Season's Greetings: Articles by Other AuthorsThis page contains articles on Season's Greetings by authors other than Alan Ayckbourn. The articles are the copyright of the respective author and should not be reproduced without permission.
by Paul Allen
Season's Greetings tour programme, 2004
Well, it's all about the children really. Or so we say every year as we prepare for living in siege conditions by stocking up with industrial quantities of alcohol and gadgetry that will be broken by Boxing Day - and then settling down to watch the same film we watched last year, smug in the knowledge that even more of the actors are now dead or decrepit but we aren't, quite.
It was certainly the kids that Alan Ayckbourn wanted to write about in the summer of 1980 as he settled down to his second major play set at Christmas. Eight years before, Absurd Person Singular had alerted critics all over the world to the fact that here was a writer who was much more than a boulevard comedian. Not only did the middle act consist almost entirely of a woman's attempts to commit suicide (wilfully misunderstood by all the guests at her own Christmas drinks party), but it had ended with a domestic bully being revealed as something more akin to a petty dictator. It was hilarious all right, but one of those comedies that provoke the now-legendary response from an audience member in Ayckbourn's home theatre in Scarborough: 'If I'd known what I was laughing at when I was laughing I wouldn't have laughed'.
In Season's Greetings, Ayckbourn has pointed out, 'I wanted to paint the rosier side of the picture. To write instead about log fires, Christmas trees, excited children's faces, candlelight, the holly and the mistletoe'. The home of Neville and Belinda Bunker has all these things and more, including kids. It's just that we never actually see the little ones. The kids Ayckbourn had in mind were ones at the 'awkward age' - between 25 and 70 - 'fighting over their toys, clamouring for attention, bullying, sneaking and crying, then kissing and making up and generally getting far too over-excited, as they do every year'.
The problem with adults, in much of Ayckbourn's work, is that they are every bit as greedy, self-obsessed and vindictive as children, and they have the extra ingredient of sexual hunger. Adding mistletoe and booze to this combination is like handing round the matches in a gunpowder shop.
All this, you might assume, Ayckbourn observed at first hand in his own childhood. He was already living much of his life through his imagination (watching films, writing embryonic plays to be performed by anyone close enough to hand) when his extremely Bohemian mother married her extremely conservative bank manager. At a succession of addresses in the country towns of Sussex, he had a close-up view of the kind of misery a hopelessly ill-assorted man and woman can dish out to each other when they are really trying. He generally took his mother's part, and the casual insensitivity with which husbands treat their wives is a running theme in his work. Sometimes couples who remain unmarried seem to make a better go of things, but in this play all the women are disappointed even if some have recognised it earlier than others.
But the way writers' lives turn into their plays is a complex thing, not least because so much of making art is instinctive, even unconscious. Ayckbourn didn't fully understand what he had written at the end of Absurd Person Singular until his technical dress rehearsal, when he put a spotlight on the small figure standing on a table and literally making everyone else dance to his tune.
Season's Greetings is rosier, give or take the odd gun-toting near-fascist and a doctor so inept he cannot tell if someone is dead or not, but life has filtered into it. Fast-forward from Ayckbourn's own childhood to another small boy waiting in another family home near Leeds for his increasingly famous father to return for Christmas. The boy has inherited his father's interest in drama and has created a puppet show for the family's entertainment; his father will perform it with him. But when they reach the climax of the piece, the strings of the boy's puppet - a dog - become entangled with the strings of the father's. Rather than stop the show, the father snatches the dog from his son's hands, rips the strings away and hands it back with only one paw still functioning. When the boy complains that this isn't much fun, the father reflects that 'fun is for amateurs'.
So is Uncle Bernard Alan Ayckbourn? Of course not. At least, not any more than the visiting writer enduring the usual banal questions about his ideas, or the husband too busy playing with his screwdriver to pay attention to his frustrated wife, or even the loathsome Uncle Harvey who is waiting for some kind of Armageddon on the streets of Britain: all these come out of Ayckbourn's psyche too. And Ayckbourn would never prepare a puppet version of the story of Ali Baba in which the Forty Thieves come on one by one, at ten-minute intervals. But the fury of Bernard's passion for his work, the dignified refusal to put sex and violence into The Three Little Pigs just because that is the children's diet on television and the fierce if temporary defiance of Harvey's destructive bigotry are all things you might catch him expressing in person.
So Season's Greetings, like much of Ayckbourn's work, is more personal than it sometimes looks. It had to be, because he was consciously defying his agent, the redoubtable Peggy Ramsay, who had made it very clear she didn't like plays about Christmas; and his usual commercial producer, Michael Codron, felt much the same. In fact Codron had just had his fingers burned with his ill-judged production of Ayckbourn's farce, Taking Steps, and was reluctant to take the next play on trust anyway.
Wary of the West End, Ayckbourn took Season's Greetings to the Round House, the former engine shed up the line from Euston Station where the great independent producer Thelma Holt was running an adventurous season. Being round, it replicated the shape of the various Stephen Joseph theatres in Scarborough that Ayckbourn has led. Unfortunately it didn't replicate its intimacy and Season's Greetings fizzled out in the huge space once animated by tons of steel, fire and steam.
And the play might have died there and then. But Greenwich Theatre, which had earlier relaunched The Norman Conquests to take the West End by storm when a trilogy had simply seemed impractical in the commercial theatre, now offered Ayckbourn a second chance with Season's Greetings. In March 1982 it transferred to Shaftesbury Avenue and Ayckbourn was wryly amused to see a play which had had a lukewarm reception at the Round House now described in large letters outside the theatre as simply 'his best'.
It is the plays that falter that Ayckbourn generally loves best, like sickly children. No wonder he wanted to do it again.
by Simon Murgatroyd
No Knowing programme, 2016
There’s nothing quite like Christmas.
Particularly if it’s in an Alan Ayckbourn play.
Good will to all men. Happy family reunions. Love and good feelings.
You’d be hard pressed to find these.
In Ayckbourn plays, Christmas is a time when true feelings come to the fore, where hairline fractures develop into brutal breaks, where good will erupts into bad feelings.
It is, as Alan has frequently noted, a great time to set a play.
“My late agent, the great eccentric Peggy Ramsay, hated me writing plays set at Christmas. 'Oh Alan,' she'd say, 'not another bloody Christmas play.' But I'd explain to her that Christmas was a gift to a dramatist. You're always looking for a reason to stick a group of people together who can't stand each other, aren't you? Dinner parties are good, but what better time than Christmas? You've got three days together and there's always bound to be at least a cousin no one can stand. I've seen it at my own Christmases - two relatives arguing bitterly over who should sit in which chair.”
Alan has been setting plays during the festive season practically since he began writing. His third play, Dad’s Tale, promises a delicious Christmas dinner of beef dripping - without salt - and a father turning into a budgerigar. It’s not one of the classics.
The next one is though with Absurd Person Singular launching the notion that Christmas is a fertile time for the playwright.
Set over “three of the most awful festivities imaginable” (past, present and future. Obviously), it concerns three married couples brought together for no other reason than festive obligations; indeed one can’t imagine any other rational reason to bring them together.
The play arguably stands as the playwright’s funniest seasonal play as the appalling, aspirational Hopcrofts work their way up the food chain, moving from ridicule to proto-Thatcherites making the others literally dance to their tune by the end.
It’s also a play which delves deep into the familiar Ayckbourn theme of marriage and how appallingly men and women treat each other. There is precious little love on show here.
Yet it also features one of the most successful Ayckbourn relationships in Sidney and Jane Hopcroft; a couple whose commitment to each other is not enshrined through love, but a relentless need to climb the social ladder and better those around them.
Here is a play which presents Christmas as something few would want to be part of and celebrate.
The playwright decided “to paint the rosier side of the picture” with his next foray into the festivities with his famed Christmas play Season’s Greetings.
It is typically Ayckbourn in that children are heard but not seen, but who have no need to be seen as the real juveniles are front and centre, going through that “awkward age of 25 to 70.” Alan’s biographer, Paul Allen, once wrote how well the play depicted Christmas showing how adults “are every bit as greedy, self-obsessed and vindictive as children, and they have the extra ingredient of sexual hunger.”
A perennially popular play, one of the theories for its success is knowing that at least our own Christmases aren’t that bad! Although with much of it drawn from his own experiences, Alan would perhaps disagree.
“It’s a play about love and how unfair it all is. And success and failure. And jealousy and self-deception. And greed and envy and lust and gluttony. Just an average family Christmas.”
The unfairness of love and life also rears its head briefly in the year spanning Joking Apart, which is set during four celebrations over 12 years.
Again the adults are the most childish as they present the bizarre sight of a Boxing Day tennis match being played on a rain-soaked court while, as one character sagely notes, “Your children are the only sane people in this house. Sitting in the dry in front of the fire, watching television.”
This one scene perhaps best sums up Alan’s Christmas plays in that no-one gets what they truly want and the world is shown not to be foil wrapped. A business partner is humiliated on the court leading to an off-stage stroke and a married vicar declares his love for another woman before being harshly told to “go home.”
That sound is less a bauble shattering than hopes and dreams being crushed.
Although Christmas makes a brief appearance in Sugar Daddies and Wildest Dreams - which probably features several of the most dispiriting presents ever given, an omelette pan anyone? - it is most recently prevalent in Life & Beth.
Here we come full circle to Absurd Person Singular. For in the presence of the late Gordon Timms, we have a spectral Sidney Hopcroft; a ghost of Christmas past in Christmas present planning appalling Christmas futures.
It’s probably one of the more optimistic of Alan’s views on marriage though, hinting that the tedium of an affectionate if less than happy marriage will give way to a contented later life for Beth - once her late husband stops haunting her.
Amidst this, the theme of adults never really growing up recurs as Beth’s sister-in-law, Connie, reveals she has never come to terms with the fact she didn’t receive a fairy cycle as a child and it has practically blighted her entire outlook on life for decades.
It makes one think of the unseen children in Season’s Greetings and if there is any hope for them in the future given the Christmases their parents have inflicted on them.
All these plays also typify what Alan once revealed was the perfect recipe for writing a Christmas play: “Give them a landmine, but make sure you wrap it in a bit of tinsel.”
As we watch the Throke family celebrate last Christmas in No Knowing, be careful of the presents. There’s definitely a few landmines wrapped in tinsel lying around.
Copyright: Paul Allen / Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.