A Brief History Of Women: Articles by Other Authors

Both articles on this page were written by Sir Alan Ayckbourn's Archivist, Simon Murgatroyd, and published in the programme / playbill for the world premiere production of A Brief History Of Women at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, in 2017.

A Brief(er) History Of Women
by Simon Murgatroyd

Sir Peter Hall once noted that Alan Ayckbourn’s work provided a ‘social document’ of change during the second half of the 20th century.
More than that though, Ayckbourn has provided a theatrical record of how women in society have changed during the past 60 years, which has led to frequent praise for how he writes and portrays women.
He has always shied away from the term ‘feminist writer’, instead arguing that: “I think what I’m doing is trying to reflect women as they are.”
Strong female characters have long been hallmarks of Ayckbourn’s plays from
Relatively Speaking (1967) through to A Brief History Of Women at the Stephen Joseph Theatre and The Divide at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2017.
The inspiration for this he largely credits to his mother: “I was brought up in a single-parent family with a mother who gave me a somewhat biased slant on the world from the woman’s point of view. Most of her friends were women and I spent my formative years listening to women talking.”
It’s frequently noted how Ayckbourn, during the first two decades of his writing career, was deftly exploring gender issues to an extent not seen elsewhere in popular theatre of that period – even though it wasn’t overt nor intended to grab attention but driven by a desire to write interesting and believable characters.
Even in his earliest success,
Relatively Speaking (1967), we have recognisable female figures representing both the establishment and the young generation that embraced the women’s movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s. In both Sheila and Ginny, the playwright is already picking at the scab of society’s view of women.
Upper middle-class housewife Sheila is characteristic of an earlier period where women were still painted as the home-maker, rather than the younger generation of sexually liberated, professionally ambitious women represented by Ginny.
Yet even here, Ayckbourn is subverting convention, for only Sheila is able to figure out what is actually happening during the play and only she has the acumen to realise that Greg and Ginny are not entirely suited: “It’ll be a disastrous marriage but great fun for them while it lasts.”
Class expectations and how women’s attitudes were changing are also explored in
How The Other Half Loves (1969) with three different couples from different classes. And whilst middle class, Guardian-reading Teresa gets the most attention, it is working class Mary - seen only as a timid adjunct to her husband William - who has the most interesting journey, eventually turning the tables on her husband’s apparent superiority with her declaration: “It’s difficult for him, you see. He’s never been wrong before.”
The ‘70s are filled with memorable women in Ayckbourn’s plays from Annie, Ruth and Sarah in
The Norman Conquests (1973) through to the sisters Abigail and Dorcas in Sisterly Feelings (1979). However, Absurd Person Singular (1972) illustrates the start of an ongoing theme in Ayckbourn’s work.
Whilst it features the singularly horrific couple of Sidney and Jane - a marriage built on mutual need and ambition rather than love - it is wretched Eva who vividly etches herself into memory. Her torrid relationship with husband Geoffrey leads to a second act dedicated to her attempting suicide, whilst those around remain oblivious. Here not only do we get the epitome of the Ayckbourn couple and the continuing Ayckbourn mantra that men and women are just not designed to live together successfully without compromise, but also what these dysfunctional relationships can drive people to.
Eva is just one of many Ayckbourn women taken to extremes by their relationships and lives, a theme which would later find its natural conclusion in
Woman In Mind (1985), where the banalities of life as a vicar’s wife whose son has left and with no clear identity of her own lead Susan to create a fantasy world in which she is central.
Escaping into fantasy in Ayckbourn’s plays is always dangerous: Susan’s joyless and sexless marriage and her perceived lack of support lead to a climatic breakdown as the walls between reality and fantasy collapse, the stage dimming to siren lights.
The debilitating effect men and marriage can have on women is a recurring feature of Ayckbourn’s writing throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, from Diana in
Absent Friends (1974), barely coping in a loveless marriage once the children have left, to Vera in Just Between Ourselves (1976), driven into catatonia by an over-bearing mother-in-law and an utterly ineffectual husband whose idea of helping his wife is purely limited to DIY.
But the ‘70s also sees the rise of the woman pushing back, with Evelyn in
Absent Friends rebelling against her marriage and having a perfunctory affair with her husband’s best friend, likening it 'to being made love to by a sack of clammy cement’.
By the ‘80s, we see this progress further with the likes of Anita from
A Small Family Business (1987) and Jill Rillington in Man Of The Moment (1988): women who are succeeding in a male-orientated world even if they have to dominate - literally in Anita’s case - the men around them.
The portrayal of media professional Jill Rillington is particularly pertinent today, given the BBC’s recent revelations about the vast gender pay-gap, as she’s patently fought tooth and nail to get where she is and will do whatever is necessary to keep her place in this male-dominated business - even repurposing a celebrity death to suit the story she wants to tell.
Another decade, and just as Ayckbourn’s plays began to expand into new areas such as the state of the nation, so his approach to women also altered.
Body Language (1990) focused on the on ever-pertinent issue of how women appear, and in today’s parlance is a play which confronts body-shaming as a glamour model and obese journalist finds their lives altered when an accident leaves the wrong head on the wrong body. The relationship that develops from animosity to sisterhood and appreciation by the end of the play is a touching exploration of female friendship in a world where the men judge only by appearance.
In
Wildest Dreams (1992), we have the first Ayckbourn LGBT character in Rick, a young woman who in her role-playing game life becomes the fearless warrior she desires to be in real life; and who finds momentary enlightenment in the first same-sex kiss in an Ayckbourn play following a fearless action. Sadly, she also discovers the sad truth that no matter who your partner is, anyone can be abusive and controlling.
A literal brief history of women takes place in
Comic Potential (1998) when a female android essentially achieves sentience. The play has been interpreted as a history of the ‘new woman’ from the 19th century to the present day: suffrage, emancipation, recognition, equality and even - it is suggested - superiority.
She’s a forbear of the women who dominate the plays of the ‘00s in such pieces as the
Damsels In Distress trilogy (2001) which focus on strong young women in fraught situations with only their wits and courage to aid them; there may be a man at hand, but they’re generally dragged along for the ride by the heroine, or are more of a hindrance to women who prove more than capable of dealing with anything life throws at them.
By the end of the decade, we essentially return to Sheila, but in a modern-day version.
If I Were You (2006) and Life & Beth (2008) both celebrate mature women - Gill and Beth - whose lives have been dedicated to their marriages and have not been as fulfilling as they might have desired.
Both women’s fantastical experiences offer the hope of a brighter, more liberated future. Gill swaps bodies with her husband allowing each to better appreciate then other, but making the sly observation that whereas a female will still be ignored in a male-dominated workplace, a woman in a man’s body is far more efficient at solving the company’s issues than any man.
Beth, meanwhile, has come to the end of a marriage after her husband’s death: except he’s not too keen to go, certain she cannot cope without him. Whether the ghost is real or imagined, the play is about a woman seen as just a wife but proving to herself and those around her that not only is she more than capable, she will likely bloom in her new found independence.
By the ‘10s, the Ayckbourn woman has become the dominant driving force in many of the plays such as
Arrivals & Departures (2013) and Hero’s Welcome (2015), which do not flinch from showing harsh realities - Ez’s rape and subsequent pregnancy in Arrivals & Departure - but portray women who are either fiercely self-sufficient or have become the driving force and stronger partner within a marriage.
In
Hero’s Welcome, Baba arrives in the UK, shy and dependent on new husband Murray and barely speaking a word of English. By the climax there is no doubt that she is the rock on which Murray will rely and that there is little he can’t achieve with her by his side.
We’ve travelled with with Alan Ayckbourn through 60 years and in
A Brief History of Women, we have the chance to see even more remarkable women and a potted journey through six decades of another man’s life: not just how women have changed in society, but how they have affected the course of that one man’s life.
It’s a remarkable journey.

Play Houses
by Simon Murgatroyd

“I’ve written plays with a man as the central character, and plays with a woman as the central character. And I’ve written plays with characters that never actually appear - but I think this is the first time I’ve written a play with a house as the central character.”
Alan Ayckbourn


Within
A Brief History of Women, there’s a character which is not listed in the credits, but which is a perpetual presence every bit as essential to the narrative as its protagonist Anthony Spates.
It endures just as many changes and upheavals over the years as Spates, including various ignominies heaped upon it over six decades. It is Kirkbridge Manor, the setting for the play and which we visit in various incarnations.
Whilst this may be the first time a house has been a central character in an Ayckbourn play, it’s not the first play to feature a memorable setting which has become far more than just a backdrop to the action.
One of the most memorable examples can be seen alongside
A Brief History of Women this summer at the Stephen Joseph Theatre with Taking Steps (1979), set on three storeys of The Pines; an old, reputedly haunted house which has also suffered ignominy, the most recent having to be lived in by bucket magnate Roland Crabbe.
The Pines is integral to
Taking Steps as its three floors, interwoven amongst each other on one set, not only provides the backdrop for farcical opportunities, but becomes progressively more real in our minds. Despite the fact The Pines is - at first glance - just a strange confection of beds, flat staircases and chairs, by the end of the play, it’s arguably a fully realised house in the minds of the audience.
This in itself is a natural development of one of Ayckbourn’s first experimentations with setting in
How The Other Half Loves (1969). Here two practically identical living rooms are overlaid on each other, allowing events in different locations - even times - to be portrayed simultaneously. This culminates in an uproarious scene, where two dinners unfold concurrently in different homes on two evenings.
Into the ‘80s and one of Ayckbourn’s most acclaimed plays of the period is dominated by a fully realised life-size doll house in
A Small Family Business (1987). He was commissioned to write this play by the National Theatre and, famously, came up with it as a solution to overcome the challenges of the vast Olivier stage.
Here we have another callback to
How The Other Half Loves as the house is ever-present and completely integrated into the plot. From initially opening as the home of the McCrackens in the first scene, it becomes - as required - several homes with action able to simultaneously take place in different rooms of different houses in a complete coup de théâtre.
But, I hear you ask, how is it believable the same set believably portrays different several places? With typical ingenuity, Ayckbourn presents the solution - all the characters work for the same family furniture firm and thus their homes are all furnished with the identical latest range.
While
A Small Family Business features a literal creation of a house, arguably one of Ayckbourn’s most famous architectural creations is built purely in the minds of its young audience - and who knows what fantastical creations they have imagined over the years?
The second act of
Mr A’s Amazing Maze Plays (1988) is set entirely within the vast home of the sound-stealing Mr Accousticus. It is built purely in the imagination though as it’s not possible to show the rooms as the configuration of the house alters with each performance; the audience determines what path the heroine, Suzy, takes through the building in search of her dog, Neville.
So depending on choice, Suzy can stumble on anything from a dungeon to wine cellar, laboratory to secret room, all realised with a little light and sound alongside a lot of imagination.
During the ‘90s, there really is only one house we can talk about in Ayckbourn’s plays and that is the eponymous setting of
House (1999). Possibly the closest relation to A Brief History Of Women’s Kirkbridge Manor. It too is a Georgian building with a rich history including an old library which previously replaced an older library, but which has never been used as a library and the current owner, Teddy Platt, can’t recall a book ever gracing the room.
It’s also a house which has seen its fair share of change, not least its East Wing destroyed during the war and taking with it one of the many Platt women to have met unfortunate and untimely ends within the house.
It also has a rather nice
Garden too.
The home possibly best remembered from the ‘00s is the anonymous London Dockland flats found in the
Damsels In Distress trilogy.
The trilogy was inspired by the playwright’s desire to return to a repertory season at the theatre with one company and one set serving three very different plays. As an audience, we all know the set is the same for each piece, but each one develops its own personality and character dependent on the people inhabiting them.
Which brings us up to date with
A Brief History of Women and a house that has a definite character of its own, which has borne witness to a fascinating story of an ordinary man and the many extraordinary women who have passed through his life.
Welcome to 1925 and Kirkbridge Manor…

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