Monday, May 28, 2007

One of My Favorite Playwrights, Whose Plays I've Never Seen Alan Ayckbourn.

It may sound like I'm describing some weird, pomo, slightly Borgesian thing here, but really, I'm not: I love Alan Ayckbourn's work. I've just never seen (as best as I can recall) a single one of his plays.

In the theater, I hasten to add. I have seen the complete Norman Conquests on video -- in fact, I've seen it a couple times. And in addition to The Norman Conquests, I've read a number of his other plays. And liked them a lot. So it's not that I don't know his work. I've just never seen it live.

I am, however, one of the few people (I don't know how few, although I can't imagine many other people (besides my wonderful and long-suffering wife, who did it with me) who would have bothered) to have seen The Norman Conquests sideways.

What's that mean? Well, it's a bit like having watched Memento backwards. Without the nifty easter egg that does it for you automatically.

To understand, you need to know something about The Norman Conquests. I was going to describe them, but heck, wikipedia does a good enough job, and I'm feeling lazy:
The Norman Conquests is a trilogy of plays written in 1973 by Alan Ayckbourn... There are only six characters... The plays are at times wildly comic, and at times poignant... Each of the plays depicts the same six characters over the same weekend in a different part of a house. Table Manners is set in the dining room, Living Together in the living room, and Round and Round the Garden in the garden. Each play is self-contained, and they may be watched in any order. Some of the scenes overlap, and on several occasions a character's exit from one play corresponds with an entrance in another. The plays were not written to be performed simultaneously, however...
Emphasis added in case you are one of those lazy readers who skip indented quotes.*

Anyway, as the whoever-damn-well-felt-like-editing-it was saying, the plays take place in the same weekend, in the same house, with the same people. Thus events in one play reverberate in others -- in ways you often only understand the second time through the complete set. But despite the ominous warnings of temporal overlaps, for the most part it's possible to line all 12 scenes in chronological order -- and watch them that way, switching tapes all the while. Thus watching the plays sideways: not as presented, but as they "really" happened. In a giant mega-play that is, of course, something like five hours long (I don't remember exactly, this was some time ago).

Actually, I must admit that I thought the plays made a lot more sense this way. Also, I should note that Ayckbourn actually wrote them this way, although he wrote them to be seen separately. (He says in his forward to the edition of the plays I have that he "decided... to write them crosswise", so my term is actually pretty grounded in Authorial Intentions (for what little that's worth.))

This scheme of Ayckbourn's may seem a bit gimmicky -- and of course it wouldn't work if he didn't also actually write, y'know, good plays -- but the truth is I sort of like the gimmicky aspects. He does this sort of thing a lot. He's written plays to be performed simultaneously in two adjacent theaters by the same casts; a play in which a woman's imaginary friends share the stage with the real characters -- and on and on: Ayckbourn has repeatedly pushed the boundaries of what theater can do, how it can be presented, and so forth. He's played with time, with space -- with all sorts of theatrical variables.

In fact, although he's not listed a member of the Outrapo (the Ou-x-po dedicated to theater),*** he's clearly what the Oulipo call an "anticipatory plagiarist": that is, an artist working within the Ou-x-po style before that particular Ou-x-po was founded (or invented or discovered).

All of which is preface to the fact that one of Ayckbourn's plays -- well, actually, eight (or arguably even sixteen) of his plays -- that is (are) opening in New York for the first time: Intimate Exchanges. The NYT review makes it sound quite cool, and I wish I could see it/them.

The sequence of plays works somewhat like a choose-your-own-adventure novel (remember those?), one of those kids books in which you started to read, came to a choice, and then continued on a different story depending on the choice. This effect has been tried in plays from time to time (such as plays where the audiences votes to determine the ending), but Ayckbourn does it slightly different: the choices are (as it were) all made by which performance you choose. Different realities unfold with different choice sets, all ending up with eight different plays, each with two endings (how that's different from it just being eight different plays I don't know) -- starting off with the choice of whether or not to smoke a cigarette. It's a series of alternate realities about the same sets of characters, with various different possibilities unfolding in the different plays.

Here's the flow chart which the (UK) theater handily provides:

A similar (but differently laid-out) chart can be found on Ayckbourn's official page.

But wait, there's more! As the Complete Review points out, that's not the only constraint that Ayckbourn wrote under:
Only two characters appear on stage at a time throughout the play -- though there are ten separate characters. And, despite the fact that there are ten different characters, Ayckbourn means the entire play(s) to be performed by only two actors.****
Yikes. And there's yet another constraint: if you look at the chart above, you'll see that the scene breaks that follow the choices jump in time (in order) five seconds, five days, five weeks, five years... in each of the eight (sixteen?) plays.

And not one of them contain the letter e! -- Okay, that part's not true. The rest of it makes it all pretty constrained, though, even without any additional lipogrammy.

It sounds cool as all hell... and there's no possible way I can see it. I mean, even if I could get down to New York City for one of the plays (could find the time, could afford it, managed to get a ticket, etc, etc)... there's no way I could go down for three or four. But I think that I'd want to see at least that many to get the effect -- I mean, maybe you wouldn't have to do all sixteen, but still, you'd want to do a bunch. Heck, even the Times suggests that you may need "at least two trips to the theater". (But any New York-based readers might want to check out the plays: Ayckbourn's terrific.)

There is a film version, a pair of films called Smoking/No Smoking... which I might have to see. But they're hardly a straight adaptation: first of all, they're a translation of Ayckbourn's plays into French; more seriously, they're only "adapted" from Ayckbourn's plays: each of the howevermany plays is 90 minutes long; the films, together, are 5 hours... which means a lot is left out. (According to Ayckbourn's web site, the films are adapted from six of the eight plays; although even those clearly aren't done in their entirety.) Probably still worth seeing, I admit -- and now that I've written this entry I'll probably get my act together and do so sometime.

One can also read it -- the set of plays is long enough that it was published in two volumes -- and I might do that too.

But I'd still love to see them live.

Anyone for an eight-play, all-out production here in scenic Ithaca?

* C'mon. Admit it. Even if you won't 'fess up to doing it in this case, you've done it. Oh, stop it, you know you have: you're reading along, prose as pleasing as punch, and then come one of those long quote things, and it's in a different style, and doesn't really look that interesting, and heck, the writer will probably sum up the key parts anyway, right?**

** Although if you're a reader who skips indented texts, you probably skip footnotes too, and may not have seen that one. Or this one.

*** What's an Ou-X-po? Well, they're groups which study various arts and other cultural subjects -- history, comics, mystery stories, etc -- all modeled after the French literary group the Oulipo. If you don't know what the Oulipo is, then click here for my explanation, or here for Wikipedia's.

**** I really hope you didn't skip that one, now did you? It was really short. Oh, come on...

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I'd never even heard of Ayckbourn before reading this, but it sounds awesome. I love crazy postmodern stuff like this. I doubt I'll be able to see the Intimate Exchanges, but I might try to see if a local library has the Norman Conquests. Maybe I can even convince my wife to watch with me, since she likes theatre. Thanks for introducing me to this.