A Brief History Of Women: History

A Brief History of Woman is Alan Ayckbourn's 81st play and premiered on 5 September 2017 at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough. It is a piece which the playwright considers himself again to be pushing into new territory.
Behind The Scenes: SJT Artistic Director Paul Robinson
“I met with Alan back in the summer of 2016 to discuss his new play, a crime drama. Alan famously and without fail puts pen to pencil following the final performance of the season and three weeks later produces the final draft of the play.
“Alan, as good as his word, starts work on a play about a female detective. Now I’m hugely excited about receiving the play. The famous three weeks pass and nothing. I’m a bit concerned, but I remember that Alan has delivered a play each year to the SJT for 60 years. A further two weeks pass. Nothing. Call me paranoid, but I start to wonder if my arrival on the scene has given him writer’s block for the first time in 60 years. A few more days pass. Nothing. I gently enquire as to how he is getting on. I don’t get an answer. But instead I’m asked to pay him a visit. By now, I’m convinced that I’ve broken Alan Ayckbourn.
“I arrive and sit down with Alan and his wife, Heth. They both look pained. I wait for the bombshell. ‘It’s a bit of an issue,’ he says. And then confesses, ‘I’m having a small crisis of confidence.’ Our proximity to the sea and my state of extreme anxiety forces me to wander if the RNLI do home visits. He says, ‘I’ve almost finished the crime play. But I’m having thoughts about another one.’ Despite the utter out of body experience of suddenly having a working relationship with one of my cultural heroes, what I do know is writers. And what I know about writers is that try as hard as you may - and I have - you will never stop them writing what they want to write, am I right? So my answer came loud and clear. ‘You must write the other play.’ They both smiled. ‘I think it’ll be with you soon,’ Alan says. ‘Well, don’t rush it,’ I offer, trying to sound breezy.
“Three weeks later, two plays arrive in my pigeon hole at the theatre. I didn’t break Alan Ayckbourn, in fact I think he just upped his game. So Alan’s new play
A Brief History of Women was delivered to me alongside another one.
“Which you’ll just have to wait to hear about.…”
Somewhat unusually however, this is not the play which Alan Ayckbourn initially intended to write for the summer 2017 season at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. The original plan was for an entirely different - and completed - play called A Case Of Missing Wives; a police procedural inspired piece. Alan wrote this play during his customary autumn writing period before going to Bowness-on-Windermere for the in-the-round tour of his latest play, The Karaoke Theatre Company. Whilst in Bowness, he had second thoughts about A Case Of Missing Wives, deciding he was not altogether satisfied with it. At the same time, he had an idea for a second, totally unrelated play, which he decided to write when he returned to Scarborough.

He finished the first draft of
A Brief History Of Women on 5 December 2017. Once he had completed the play, he then decided to return to A Case Of Missing Wives, revising it to his satisfaction as this was the play he had originally told the Stephen Joseph Theatre he was going to write. He then offered either play to the Artistic Director, Paul Robinson, who chose A Brief History Of Women. It marks the first time that Alan Ayckbourn has written two plays at the same time not knowing which would be staged and whether the other will be also be staged at a later date; this being unlikely now as several characters created for A Case Of Missing Wives have since been used for his 82nd play Better Off Dead and the playwright does not expect A Case Of Missing Wives to be staged.

The play was announced to the public at the Stephen Joseph Theatre as part of a summer season launch event, during which Paul Robinson recounted his experiences with the play (see right). Alan briefly summed the play up as:

“It’s a play about a man - it’s a bit autobiographical - who’s fairly ineffectual. His life has been radically changed by a series of women."

A Brief History Of Women spans 60 years of time - the longest period to date covered by an Ayckbourn play - over four acts. Each act is set 20 years apart from 1925 to 1985 with the protagonist, Anthony Spates, ageing from 17 to 77 during the course of the play. He begins life as a footman in a Kirkbridge Manor - a Georgian country manor house. During the course of the play, the house is converted into Kirkbridge Manor Preparatory School For Girls, Kirkbridge Arts Centre and, finally, Kirkbridge Manor Hotel; all of which employ Anthony from school master to administrator to retired hotel manager. Over the course of six decades, the play follows him and the remarkable women he has loved, left and lost over the years.

Objectively, the play seems autobiographical not only in the women Alan says that he has met and shaped his life, but also how the key decisions in his life were not made consciously but happened as the result of being in the right place at the right time.
Behind The Scenes: Alternate Titles
Alan Ayckbourn originally considered calling the play On The House.
In Spates, Ayckbourn has created a character who fits into the 'Ayckbourn Man' mould of essentially a re-active character; Spates is more an observer of life to whom things happen rather than a man who drives the plot forward. His connection in life with Kirkbridge Manor is not intended, he just seems to be in the right place at the right time - which is also mirrored in his interactions with the women who play a role in his life, he seems to accidentally stumble into their paths and relationship of varying natures.

It is the first play in which Alan considers he has written a character in the form of the house in which all the action over the decades takes place. The play is as much the story of the house and the various ignominies it endures over the decades as it is of the protagonist and Alan was very keen that the house played a perpetual presence in the play.
Behind The Scenes: Early Ideas
In Alan Ayckbourn's early notes for A Brief History of Women, the protagonist was called Nigel Chatterton, rather than Anthony Spates. Other differences include the final scene did not feature Caroline's grandchildren and there was a head-girl in the second scene, who appears to have been the love interest rather than another teacher.
Although it would be wrong to read too much into it, there are seeming parallels between Kirkbridge Manor and the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round - the home of the company prior to the Stephen Joseph Theatre. This was previously a school, which became a theatre, became a school and is currently intended to be converted into flats. Alan has noted that the third part of the play, when the Manor has become an arts centre, it was inspired by the company's frequent tours to similar venues during the 1970s.

With its multiple rooms, which transform over the decades, Alan has noted it seemed fitting to be playing in repertory with
Taking Steps, a farce without doors and featuring imaginary floors. A Brief History Of Women is set on a single floor, but features imaginary doors.

Casting begin in March 2017 for the company of three men and three women; all play multiple roles with the exception of the actor playing Anthony Spates with rehearsals taking place at Alan's own rehearsal rooms during August.

The play opened on 5 September 2017 at the Stephen Joseph Theatre running in revival with Alan's own revival of his classic farce Taking Steps; both plays share virtually the same company with Frances Marshall joining the company for
A Brief History Of Women.

A strong audience reaction to the play was joined by four star reviews from several publications and although most noted there were slight pacing issues with the play, that it was a strong Ayckbourn work which built to a second half.

A Brief History Of Women went onto a short in-the-round tour in Autumn 2017 before transfering to the 59e59 Theaters, New York, from 26 April - 27 May 2018 as part of the Brits Off Broadway festival. Well received, the play was a New York Times Critic's Pick and received an excellent review from this most influential of newspapers. It went on to break the record for the most attended SJT production at the venue attracting 6,300 during the course of its month-long run (see press release here).

A Brief History of Women was published as an acting edition by Samuel French during 2020 and was also in eluded in the Faber collection Alan Ayckbourn: Plays 6, which was published in 2018 and included plays which had been performed as part of the Brits Off Broadway festival in New York City.
Article by Simon Murgatroyd. Copyright: Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.