Joking Apart: Articles by Alan Ayckbourn
Joking Apart (Stephen Joseph Theatre 2002 production programme note)
“Why don’t you,” a woman once enquired of me angrily, “ever write a play about a happy couple?”
I thought about this for a month or so. Why didn’t I? Happy couple are a joy to behold. They make life worth living for those of us around them. It is the warming sunlight of their happiness which illuminates the dark corners of our lives. They lift our spirits with their love song. They lighten our hearts with their secret smiles and tender whispers. They are also, it has to be said, in dramatic terms very irritating and not a little boring.
Perhaps it isn’t a coincidence that Shakespeare never cared to detail a single happy marriage in his entire play cycle. (The nearest, I think, are the Macbeths and even that relationship was somewhat cut off in its prime). No, happy smiling couples gazing lovingly into each others’ eyes are not good dramatic fodder. Drama, after all, thrives on conflict. It delights in flying plates, slamming doors, raised voices and even the occasional dose of poison. An audience is generally happier leaving a theatre declaring “Well, I thought our marriage was in trouble, but….”
Yet the notion of writing about an ideal, balanced happy couple continued to tease me. Surely it was not impossible to portray mutual bliss, inside or even outside of marriage? Without driving one’s audience screaming from the theatre? To create this beautiful couple with a loving, thriving relationship, perfect happy balanced children, a wonderful home, a big wild garden, a successful business, both of them generous hosts, supportive friends, superb cooks, the type of people who can find a plumber at short notice… You see, I can sense you’re already becoming restless.
Inevitably it was, of course, the people surrounding this golden couple who finally dictated the core of the play. For golden couples, dramatically at least, are more often than not catalysts who serve to illuminate others; their business partners, their neighbours, those people who wait in vain for a plumber, the friends who become entwined in them, competitively, enviously, amorously…. Fatally. The rest of us, really.
All the World loves a lover? I somehow doubt it.
Alan Ayckbourn's introduction to Three Plays
Just Between Ourselves, Ten Times Table and Joking Apart could be described as the first of my 'winter' plays. Unlike their predecessors, which were all written in late spring for performance during the Scarborough summer season, these three were all composed in December for performance in January. I mention this not because I am a strong believer that the time of the year wields some astrological influence over what one writes (though I would never rule this out either). In a more practical way, though, this shift of my established writing pattern did, to some extent, alter my priorities. By the winter of 1975-6, the Scarborough Theatre-in-the-Round Company which I direct had made its first tentative steps towards a year-round playing pattern. This had long been an ambition of mine. After twenty years or so of being exclusively a summer rep. we were at last establishing some sort of deeper permanency within the town. To encourage and develop our much needed winter audience....
Joking Apart which, at this time of writing, is my latest play and thus, naturally, my favourite of the three. I say naturally, since if it wasn't my favourite, I wouldn't have started it and certainly wouldn't have finished it. I have, at least, to convince myself I'm improving even if I fool no one else. Looking at the play as objectively as I can, I do feel that it does go some way towards combining the truth of Just Between Ourselves with some of the fun of Ten Times Table. Its most significant feature is the time span it covers - twelve years from start to finish. The characters all age from their late twenties to their early forties, save one who starts in her late twenties and retreats to eighteen. For it's important when reading Joking Apart to remember that Melody / Mandy / Mo / Debbie are intended to be played by the same actress.
The play was written when the 38-year-old author was confronted by his eighteen-year-old son, who was suddenly adult and growing more so each passing day. I think with Joking Apart I began to feel my age.
Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.