Writing About Sisters (part 2)

The concluding part of Alan Ayckbourn’s in-depth article about the inspiration behind and creation of his ambitious play, Sisterly Feelings, which premiered in January 1979.

Writing About Sisters (part 2) by Alan Ayckbourn

Whilst contemplating a suitable setting for the new play [Sisterly Feelings], I was also considering how, as a writer, I could make best use of the National Theatre itself – a company with larger resources and greater flexibility than the West End could offer. How to construct a play to take advantage of this flexibility? I started to consider an idea I’d been nursing for some time, the possibility of a play with limited ‘random’ action.

Sisterly Feelings world premiere poster (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

Clearly, the only real difference between theatre and, say, TV or film is that it’s live. Every performance is unique and, certainly in the best theatre, is subject to a million different variations, depending upon the mood of the performer, the audience and the rapport that is established between them. And anyone who thinks that audiences don’t vary has never taken part in a run of more than one consecutive performance!

Yet another ingredient was the fact that I’d wanted for some time to write about two sisters. The affection, the jealousy, the love-hate – but ultimately the love – that might exist between them. A story of how they would fight over the same, apparently ideal man. How his personality would alter subtly in response to each of them; how they themselves would alter with him. And how, in the end, ideal men – ideal anybodies, come to that – belong only in our dreams. Tall, bronzed, athletic Simon would appear at first to Abigail and Dorcas like a hero from a comic book. But in the end, it would be Patrick to whom Abigail would return, in need of his strength and humour; it would be impossible Stafford to whom Dorcas would, irresistibly, for better or worse, return as nursemaid. Dorcas needed a relationship where she was at least an equal partner. Ultimately, she could never submit to Simon’s appalling brand of paternalistic chauvinism. For Abigail, Simon’s attempts to put her on a pedestal, although worship may be fine for goddesses, was going to prove equally unsatisfying.

Having sorted out the principal protagonists, it was then a matter of deciding how and when the play would vary. Obviously, if audiences were going to see the piece twice (and I hoped they would) I needed to make the scenes that were common to both versions – the ones that people would need to sit through more than once – as short as possible. There was no way I could vary the first scene at all. I had to make it as short as I could, just enough to introduce ten characters and set up the basic premise. At the end of it comes the first choice which I made as random as possible by employing the toss of a coin. Such a random decision not only had to be made, but, more important, it had to be seen to be made.

This led naturally to the twin cores of the play and progressed, at the end of the first act, to another possible shift of affections.

I decided to keep the first act variations within sight of each other. There are a lot of overlapping events – the same picnic (I’d always wanted to write a picnic scene), some identical dialogue, even the same wasp! This, as you might imagine, went down better with audiences than it did with actors who had a nightly dread of going into the wrong variation or, worse still, the wrong set of sandwiches!

In Act 2, events really diverge. Simon, our hero – or antihero, depending on how you see him – is beginning to show his real colours: Abigail, I felt, should have the night scene. I bought a small tent and set it up in my living room whilst I worked out the action at the camp site. For Dorcas, I chose to make full use of the hill. A cross country race seemed like fun and, given the competitive nature of Simon, would serve the dual purpose of further highlighting the choice Dorcas is faced with between him and Stafford. The only problem was how to get rid of the other 90 per cent of the cross country competitors.

The last scene is, like the first, always the same but it is possible, by change of emphasis and attitude – especially on the part of the protagonists Abigail, Dorcas, Stafford, Patrick and Simon – to play it in at least four different ways.

The main structure having been formed, it was then a matter of my weaving in the various related counter themes. Apart from the central five, Uncle Len, of course, plays a central role in both Abigail’s and Dorcas’s infidelities. Auntie Rita, apart from being pivotal in the picnic scenes, adds general family colour whilst Ralph gives the whole family a focal point around which to revolve.

And Brenda and Mel? Well, I needed amongst all the chopping and changings of our main characters, to have one constant private steady relationship. Something that says ‘we’re not all like this, some of us just get on with life quietly’. Both sisters are overprotective towards their younger brother; both are critical of Brenda and underestimate her entirely – typical, really, of older sisters. But in the end, Brenda and Melvyn have the last laugh, whereas Abigail and Dorcas are left a little sadder and wiser and resigned, for a time at least, to settle for what they already have. Maybe, after all, as in most of our relationships, we get what we deserve.

You can find out more about Sisterly Feelings at Alan Ayckbourn’s 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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