Surprises: Interview with Alan Ayckbourn

This page contains two interviews with Alan Ayckbourn about Surprises, conducted by Simon Murgatroyd. The first interview took place on 14 February 2012. Although the interview formed the basis of several articles about Surprises, this is the first time the unedited transcript has been published in its entirety.

Simon Murgatroyd: Your latest play is called Surprises, tell us about it.
Alan Ayckbourn: It’s a play with its head in the future, but with its heart in the past. It’s science-fiction, but sci-fi used as an allegory - as most good sci-fi is - to reflect what’s happening today and the issues I’ve picked up on recently. It’s a bit like Neighbourhood Watch picking up on current issues, except this time - to put it in a nutshell - it’s about what might happen with longevity.
I’ve been reading a lot of articles recently about the strain the increasing elderly population is going to put on the National Health Service. The chances of people living longer and longer as the centuries go by are certainly quite interesting dramatically and increasingly plausible; they can replace most of you now - I think the brain will be the last thing they will be able to replace - but practically everything else is fast becoming a spare part. I have one character in the play who’s 120 years old and says, ‘I’ve just seen my doctor for a check up and he says if I take good care of myself, I probably have another good 60 years.’ He’s already retired twice and really had several lifetimes and doesn’t know what to do next. If we’re not able to plan our lives for the long term, we are going to be in that situation, which I think is quite interesting.
The play also asks what happens to relationships when this longevity happens. Most relationships - never mind marriages - are based on a life expectancy of three score years and ten years probably. So what happens when both of you live to twice that age? Can you sustain that relationship? A lot of people find it hard to sustain a marriage at a normal length of 20, 30 or 40 years. But certainly if we’re going to potentially have relationships going on for 100 years, maybe it becomes difficult to sustain. Maybe some people will waver slightly: ‘I promised this man my life, but I don’t have to stay with him all that time.’ All these questions are being asked.
It’s also involves a bit of a running interest of mine about mechanical life and android existence. They are to all intents and purposes immortal, so how would they cope with immortality? Conjecturing about the future has always been fun and it felt like the right time to be doing it again. Right from
Henceforward... to Comic Potential and even slightly in Communicating Doors, I’ve used sci-fi themes but hopefully, in a user-friendly way. Surprises is essentially several love stories but love stories that have a spin on them, a sci-fi slant.

It also raises the issues of haves and have nots. The implication being you’ll soon be able to live for a couple of centuries, providing you have the money.
Oh yes. I think that I touched upon it in Neighbourhood Watch and Henceforward... with the idea of the gated community where people barricade themselves in against the undesirable elements of outside world. Surprises is set in the world of the seriously successful, but there is a sense in it of a whole class that aren’t mentioned. I think the division between rich and poor is likely to grow in the long term; that the division of wealth will get increasingly lop-sided. There’s no easy solution though, all that happens when you try and stop that division is other people just get the wealth - a different class of people. So you try and change the system so the landed aristocracy no longer inherit all the wealth, but sure as hell it doesn’t stop some aristocratic banker from inheriting it or, indeed, the very successful realms of slightly extreme showbusiness also cleaning it all up. Realistically, once you have a pot and you leave several people in a room to split it up, someone will come out with more of it than the rest.
The underclass idea is also touched upon with the solution of using mechanical life to take over the unacceptable job, which is not going to work very well!

Like several of your other plays, such as Communicating Doors and Whenever, there’s a time-travel element in Surprises, but unlike those plays, it seems to offer no solutions as technology is only as infalliable as those who use it are, which is to say, not at all.
Isn’t that always the case, whatever happens! We say, ‘this is such a wonderful invention!’ and then 20 years later, we think, why the hell did we invent that? Our ability to misuse an invention like time-travel is enormous. It’s terribly dangerous as once you try to start altering the past to alter the present, you’re bound to get into all sorts of trouble, because presumably it’s open to all sorts of unscrupulous people from those trying to predict the Grand National winner onwards. So time travel is no solution to problems for my characters and as one of the characters says, ‘it spoils the surprise of life’ and life is intended to be a surprise.
Who knows whether time travel is possible - and I think a corner is beginning to be turned on this, as there’s always been resistance to the idea of it - but scientists are beginning to say if we do have faster than light particles, maybe time-travel is possible. The biggest problem with that though is, why haven’t we seen anyone from the future? But maybe in 700 years time, someone invents time travel but then thinks this period of time isn’t worth visiting! Maybe they say, ‘Not the 2000s! Let’s go back to the good old 1940s, that’s really interesting!’
I also like the idea of Ridley Scott’s cinematic worlds where everything is a bit off - the technology breaks. These worlds which are slightly battered and everything is not human proof. The fact is our machines are affectionately created with the best of intentions, but then we get hands on them....

The play also touches upon the idea of avatars and social networking and how the anonymity of the internet / cyberspace allows us to pretend to be different to who we really are?
We can pretend to be someone different when we’re behind a computer and never likely to meet the other person. But I actually think it’s an extension of what we do in real live. We reach an age where we leave our parents and grow a little independent, then we meet someone we rather want to impress and we’re free to create a personality for them. Unfortunately, we’re not very good at it and it tends to slip away. The fatal thing to do is to take him or her back to meet your parents, who are completely in the know about who you really are and treat you like you used to be! Parents are like some terrible recording machine going, ‘ah-ha here’s a picture of when you were 15 and spotty and not as cool as you now appear to be! Oh and here’s one with your teeth in braces, painfully shy and not at all the elegant 22 year old now standing in the room.”
We do try and reinvent ourselves constantly and the saddest picture is watching people moving from partner to partner, divorcing the existing wife (it seems to be particularly men), who then then try to reinvent themselves as new men, different men, young men to impress younger women. And it goes on and on and they finish up - possibly by accident - marrying the same woman again and again! They keep repeating themselves and they get into a spiral. Thank God there is a limit to our lifespans or these men would be there 10 or 20 women along making the same mistakes!
It’s only an extension of this then to reinventing yourself online, changing your sex, race, colour, physical attributes and becoming something ridiculous. There’s a woman in Act 2 of
Surprises who says, ‘I’ve been out with deep sea divers and space men.’ You think how the hell does a secretary in an office do that? And then you realise she’s meeting a man from another office in cyberspace, who’s being all these rather exotic things and he think he’s going out with an exotic dancer, not a secretary! It’s harmless in a way, they have cybersex and stand in a cyber-bar with a created barman who’s there to monitor conversations and keep it on the straight and narrow, ready to dissolve the programme if the people break the rules.

What’s obvious is that as much as Neighbourhood Watch was a shift in direction from Life Of Riley before it, this again takes a totally different direction to Neighbourhood Watch.
Hopefully that’s true, because I do leave a year between writing the plays, so I hope I don’t carry too many characters or themes from the previous play forward from the last play to the current play.
Surprises is very different to Neighbourhood Watch though and, constructionally, it’s quite interesting. I’m very interested in structure and Surprises starts in an apparently straight- forward linear story with a girl in a bedroom talking to a bloke. That then loops into a parallel story, which then loops back bringing all the stories and characters together. So this is not a flat narrative, but one which gathers itself in and gathers itself in again. It’s running in repertory with a revival of Absurd Person Singular and uses the structure of that play to run against it. Not only has Surprises got the same cast size - although there is some doubling just to make it slightly different - but it’s also got a three act structure, which is very rare. In fact, I haven’t used a three act structure since I wrote Absurd Person Singular in 1972.

Was it restrictive having a company of six actors imposed in you by virtue of it running in repertory with Absurd Person Singular?
I played around with the idea of six actors for a long time, but with a three act structure you can hopefully double up without too much difficulty. I did have a draft idea, which I quickly got rid of, that I’d write it in five acts and Surprises could have been a second Confusions with five different linked one act plays, but I only had three stories really: the girl and the husband, the secretary and the online affair and the lawyer and an android janitor. So those were the three stories I worked with. I did briefly think I could maybe revisit that Confusions structure, but I realised that it didn’t interest me as there’s not enough space for the characters. So Surprises is really three one act plays all interwoven, which structurally makes it quite interesting.

Am I right that Surprises wasn't initially conceived as going into repertory with Absurd Person Singular though and might have been a far different play?
There was talk at one stage - because of the Stephen Joseph Theatre being part of the London 2012 festival - of me reviving A Small Family Business; which is a 13 hander, a big play. Of course that couldn’t work and was replaced by the smaller Absurd Person Singular. Maybe Surprises has a little bit of residue of that still in it, as it was intended to be a much bigger concept because I was waiting to hear - quite early along the line - if it would be running in repertory with A Small Family Business.
I’m glad I didn’t write a 13 handed play though as no-one would have ever staged it again! The chances are that outside the National Theatre or the big subsidised companies, plays like
A Small Family Business and Man Of The Moment will never will be revived again. Any play that now has a money label on it, will probably not be done again.
On one hand, because I’ve always worked under constrictions and restricted cast sizes and budgets, sometimes I quite enjoy it. But occasionally, when I’ve been given the opportunity, I’ve gone for it. I’m capable of writing big plays, but I can’t see I’ll ever get the chance to do it again in my lifetime.

If life is full of surprises, what has surprised you more than anything in your own life? (question submitted by Charles Hutchinson)
I think the thing that has surprised me most (and I know this may sound, if taken in the wrong way, to be falsely modest) is the success of the plays over the years. People come up to me these days and say thank you, not for a single individual play but thank you for the whole shooting match, dating back years sometimes. The plays have obviously chimed with them on a very personal level and it gives me a very warm feeling to know that they have responded in this way.

In an interview on 4 December 2012 with Simon Murgatroyd, Alan Ayckbourn reflected on the reaction to Surprises.

How do you think Surprises was received - it did seem the science-fiction themes polarises opinion quite strongly.
It is interesting. I am always aware that you have to have quite strong themes to overcome the science-fiction. People like robots because they think they’re going to happen eventually, but they can’t get their heads around time travel because they don’t think it’s ever going to happen. But I’m always interested in time travel because it is a tool for exploring other things and ideas. You just have to be rather careful for some people’s tastes how you use time travel.
There’s people who - no matter what they say - are actually quite conventional and when they go into a play like
Surprises with the wrong expectations, they take against it.
I’m aware of audiences going into theatres - certainly for some of my plays - and complaining the play isn’t, essentially,
Relatively Speaking! Where’s the twist? Where's the happy ending? You have to be very careful not to promise people something in advance; each play has to set out its stall. Surprises is a play about time travel and its set in the future, but it's not hilarious. As the play progresses, you see the story starts again and how it’s meshing into the previous story, so you have to stay with it. It needs a bit of work from the audience.
It's all about my interest in structure really. I’m more interested in
Surprises for its structure than its time travel. Time travel I have done before, but I haven’t done a structure like that before.

Interviews copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.

In an email response to questions about Surprises on 22 February 2013 for the Gloucestershire Echo, Alan Ayckbourn offered some further insight into the play and reactions to it.

Surprises is quite an unusual story - where did you get the idea?
Alan Ayckbourn:
I think in my case the older I get the more curious I am to know what the future holds - not just for me but for all of us. Considering the things that have happened in the seventy odd years that I have been around - computers, the internet, men in space, the social upheaval, our increased knowledge of the universe and the world around us - what I once read as science fiction as a kid has, in many cases, actually happened. In other cases what was predicted has been well wide of the mark. No time travel - not yet. No sentient, walking, talking robots - they’re coming though! No contact yet with alien civilisations - certainly no hostile Martians. I decided I’d write what I thought might happen in my children’s life-times, certainly I’m sure in my grandchildren’s. What might be probable. The main theme I wanted to address in Surprises is longevity. It’s a fact that we’re already living longer and longer. Given the current advances, how long medically will we be capable of extending human life expectancy? A hundred and twenty years? A hundred and fifty? And more importantly how desirable is that? Do we really, most of us, really want to live for ever? It also poses the key question. How long in that case can love between humans last? In the end, under all the science, they’re good old fashioned love stories. I think when the cyber dust has finally settled we’ll still have a need to be loved by someone. Even androids will, who knows?

How do you write speech for a robot - how do you imbue them with emotions - or don’t you?
My robots - or technically speaking androids (artificial beings created in human form) in Surprises are at a significant stage of their development. Initially, their speech is restricted to factual information and is generally therefore rather like that of precocious, slightly autistic children. Refreshingly direct, literal, and occasionally touchingly naïve. But as the play progresses they are being introduced to a few ‘modifications’ including the ability to tell the occasional white lie and more significantly the beginnings of early emotions - including love. Most humans growing up have trouble sorting out their emotions through their turbulent teens so what chance a poor machine, God help them!

Reading through the synopsis, the play sounds quite thought-provoking, with serious issues – how do you write in laughs with such a challenging premise?
I let the laughter arise naturally out of the seriousness of the theme and characters. I rarely if ever try to interpolate jokes. It’s the same principle I use with most of my plays. Most of them in synopsis don’t promise to be that funny. Woman has nervous breakdown as a result of an unsympathetic family (Woman in Mind). Serial drunken adulterer with personality disorder attempts to bed three separate women in the course of a weekend (The Norman Conquests) etc. etc.

What has the reaction to the play been so far?
Very favourable on the whole. Especially from the younger audiences. I think the older ones (those of my generation) occasionally have problems coming to grips with the avatars! Come on, try and keep up, guys!

Would you like to know what the future holds, given the chance? Do you think others would?
I think anyone who isn’t in the least bit curious about what the future holds is either a liar or already dead!

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