The Significance of the Discovery

Celebrating Alan Ayckbourn's Absurd Person Singular at 50

The Significance of the Absurd Person Singular Manuscripts

Every archival discovery poses the question, what is its significance, if any? What can we learn from what has been found?

In the case of the discovery of Alan Ayckbourn's hand-written notes for his play A
bsurd Person Singular and the subsequent donation of production manuscripts to the Ayckbourn Archive, it can be argued these documents are of singular - no pun intended - significance to the Ayckbourn Archive and in understanding Alan Ayckbourn's development as a writer.
  • This is the only known example of an abandoned Ayckbourn manuscript relating to a completed play.
  • The only play in archive with a complete record of its journey from concept to abandoned first draft to actual first draft to production script to performance script to definitive script.
  • An extraordinary insight into the writing practise of a playwright - we know Alan Ayckbourn wrote plays in this period in approximately four days. In this case, in the week before rehearsals began, he began and wrote half-a-play before abandoning it and writing a completely different, complete play. All within one week!
  • A unique example of an Ayckbourn play being cut or altered substantially between the first and second performances and - uniquely within the archive - both unedited and edited manuscripts surviving, allowing for comparison.
  • Rare examples of Alan Ayckbourn's hand-written manuscripts (the norm between 1959 to 1984) and how they compare with the final play.

Why Are There Disparities with Alan Ayckbourn's Memories of Writing The Play?

A very pertinent question is why Alan's original story of the creation of the play differs so much from the reality. In memory - 10 pages in total, which contained Dick and Lottie Potter. In reality - 40 pages of writing with no Dick and Lottie.
We don't have the definitive answer to this, but we can say with a degree of confidence the answer is probably down to his writing method and the pressures of his role as Artistic Director of the Library Theatre in Scarborough.
At the time, Alan was renowned for formulating ideas for his plays for up to a year in his head before writing them in a condensed period of three to five days, leading immediately into rehearsals. His normal writing routine was to write at night as - during the day - he would be in rehearsals for the next production as well as running the day-to-day business of the Library Theatre.
In this context, he had been thinking about
Absurd Person Singular for probably nine months, formulating and throwing out all sorts of ideas. He then began writing the initial 'abandoned draft' the week before rehearsals were due to begin and spent no more than two nights on it before abandoning it and writing the actual play, which bears little resemblance to the 'abandoned draft'. He then went straight into rehearsals for two weeks, opening the play before heading straight into rehearsals for the next production.
We know Alan didn't go back to the old notes nor ever refer to them again - in fact, he probably believed they'd been thrown out. He had no reason to dwell on them and had been concentrating completely on the actual play.
In which case, it's not difficult to believe that he's mis-remembered what he actually initially wrote - after all, it's not important to him, has likely been forgotten almost immediately he began re-writing and he's not concerned about it nor checking if his memory is accurate.
The 'abandoned' version isn't important in his mind, it's just a small, unessential part of the story of how he came to write
Absurd Person Singular.
At one point in conceiving the play in his head, it's very likely Dick and Lottie Potter were on-stage but he realised they were overwhelming and decided not to incorporate them. It's just mis-remembering at what point he made that decision. As for the disparity in number of pages written, it's unlikely he paid that much attention having written them in a white heat, abandoned them and never looking back on them to check.

A Timeline

Up until 1984, Alan Ayckbourn was notorious for writing his plays to the latest possible deadline, generally the week before rehearsals were due to begin. He would work at night, writing the script longhand before reading it out - making alterations on the fly - to his personal assistant, who would type up the script. Upon completion, the first draft would be regarded as the definitive copy and would generally be duplicated for rehearsals - which tended to be the next day.

This is the believed timeline for the writing of
Absurd Person Singular in 1972 (all dates approximate):
  • 30 May: Alan Ayckbourn begins writing the abandoned draft of Absurd Person Singular on evenings while he directs and rehearses the Library Theatre's production of David Campton's Carmilla during the day.
  • 31 May: Forty pages in and Alan abandons the play.
  • 1 June: Alan begins re-writing Absurd Person Singular with almost completely different dialogue.
  • 3 June: Alan completes Absurd Person Singular and duplicate copies begin to be produced.
  • 4 June: The manuscripts are completed and delivered to the actors.
  • 5 June: Rehearsals begin for Absurd Person Singular.
  • 12 June: Carmilla opens at the Sheffield Crucible with rehearsals for Absurd Person Singular transferring to Sheffield for the week.
  • 19 June: The summer season at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, opens with Carmilla. Final week of rehearsals for Absurd Person Singular.
  • 26 June: Absurd Person Singular opens at the Library Theatre. It runs for almost three hours, Alan cuts the play overnight.
  • 27 June: Second night of Absurd Person Singular at the Library Theatre with almost half-an-hour of material cut.
This entire story can be viewed and researched through in the Ayckbourn Archive at the Borthwick Institute for Archives from the abandoned hand-written draft to the handwritten first draft and, from 2023, the clean rehearsal manuscript to edited and cut production manuscripts.

Simon Murgatroyd M.A. (October 2022)

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