Say ‘Goodnight,’ Jaycie:
Alan Ayckbourne’s Comic Potential (1998)
©2010 by Eileen Warburton
It’s an actor’s nightmare—and quite possibly an audience’s as well. A dreary, futuristic world where real flesh-and-blood actors have been replaced by ‘actoids’–androids controlled by a programmer, who moves these robotic characters and tunes and tones their voices, putting them through the paces of a lame formulaic soap opera whose only measure of success is viewer numbers. (Yipes! Are we there yet?) The so-called director, Chandler Tate, was once a legendary comic director in film. Now he’s reduced to bitterness and sarcasm, interposed with lonely drinking binges. The cybernetic world has begun to encroach on the human in other ways. The mysterious owner of the sinister entertainment corporation, Lester Trainsmith, can only speak through a weird interpersonal hook-up to his caretaker, Marmion. It’s a delicious variation on the dysfunctional, frozen world we always meet at the beginning of a classic comedy and we can expect—what? Youth, romantic love, laughter, redemption.
The young hero, Adam Trainsmith, enters with a key right out of the past. Adam loves the old classic comedies, those black and white films gathering dust in drawers and on shelves, if they’ve survived at all. Banana peel pratfalls, pie in the face, double-takes, the entire physical repertoire. Against the grain of an entertainment industry of predictability and numbers, Adam wants a shot at writing and selling an original comedy. That is, Adam, without theorizing about it, wants to reintroduce the unpredictable, surprising, and spontaneous. So he comes to see Chandler, who now calls himself Chance, to lure him back into making people laugh again.
Jacie Triplethree, the comic ingénue, is actually one of those acting robots, a machine with a malfunctioning program that makes her laugh. Once you start laughing, of course, the safe and predictable is gone. Like a beautiful, curious child, Jacie works her repertoire of programmed scripts to try to cover all the incomprehensible experiences happening to her. Finally, she has to grow and learn the new.
Comic Potential takes its place in a long line of plays, legends, novels, and poems about what it means to be human. From Pinocchio to Frankenstein’s monster, from Mister Data to Bicentennial Man, from the Velveteen Rabbit to Pygmalion’s statue, the alien thing, the “other,” asks “How do I become human? What will make me real?” (which, by extension, is the question we are supposed to ask of ourselves). Alan Ayckbourne’s answer, delivered in this hilarious send-up of technology, television, and human customs, is that we are most human when we are most irrational. We are human because we fall in love and we are human—at our most human—when we laugh.
The play simply puts Ayckbourne’s beliefs into daftly material form. “Humour in a sense, at least to me,” he has said, “is a chink in the human brain. The great Comic ideas are often quite incongruous things. I began to muse if a computer did that, it would be designated as faulty . . . then I came up with this Pygmalionesque story about a boy who falls in love with an android . . . like a mixed race marriage of a few years ago.”
Alan Ayckbourne is probably the most prolific playwright living today. Comic Potential was his 54th full-length play and his output by the end of 2009 numbered 72 full-length plays. He was born in 1939 in Hampstead, London to a short story writer and an orchestral violinist. His mother was married to someone else. His parents never married. A stepfather and stepfamily appeared after his mother divorced the first husband and remarried in 1948. Alan was sent off to boarding school. The confused family relationships became a hallmark of Ayckbourne’s domestic comedies, along with characters that try to fit in to a snug family circle and just can’t do it.
Ayckbourne left school at 17, worked as an actor for a few months (notably with Sir Donald Wolfit at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival) and then walked into a “temporary” job at the Scarborough Library Theatre. There the artistic director Stephen Joseph took Alan under his wing and Ayckbourne found the father he had never had before. Joseph mentored the rising actor-director-writer-general theatrical dogsbody for the next decade, until his own untimely death in 1967. The Library Theatre Company eventually morphed into the present Stephen Joseph Theatre and, except for two years in the early ‘60s starting up the New Vic Theatre in Stoke-on-Trent, Ayckbourne has stayed with them from the beginning. From 1967 he was Director of Productions and from 1972 was Artistic Director until 2009. All his plays premiered in Scarborough at the Library or Stephen Joseph Theatre, although more than 40 of the plays went on to be produced in London’s West End or at the National Theatre.
Ayckbourne’s own domestic life has been as complicated as his original family’s. At 18, he married an actress in the company, Christine Roland, and they had two sons. They separated in1971 and he set up housekeeping with another actress, Heather Stoney, without divorcing Christine for the next 30 years. When Ayckbourne and Christine finally divorced in 1997 and he married Heather, it was at the very moment that he was awarded a knighthood, thus allowing both wives to take the title, Lady Ayckbourne.
I always feel, reading about him, that Ayckbourne’s “real reality” is the theatre itself. Real life gets so botched up and confused, but the theatre makes sense. It’s his family and the place where he creates a meaningful life. This could account for his prodigious output, as he constantly generates new material without distractions from the outside. He is a superb craftsman and one of the important starting points for the creation of Comic Potential was that it was fashioned to anchor a season at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. Ayckbourne and his associates decided on a repertory season they called “10 x 10,” ten plays by ten playwrights using ten actors (“Ten was a completely random number, but that seemed to me the amount of plays we could do in a season”). Ayckbourne wrote Comic Potential to use ten actors who would then disperse into repertory roles in the other 9 plays.
This story is indicative of his overwhelming commitment to working with one provincial theatre company through his career (something we at 2nd Story should celebrate!). Like Athol Fugard, indeed even like Shakespeare, Ayckbourne has had the luxury and stimulation of knowing his company from the inside out since 1956. He has been actor, director, playwright for the same audience and the same company for over 50 years! So the company, as for Fugard, has become an essential part of the creative process for him. His actors work on his imagination, suggesting characters, trying out the experimental, trusting him, and making possible the irrationally human experience of falling in love and of laughing out loud.
For further reading:
Paul Allen. Alan Ayckbourne: Grinning at the Edge (New York: Methuen, 2001)
Alan Ayckbourne. The Crafty Art of Playmaking (New York: Macmillan, 2003)
The opinions expressed by the writer are not necessarily those of 2nd Story Theatre.