(Faber & Faber, £14.99)
The Crafty Art of Playmaking, by Alan Ayckbourn
Alan Ayckbourn proves he is a dramatist to be taken seriously
Wednesday 09 October 2002
The accolade of Greatest Living British playwright is often given to such titans as Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard. Yet Sir Alan Ayckbourn, who over 40 years has written more than 60 plays and directed more than 200, is frequently dismissed as a boulevadier. How come? Partly because of the prolific nature of his talent. Can anyone who writes so much, sneer his detractors, really be any good?
Not only is Ayckbourn industrious; he's also conspicuously successful. In Britain, he is now performed more often than Shakespeare. But while, on the Continent, Ayckbourn is seen as a savage critic of middle-class mores, here he is more often viewed as light entertainment. In fact, his particular knack for mixing ridiculously funny situations with stomach-churning emotions is hard to stage: you can get either a populist Ayckbourn Lite, or a ponderous Heavy Alan.
But just as his plays often conceal, behind a mask of farce, a deep dismay about human beings, so this slim book about how to write and direct a play is laced with Meldrewisms.
In a brief and truculent introduction, Ayckbourn argues that his approach to theatre is "extremely pragmatic", relying on "a spontaneity and instinct that defies theory". So, he says, "believe some of this book, but never all of it". Don't worry; we won't.
Divided into two parts, on writing and on directing, the book is a cross between a manual for beginners and a memoir of comic mishaps.
It starts as an avuncular Advice to a Young Playwright, making a good case for the cohabitation of tragedy and comedy, with useful if facile tips such as "the darker the drama the more you need to search for the comedy".
There is valuable advice about construction, time and location before an exploration of dialogue. One of the best sections is his mini-masterclass on what characters are and how they talk, based on his own Woman in Mind and Things We Do for Love.
Perhaps inevitably, the book tells you more about his own style of writing, with its subtext and experiments with genres such as farce, than playwriting in general. You look in vain for ideas about individual tone of voice or exercises to improve specificity of setting. Need some help in writing a large political drama or history play? You won't find it here.
As a collection of smile-worthy anecdotes, the book takes off in the second half, with Ayckbourn's accounts of directing a play in the teeth of vain authors, sulky stars and pushy producers during the typical roller-coaster ride of rehearsals. Dotted throughout are handy tips called Obvious Rules, which range from worthy truisms such as "Never start a play without an idea" to gnomic sentiments such as "Take the plunge".
This is a great book for anyone curious about what the playwright thinks about while writing or intrigued by what a director actually does (reviews barely ever tell you). Fans will enjoy it as a thoroughly entertaining read. Even Ayckbourn's detractors will surely find themselves hard-pressed to suppress sneaking admiration for the clarity of his exposition, the humanity of his approach and the self-deprecating humour of his style.
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