followed Absurd Person Singular onto Broadway in 1976, again directed by Eric Thompson, it was unable to reach the same magnitude of success and Alan has never achieved as high profile a Broadway hit as Absurd Person Singular since.

The only comparable production was the Off-Broadway success of Private Fears In Public Places. The world premiere production toured to the 59E59 Theaters in 2005 from the playwright’s home theatre – the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough – to the Brits Off Broadway festival. The sell-out production received a once-in-a-lifetime critical response for Alan, his company and the play.

But is is still, more than 45 years on, Absurd Person Singular which stands as the most singularly successful of Alan Ayckbourn’s plays on Broadway – a record which is unlikely to ever be broken.

Simon Murgatroyd

Footnotes

(i) While it could be argued Alan Ayckbourn‘s 2005 production of Private Fears In Public Places was as much – if not more – of a critical success, it was presented Off-Broadway at the 59E59 Theaters.

(ii) Correspondence from Alan Ayckbourn to Margaret Ramsay, 12 February 1974

(iii) Although Relatively Speaking has never been produced on Broadway, there was early interest in transferring the play to New York. The original attempts to produce were largely killed by a rewrite of the play by Murielk Resnick which Alan felt was highly unsatisfactory.

(iv) Correspondence from Michael Codron to Philip Langner, 2 July 1974

(v) Correspondence from Alan Ayckbourn to Margaret Ramsay, 30 June 1974

(vi) Ibid

(vii) Richard Hummler, interview with Alan Ayckbourn, Variety, 12 June 1985

(viii) Correspondence from Philip Langner to Alan Ayckbourn, 12 September 1974

(ix) Interview with Alan Ayckbourn, New York Times, 20 October 1974

(x) The Stage, 24 October 1974

(xi) Figures drawn from document entitled ‘Absurd Person Singular, evening performance 6 November 1974, Music Box Theatre, Laugh count’. The statistics were compiled by Dennis Scanlon and Robert Katulak

You can find out more about Alan Ayckbourn’s Absurd Person Singular at the playwright’s official website http://www.alanayckbourn.net here.

Article by Simon Murgatroyd and copyright of Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder. Images copyright of named copyright holders.

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