Alan Ayckbourn is a very social playwright. I don’t mean he’s great to have a drink with – although this may well be the case, and I await reports from the bar at the Stephen Joseph theatre. I mean that watching one of his plays often provides a “social” experience in a way that other plays don’t.
“Social” is one of the big ideas at the back of a lot of theatre talk. The founding stories we tell about the form are almost always about past theatre’s healthy relationship to society. The Greek tragedies were staged, so we’re told, in amphitheatres which could contain half the entire adult male population of the city-state. So when Euripides wrestled with the claims of kinship, personal love and duty to the city in Antigone, the entire electorate of that society was listening. The Greek theatre tends to be discussed as a sort of giant philosophy seminar with a plot. Just as people had accidentally invented a society, goes our story, they developed a theatre with which to think about it.
A few years later, the mystique of Elizabethan playhouses like The Globe is closely tied up with the idea that – unlike the private playhouses or court venues which don’t loom nearly so large in the popular imagination – the whole of Early Modern society crammed into them to see the latest by Shakespeare, or Marlowe, or Dekker. David Scott’s Victorian painting of Queen Elizabeth visiting The Globe (an important cultural event which importantly never happened) captures this feeling. It’s not so much a painting as a diagram of/ loveletter to a happy and unified England which we’ve somehow lost. The massive success of Shakespeare’s Globe in modern London suggests that we’re still haunted by this idea.
Particularly the queues of people eager to pay a fiver to be a “groundling” for a couple of hours. That’s not a word any Elizabethan theatre-goer would have recognized, at least not as applied to them. When Hamlet uses it to describe the people standing in the yard, it’s a joke or a slur or both: a “groundling” is a kind of fish which lives near the riverbed. “Bottom feeder” is probably a decent enough translation, or maybe “lurker”. I don’t think sales would improve if they changed the names of those tickets. As Simon Shepherd and Peter Womack have pointed out, “groundling” is a word the Victorian critics seized on to mark out class distinctions in the theatre (handy scapegoat for the “bad”, “crude” or “popular” bits in Shakespeare), and I think it has stayed with us because it seems to promise that those class distinctions can be erased. Buying a ticket to the yard at Shakespeare’s Globe and becoming a groundling lets us pretend that we’re “the people”(whoever they might be), that our society is happy, unified, simple and all those other words we project onto the past. The Globe, and the Elizabethan theatre for which it stands, figure in our cultural fantasies as a sort of theatre engine to bring people together into a healthy and happy society. When Dominic Dromgoole says that the audience at Noises Off “arrived as a quiet Friday night shuffle of weariness” and “left as a wild exhilarated babble of Elizabethans”, he doesn’t mean they had developed weeping sores, or forgotten how to literacy, or decided that Irish people were subhuman beasts who should be exterminated. He means… well, we know what he means. That’s why the reference works.
While the Victorians were busy inventing these stories about the Elizabethans, we wrote them into another one about theatre and society. In this account, theatre had become frivolous and melodramatic and people were staging Shakespeare with altogether too many fairies and/or live rabbits. Up rose George Bernard Shaw and Henrik Ibsen, who wrote plays which addressed Social Problems and generally encouraged society to have a word with itself. Through the theatre, the late nineteenth century came to grips with issues like the Woman Question, the Poverty Question and the Empire Question. (Some theatres made a brave attempt at all three by selling cheap tickets to plays involving actresses dressed in leopard skins, but they were deemed to have missed the point.)
This idea also still hangs around our discussions about the theatre. The “modern theatre” may not be an untroubled pastoral in which all classes mingle joyfully, but it still has a mission to confront society with its own problems, in order to begin solving them. We might disagree on whether that’s actually the case, but it’s implied in many of the ways we talk about theatre. It’s imagined as a space where our social life and our social problems can come into contact, for everyone’s benefit.
All of which is what I don’t mean by saying Alan Ayckbourn is a social playwright. All the theatre stories (or myths, if we’re feeling less kind) above use “social” as a positive term, just as we use “value” or “quality” with an implicit “good” in front of them. Watching Season’s Greetings at the National last year, and Neighbourhood Watch last weekend, I noticed how good Ayckbourn is at bad social scenes. Not scenes involving social problems (though he does those pretty scorchingly too) but awkward scenes, where there’s a lot of goodwill but people can’t quite get it to work. They laugh at their own jokes for slightly too long, or offend each other by accident, or don’t quite know which social script they should be working from. Characters end up being serious when they can only get along by being frivolous, or bracing when someone desperately needs them to be sympathetic.
This mixed style, which doesn’t so much “blend” the comic and the serious smoothly as rub them up against each other, produces a similar effect in the audience. Or it does in my case, at least. Watching Ayckbourn, I get irked by the insensitive sods who laugh at the rude joke which is supposed to signal how desperate a character is, or I feel impatient with the pathos crowd who breathe solemnly at a satirical moment. From my seat, I’m practically the only one who gets this play, and I wonder why Ayckbourn bothers writing for the theatrefuls who clearly misunderstand him at several crucial points. Then a big laugh comes, and the air and the furniture vibrate with everyone in here delightedly agreeing with the actors and with each other. But the next laugh splits us up again and I start resenting whoever laughed, or didn’t laugh, or drowned the end of the line which would have shut them up if they’d only caught the rhythm and waited for it. Watching Ayckbourn is a genuinely social experience because it doesn’t let us pretend that “social” is always a good word, or that the theatre dissolves our differences and brings us together into one simple, happy, unified country. Resenting and misunderstanding one’s neighbour are as much as social emotions as loving them, and Ayckbourn’s work helps us keep that in mind.
 William Worthen’s essay “Globe Performativity” gives a wonderfully subtle account of the ways in which going to The Globe involves playing at being a playgoer.