Bedroom Farce: Articles by Other AuthorsThis page contains articles on Bedroom Farce by authors other than Alan Ayckbourn. The articles are the copyright of the respective author and should not be reproduced without permission.
When Is A Farce Not A Farce?
by Simon Murgatroyd
When originally performed in London, some critics took exception to the fact Bedroom Farce was not actually a farce - a fact Alan has never disputed. So what is farce and why isn’t Bedroom Farce one of them? And, ultimately, does it matter?
What is a farce?
Traditionally a farce is a play with broad humour, numerous complications and a generally improbable plot. The term farce derives from the Latin word farcire (meaning ‘to stuff’) and early farces can be traced back to early Greek and Roman theatre. Farce was also a common element in medieval plays dating back to at least the 13th century and also the commedia dell’arte.
Farce as a distinct genre in itself can be dated back to the 16th century; however it did not reach its prime until the 18th and 19th century when short farces would often be presented as light relief after a tragedy. Among the most notable writers of farce during this period are Feydeau and Pinero.
What a contemporary audience most obviously recognises as farce though is a 20th century creation and is often termed the ‘bedroom farce’ (see below). Although Alan Ayckbourn was labelled a farceur early in his career, he has actually only written two recognisable farces, How The Other Half Loves and Taking Steps. His early plays contain farcical elements, but otherwise do not fit into such obvious and easy categorisation.
The ‘bedroom farce’
Just to confuse matters, there is also a genre of writing known as the ‘bedroom farce’. This is typically a British tradition most associated with the ‘Whitehall Farces’ (written during the 1950s and ‘60s), featuring Brian Rix, and to a certain extent the ‘Aldwych Farces’ written by Ben Travers during the 1920s and 1930s. ‘Bedroom farce’ tends to involve broad comedy, often with mistaken identities, loss of clothing, double entendres and innuendo.
Alan Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce
Which leads to Alan Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce, which is not a true farce in theatrical terms. It could be considered a farce in the non-theatrical sense of the word in that nothing goes to plan and little of the activities most associated with bedrooms (sleep and sex) take place in the bedrooms. There are farcical elements (Kate’s loss of clothes, Nick’s attempts to build the drawers), but this is not a broad, innuendo-driven play with characters caught in flagrante at inopportune moments.
Does all this matter? Not really. Alan Ayckbourn found a title he liked and applied it to the play. That the play was not a pure farce seems only to have irritated several critics who should have known better. One suspects Alan even knew some people would pick this up as in an early interview, he announced the title as Bedroom Farce: A Comedy, just to show he was aware of the mischief he was creating. Alan’s plays have always defied easy categorisation and are most commonly associated with tragi-comedy. But if justification is needed, who better to state his case than Alan Ayckbourn….
“Comedy, I read somewhere, consists of larger than life characters in real situations. Farce, on the other hand, portrays real characters projected into incredible situations. Bedroom Farce is a comedy about real characters who, projected into incredible situations, start behaving in a larger than life manner as the situations appear to them too horribly real. I’m with Chekhov on this, as a matter of fact. He called his plays comedies or farces whenever he felt like it, probably to confuse Stanislavsky.”
Bedroom Farce: The Aftermath
by Simon Murgatroyd
Bedroom Farce has always been a difficult play to place in the broader context of Alan Ayckbourn’s career and has frequently been dismissed as a result. Certainly it does not sit easily with the plays around it, but to dismiss it would be to do the play a disservice.
Bedroom Farce appears a light and entertaining comedy written at a time when Alan’s plays were generally moving into darker territory; in fact, as can be seen in Other Articles, it has a serious core. It is preceded by Absent Friends and followed by Just Between Ourselves, Ten Times Table and Joking Apart. They are strange bed-fellows as these plays epitomise one of the darker periods of Alan’s writing career. Yet beneath the laughs, Bedroom Farce is not so far removed from these other plays and Alan Ayckbourn’s most common themes. Practically all the relationships are in ill-health and the intrusion of Trevor and Susannah into them all but pushes them to breaking point. In Trevor, we have one of Alan’s hugely destructive men laying waste to the people and relationships around him with not a care for anyone other than himself. He is an extreme example of Leonard from Time And Time Again, Norman in The Norman Conquests and Dennis in Just Between Ourselves; except these other characters tend to have at least a couple of redeeming qualities! In Susannah, we also have an archetypal Ayckbourn female pushed to the limit and on the verge of breakdown. She is not so far removed from Diana in Absent Friends, Sarah in The Norman Conquests, Vera in Just Between Ourselves and any number of other Ayckbourn women pushed to the edge. Susannah is more broadly comic but one cannot imagine her life - or the lives of those she interacts with - will ever be easy.
There is a lighter touch in Bedroom Farce and it is more obviously comic, but its theme and subject sit comfortably within Alan’s writing of this period. This argument and the depth of the play is succinctly summarised by the critic Michael Billington in his book on Alan Ayckbourn:
“For what is the play actually about? What Schopenhauer called 'the tyranny of the weak', the capacity of a neurotic married couple not only to export their problems but also to exacerbate the crises in other people's marriages. It also deals with parental destructiveness, marital violence, failures of communication, male vanity. Where a lesser dramatist might set up these themes and then find an action that illustrated them, Ayckbourn sets up a brilliantly comic device, lets his imagination take over and allows the ideas to spring out of exact observation of human behaviour. He reminds us all the time that a play is an artefact, a toy, a construct; but that, at its best, it can also illuminate the human condition. Bedroom Farce is also one of those rare plays in which form and content achieve a blissfully happy marriage (about the only one on view).”
The success of Bedroom Farce was enormous both critically and commercially. It is arguably the last of Alan Ayckbourn’s indisputable London successes until 1984, when A Chorus Of Disapproval began another period of notable London success. Which is not to say Alan is not successful in the years between this period, but as his plays took a darker turn so the London productions were less commercially successful; they were still popular but in the eyes of the producers not to the same level as Alan’s plays from the preceding decade - in other words, they didn't make the producers as much money as they hoped.
Bedroom Farce is also notable as forging Alan’s strong relationship with Peter Hall and the National Theatre. There may well have been arguments about whether Bedroom Farce should have been produced at the National, but at a time when the National Theatre’s back was against the wall, it provided a very welcome hit and there is no doubt the financial success of the play subsidised important but less financially successful productions at the venue. The success of Bedroom Farce would lead to a run of plays at the National Theatre during Hall’s tenure which included Sisterly Feelings (1980), Way Upstream (1981), A Chorus Of Disapproval (1984) culminating in A Small Family Business (1987) when Alan was running his own company at the National Theatre.
Most significantly, Bedroom Farce kick-started Alan’s London directing career. At this time, Alan’s regular West End producer Michael Codron was not willing to let Alan take on the direction of the London productions. Peter Hall’s confidence in Alan’s abilities and the subsequent success of Bedroom Farce set a precedent and arguably opened the door for Codron to allow Alan to direct the London premieres of his plays. This led to Alan directing practically all of the London premieres of his plays since. It’s hard not to imagine that Peter Hall’s subsequent decision to ask Alan to run his own company at the National in the 1980s was not tied to the fact that Alan, by that point, had a successful directing career in London as well as Scarborough.
Michael Billington’s earlier point about Alan’s technical mastery of the stage is also worth considering. There is a distinct feeling that after the tour-de-force of The Norman Conquests, Alan began to draw in his work. In the immediate aftermath of the trilogy, there is less of a bravura feel to the staging, the plays concentrate on the characters and are frequently based in one set with none of the technical ’gimmicks’ which Alan had become associated with. Absent Friends, Confusions, Just Between Ourselves, Ten Times Table and Joking Apart are all ensemble character pieces. In the midst of this comes Bedroom Farce, commissioned for a space unfamiliar to Alan. What he creates is a play that both shows how well he can cope with the vast spaces of the National Theatre, but also a play which illustrates his consummate skill as a director and his ability to offer something new to audiences. Bedroom Farce reminds us of Alan’s skill as a director and technician as well as playwright and demonstrates how he is comfortable moving from the, for want of a better description, chamber pieces to the more technically challenging and frequently larger scale plays.
Of course, one of the most important achievements of Bedroom Farce is its extraordinary success. Not only did it break records at the National Theatre, but it quickly became one of the most popular and frequently performed of Alan Ayckbourn’s plays. Its popularity remains undiminished more than 40 years after it was created. Since 2000, the play has been revived by Alan Ayckbourn at the Stephen Joseph Theatre before touring the UK, it has been revived in the West End, had a major UK tour directed by Robin Herford and in 2009 was revived by Sir Peter Hall at the Rose Theatre, Kingston, as a highly acclaimed production which transferred to the West End. All this in addition to the many other professional and amateur productions of the play which take place on international stages every year.
Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.