Dreams & Nightmares

On 14 December 1993, Alan Ayckbourn’s first production by the Royal Shakespeare Company opened in London with his play Wildest Dreams.

Here Alan Ayckbourn’s Archivist Simon Murgatroyd explores one of the playwright’s darkest works and how in its exploration of escaping from reality into fantasy, it was ahead of its time.

The poster for the world premiere of Wildest Dreams
(© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

Dreams & Nightmares by Simon Murgatroyd

“I was interested in the way so many of us spend a lot of our time finding ways to escape reality. I think we all do. I’m fascinated by role-playing games. Theatre, in one sense, is an example of this.” (Alan Ayckbourn)

To escape from reality into fantasy is a recurring theme of Alan Ayckbourn’s plays. In a world where real life can be overwhelming, what can be the harm of a little escapism?

Plenty, if Alan Ayckbourn is to be believed.

Wildest Dreams is arguably the culmination of the playwright’s exploration of what happens when we choose to escape our own lives, no matter how innocent those actions may appear to be. Previous to writing Wildest Dreams, the playwright explored this idea to devastating effect in Woman In Mind as well as its fascinating companion piece Invisible Friends. In both plays, the protagonists conjure up a fantasy family as an alternative to the crushing tedium or boredom of their own families. In Woman In Mind, Susan is eventually unable to differentiate between the two with disturbing consequences – whilst the young heroine of Invisible Friends is more lucky in surviving the play with her mind intact.

Wildest Dreams questions whether what you dream of having or being can actually be a nightmare and whether getting what you wish for has consequences which may actually not be all you hoped for.

The play is centred around an approximation of a role-playing game (RPG) , which at the time was best epitomised by the most popular and well-known game Dungeons & Dragons. Of course, RPGs subsequently proliferated to a huge degree across a myriad of genres and themes and three decades on, their popularity – particularly Dungeon & Dragons – is greater than ever.

Although a fan of board games, Alan had never played an RPG, but was interested in the idea of people taking on different personas and spending time ‘living’ as inhabitants of a fictional world. The Game in Wildest Dreams is not based on or inspired by a real game, but is totally the invention of the playwright and was somewhat ahead of its time as the Games Master – the person who runs the game – generates his plots through a computer programme; this actually being prescient of what many people today would most associate RPGs with: PC and console gaming.

Wildest Dreams was written in 1991, just after the decade when RPGs began to push their way from being a niche hobby into the mainstream. In doing so, they also generated many nonsensical and easily debunked myths and headlines about the games being a path to the occult and Satanism right through to encouraging suicide and murder.

At my own school during the 1980s, the role-playing group I attended every week was banned at the advice of the school chaplain as it apparently encouraged necromancy and devil-worship – to this day, I’m still slightly confused by this as we were playing Star Trek: The RPG and I can’t recall Captain Kirk ever raising an undead army or pledging his allegiance to Beelzebub.

This controversy though was not what attracted Alan Ayckbourn’s attention. With the popularity of the games growing, he became fascinated about what the broad appeal of the games were. Why did people want to travel to and immerse themselves in these imaginary worlds and take on different personalities?

And what would happen if someone totally grounded in reality with no imagination at all entered that world? What effect would it have on those around them playing The Game?

I won’t spoil the play by answering the question, but as you can imagine, it doesn’t lead to the best of results. What is worth considering is that although now three decades old, Wildest Dreams has become even more pertinent today than it was in 1991.

Since then, RPGs have blossomed in popularity covering practically every genre you can imagine from fantasy to science-fiction, horror to romance, with vast numbers playing them. The resurgence of popular interest highlighted by television shows such as Netflix’s Stranger Things, Apple TV’s Mythic Quest and the phenomenal success of Youtube’s Critical Role.

But they are dwarfed in comparison to by the vast numbers of people who escape everyday into imaginary worlds thanks to something which is now a staple of our lives, but which was in it infancy during the early 1990s.

Home technology. Specifically computers, later, consoles.

In the past three decades, role-playing games have found a niche in computers and consoles where vast worlds have been digitally created and where millions of people spend their time.

From games such as The Elder ScrollsGrand Theft Auto and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild to the vast online massive multi-player online games such as World Of Warcraft, Eve Online and Black Desert, untold amounts of people world-wide are immersed in fantasy worlds.

Dubbed sandbox games because of their vast, free-roaming worlds, their plots are often secondary to just exploring these environments, creating your own story and becoming the character you long to be. Carving out your own niche in another reality

They seem to offer the chance to live an alternative life without the pressures and stresses of the real world. Is it then any wonder so many of us want to escape into artificial realities? Particularly in light of the current situation?

And if you think this is overstating the case and it’s still the same minority interest it was in 1991, consider that in 2015, World Of Warcraft had 5.5 million active subscribers. As of 2019, the game’s developer Blizzard has earned more than $9billion in revenue from the game and the company announced there are 33 million monthly active users of its online games (such as World of Warcraft, Diablo and Overwatch). Another popular game, The Elder Scrolls: Online has been bought 15 million times and many other popular online RPGs have active subscriber bases of more than a million people.

All that before we consider sales of off-line RPGs such as The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, which sold a mind-boggling 30 million copies world-wide! That’s an awful lot of people escaping into fantasy worlds.

And it will only get bigger as the technology improves and as the games become ever more realistic. The introduction of powerful new consoles and the growing popularity of virtual reality – combined with the decreasing cost of the immersive technology – will no doubt lead even more people to become completely immersed in these artificial realms.

And as more and more of us choose to escape reality through these games, it thus becomes even more pertinent to ask, why? Is it just to play, to have fun or a more basic desire to escape from reality if only for a short time each day?

And, in the case of Wildest Dreams, what happens when fantasy eventually become more attractive then reality?

Fantasy or reality. Which would you prefer? Be careful of what you wish for….

You can find out more about Wildest Dreams at Alan Ayckbourn’s Official Website here and the published play is available to buy here.

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

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