The Gentle Art of Self Deception

On 23 July 2003, Alan Ayckbourn’s play Sugar Daddies premiered at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough.

The play, which is thematically connected to his Damsels in Distress trilogy from 2001, asks the question of how much are we willing to change who we are for someone else and whether, ultimately, we can truly change at all.

In this article by Alan Ayckbourn, he talks about these themes and its inpsiration on the play.

The Gentle Art of Self Deception by Alan Ayckbourn

Years ago I worked with an actress who quite consciously decided to re-emerge from time to time with a quite different persona. Her normally shy, rather hesitant offstage manner would be replaced by, say, an overwhelmingly gregarious hearty creature, laughing loudly at her own jokes and driving the rest of us crazy. Or, on another occasion, she ‘morphed’ into some dark, mysterious monosyllabic creature with secrets she apparently dared not share. Fortunately for us, her friends, none of these new incarnations lasted very long. The so called personality change was no thicker than a layer of stage make-up and very quickly wore off.

Sugar Daddies poster (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

For that’s the point, surely. We can never really escape who we really are. Like actors, for a few brief hours we might alter our personal history and manner, even our voices, for the benefit of strangers, simply because they are strangers. But at the stroke of midnight there we are, having blown it, back once more amongst the mice and the pumpkins.

Some of us, men especially, attempt this change by altering the circumstances surrounding them. They abandon wife and family to start afresh with a new (often younger) companion who seems temporarily willing to accept them as the suave, devil-may-care rogue they now claim to be. But the facade rapidly crumbles the first time he asks her, please to remove the great big spider in the bath tub.

Why else do many of us flee our parents? Strive to keep our precious, newly acquainted loved one at a bargepole’s distance from them? Because, of course, they threaten to shatter our recently acquired cool new image. The ones who nurtured us, fed us and wiped us in our early years, hold the key to what we were and, underneath those carefully constructed adult veneers, though we hate to admit it, what we basically still are. Parents tend to produce snapshots, verbal or actual, of younger, less dignified times.

We all practise role playing a little, but relationships based on deliberate deception playing rarely last long. The strain soon starts to tell.

Occasionally, though, the personality changes we effect are not truly of our own making. Sometimes a stranger will impose a preconception of you which, perhaps in a desire to humour them, you try to live up to.

Many years ago, the theatre manager approached me after a show to say there was a small boy waiting outside who desperately wanted to be a playwright and who so admired my work etc. etc. I agreed to have a quick word with him. As I walked through the foyer, I was already assuming my best Noël Coward persona. Confident, smiling, witty, assured. The boy was a very small boy indeed and was overcome with a nervousness which rendered him all but inaudible. I smiled my finest Garry Essendine smile. Reaching into my pocket I took out my cigarettes (it was that long ago), lit one with a single flick of my silver DuPont lighter and began to talk to him meaningfully about the joys and perils of playwriting.

As I spoke, smilingly, confidently, amusingly, I grew more expansive, my gestures more elaborate. Finally I paused dramatically, drawing on my cigarette but unfortunately placing the lighted end in my mouth, blistering my lips and singeing my tongue. But here’s the point. Despite the pain, I managed to continue as if nothing had happened. Indeed, apart from a sudden watering of the eyes, I made no reference to the incident whatsoever. The boy stared at me in wonder and disbelief. Was this, I could see him thinking, what it took to be a dramatist?

Image at all cost. Sometimes, be it for love or mere vanity, we try to become what we perceive others expect us to be.

Conversely, we often profess to admire those who don’t bother to alter. “He’s always himself.” “She never puts on airs.” Well, maybe they don’t with you. But they just might with others.

Witness how apparently normal, uncomplicated people instinctively alter when, for instance, the sexual chemistry of a group changes. The subtle transformation certain women undergo when an attractive male joins their group. Voices change pitch, body language alters. I sometimes think that there must be certain men who never get to see women as they really are, in their natural state as it were, in the same way that some men never get to see badgers. They advertise their manly approaching tread far too noisily.

Not that it’s confined to women. Many men in the reverse situation undergo a similar (if slightly less subtle) change, a personality shift akin to that of sucking in the stomach.

Reasons for attempting to re-invent ourselves are various. The pursuit of sexual conquest is just one. Attempting an improvement of image to impress your friends, bluffing one’s way up the promotion ladder at work or merely bending to outside pressure are others.

But it is my experience that none of us really change. The apparently house-trained husband reverts almost instantaneously to former teenage slob the minute his wife leaves him alone to visit her mother. The music-loving bride who shared so many excited evenings in cellars listening to cool jazz with her fiancé, once married, soon returns to her beloved Mozart. And would-be cool dramatists set fire to their faces with lighted cigarettes.

Which, come to think of it, is probably the reason I gave up smoking. No, we don’t change, not at all we don’t. We just learn to live with our limitations and, if we’re clever, hide a few of them from others.

You can find out more about Alan Ayckbourn’s play Sugar Daddies at his official website by clicking here.

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

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