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Ayckbourn and Bedroom Farce in Context

Playwright and director Alan Ayckbourn’s distinctive perspective as a dramatist combines an ambitious eye for structure, a sly ear for humor, and a desire to challenge himself. Born in 1939, Ayckbourn was the child of a novelist and a violinist. He began his theatrical career as an actor, and was hired by director Stephen Joseph to become a member of his company at the Scarborough Theatre. (Ayckbourn ultimately became artistic director of the company in 1972 after Joseph’s death). Joseph was a pivotal mentor; Ayckbourn only began writing after complaining to Joseph about his parts in the company. Ayckbourn recalls, “He said to me, ‘If you want a better part, you’d better write one for yourself. Write a play. […] Write yourself a main part’ — which was actually a very shrewd remark, because presumably, if the play had not worked at all, there was no way I as an actor was going to risk my neck in it.”

Ayckbourn’s creations for the acting company in Scarborough were uniformly successful and nearly annual — including well known plays such as How the Other Half Loves and Absurd Person Singular, each produced both in the West End and on Broadway. In 1974, a trio of plays called The Norman Conquests vaulted Ayckbourn into the sphere of world dramatists, as critics began comparing him favorably to playwrights such as Molière and Feydeau. The Norman Conquests has the hallmarks that characterize Ayckbourn’s work. Set at a country estate, with a cast of three interlocking couples, the trilogy is a series of plays, each set in a different room of the same house: one in the garden, one in the dining room, and the third in the living room. In a feat of plotting, the plays are designed to be viewed in any order and to complement each other.

Critics note that Ayckbourn creates laughs with uncommon psychological skill. “‘Oh’ is not widely acknowledged as one of the funniest words in English,” wrote Ben Brantley in The New York Times of the most recent revival of the trilogy. “Nor does the simple ‘aah’ generally induce convulsive giggles. Yet these unassuming monosyllables acquire brute force in […] Alan Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests, crippling you with laughter that shakes the body and, more subversively, fractures the soul.” As Brantley suggests, the best of Ayckbourn uses a crisp surface to suggest the emotional churn beneath a character’s outward persona.

Bedroom Farce  is a comedy about real characters who, projected into incredible situations, start behaving in a larger than life manner as the situations appear to them too horribly real.”

Though Ayckbourn does not consider Bedroom Farce to be a farce per se — he generally writes the titles of his plays before the scripts themselves, and they often have little to do with the actual content — he views the elements of farce and comedy as being in a conversation in the play. “Comedy, I read somewhere, consists of larger than life characters in real situations. Farce, on the other hand, portrays real characters projected into incredible situations,” says Ayckbourn. “Bedroom Farce is a comedy about real characters who, projected into incredible situations, start behaving in a larger than life manner as the situations appear to them too horribly real. I’m with Chekhov on this, as a matter of fact. He called his plays comedies or farces whenever he felt like it, probably to confuse Stanislavsky.”

Like The Norman Conquests before it, Bedroom Farce has a trio of settings: three rooms, four couples, an unstable mixture that sets the play in motion. While it is considered to perhaps be Ayckbourn’s “sunniest” play, it was written in a period where Ayckbourn was delving into themes of misery, inconsideration, and loneliness elsewhere in his work, a secondary layer that some critics see echoes of in this play. “Bedroom Farce is a wickedly funny play about the blithe inconsiderateness of the suffering,” wrote Michael Billington in The Guardian. “Cocooned in selfishness, they reduce the lives around them to ruins. And while Ayckbourn has touched on this theme before, I don’t think he has handled it with quite such precision as he does in the second act of this beautifully rhythmed play.”

Bedroom Farce was Ayckbourn’s first play at the National Theatre in London, which has become one of the primary homes of his work. Now the author of more than 70 plays, at least half of which have played in the West End or at the National, Ayckbourn also remained the artistic director of the Scarborough Theatre through 2008. His plays continue to marvel structurally — one play can be performed nightly in 16 possible variations, another duo of plays is designed to be staged simultaneously in adjacent theatres with a shared cast. Throughout his career, Ayckbourn has challenged himself and audiences to find humor beyond the obvious. “[In the films of] my great idol, Buster Keaton — everything followed logically; he behaved completely within his own mad world as a normal human being would behave,” Ayckbourn says. “The mistake that’s made is that people imagine that somehow farce has to be played louder, faster, broader – and suddenly they throw all credibility away. I have a campaign for slow, quiet farce.”

— CHARLES HAUGLAND


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