Life Of Riley: Interviews

The section features interviews with Alan Ayckbourn about Life of Riley. Click on the links in the right-hand column below to read the relevant interview.

This interview by Don Aucoin with Alan Ayckbourn was published in The Boston Globe on 28 September 2012.

Life of Riley

Don Aucoin: Life of Riley was your 74th play, and you’ve since come out with two more. One British reviewer noted that you’ve now written twice as many plays as Shakespeare. What is the key to remaining as unflaggingly prolific as you’ve been for as long as you’ve been?
Alan Ayckbourn: I am fortunate in having a ready supply of ideas and themes that I want to develop, although the initial idea always needs, in my case, a series of 'sub-ideas' before it becomes anything substantial. These can be occasionally the ‘where’, sometimes the ‘when’ and always the ‘how’. That is the location, the time span and the characters and plot. As for the sheer number of plays, well, I ran a theatre for 40 years or so and had a great deal to do with the scheduling! There was always a slot somewhere in the season for a play of my own. Sometimes in retrospect I wonder whether the play I wrote that particular year really justified its inclusion but in general, thank God, we had more hits than misses.

It always seemed to me that the American television comedy Frasier owed a significant creative debt to you. Frasier featured a persnickety character - Niles Crane’s wife Maris - who was constantly referred to but never seen for 11 seasons. In Life of Riley, the title character is unseen but plenty active nonetheless, and indeed is the straw that stirs the drink, plot-wise. Did it free you up as a writer - and if so, in what ways — to create a character whose presence and personality we in the audience are forced to apprehend solely through his impact on others, with no flesh-and-blood dimension to the picture?
The offstage character is not a new device but then, of course, very little in playwriting is. It’s all been done before. It simply depends on how you do it this time. Though I’ve written dozens of incidental offstage characters who never appear, George Riley is different in that he is my main protagonist. All the others’ lives and loves revolve round him. He needed therefore to be different things for different people, almost mercurial. I decided early on that the only way to write such a person was to create him entirely through the eyes of others, that way he could be contradictory and enigmatic. To saddle some luckless actor however charismatic with this task would, for many audience members, only result in disappointment.

We learn early in Life of Riley that George Riley has at most six months to live. Does a character’s impending death, and the sense of mortality that consequently hangs over the play, lend an urgency to the proceedings in a way you find intriguing or helpful as a dramatist, given that an imminent death can lend clarity to a situation while also destabilising it?
Yes, I believe it does. His imminent death focuses the other characters' minds greatly. They all knew him closely either as friend or lover. And by featuring an offstage character, it helps to distance the audience from the event, leaving them free to observe those close to him. Which was always my intention.

Leaving aside the question, which I’m sure you find wearisome, about whether and to what extent your plays are at all autobiographical, do you need to identify fairly strongly with at least one character when you’re writing a play in order to get your motor running?
All my characters have something of me in them. None are purely autobiographical though some admittedly are closer to me than others. Who am I to tell? Like George Riley you will have to ask my friends that.

The themes of marital malaise and infidelity among the middle class are prominent in Life of Riley. Is marriage an especially fertile topic for a playwright like you because it can contain elements of comedy and poignancy alike, or perhaps because someone's essential nature can be revealed when his or her marriage hits the rocks, or for another reason?
I think marriage is one aspect of it. Though I’d like to widen that to include all human relationships within a family. Husbands, wives, parents and children and occasional lovers. Drama relies on friction. The old chestnut holds true, name one happy marriage in the works of Shakespeare? Happy marriages are not attractive to playwrights. People sitting around smiling, contentedly enjoying each other’s company, may be wonderful in real life but they don’t make for good theatre. Fortunately for us dramatists many wives drive men insane whilst a lot of wives grow profoundly disappointed with the man they married. Not all children bring infinite joy and many reduce their parents to tears. And as for parents ...

Life of Riley seems, in part, to be about life-as-theatre. Within the play the characters are rehearsing an amateur production of your own Relatively Speaking; several of the women are itching to try on new roles in their lives (or, in the case of George Riley’s wife Monica, possibly to return to an old one); and George could be said to be perpetually waiting in the wings throughout Life of Riley. Is the chance to add a meta-layer or two part of the fun and challenge for you after spending so many years of your life in the theatre?
It was technically effective to link the protagonists through a drama group headed by (another) unseen character, their director. Yes, true the play is concerned with the roles we play. Looking back I think it was a bit cheeky of me to make the play they were all rehearsing one of my own. But as one critic, failing to recognise it as
Relatively Speaking, wondered in their review what the dreadful piece they were rehearsing actually was, I suppose I got what was coming to me.

Interview by Don Aucoin. Copyright: Don Aucoin. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.