Woman In Mind: Articles by Other Authors


The Dangers Of A Good Night In (The Guardian, 19 July 1985)
The noted critic and award-winning theatre historian Michael Billington was, arguably, the first critic to tackle the depth of Alan Ayckbourn’s plays and saw Woman In Mind as a strong example of Ayckbourn’s ability to subvert expectations. His article 'The Dangers Of A Good Night Out' stands not only as a classic piece of commentary on Alan Ayckbourn, but was remarkably prescient as in the following two years, commentators and critics would practically fall over themselves to declare Ayckbourn’s serious credentials.
We British are a funny lot. Deep in our culture there is an innate belief that what is popular cannot at the same time be first-rate. And nowhere is that snobbery more apparent than in discussions of modern drama.
In literary and intellectual circles, for instance, it is still fashionable to denigrate Peter Shaffer. His crime is that he takes serious themes (the conflict between dogged rationalism and divine inspiration, the waywardness of genius, the death of God) and makes them accessible to large numbers of people.
Amadeus, unforgivably, quickened a popular interest in Mozart: and Shaffer's latest play, which I gather deals with the nephew of the biblical King David, will doubtless be attacked for traducing the Old Testament.
Tom Stoppard, likewise, is viewed by many fellow dramatists as an ingenious trickster who flatters audiences into thinking they are cleverer than they are. But Stoppard's real offence, I suspect, is that he glamorises thought and swathes his perennial concern (the conflict between relative and absolute moral systems) in theatrical excitement.
But no dramatist is a greater victim of our distrust of popularity than Alan Ayckbourn. Every time the National do a play of his (and
A Chorus of Disapproval opens at the Olivier in August) there are mutters about the devotion of major stages to boulevard frippery. The sheer quantity of Ayckbourn's work is also regarded as confirmation of his lack of fundamental seriousness. Woman In Mind, now playing in rep at Scarborough's Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round is his 32nd play for that company. In an age when the artist is respected for the profundity of his silence and the spareness of his communication. such prodigality is unpardonable.
Seeing
Woman In Mind at Scarborough recently convinced me we still underestimate Ayckbourn. For a start he writes about women with a sympathy and understanding unrivalled amongst his male contemporaries. His plays are filled with neglected, frustrated, unfulfilled middle-class wives (Hedda Gablers of the suburbs) ignored or deceived by their husbands and untrained for meaningful careers: Eva in Absurd Person Singular is driven towards aborted suicide. Diana in Absent Friends to hysterical breakdown. Vera in Just Between Ourselves towards catatonic silence. Not all his women are victims: Anthea in Joking Apart, for instance, is a cool over-achiever. But Ayckbourn has a Stevie Smith-like intuitive grasp of the crack-up under the genteel façade and Susan, the heroine of Woman In Mind, takes this feeling for bourgeois desperation to its furthest reaches yet.
Susan, in a state of concussion after stepping on a garden-rake, creates an alternative fantasy family to compensate for the deficiencies of her real one. In the actual world, she is hitched to an insufferably smug parson who neglects her in order to write a slimline history of his parish since 1386.
Even sex for Susan has ceased to be a consolation. "It was," she says wanly, "just something we did together like gardening - now I have to do that on my own as well." And their son carries non-communication to its furthest limits by becoming a Trappist monk in Hemel Hempstead. So Susan retreats into her alternative world where she is our foremost, living historical novelist, where she is adored by her family and where she floats through an all-white fête champêtre world of salmon, summer puddings and sorbets.
The idea of a heroine caught between two worlds is not new: J. M. Barrie did it in
Mary Rose. And the verbal confusion that results from talking both to real people and to ghosts has echoes of Blithe Spirit: when Susan remarks to an unseen presence, "Just put it down there darling," her flesh-and-blood doctor takes it for sexual encouragement.
What makes this a singularly black comedy, however, is the implication that we surrender to fantasy at our peril. As Susan's other family become ever more predatory, demanding and even rapacious we realise that she (and many women like her) are torn between a stifling, suffocating reality and an omnivorous, life-consuming subconscious.
Ayckbourn looks safe: in fact, he takes outlandish risks. He writes, initially for a comfortably seaside audience who have clearly come for a good night out. He then gives them a play like
Woman In Mind which deals with temporary insanity, which puts the agents of God and the Devil on stage and which leaves the audience constantly guessing as to what is reality and what is fantasy.
But perhaps his greatest risk - and a sign of his maturity as a dramatist - is that be leaves it to us to decide what is funny. In this play he gives the vicar a grotesque, widowed sister convinced that her dead husband is trying to communicate with her by leaving marks on the ceiling. You are free to see this as comic self-delusion: or as another symptom of tragic female desperation leading to a belief in other worlds.
John Arden remarked significantly at the recent Royal Court Playwrights Forum that the structure of the theatre has not kept pace with the changing imagination of the dramatists. What Ayckbourn's success proves is that a writer blessed with his own theatre can be thematically risky and technically experimental. His attempts (with Paul Todd) to write the perfect British musical may not yet have reached fulfilment. But what is undeniable is that he constantly extends the frontiers of comedy while retaining his common touch and it is only the destructive division in our culture between the "serious" and the "popular" that prevents us seeing Ayckbourn is a path-finding innovator rather than a boulevard lightweight.

Copyright: Michael Billington. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.
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