Private Fears In Public Places: Articles by Alan Ayckbourn


Private Fears In Public Places (Stephen Joseph Theatre 2004 production programme note)
During the '80s and '90s, the distinguished French film director Alain Resnais visited Scarborough on a number of occasions professing himself a fan of my work. Indeed, later on he made a film version of
Intimate Exchanges which he re-titled Smoking / No Smoking. Typically, Alain chose from the then current catalogue of around 45 plays a theatrical two-handed marathon which boasted, on-stage, 16 different endings. Alain managed 12 over two films. Not bad going, I felt; and certainly one of the better film versions of my work to date.
One year I asked Alain what he felt it was that drew us together, both of us at first glance so different in style and content. He shrewdly observed that whilst he considered his approach to films to be in terms of the stage play, I on the other hand tended, it seemed to him, to approach stage plays as though they were films. In other words, he made plays for the movies, I made movies for the stage.
And it is indeed true that all my earlier childhood theatrical memories came from films and rarely from the stage. Blessedly, I grew up during a period when every English town, however small, boasted at least 3 cinemas.
These all showed double bills offering an 'A' and 'B' feature which changed over mid-week. In addition, on Sunday (For One Day Only) they also showed a totally different double bill. In other words, each showed on average 6 films a week; with 3 cinemas to choose from during the long summer holidays there were 18 films playing in continuous performance from 2 pm through to 10 pm. My step-brother and I saw them all. Twice. Actually we preferred the second viewing because we were able to anticipate the surprises and twists and infuriate the other picture-goers.
Amongst these were some of the worst movies ever made - the
Jungle Jim series sticks in my memory especially (he fought most of the wildlife of Africa bare-handed but never lost his hat) - but with so many films to choose from, inevitably we hit a good one now and then. Some of the classic films noir - the Ealing Comedies, Powell and Pressburger's groundbreaking canon and those of Preston Sturges, Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder. Later on came Rene Clair, Bunuel, Cocteau and a whole host of new wave European directors.
I can't recall ever actually going to the theatre. At least not straight theatre, not until well into my teens. A yearly visit to the current
Crazy Gang Christmas Show at the Victoria Palace and that was the sum of my juvenile theatre-going. Oh, and my mother once mistakenly took me to an 'adult' topless cabaret which I enjoyed quite a bit.
No, movies dominated everything. I can't really recall how I came to arrive in theatre at all. By rights I should have run away at 10 and become a clapper boy. The engagement with live theatre just sort of happened. Probably, I suspect, because both my boarding schools, whilst extremely active with stage drama, offered little or no opportunity for film making.
But still, the result was that when I embarked on my theatrical writing career aged 19 my influences were definitely filmic. And have been, more or less, ever since. This is not to deny the debt I owe to many of my influential theatrical peers, H. Pinter, A. Chekhov and all. But none has been as influential as Stan Laurel.
Which may explain why my plays, unless very drastically adapted, tend not to translate into good movies. They are movies to begin with. Sometimes closer to celluloid than others.
When I was approached by someone wanting to turn my two-part play
The Revengers' Comedies into a film my immediate reaction was - but it's already a film. A very successful one too, Hitchcock's Strangers On a Train. I had merely taken the initial concept, bent and reshaped it, added references to well over 20 other movies and served it up on stage.
On other occasions, the references are slightly less obvious. But
Bedroom Farce's very filmic use of the cross-cut, How The Other Half Loves' use of the superimposed, split-screen shot and most especially all my children's plays - are movies set on stage.
Private Fears In Public Places is another. Not especially in content - though you may spot an occasional (unintentional) reference. But in style, construction and even, in a way, overall feel.
Welcome to the Theatre. Happy movie-going!

Alan Ayckbourn's introduction to Alan Ayckbourn: Plays 3
Private Fears in Public Places was a title I'd had in reserve for several years but never got round to using. Nevertheless, like a composer with a good tune, I stored it away for later use.
It's an unusually structured play, constructed in fifty-four short scenes, which is unheard of for me. Indeed, I am generally critical of writers who adopt this so-called celluloid approach to stage-play construction. It suggests a laziness, a failure to create a proper dramatic concentration of stage movement which, ideally, should present an uninterrupted narrative flow. In theatre, using this multiple short-scene technique, a sort of dramatic indigestion can easily set in, making for a series of irritating scenic hiccups. In this case, with each of the fifty-four scene changes lasting, say, thirty seconds, an audience could face a prospect of sitting for twenty-seven minutes in the dark whilst people dressed in black furtively shifted furniture.
Yet, given the nature of my story, or rather stories, this multi-scene structure was precisely the one I needed to use. To compensate, therefore, it was vital that the set was a permanent one, containing within it the multiple fixed locations. That each scene would glide seamlessly into the next, following the fragments of the characters' lives as they collided with each other like so much solar debris adrift in space. On this occasion, composition not only reflected the requirements of the narrative but also echoed the central theme of the play itself. That our lives are linked more closely than we realise. That the actions of individuals, however involuntary they may be, will often create ripples which turn into waves and finally rock some stranger's craft moored miles away on some distant shore.
It's such a new play that, at the time of writing, I can say little more about it. I think, I suspect, it explores new ground for me, in theme, character and structure. But in drama, it is of course a mistake to believe one has ever written anything truly original. In the main, it's about the re-telling of old stories, some of them often familiar. But as the old comic once remarked, it's all in the way you tell them, mate.

Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.

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