Farce and Feminism: Undermining Male Power in Communicating Doors

Article excerpt

Eric PRINCE: Women versus Men? Any comments?

AYCKBOURN: Yes, this play [Communicating Doors] is quite pro woman, but in a sense, it's a take on the old dark house movie where hapless, some would say foolhardy women are eternally rushing around the house in their night clothes, failing to turn on the lights or to draw the curtain-even though they know full well that there's something out there THAT MEANS THEM HARM. It's the level of the play which is, if you like, the traditional side. Though I hope it works on several levels.

It's structured like a real farce. It's a tribute to great Hitchcock films like "Vertigo" and "Rear Window."

--Guy Stroman, quoted in Urbani.

DESPITE A SERIES of awards including the Writer's Guild of Great Britain Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993, and despite his appointment as Cameron Mackintosh Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Oxford University in 1991, academics have devoted relatively little attention to Alan Ayckbourn, perhaps passing him over due to his reputation as an audience-pleasing farceur. Like his contemporary, Tom Stoppard, however--or like Shaw or Moliere for that matter--Ayckbourn's obvious wit and technical inventiveness may distract attention from the "several levels" of his writing, including its ethical and social implications. By some standards the most popular of modern playwrights--at least one of his plays could be found running in London West End for thirty consecutive years--he is also one of the most thought-provoking of modern authors.

Since early in his career, one of Ayckbourn's most persistent interests has been women's plight. In Absurd Person Singular (1972) a housewife tries to commit suicide several times during her Christmas party and nobody recognizes her suicidal despair; in Woman in Mind (1985) the female protagonist invents an imaginary family in an attempt to escape from her real stifling family, before finally suffering a nervous breakdown; women's concerns about their physical appearances becomes the topic in Body Language (1990), where both of the female protagonists are unhappy with their bodies and would like to switch. Ayckbourn's plays are "pro woman," as he avows in the Prince interview, but they are obviously of different texture, mood, and technique from the works of playwrights such as Caryl Churchill or Pam James. His language and style are less combative, and--more obviously-they are written by a man, which for some readers may raise issues of feminist authenticity. Communicating Doors (1994) in particular, while billing itself as a time-traveling comedy thriller--and living up to that billing--also focuses on one of the perennial topics of feminist politics and literature: whether any kind of solidarity among women is possible.

Communicating Doors shares a basic structure with many of Ayckbourn's plays, especially the plays of the '90s, in which a woman is placed in an unappealing and seemingly inescapable dilemma: she initially faces ridicule for the demeaning nature of her chosen or assigned role, and then faces obstacles or incredulity in her attempts to go beyond that role. In the course of the action she must try on yet another role in order to transcend or escape the old one. (All three of the plays in Ayckbourn's series Damsels in Distress, for example, are built around this structure.) Even within these limited choices, however, the women of Ayckbourn's plays succeed in upsetting expectations and effectively satirizing traditional sex roles, especially those roles linked to traditional fictional and dramatic genres. One technique that should strike the audience immediately in Communicating Doors is Ayckbourn's disorienting juggling of different genres in order to re-orient the audience to the new roles bestowed upon his female characters, liberating them from the stereotypical roles in each genre. Communicating Doors plays with at least three genres which have usually been produced for the satisfaction of a male-dominated audience, changing or modifying the conventions in each genre and depriving the audience of the dramatic climaxes promised by such genres and conventions, as if to demonstrate that the rules of the male-dominated world--at least in this play--are about to change. …