Unhappily Ever After

In today’s blog, Alan Ayckbourn’s Archivist Simon Murgatroyd explores the recurring theme of marriage in the playwright’s work.

Unhappily Ever After by Simon Murgatroyd

Marriage within Alan Ayckbourn’s plays. It’s never going to end well, is it?

It would be hard to name any playwright who has written more about marriage in the past six decades than Alan Ayckbourn. It is a facet of his work that he has become renowned for and we, as audiences, keep returning to see.

Given the greater part of 84 plays feature it in some part over 61 years, has the playwright’s approach towards it changed? Or do the fashions just change whilst the attitudes stay the same? We might actually find an answer to this in one of the playwright’s earliest works. In 1958, prior to his first professional writing commission and probably commiserate with getting engaged to his first wife, Alan wrote an unproduced and little know piece called The Party Game.

Within it, a louche, pretentious young writer called Julian has a rather singular attitude to marriage for one so young.

“When two people get married, they make a hell of a lot of promises, to each other, to God… and they’ve no right to make them. I mean, how do they know how what they’ll feel like in twenty years or even five years. Nobody can be that certain. The chances are they’ll both either get bored to tears with each other, stick it grimly to the end and both die miserably or else get a divorce and break a promise they shouldn’t have made in the first place.”

Intriguingly, variations of that line – written when the playwright was just 19 and, at most, a year from getting married himself for the first time – constantly recur in interviews with the playwright throughout his career. It’s not a line invented for a character, it’s the playwright expressing his own thoughts on the subject.

Of course, Julian’s statement is hedging its bets as he’s probably covered only three-quarters of the possible outcomes of marriage – the only one not present being idyllic happiness; something of which there is precious little in Alan Ayckbourn’s plays. If you asked any Ayckbourn aficionado to name a truly content couple, the best you’d probably get is Richard and Anthea from Joking Apart (1978). The couple whose ‘perfect’ relationship reflects and throws into damning relief the inadequacies of the marriages around therm. Of course, Richard and Anthea don’t really count here anyway as Alan deliberately didn’t have them married. Telling that.

Frances Marshall & Laurence Pears as the golden couple of Alan Ayckbourn’s 2018 revival of Joking Apart (© Tony Bartholomew / www.bartpics.co.uk)

In fact, it’s very hard to find a relationship between The Square Cat (1959) and Anno Domino (2020), where any married couple is more than content or coping with their situation. Mostly, couples tend to tolerate each other with a substantial proportion ranging from mutual dislike rising to absolute hate.

Cynical? Perhaps. Realistic? Who can say? But for the playwright, his works have continually returned to relationships in various forms and how he feels men and women just aren’t terribly compatible with each other, despite their frequently doomed attempts to make it work.

“My work is about men’s inhumanity to women, women’s inhumanity to men and the physical world’s inhumanity to us all.”

The most famous of his early relationships is Philip and Sheila from Relatively Speaking (1965); he’s having an affair which she suspects. They have a comfortable distrust and obviously like each other well enough to stay together. There’s not much love on display, but definitely an affectionate tolerance. That perhaps is as good as it comes in Ayckbourn’s world-view: affectionate tolerance.

Philip York as Philip & Eileen Battye as Sheila and in Relatively Speaking at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in 2007 (© Tony Bartholomew / www.bartpics.co.uk)

Less well-known, but equally of interest is Family Circles (1970) in which three sisters change husbands with each scene – it’s complicated. What’s important is the outcome, which suggests it doesn’t matter who we marry, the outcome is predominantly the same because we are who we are and we don’t or can’t change.

Bleak or an honest insight into the human condition? Whichever you think, it is a similar outcome predicated in Sisterly Feelings (1979) which, despite having random choices of partners and scenes, the final scene is always the same. No matter what choices are made in the play, the outcome is always the same. Again suggesting the choices we make don’t matter, we’ll always end up in the same place no matter whom we marry or choose to be with.

“[Sisterly Feelings] says is that it doesn’t make all that much bloody difference anyway. Unlike a lot of plays which say you always get married to the wrong person, it also says you get married to the right person: if you don’t like them, it’s probably your fault for being the sort of person you are,. You’ve got the person you deserve.”

Perhaps the more typical Ayckbourn marriage – and one that pops up repeatedly – is that first chronicled in Just Between Ourselves (1976); the well-meaning but neglectful husband and the wife driven over the edge by his lack of consideration or care. Here it’s Denis and Vera with Vera ending up comatose on her birthday and Dennis in the more comfortable care of his mother.

Polly Warren as Vera & Christopher Godwin as Dennis in the world premiere of Just Between Ourselves at the Library Theatre, Scarborough (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

Later, we’ll see marriage and motherhood send Susan running into fantasy lands in Woman In Mind (1985), Joanna convinced her husband has been replaced by an alien in House & Garden (1999) and Beth possibly imagining a ghostly husband in Life & Beth (2008).

Perhaps marriage drives us all a bit mad is the message here. At least it doesn’t drive anyone to murder. Suicide maybe, that’s Eva in Absurd Person Singular (1972) – and Joanna again in House & Garden; she’s a troubled soul.

So is there potential for happiness in an Ayckbourn marriage? Time Of My Life (1992) suggests there is. Once it’s reached its absolute nadir and it ends. Stephanie’s life improves vastly after she divorces Glyn, Laura is obviously far happier ruling her sons’ lives than dealing with her late husband and you can’t help but think Maureen avoids a lifetime of mother-in-law horror by not marrying Adam. In fact, that seems to be a more consistent theme. Avoiding marriage is probably the best solution if you’re looking for long-term happiness.

In RolePlay (2000), Justin’s ditching of his fiancée Julie-Ann for Paige, a lap dancer, probably doesn’t portend lifelong happiness, but at least short-term satisfaction and probably great sex for Justine. Although while Paige isn’t likely to have a meltdown over dessert forks, one can’t help but imagine, it won’t be too long before she finds Justin as irresolutely boring as he found Julie-Ann and looks for someone interesting to fall onto her balcony!

Alison Pargeter as Paige & Saskia Butler as Julie-Ann settle their differences amicably in the world premiere of RolePlay (© Tony Bartholomew / www.bartpics.co.uk)

But perhaps we’re being too harsh on the playwright. After all, whilst The Party Game was written at a tender unmarried age of 19, the playwright has now been happily married for two decades. Perhaps secretly, he has a far rosier outlook on marriage than his plays portend.

Or perhaps it’s all a cunning ruse. Maybe he’s just trying to make us all feel better about our own marriages.

“’People say, ‘Why don’t you ever write a happy marriage in your plays?’ I say, ‘God help us, two people smiling happily at each other is the most boring theatre.’ I remember a guy coming out of a play of mine and saying, ‘Well I thought our marriage was bad but that one’s much worse.’ So there is a bright side. There is always somebody worse off than you, and he is usually in my play.”

And that is actually the point, isn’t it? It’s not that Alan Ayckbourn is saying marriage is necessarily an unhealthy and pointless state of affairs destined to fail – well, not all the time. Rather he’s a dramatist who knows that the best drama comes from conflict, which generally isn’t defined by a happy and content married couple.

Which rather means that one of the reasons we return to Ayckbourn’s plays and that they’re so appealing is we’re more than happy to see his unhappily ever afters.

by Simon Murgatroyd, Alan Ayckbourn’s Archivist.

Article copyright of Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.

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