One Act Plays

The one act play is not a form particularly associated with Alan Ayckbourn, yet it is one he has increasingly become fond of over the decades.

His first major foray into one acts came with his famed play Confusions (1974), but since the start of the new millennium, he has found himself increasingly fascinated by the form with plays such as Roundelay (2014), Farcicals (2013) and No Knowing (2016).

This article, written by the playwright during 2005, pre-empts these latter plays but perhaps shows he was increasingly intrigued by the challenges one act plays pose and his views on what make them such a challenge to write successfully.

One Act Plays by Alan Ayckbourn

There is a mistaken belief in some quarters – presumably quarters that don’t include playwrights – that writing a one act play is somehow easier, requiring less skill, less expertise than its full length counterpart.

Alan Ayckbourn (©Tony Bartholomew /

Would that it were. I would personally have written dozens by now – as opposed to the handful I have done.

Of course, the truth is that like its equivalents in other media, the short story as opposed to the novel, the small scale chamber piece compared to the full blown orchestral symphony, it is neither harder nor easier.

It is different.

I consider a good one act play as the personification of what good art is really about. It’s the living embodiment of that all-important choice of artistic selection.

In other words, what you choose to put in and, equally, what to leave out. A good picture, a fine piece of literature, a superb acting performance or a wonderful jazz solo, all are regarded as this largely because of their (apparent) effortless simplicity as opposed to moderate due to their effortful intrusive clutter.

When I started writing at the end of the fifties, one act plays linked together in double or triple bills were not, I was informed by producers, popular with the public at large as an evening’s entertainment. One or two cleverer, wiser dramatists got away with it – Rattigan with his craftily disguised Separate Tables and Noël Coward – simply because he was Noël Coward.

For the rest of us there was essentially the choice of either the two or three act form; though during my career I have used the latter only once and these days it is a virtually obsolete format. The theatre managers’ love of bar profits having evidently been outweighed by the public’s resistance to sitting in an auditorium till nearly midnight. Instead, there is an interesting trend lately with the emergence of the long one act play.

Stealthily, the spurned one act play is gradually being welcomed back to mainstream theatre having spent the last decades on the professional fringe or flourishing at the centre of amateur drama festivals. It would be nice to think so.

Small, as they say, can at times be very beautiful. But be warned, it is also very, very difficult.

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

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