A Brief History Of Women: Interviews

This section features interviews about A Brief History of Women with Alan Ayckbourn.

This interview with Alan Ayckbourn about A Brief History of Women by his Archivist Simon Murgatroyd took place on 2 March 2017.

Simon Murgatroyd Interviews Alan Ayckbourn

Interviews with Alan Ayckbourn
Simon Murgatroyd interview
Charles Hutchinson interview
Simon Murgatroyd: This summer sees the world premiere of your play A Brief History of Women, but I understand that wasn’t your original plan.
Alan Ayckbourn:
No, I wrote this year’s play in October last year and then went to Bowness-on-Windermere to dwell on it. There I decided I was less than 100% happy with it and - as a result - I came back to Scarborough and wrote an entirely different play! I then also rewrote the original one to make myself happier with it, so I suddenly had two plays and I offered them both to our Artistic Director Paul Robinson and said, ‘take your pick.’ He chose the second, as it happens, A Brief History Of Women.

What is A Brief History Of Woman about?
It’s actually a bit autobiographical. It’s about a very unassuming man, Anthony Spates, who’s a fairly ineffectual chap and who would probably be forgotten by history, but for his relationship with some very colourful women in his life.

In what sense is it auto-biographical?
I think it’s sort of autobiographical in that I left public school at 17 and was hurled into the theatre. There I met so many highly colourful members of the opposite sex and I was convinced - until I was in my thirties - that almost all women were totally mad! They completely intrigued me, which is why I write quite a lot of them, but - like the play’s hero - I only met anything even remotely resembling a sane woman until quite late in life! Although not quite as late as in the play, where the poor man is in his 50s before he meets a sane woman. He’s had some quite interesting experiences along the way though!

This suggests it covers quite a long period of time.
It’s an unusual one for me in that it’s got quite a long time period, which I’ve sometimes - but not often - used in my plays. This is as long a one as any I’ve written as it’s 60 years; I think my previous longest was Joking Apart at 12 years. It runs from 1925 to 1985.

That’s an interesting span of time to cover.
If you stand back from the picture, you’re looking at a story that starts in the mid ‘20s with a certain series of events and then finishes in the mid ‘80s in a world which has gone through two world wars, which throw quite a long shadow over the play either because the characters themselves came through it or were affected by it. But it’s also shows, I think in microcosm, the shifting attitudes to women over the decades.

How does that affect the story you’re telling of this ordinary man and his extraordinary women?
I was interested to chart a chunk of history, although I’m now writing a history play. I’m interested in what effect it has on my characters living in that period. Yet the story of our hero is the one thing that keeps going through it, the people he meets and the differing sexual attitudes.

And all this is also seen through the prism of what you describe as another character, the house.
In 1925, it’s a grand old country house where Spates works as a footman. Then in 1945, it becomes a slightly dodgy prep school for girls. Our hero has recently returned as a fully fledged school master. We then move on to 1965, when the school has long since closed and the building is now an arts centre, one of these arts centres that were dotted around the country where former country houses have been given over to pottery and still-life classes and weekend drama functions. In my time I’ve toured to those places and there’s always one harassed director of the arts centre who always seems to be struggling with many well-meaning, but slightly disorganised amateur groups. In this case, our poor hero is in charge of the arts centre and trying to deal with the local amateur pantomime. And then finally the house becomes, in the mid-‘80s, one of those country house hotels complete with muzak and ‘ye olde bar’.
The house is, in a sense, one of the central characters of the play, because it does have its own personality and it’s undergone all sorts of increasingly humiliating changes. Poor old thing.

Covering six decades sounds like a challenge for the actors, what will they have to cope with?
It offers quite a lot of opportunities for actors to strut their stuff. There’s 26 roles so all of them - except our hero who just ages gently - play different periods of life. Russell Dixon is returning and I said to him, ‘I’m offering you three appalling men and one hall porter! The porter is probably a decent bloke, but the others are all monsters really.’ There’s something nice about playing a series of monsters in one play!

It’s going into repertory with Taking Steps, which is obviously a farce. What can we expect from A Brief History of Women?
I don’t know how you would label it, there are farcical, funny moments to it but by the same token, there are some quite sad elements to and some serious ones. It’s a gentle, autumnal piece which I hope audiences will enjoy as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it.

Interview by Simon Murgatroyd. Copyright: Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.