Absent Friends (1974)
Having written a trilogy of plays for the 1973 season at the Library Theatre, Alan Ayckbourn decided to go intimate the following year with Absent Friends.
From The Norman Conquests, which chronicled the events of a weekend from three different perspectives, Alan wrote a play set in a single space during the course of an afternoon which played out in real time (the same amount of time passes in the play for the characters as it does for the audience).
The road to the final play was not a simple one as notes held in the Ayckbourn Archive at the University Of York reveal. This was a play which went through a number of different itinerations before arriving in its final form. An early idea was a dinner told from the perspective of the men and the women before bringing both together. This idea is illustrated in the notes below (click on image to enlarge).
|Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn|
Beginning with the characters we have the husband and wife in the centre with the husband described as 'go ahead' and 'driver'. This presumably relates to Paul & Diana in the actual play. To the right, we have the 'friend with d. wife' - or Colin as we come to know him. He is described as a 'bore - her lover - of sorts.' It's not clear what the 'd.' stands for, but presumably 'dead' as in the final play and given the note about the brother which is mentioned below.
The final couple on the left of the page are described as brother and sister (as opposed to the married couple of John and Evelyn in the actual play.
The brother is described as 'weedy' and 'sympathetic to W [presumably the wife] - but unable to help' as well as being 'phobic and hypochondriac' (which sounds like the off-stage Gordon in the final play) and the 'death of wife affects him.'
At this stage the play is still centred on a dinner party and lay-outs for the circular table can be seen drawn in pencil on the right as well as some of Alan's doodles, which also appeared in our last look at Alan's notes with Time & Time Again.
On the bottom right of the play,we have the names of the characters - some familiar, some not: Dianah - the depressive [presumably Diana in the actual play]; Mark - the driver [renamed Paul]; Colin - pill swallower [the name stays the same but there is no indication of being on medication in the final play]; Evelyn - the mother [as in the play]; Sandra - the flirt [presumably equating to the non-flirtious Marge] and Ted - the boy [the third man is named John in the final play]. Interestingly, Alan names six characters and has six in his diagrams, but only has five characters in the relationships tree at the top of the page.
The final insight into this early idea is the structure of the play in the bottom left hand corner. Here we have a three act play set in a dining room with the first act showing the 'pre-dinner / dinner' from the perspective of the three female characters. The second act is the same action viewed from the perspective of the three male characters with the final act bringing all the characters together later for coffee and then home.
As can be seen, this one sheet of Alan's notes offers a completely different version of Absent Friends - which still has recognisable elements of the actual play - and helps illustrates the process Alan Ayckbourn goes through during play-writing.
Absent Friends opened at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, on 17 June 1974 and was directed by Alan Ayckbourn. More details about the play can be found here.