Time Of My Life: Articles by Alan Ayckbourn


Time was… (Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round 1992 production programme note)
I am hardly the first dramatist to be fascinated by time.
Time, I mean, as an aid to dramatic story telling.
I first started exploring its possibilities early on in
How The Other Half Loves. That, if you remember it, was the play of mine in which two couples held separate dinner parties on different nights (both in different rooms occupying the same space, but that's another chapter). The plot was further complicated by the arrival of the same guests to both dinner parties simultaneously, one on Wednesday, one on Thursday. Stage time gone mad.
A great deal of my interest, I confess, was first fuelled when I encountered the work of the father of the twentieth century Time Play, J.B. Priestley. It was largely thanks to his adventurous experiments with stage time that I became aware of its huge narrative potential. Nearly a quarter of a century on, I'm still fascinated.
Often in theatre we accept a seemingly impossible stage time simply because the dramatist and actors have successfully gained our consent to enter with them some new, illogical universe.
A temporary state of affairs where Time can be condensed (as in Bolt's
A Man For All Seasons), or extended (many of Chekhov’s plays), accelerated (most of Shakespeare's) or slowed down (Waiting For Godot), made into loops (Dangerous Corner), chopped about (Time And The Conways), split into alternative strands (Rashamon), flashed back (Miller's A View From The Bridge), or even reversed (as in Pinter's Betrayal).
Indeed there are few plays that don't make use of Time as a device somehow or other, however subtly, even the most seemingly naturalistic drama.
How else can we hope to cram a lifetime of events into two or three hours? Whereas the average farce is a veritable cat's cradle of different time threads.
A few months ago, I was appointed Cameron Mackintosh Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Oxford. It was my hope when I accepted the post that during my year in office I would be able to pass on some of the innermost secrets of playwriting to a new generation of dramatists. I pictured myself giving lectures for example on, say, The Inner mysteries of Stage Time and its Importance in Modern Theatre ...
For whilst accepting that a lot of what I practised was instinctive and unconscious, born purely out of experience. I did assume that a modicum of hard fact could be passed on.
Alas, I'm rapidly discovering, just how truly instinctive it really is, the dramatic use of things such as Time. There are, in the end, no secret formulas to hand over, no set rules to lay down. Time is just one colour in the playwright's palette to be spread, mixed, thinned and splattered as required. Just how it's used is down to each person's individual, unaided choice. They themselves must finally hold their own paint brush.
On the other hand, to know it's available, to understand its possibilities is important. And that one can pass on. For I do suspect that the choice of time scale in a dramatic structure is often one of the most important basic decisions a dramatist needs to make about their play.
We see this clearly from the results left behind by others. For truly the difference between two plays both with potentially strong dramatic narratives - the one engrossing and constantly surprising, the other predictable or utterly baffling - can usually depend on a right or wrong choice of time frame.
The elusive ingredient which can cause an audience at the end of a performance to remark that they genuinely lost all sense of time. Or all sense of real time, perhaps...

Preface to Alan Ayckbourn: Plays 6
Time of My Life, first performed in 1992 and the earliest of these plays, is what I think of as me at my most J. B. Priestley-esque. I have, both as an actor and latterly as a director, long admired the great Yorkshire dramatist's work. I was attracted especially to his so-called 'time' plays, most particularly Time and the Conways. Its constructional conceit in setting its first and third acts in a single time period and the action in its middle second act several years into the future is quite inspired. We catch a glimpse of the varying fates of this middle-class family which, when we return to the third act, the characters themselves have yet to experience. A powerful use of dramatic irony when the audience are granted the somewhat devastating gift of foresight.

Thanks largely to Priestley, I have always considered Time one of the most valuable storytelling tools available to me as a dramatist. It's also one of the first decisions I find I need to make before I set pen to paper. How long or how brief a time frame does my story require to be told? Years? Days? Or can it be told in mere minutes?

The overall premise of
Time of My Life is that we should enjoy the present, live for now, not spending too much time looking backwards or forwards but savouring each moment as it happens. Although, regrets one of the characters Glyn, in a key speech, how difficult that is for most of us.

At the start, we witness the moment itself, a happy one, a mother's sixtieth birthday party at a local restaurant surrounded by her family, her husband, her two sons and their respective womenfolk, the six of them finishing dinner together, slightly drunk and sharing a rare moment of enjoyment. Soon after, the narrative splits into three, following the elder son and his wife into the future in a succession of brief scenes taking us two years ahead. Similarly, we follow the younger son and his new girlfriend over a period of two months taking us backwards in time to their first meeting. Meanwhile, the parents remain at the table in 'real' time in a single continuous post-party scene in synchronicity with the audience who can thus view the moment itself from past, present and future viewpoints.

Hopefully, it's not quite as complicated as it sounds! But then, when was it ever simple to explain a stage device? When I think of the hours I've wasted trying to explain to someone who's never seen it the basic principle of an earlier play,
How the Other Half Loves. Often the conversation results in my saying, 'Oh, please, just go and see it!' Or in this case, 'Please just read it!’

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