Woman In Mind: Character Notes by Alan Ayckbourn
Woman In Mind is centred on the character of Susan and she is arguably one of Alan Ayckbourn’s most complex and challenging roles. Here are some of Alan Ayckbourn’s thoughts on the character.
Woman in Mind is a play about a woman slowly losing her grip on reality. She has reached a sexual, social and intellectual crossroads. She is a vicar's wife who has fancifully invented another family straight out of a 1950s magazine: a husband with a white suit, a slightly mischievous brother and a lovely daughter who adores her. Her family are, in fact, an extremely gloomy set of people, but I wrote the play from this woman's point of view, inviting the audience to empathise with her. In the end the woman has a breakdown and just closes down altogether, which is very upsetting.
Julia McKenzie when she first read the play, asked me when I felt the laughter should stop. I replied, ideally on the last page, a second before the last line. We shouldn't force the humour - but neither should we discourage it. Laughter and seriousness can travel hand in hand in most of my plays very happily. In fact one without the other can prove highly undesirable.
Because of the nature of this particular play, it is likely that some members of the audience will stop laughing before the others do. Generally, the women stopped earlier on!
It’s important to emphasise that Susan must always appear quite ordinary. It's a difficult quality sometimes for an actress to catch. Most people who want to act are quite extraordinary!. We should never get the feeling - what's this remarkable woman doing putting up with all this?
She is also no saint. Remember that everything we see is her version. Ideally - in theory if not in practice (God forbid) - every time Susan blinks the lights should dip. We get her version of events from square one. Being the only version we're offered we should tend to trust her. After all, she is the central character. She should know what she's doing. Shouldn't she?
What does the 'incomprehensible' language Susan hears in the first scene and speaks in the final scene mean?
This is a frequently asked question and whilst much of the intent of the dialogue is easy to pick up, a precise meaning of all the lines is not so obvious. Alan Ayckbourn's complete translation of the garbled lines can be found here.
Regarding the autobiographical nature of Susan
Woman In Mind is frequently cited as one of the most autobiographical of Alan Ayckbourn’s plays and that the character of Susan is largely drawn from his own mother. Alan has always denied this was the case, accepting only that there are influences within the play.
Susan was probably closer to a portrait of my mother in some ways, though it would be dangerous to say she was solely based on my mother. But the relationship with her husband Gerald had echoes of her own relationship with her bank manager husband. Never a good idea to marry someone solely for the good of the child which I believe she did. It usually ends in unhappiness for all concerned.
I was for some period of my life an only child in a single parent family, though I don't think they called it that in the late forties, early fifties. My mother was simply a woman whose husband had walked out on her! But it did give me an intimate, close-up view of a woman-at-bay fighting for survival in a man-free world. She was frequently angry and initially proudly independent, determined to carve out a career for herself as a writer, which she did do successfully for several years, until she succumbed and married the local bank manager. Women’s Lib had yet to get into its full stride. Her new marriage had the knock on effect of giving me a step-brother. So I stopped being an only. But those earlier solitary years were very much, as I say, devoid of men.
My mother, during the school holidays took me everywhere with her, often to London (we lived in Sussex) to visit publishers and editors, practically all female. And I sat there all the while, as they talked of this and that, a small boy listening - and largely unnoticed.
"Most of my plays at some level are autobiographical. I think Woman in Mind, in the end, is no more and no less than many others."
Although Woman In Mind centres on Susan, a pivotal figure is her husband, the vicar Gerald. Alan has frequently offered advice about this character, who is not all he may appear to be - given that the audience’s view of him is not objective, but predominantly filtered through Susan’s mind. Here Alan Ayckbourn presents some thoughts on the character.
There's an impregnable calm about Gerald, partly because he has God on his side. All of which generates a residual guilt in Susan’s own mind, that every time she kicks a vicar she's getting closer to hell. What makes it even worse is that Gerald is quite adept at turning the other cheek - she could deal with a man who slapped her but a man who just allows himself to be slapped and looks more and more sorrowfully at her is impossible.
There are moments towards the end, immediately before Susan goes into what I call a supernova state, when the whole thing gets very bright and it's like Alice in Wonderland, completely dotty, when you get a glimpse, just for a second, of the real Gerald. There are still a lot of things wrong with him, but we begin to see his point of view - that he is dealing with a woman he doesn't understand because he doesn't recognise mental instability as an illness.
I tell actors playing Gerald to be as nice as possible - if he says all the lines he'll never manage it - but he should try to be. It is very important that characters like Gerald are not so far out on the limb of outrageous caricature by the climax of the play that we cannot suddenly wonder if the man has a point after all as Susan destroys his precious manuscript. After all, we've only had Susan's word about him up till now and at this stage, how reliable is her word any longer?
Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn. Please do not reproduce without permission of Alan Ayckbourn.