Drowning On Dry Land: Interview With Alan Ayckbourn

These interviews with Alan Ayckbourn are drawn from correspondence about the play held in the Ayckbourn Archive held at the University of York.

Drowning On Dry Land Interview
Question: What are your general views on the play
Drowning On Dry Land?
Alan Ayckbourn:
As a general pointer the play is, for me, unbelievably cynical not to say angry (it was written when the celebrity cult was really peaking and when it seemed anyone would do practically anything to achieve their two minutes of fame). Thus all the characters, apart from Charlie, offstage and on, each have their own separate selfish agendas to fulfil by clinging to his coat-tails as long as they can whilst he's on the way up and ditching him and taking what they can as soon as he's on the way down, finally feeding off his corpse when he crashes.
Charlie, in the midst of this, is the total innocent. He is an unselfconscious natural, unforced charmer and the audience should recognise this in him. It is the key to the play and explains why on earth someone quite so ordinary and untalented could be such a huge success. The public, as they say, took him to its heart.
By the end, everyone is either packing up or has already deserted him. Linzi, Jason, Marsha, Hugo have all taken what they can from him and moved on. Charlie is left with an even more damaged crash victim, Gale, who is in a worst state than he is. i.e. a media pariah.

What is the significance of Charlie mounting the folly at the climax of the play?
The fact that Charlie accomplishes something quite so useless at the end, conquering the stairs to nowhere, more or less sums up his life. He's got there but what does it matter?

Who do you think is the driving force behind the ostentatious lifestyle that Charlie and Linzi are living at the beginning of the play?
Their type of lifestyle is a trap that virtually every "celeb" falls into. Linzi almost certainly drives it. Charlie, as is shown at the end with his newly adopted spartan lifestyle, is more easy come, easy go. He enjoys the material rewards but he can live without them. Linzi can't.

What motivates Charlie to attempt to kiss both Gale and Marsha within a very short space of time?
He gets what he mistakenly interprets as go ahead signals by both women and is willing to oblige. But then, he's an idiot and besides extremely randy. He's currently getting short sexual shrift from Linzi.

Does Marsha intend to seduce Charlie from the moment that she asks if he has a pen for the autograph?
I think she's an infatuated fan who would very willingly have sex with him if it would add to her own celebrity status, if the interruption hadn't occurred when it did. And a quick thrill at the very least!

Does Marsha really believe that she has been sexually assaulted by Charlie?
After the incident, things get taken out of Marsha's hands but she happily co-operates with the opportunistic media furore, fuelled by her own sense of frustration and grateful for the attention. She is ultimately convinced, poor girl, that a near rape did happen. But then everything that most people do in this play is borne out of a desire to accumulate celebrity status.

Was Marsha pro-active in taking action against Charlie or she just a pawn too, rather like Charlie?
Marsha is a pawn. Albeit a willing one. She was probably approached or at least advised to seek compensation by well meaning friends or indeed an "interested" journalist. She just has a minor league solicitor!

What is wrong with Gale at the end of the play? Is it medication or a breakdown?
It's hard drugs. She previously married her dealer so she's certainly a user whose habit is now totally out of control and whose brain is shot to hell with abuse.

Drowning On Dry Land: Another Interview
1) In
Drowning on Dry Land, you criticise the celebrity obsession of the society today. How do you explain such an phenomenon in contemporary world? What do you think that has happened to the world?
2) The celebrity obsession is a phenomenon of today’s world. 50 years ago it didn’t exist in such intensity. What do you think has changed in the world?

Alan Ayckbourn: Answering both these questions together, I think the rise in celebrity culture is due in part to the rapid spread of easy access to mass media for so-called ‘ordinary’ people. What was once an exclusive area reserved for genuine celebrities, be they performers, presenters or politicians is now virtually open to anyone, both via the internet or through television’s proliferating game and talent shows. Andy Warhohl’s prediction of a time when everyone regardless of ability enjoys two minutes of fame is rapidly becoming true. In the case of television programme makers, of course, it is also attractively cheap. ‘Ordinary’ people in return for their brief moments of fame are unlikely to charge exorbitant fees.

3) I’ve been told a documentary inspired you to create the play. Can you explain what got your attention in the film?
There was a documentary on British television a few years ago which explored the celebrity phenomenon. A girl was jumping about in a field singing and waving her arms in the air. Suddenly she stopped and turned to the camera and asked, “Am I famous, yet?” People used to grow up wanting to achieve things. These days many of them simply want to be famous. Famous for what? Famous for being famous?

4) Why does the main character of the play manage to achieve fame and fortune without having done or achieved anything? Does it emphasise the lack of value and the emptiness of today’s world?
I think in the case of my hero Charlie it was a question of taking the notion to its nonsensical extreme. He is genuinely a man who has achieved nothing, done nothing and been rewarded for it. He’s a born loser. And we know how most of the world loves a loser, an underdog, especially one with great personal charm. As one character says to him in the play that if he, Charlie, can achieve fame and fortune, there’s hope for everyone!

5) You are one of the most staged and fertile playwright of the world, having written almost 80 plays that were presented in 35 countries around the world. How do you manage to keep the inspiration and the public’s interest?
Running a theatre for 40 years helped. Till I retired recently. I had access to all the tools of playmaking, the personnel and the basic technology. After a few early years of apprenticeship, I was fortunate in having my plays automatically accepted by the Artistic Director, me. Thankfully, having fresh ideas more or less yearly helps a bit, too. Also, apart from directing I don’t really do anything else in the way of writing. No films or novels or epic poems. Just plays.

6) Your work mixes comedy and drama and provokes reflection and entertainment at the same time? Do you think that is the closest one can get about the reason of your success?
I believe that any good comedy should at its heart be serious. And that any worthwhile drama should include the trace of a smile, however wry. There can’t be, as I’ve said before, light without shadow. I am fortunate that the standpoint from which I write tends generally to be a humorous one, sometimes more in some plays than others. Many people seem to share my view of the world and relate to it, no matter what their nationality or language.

7) You have said that since the beginning of your career you had to make a profitable theatre, because you wrote to pay the rent. You’ve managed to achieve something quite difficult: popularity and good reviews. Can you try to explain how you do that?
I think the answer is that I’ve always written what I want to write, plays that I then enjoy sharing with companies of actors over the years. We have fun creating and interpreting them together in the rehearsal room and later, when we feel we’re ready, we’ll try to communicate our enjoyment with audiences. BUT I never write plays for individual actors or specifically to please audiences which would be fatal. And NEVER do I write to please critics!

8) I know you’ve written a play in three days and you find mealtimes boring because it keeps you from work. Writing plays is something that fun and natural for you?
See my previous answer. I think love and laughter are closely allied. I love what I do. When we’re doing it we tend to laugh a lot. (That doesn’t mean we don’t take it extremely seriously though!) What is it they say? Take the work seriously, never yourself.

9) Is it true that your characters gain some kind of autonomy when you are writing and the plot development sometimes surprised you?
I think the characters sometimes surprise me as they develop on the page, displaying characteristics that I never suspected they had. But I don’t start on a play until I have a pretty good idea where it will end. The question is of course (along with when to start it), is choosing when to stop the narrative. Comedy is tragedy interrupted and vice versa.

10) What moves you to create and keep doing this?
I think these days it’s almost a reflex for me. At certain times of year the need to write comes over me and so long as people keep asking for more - I’ll try and keep responding to the urge for as long as I can. After all, it’s more enjoyable than working for a living.

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