Just Between Ourselves: Articles by Alan Ayckbourn
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, I launched my latest play, Just Between Ourselves, at a time when it would, we hoped, do the most good for the box office. At the same time, the pressure that had always been on me to produce a play suited primarily to a holiday audience was no longer there.
As is customary, I wrote mainly at night - but this was my first experience of tackling a play whilst the North Sea storms hurtled round the house, slates cascaded from the roof and metal chimney cowlings were bounced off parked cars below my window, rebounding hither and thither like demented pinballs. Not surprisingly, the result was a rather sad (some say a rather savage) play with themes concerned with total lack of under-standing, with growing old and with spiritual and mental collapse. Dennis, the husband, is no calculating villain. Nor is he, I contend, particularly unusual. Just a man pathologically incapable of understanding beyond a certain level. His wife's cries for help go unanswered not because he ignores them or fails to hear them but because he honestly hasn't the slightest idea what they're about. The wife, Vera, hampered by a lack of ability to express herself clearly or maybe too inhibited to do so, suffers from a conventional upbringing that has taught her that the odds on her being wrong and her husband being right are high. Slowly, the last vestiges of self-confidence are drained from her. Vera sits empty, huddled and withdrawn in the garden, unwilling to go back into a house that is no longer hers. Occasionally, and I'm glad to say it is only occasionally, it has been suggested that the whole piece might benefit from a more cheerful ending wherein Vera miraculously revives and all becomes right with the world. Perhaps a few years earlier, I might have paid such suggestions serious attention. In resisting them and allowing, Just Between Ourselves to end as it does, I felt I took a large stride towards maturity as a playwright. It continued my small progress, first started in Absent Friends, towards my unattainable goal: to write a totally effortless, totally truthful, unforced comedy shaped like a flawless diamond in which one can see a million reflections, both one's own and other people's.
First Nights And How To Cope (The Library Theatre 1976 production programme note)
As far as an author is concerned, the only certain thing about First Nights is that they don't get any better. All that happens, assuming of course that he's fortunate enough to have more than one in his career, is that he develops little tricks and conditioned reflexes to see him safely through this most awful of ordeals. He can drink to excess and miss the whole thing, persuade the management to cancel, or emigrate and start a new life. Failing anything quite so drastic, here are a few essential Do's and Don'ts for new dramatists facing their first First Night:
Never look to the Actors for reassurance. Remember they are front line troops about to go over the top and are already telling themselves that their instincts were right and they shouldn't have taken this job in the first place. In a word, they have enough Inner Doubts of their own without listening to yours.
Don't expect words of reassurance from the Director. He is faintly optimistic that he may just about have saved the evening through his dextrous ingenuity but it's no thanks to the play. He is on the actors' side.
Don't stand about at the front of the theatre smiling at Critics as they arrive - or worse, attempt to greet them cheerfully. They mistrust cheery dramatists and besides they are as shy as High Court Judges of mixing socially with those upon whom they intend to pass sentence.
Never sit in the auditorium whilst a first night is in progress. If you must watch the play, stand. If you're incapable of standing, sit on the end of a row near the door. But beware of leaving and returning too frequently. This may, to those sitting in front; give the impression of a mass walk out as the door bangs to and fro. Better still keep well away from the theatre altogether. But keep an eye on the time. It is embarrassing to return and find the place is locked up for the night.
Don't smile at Critics as they leave. Their minds are made up.
Never eavesdrop on departing audiences, hoping to hear nice things said about your play. You never will. Those who enjoyed it will be glowing with silent, inner contentment.
Don't wait up for reviews. They all look better in the morning.
Don't plan in advance any celebrations. Better go home and write another.
Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.