A Chorus of Disapproval
ALAN AYCKBOURN 1984
- AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY
- PLOT SUMMARY
- HISTORICAL CONTEXT
- CRITICAL OVERVIEW
- FURTHER READING
A Chorus of Disapproval, Sir Alan Ayckbourn’s twentieth play—and one of his most successful—premiered at the Stephen Joseph Theater in the Round in Scarborough, England, in May, 1984. Following the sell-out season in Scarborough, the play opened in a large-scale production at the National Theater in London in August, 1985. The success of the play earned Ayckbourn three major British theater awards including the London Evening Standard Award, the Olivier Award, and the Drama Award.
Ayckbourn’s first great success, Relatively Speaking, was a farce modeled on Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest; A Chorus of Disapproval is not modeled on, but rather is based around, another play: John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, which in the play is to be performed by a local dramatic society. The play describes the ups and downs of provincial life: as the rehearsals for The Beggar’s Opera advance, real life increasingly imitates art. As well as being a modern version of the classic “play within a play,” A Chorus of Disapproval also explores the attraction of the theater for ordinary people, whose apparently unremarkable lives are revealed to be unexpectedly eventful.
Ayckbourn’s contribution to the theater is impressive. Although his comedies were initially considered unfashionable, they have always been well-received by critics and audiences alike, all of whom Page 41 | Top of Articlehave recognized Ayckbourn’s technical prowess and his unusual ability to balance comedy and pathos. A Chorus of Disapproval, which explores ordinary people’s aspirations and disappointments, confirmed that reputation. Ayckbourn was knighted in 1987 in recognition of the extraordinary quality of his writing and his contribution to the British theatre.
Alan Ayckbourn was born April 12, 1939, in the London suburb of Hampstead. His parents divorced in 1943, and his mother, a writer of romantic fiction, later remarried. Ayckbourn grew up in Sussex, which he features as the setting for many of his plays. During high school he devoted most of his time to acting in and writing plays. At the age of seventeen he left school and started a career in the theater. After a few years working as an assistant stage manager and actor for Sir Donald Wolfit’s touring company, Ayckbourn began a fruitful relationship with the Studio Theater Company in Scarborough, a small resort town in the South of England.
There, Ayckbourn worked for Stephen Joseph, an innovative stage manager who had introduced the concept of theater-in-the-round to England. (Ayckbourn modeled the character of Llewellyn in A Chorus of Disapproval on Joseph.) Ayckbourn soon started writing plays for the company. He left to work as a drama producer for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). After Joseph’s death in 1970, Ayckbourn returned to Scarborough to become the company’s director of productions. He renamed the theater the Stephen Joseph Theater-in-the-Round.
In 1997, Ayckbourn fought a protracted battle with the Scarborough Town Council over funding for the faltering theater. He himself had already contributed 400, 000 pounds from his own pocket, which was topped by a two million pound grant from the British National Lottery. He requested a five-year, 50, 000 pound per year grant. The dispute was dubbed the battle of the “luvvies versus lavvies,” because opponents of Ayckbourn’s request claimed that funding the theater would necessitate closing the town’s public toilets. Ayckbourn fought a public relations campaign; when he was knighted by the Queen later that year, he won the battle. The Scarborough public toilets also managed to stayed open.
Ayckbourn writes light comedies about middle class morals and manners. His first major success was Relatively Speaking, which opened in March, 1967, around the same time that Tom Stoppard’s more structurally innovative absurdist farce Rosencrantz and Guildenstem Are Dead opened at the National Theater. For some time, Ayckbourn’s adherence to the genre of light comedy damaged his reputation in comparison to innovators such as Stoppard, Harold Pinter (The Birthday Party), and Joe Orton (What the Butler Saw). But he has always been popular with audiences, and critics have gradually come to praise his dramatic talents.
Ayckbourn has now written more plays than Shakespeare, and, according to Simon Trussler in the Cambridge Illustrated Hisory of the British Theatre, his sell-out seasons at the National Theater demonstrate a box-office appeal “unequalled since Shakespeare.” He has also written a great many adaptations for the stage (including an acclaimed version of Russian playwright Alexander Ostrovsky’s play The Forest  staged at the National Theater in the mid- 1990s). He is also a respected director; he directed the premiere of A Chorus of Disapproval in 1984, and in 1987 he directed an awardwinning production of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge.
The structure of A Chorus of Disapproval exemplifies Ayckbourn’s modernity: the first scene, for instance, is chronologically the last. The play begins with the tail-end of PALOS’s performance of The Beggar’s Opera. From there, the play unfolds like a cinematic flashback. The flashback structure maintains tension throughout the lighthearted ensemble piece: the audience, certain in the knowledge that the opera will be performed successfully, nonetheless fears that calamity will unfold, for after the curtain falls, Guy is abandoned by his fellow cast members.
In the second scene of Act I, Guy auditions by giving a fumbling rendition of the only song he knows, “All Through the Night.” He is shown up by the director, Dafydd, who interrupts him to sing the song in Welsh. Although Guy’s singing is obviously not up to standard, Dafydd immediately accepts him, partly because he is short one actor and partly because he is a warm, generous man.
During the audition, other cast members enter. A quick scene and lighting change follows, and the cast adjourns to a local pub named The Fleece (the name of the tavern suggests that the customers will be “fleeced” or conned out of their money). This pub parallels Peachum’s tavern in The Beggar’s Opera: indeed, the proprietor’s daughter, Bridget, acts rather like Gay’s Lucy, fighting with customers and stealing lovers.
Following this sociable occasion, Dafydd invites Guy home. A brief scene change finds the characters in a pleasant, comfortable living room. Dafydd offers Guy the part of Crook-Fingered Jack. Although it is only a one line part, Guy is thrilled and accepts. Then Dafydd’s neglected wife, Hannah, enters. She is to play Polly Peachum in the Opera. Hannah has suffered in the shadow of her talkative and unobservant husband. Hannah and Guy connect emotionally—he is polite and attentive, which she appreciates, and she is sensitive about his recent loss, which he appreciates.
Another scene change finds PALOS again rehearsing. For all his enthusiasm, Dafydd is a disorganized director: the cast has only rehearsed the first fifteen pages of the script. Amidst the confusion, Guy receives an alluring invitation to dinner from the lascivious Fay, seconded by her reluctant husband, Ian. Jarvis Huntley-Pike, a jovial Northerner, persists in his mistaken assumption that Guy is a Scotsman. Meanwhile, the romantic tension between Guy and Hannah increases. The rehearsal ends with an unexpected boon for Guy: after a cast member drops out, he is promoted to the meatier role of Matt of the Mint.
The next scene is set in Fay and Ian’s house. Guy arrives, assuming that he has been invited to dinner. Fay, however, has other plans. She is amused when Guy’s friend arrives—a seventy-year-old woman whose presence is a considerable shock to Ian. The Hubbards, as well as the Huntley-Pikes, mistakenly think that Guy can help them in their scheme to fleece Guy’s company, BLM.
The last scene of Act I, a rehearsal, is set one month after these initial scenes. Dafydd comments to Guy that “these dramatics” are “doing you good,” and Guy does indeed seem more confident. The Act ends with a song from the Opera. Although the actresses are meant to be focused upon Crispin, who is playing Macheath, they turn to Guy. Their unconscious mistake prefigures the second act’s major development: Guy’s elevation to the role of Macheath.
The second act opens with a tense conversation between Guy and Hannah, conducted in a local cafe. Guy appears to have undergone something of a transformation in the last few months. He is no longer a hang-dog weakling but rather a local Lothario. He has been carrying on two affairs—one with Hannah, who is in love with him, and another with Fay, who is still trying to involve him in the BLM land scam. Hannah tries to badger Guy into choosing between her and Fay.
Suddenly, Fay appears. The cat-fight between the two women comically imitates a similar conflict between Polly and Lucy in The Beggar’s Opera. Hannah departs in fury. Fay points out that it was she who handed Guy the role of Filch (another role upgrade), then hints threateningly that he must “come up with the goods” in return for the favor.
In the next scene, the conflict between Hannah and Fay is repeated in the struggles between Bridget, as Jenny Diver, and Linda, both of whom fight over Crispin, as Macheath. After Hannah and Linda depart the stage, Guy tries to inform Jarvis that people are scheming to profit from his land, but Jarvis is too busy telling Guy an old story about his grandfather to pay much attention.
Dafydd re-enters. He is oblivious to Guy’s affair with Hannah, and, to make matters worse, confides in Guy that he is having trouble in his marriage. He complains that Hannah is “a bloody deep-freeze of a woman.” However, since Guy knows that she is not, the audience is left to conclude that the fault lies with Dafydd. The scene ends in a now-familiar pattern: following Crispin’s rude departure, the role of Macheath is vacant. Rebecca suggest that Guy accept it, and sure enough, he weakly agrees to step in.
A song from Guy, as Macheath, bridges the scene change to Rebecca Huntley-Pike’s garden. It soon becomes clear that Rebecca is the source of the mysterious rumor about the BLM land deal. Guy is tempted to accept Jarvis’s pay-off of five hundred pounds and does in fact pocket it. He is becoming more and more like Macheath.
A lighting change finds the cast involved in a final dress rehearsal. Guy changes into his costume for Macheath. The subsequent scene, in which he rejects Hannah, is in keeping with his stage character: his transformation is complete. The parting between the two lovers is repeatedly interrupted by a still-oblivious Dafydd, who is frantically trying to rig the lighting for the performance.
When Ian enters with the news that BLM is closing, all hell breaks loose. The land scam will not take place, and the disappointed cast members turn against Guy. Ian informs Dafydd of Hannah and Guy’s affair, and Dafydd too turns against Guy.
The final scene of A Chorus of Disapproval is the last scene of The Beggar’s Opera. The players enact the final reprieve of Macheath. The curtain falls and the actors embrace one another. But the audience, recalling the play’s opening scene, knows that this scene will shortly be followed by their rejection of Guy. The ending is ambiguous—both a celebration of Guy (Macheath) and a rejection of the change he has wreaked upon their lives.
Mr. Ames is PALOS’s shy piano-player. His personality is in direct contrast to Dafydd’s. He only has a few lines of spoken dialogue.
Bridget is the daughter of the local publican. Bridget’s official position at PALOS is stage manager and script prompt. In A Chorus of Disapproval she also parallels the character of Lucy, the publican’s daughter in The Beggar’s Opera. She is a rather ill-tempered young woman who manages to intimidate friends and foes alike with her physical aggression. Bridget’s appearances usually center on her affair with Crispin and her hostility towards her rival, Linda. Her big scene comes in Act II, when she provokes Linda to tears.
Fay is an attractive, sophisticated thirty-something woman. Ayckbourn describes her as “one of the local younger married jet-set.” Fay calmly embarks upon an affair with Guy and lands him the part of Filch, assuming that he will then provide her with financially lucrative information about the supposed BLM land scam. She perceives their relationship as a “deal” and threatens Guy when he appears to renege on his side of it.
Ian is an ambitious thirty-something man, married to the very attractive Fay. The couple are determined to advance in the world. Ian owns a building firm, which is his excuse for wanting to buy Jarvis’s land, but it is more probable that he and the Huntley-Pikes hope to inflate the land’s price and then sell it at a profit. He resigns his role as Filch in order to secure Guy’s help in the scam, and reluctantly agrees to Fay’s partner-swapping arrangement. Page 44 | Top of ArticleWhen Guy misunderstands the arrangement and brings along an elderly woman friend to the Hubbard household, Ian is humiliated. He has his revenge when he reveals Guy and Hannah’s affair to Dafydd in Act II.
“Mad” but “harmless,” Jarvis owns the land that is the subject of so much wheeling and dealing in A Chorus of Disapproval. In his late- fifties, he is a British Northerner, prone to making bad jokes and enamored with the sound of his own voice. Jarvis’s misreading of Guy—his belief that Guy is a Scotsman, based solely on the fact that when he first sees him Guy is holding a beer in one hand and a whiskey in the other—generates a good deal of humor throughout the play. Jarvis’s longest appearance is in Act II, when he tells Guy a story about his philanthropic, religious grandfather, the first owner of the land, who built a cricket pitch for his workers on the land but destroyed it after he saw them playing cricket on a Sunday.
Rebecca is the wife of the jovial Jarvis. Younger than her husband, she shares his predilection for alcohol. Her major appearances are in the rehearsal sequence in Act I and the conversation she has with Guy in her garden in Act II. In all probability, Rebecca is the source of the rumors about BLM expanding. Just as Fay procures Guy a better part in the play, Rebecca procures him the part of Macheath. Just as Fay expects Guy to do her a favor in return, so too does Rebecca. She and her husband are nonetheless disappointed in their schemes.
Guy Jones is the protagonist of A Chorus of Disapproval, yet he is a curiously faceless character. His chief characteristic is his passivity; in fact it is his passive acceptance of other peoples’ plans for him that propels him to center stage. Guy has recently been widowed. He decides a change is in order and joins the local musical society.
Guy works for the multi-national firm BLM in “a rather small local branch in a rather obscure department called Alternative Forward Costing.” Although he is clearly not a mover or a shaker, Guy’s insider position within BLM makes him the focus of interest for greedy cast members.
Initially allocated a one-line part as Crook-Fingered Jack in John Gay’s eighteenth-century musical The Beggar’s Opera, Guy soon advances through the ranks, aided by recalcitrant actors and scheming actresses, until he wins the lead role of Macheath. He has a somewhat superficial affair with one of the cast members, Fay, and also embarks upon a more serious affair with his co-star, Hannah, who plays Polly. This relationship has dramatic consequences for Guy, Hannah, and her husband, Llewellyn; as the curtain falls, Guy has not only lost his job at BLM, he has also managed to alienate all of the cast members.
Dafydd ap Llewellyn
The energetic Dafydd is on-stage almost as often as Guy Jones, and although Guy is the focus of the play, Dafydd’s role is in many ways far more interesting. Dafydd is a lawyer whose real passion is the theater. He longs to work with better actors than those that the local musical society PALOS provides, but he makes up for their lack of talent with his own enthusiasm.
Dafydd’s passion for the theater—and his pride in all things Welsh—contrasts with his passionless marriage. Although he loves his wife Hannah, he neglects her, and their relationship is not satisfying physically. The revelation that Hannah and Guy have been having an affair is devastating to him; nonetheless, at the curtain call, he graciously thanks Guy for playing Macheath at such short notice.
Hannah is married to Dafydd. A generous and loving woman and the mother of twin girls, she feels neglected and occasionally patronized by her husband. Everything in the Llewellyn household is Welsh, Hannah tells Guy in Act I, “except me.”
Hannah even goes so far as to wonder if she would be missed if she died. It is these feelings of neglect that propel her into an affair with Guy, whose politeness and attentiveness are a pleasant change for her.
Hannah plays Polly Peachum in the PALOS production of The Beggar’s Opera, and her role, as well as her marital problems, make her something of a tragi-comic figure.
At the end of the play, Hannah gambles all on Guy’s love, offering to leave her marriage and her children for him, but he rejects her. It is unclear how her relationship with Dafydd will develop, but it is clear that Guy’s presence in her life has changed her irrevocably.
Crispin is a tough, hostile young man who originally lands the part of Macheath in the PALOS production. Like Macheath, Crispin “runs” two women at the same time: Bridget and Linda. His big scene occurs in Act II, when he comes to blows with Dafydd, then cheerfully throws the towel in, thus leaving the company without its lead actor.
Enid is a timid, unobtrusive, older woman, Linda’s beleaguered mother.
Linda is the daughter of Ted and Enid and has only a smidgen more character than her washed-out parents. She plays Lucy in The Beggar’s Opera and acts out the part in real life by competing with Bridget for Crispin’s affection. Unlike Bridget, who manages to match Crispin in the toughness stakes, Linda is not really up to the part nor to battles with her rival. In Act II she is flummoxed by Bridget’s provocative behavior and collapses in tears.
Change and Transformation
Ayckbourn explores the theme of change and transformation in A Chorus of Disapproval through the characters of Guy Jones and Hannah Lleweylln. In the very first scene of the play, Guy, as Macheath, sings about the possibility of change: “The wretch of to-day, may be happy to-morrow.” After he finishes singing, the lighting alters and the action changes to backstage. The transformation is twofold: from play-within-play to real play and from the cast’s celebration to their rejection of Guy. The change in their attitude toward him—which is in fact the major theme of the play—is underlined by his costume change.
Guy’s involvement in the production fundamentally transforms him. He begins the play a shy, tentative man, who seems to pale before the drive, energy, and eccentricity of his director. Ayckbourn emphasizes the contrast between the two men in the audition scene: Guy’s off-key, uncertain rendition of “All Through the Night” is lost beneath Dafydd’s full-throated Welsh tenor. Nonetheless, as he grows in confidence and is applauded for his skill, the experience of acting transforms Guy.
It is not simply Guy’s involvement in theater that transforms him: his romantic entanglements are equally important. Although Guy is shy and tentative, he possesses a sensitive character that women find intrinsically appealing, and it is this quality that enables him to connect with Hannah. Guy’s combination of good looks, weak personality, and naivete also make him appealing to the predatory Fay, while other women, such as Enid and Rebecca, find him “masculine” and “manly.” Women find him attractive, although the reasons they nominate seem to have more to do with what they need and perceive than with the person Guy actually is. Even when he “plays” a romantic lead, he wears a mask that reflects others’ imagination of his personality.
Hannah is meant to play the Opera’s romantic lead, Polly Peachum. Ayckbourn delays the introduction of Hannah partly to increase dramatic suspense and partly to surprise the audience, for Hannah seems the antithesis of Polly. Rather than being a pretty, saucy young woman, Hannah is older, wears no make-up, and is confused and flurried. But after her brief encounter with Guy, she exits on a flirtatious note, and the tone has been struck for their subsequent interaction.
Hannah’s involvement with Guy transforms her. Their roles in the production enable the lovers to participate in a romance that would otherwise be barred from them, but they learn that the theater cannot offer a permanent shelter from life’s problems. In fact, her affair with Guy forces Hannah to acknowledge existing problems in her life and to act upon them. In her first conversation with Guy she confesses to feeling unappreciated, a grievance that she had never previously expressed. When the curtain falls on the affair, the fantasy is over. Although Hannah offers to leave Dayfdd and her children for Guy, it is unclear whether she would actually do so. All that is clear is that she sees her marriage—and herself—in a new light. She has been irrevocably transformed.
Justice and Injustice
The opening scene of A Chorus of Disapproval makes clear that Guy has antagonized the cast. The
play thus resembles a sort of staged detective hunt: the audience, knowing the ending, endeavors to determine how Guy misbehaved and why he is punished. By the end of the second act, those questions have been answered: Guy has strung along two women simultaneously, disappointing both of them in different ways, and he has mislead (deliberately or not) other people about their financial schemes. To an extent, the audience can only agree with Dafydd when he says, “And my one prayer is that one of these days, you’ll get what’s coming to you.”
Yet the unexpected occurs: as the curtain finally falls, the actors embrace “their hero of the night, Guy himself.” The transformation mirrors the final reprieve given to Macheath in the Opera. But this change is more than clever mimicry; Ayckbourn appears to suspend his judgment and to ask the audience to decide for themselves whether Guy should really “get what’s coming” to him. Are not other characters equally culpable? Dafydd himself was muddled up in the land scam: what right does he have to cast the first stone? What of Hannah herself? Did Guy really disappoint her, or did she, as a wife and a mother, act irresponsibly? Upon whom should the sword of justice fall? Ayckbourn is not so much undecided about these questions as he is determined to encourage his audience to think these questions through thoroughly.
The exploration of the themes of justice and injustice is not limited to Guy’s bedroom antics. The parallels between the BLM land scam and the corrupt activities of the characters in The Beggar’s Opera are too close to be coincidental. In fact, Ayckbourn makes such close parallels in order to critique contemporary middle-class aspirations. The play was written during the first years of the 1980s boom in Britain, a period in which the term “yuppie” was first coined, and Ayckbourn’s depiction of social ambition and greed amongst the provincial middle classes is evidence of his sharp observation and his prescient vision. Ayckbourn does not condemn but rather draws attention to these failings in human nature, leaving his audience to decide for themselves how best to address their presence in contemporary society.
The Balance of Comedy and Tragedy
In The Beggar’s Opera, John Gay shows ordinary people aping the behavior of their betters. Gay’s attitude is one of cynical condemnation, but Ayckbourn, writing more than two hundred years later, extends and refines his insight for a new age. It is Ayckbourn’s remarkable insight that while ordinary people can fall prey to the same failings as their betters, those same lives are also filled with moments of extraordinary pathos and humor. Breadth and depth of emotion are not confined to the traditional figures of “great theater,” such as kings and princes, but are rather characteristic of the human condition. Although neither Guy, Fay, nor Dafydd are “great,” Ayckbourn depicts their comic and at times sad struggles with the universal experience of romantic love sympathetically. Although the audience might condemn Hannah’s adultery, Guy’s duplicity, and Dafydd’s insensitivity toward his wife, they are also able to identify strains within their characters that are unquestionably admirable: Hannah’s tenderness, Guy’s sensitivity, Dafydd’s passion.
Ayckbourn is held in high esteem for his ability to balance tragic subject matter with comic events. The playwright’s subject matter is invariably middle-class life and marriage, explored within a traditional comic framework that relies upon the conventions of mistaken identities, misunderstandings, and precisely timed exits and entrances. However, Ayckbourn generally refuses to adhere to comic convention when ending his plays. Although the characters’ amusing misconceptions are usually resolved, Ayckbourn does not offer the audience the usual happy ending that follows such clarification.
In a pattern that Ayckbourn established in his first great success, Relatively Speaking, and that is also evident in A Chorus of Disapproval, the ending of the play is ambiguous and open to interpretation. In this way he refuses to emphasize either the play’s comic elements or its tragic undertones but rather tries to hold the two strands in balance.
A perfect example of Ayckbourn’s ability to hold these apparently opposing elements in equilibrium is the song that opens Act II, a celebration of women sung by Crispin, as Macheath. As the song finishes, a crossfade introduces the next scene, located in a cafe. Hannah and Guy are talking over coffee and cake. It is immediately apparent that Hannah wants more from the affair than Guy is prepared to give her and that she is deeply distressed by his affair with Fay. Nonetheless, the audience’s insight into Hannah’s fractured emotional state is accompanied by wonderful moments of slapstick comedy, mostly focused on Dafydd’s “paisley patterned” underpants that Guy mistakenly put on at Hannah’s, then left at Fay’s that morning. When Fay threatens Guy, emotions run full circle and the scene ends on a more serious tone. Such deft juggling of pathos and humor is typically acknowledged by critics as one of Ayckbourn’s greatest talents.
The device of the play-within-the-play is an ancient one, much favored by Renaissance playwrights. In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1601), Hamlet hires a band of traveling players to perform a play about fratricide called “The Mouse-trap” in order to decide whether or not Claudius murdered Hamlet’s father. Claudius’s guilty reaction to the players’ masque resolves Hamlet’s doubts. Ben Jonson, a contemporary of Shakespeare, was also fond of the device. He used it in his comedy, Bartholemew Fair(1614), to satirize the audience’s stupidity, to respond to Puritan attacks on the theater, and to celebrate the splendor and worth of the stage.
With the rise of realism and naturalism as the dominant acting and writing styles in the nineteenth century, the device fell out of use. But late twentieth-century playwrights are keen to explore the artificiality of the stage and to encourage their audience’s awareness of the process of perception. They have returned the device to center-stage. In Britain, Tom Stoppard and Alan Ayckbourn have made it the centerpiece of their writing. Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1967), which echoes Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1955) and is structured around Shakespeare’s Hamlet, hinges upon the idea of the play-within-the-play. Other Stoppard plays also rest upon the device, most notably The Real Thing (1982), as does his cinematic hit, Shakespeare in Love (1998). Likewise, Ayckbourn’s first success, Relatively Speaking (1967), deliberately echoes the structure and themes of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (1895).
The play-within-the-play conceit enables Ayckbourn to deepen and enrich his themes. The bare bones of the plot—Guy Jones’s decision to audition for PALOS, his increasing artistic success, his romantic entanglements, his naive involvement in the BLM scheme—might be interesting in themselves. However, Ayckbourn makes these events considerably funnier and sadder by juxtaposing extracts from Gay’s opera—thus by creating parallels between art and experience. Guy runs two women simultaneously, just as Macheath juggles both Polly and Lucy; the people surrounding Guy masquerade as decent and pleasant but are actually as greedy and rapacious as the thieves and con men they portray in Gay’s work. Parallels between the stage and real life mean that events and characters assume a wider meaning.
Nonetheless, Ayckbourn limits the extent to which parallels between art and experience can be seen. The light-heartedness of the opera, in which a lastminute reprieve saves Macheath from the hangman’s noose, contrasts to the growing seriousness of the real life company, in which Guy’s antics cannot be neatly and quickly erased but are rather the cause of enduring unhappiness. Life does not always mimic art, for in life there is no god-like author to tie up loose ends and to erase blots on the copy book. What remains is the human capacity to endure, just as art also endures.
The Consumer 1980s and Ayckbourn as Social Critic
Britain never really recovered economically from the Second World War. Although the 1950s and 1960s were marked by full employment, wages remained low and billions of pounds were squandered in a futile effort to retain hold of rebellious British colonies like Malaysia and Burma. The economic situation splintered further in the 1970s. Crunched by a global recession and the OPEC oil crisis, inflation soared and the British economy staggered to a halt. Unemployment rose dramatically. The situation seemed to reach a crisis point during the so-called “Winter of Discontent” in 1978-79. Major unions launched wage claims and went on strike; the Labor government’s thin majority disappeared; and the party lost a vote of confidence in the House of Commons.
When Margaret Thatcher took the office of prime minister in 1979, she vowed to subdue the unions—which she accused of crippling industrial growth—to minimize taxation, and to woo business interests back to Britain. After a tough first few years in office, Thatcher’s reign looked shaky but was secured by victory in the Falklands War (1982).
The 1980s began with a bang and ended with a whimper: the economy boomed then went spectacularly bust. While many people profited from urban expansion—which affected small businesses and the real estate market—some went under. The increasing divide between rich and poor was viewed with concern by many in Britain’s artistic community, and they were joined by others who were worried about the growing domination of corporate culture at the expense of community values.
Ayckbourn’s A Chorus of Disapproval, which is set in the fictional Welsh town of Pendon, is ostensibly removed from such concerns. But Ayckbourn’s decision to concentrate upon smalltown life in fact enables him to create subtle social criticism. By depicting corruption, greed, and “insider dealing” within a small community, Ayckbourn demonstrates that 1980s corporate culture has eaten into even the smallest and most isolated of communities.
The inclusion of material from The Beggar’s Opera points to an unfortunate truth: greed and corruption have long been part of British culture. But the BLM land scam represents a version of these age-old traits that is particular to the 1980s. Each schemer has a different ploy: Dafydd wants to avoid paying too much for land, Ian and Fay want to buy the land at a low price and sell it at a higher price, while Jarvis and Rebecca, the owners of the land, deliberately create false information in order to sell the land in a climate of false expectations. Nonetheless, the only true profiteer in this scheme is the corporation, BLM, which decides to down-size operations, lay off employees, and thus increase its profitability.
The Changing Position of Women
Although most people tend to think about contemporary feminism as originating simultaneous to
counter-culture movements in the late- 1960s, the movement for women’s rights actually dates from the late- eighteenth century. Enlightenment philosophers and pamphleteers criticized the limited application of the doctrine of human rights, as developed in the American and French Revolutions, arguing that it should not be limited to men but should also include women.
During the nineteenth century in America, women’s rights advocates fought side by side with advocates of abolitionism and of temperance for societal reform. By the early- twentieth century, the suffragette movement, which fought for women’s right to vote and to own property in their own name, had won victories in Australia and New Zealand, and was soon to win victories in America and Page 50 | Top of ArticleBritain. Although feminists remained active after they won the right to vote, it was not until the 1960s that the movement returned to world-wide prominence.
Change does not happen overnight, however, and society today is still struggling to absorb the ramifications of this “revolution in female consciousness.” Fay and Hannah represent different positions in this period of adjustment. Neither are interested in the women’s rights movements, but both women have been affected by the social changes it wrought.
Fay is a product of the sexual liberation and experimentation of the 1960s and 1970s. Confident and attractive, she casually plans to swap sexual partners and uses her sexuality as leverage in the BLM land scam. Fay is no feminist: she neither seeks equality nor urges reform. Rather, she is an individualist who makes use of her sexuality for her own profit.
Both women are married, but Hannah’s marriage is light years away from Fay’s. Unlike Fay, Hannah has held to the traditional ideal of marriage. She is a mother, a housewife, and a wife. But Hannah is not happy, and her affair with Guy is the catalyst that enables her to break free from a stagnant situation. For the first time she can articulate all that is wrong with her marriage—as well as all that she values in Dafydd—and to imagine the possibility of life outside the home. Should she remain with her children and husband, and if so, at what cost? Will she leave her husband, as Nora does in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879)? Or will she remain to work through her problems with Dafydd?
The audience does not need to know whether or not Hannah leaves Dafydd, for what is most important is that she has undergone a radical change in perception. Like many women in the 1970s and 1980s, Hannah’s first step towards an improved place in society is a reevaluation of her commitment to domesticity.
Ayckbourn writes out the English comedic tradition made famous by such luminaries as Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward (Hay Fever). However, in the late- 1960s, when Ayckbourn’s career took off, the comedy of manners was no longer fashionable. Critics preferred more abstract writing of the style initiated in the Postwar period by the Irish playwright Samuel Beckett (Waiting for Godot) and, two decades later, his British imitators Harold Pinter (The Homecoming) and Tom Stoppard. Ayckbourn has always been popular with audiences, and critics have also come to value his work. His knighthood in 1987 confirmed his status as one of Britain’s most influential and successful playwrights.
Critical reception of A Chorus of Disapproval’s debut was largely positive, and it has since become known as one of Ayckbourn’s best plays. In his review in the Guardian, Michael Billington praised the play as “a magnificent comedy,” and drew attention to the intricately plotted structure of the play. But his praise for Ayckbourn was not limited to the writer’s technical prowess. Billington also argued that part of the reason that the play was “heart-breakingly funny” was because Ayckbourn’s characterizations were so “psychologically acute.”
Irving Wardle, writing in the London Times, emphasized precisely this same quality in Ayckbourn’s writing. His review highlighted the darker elements of the play, particularly the passive nature of Guy Jones. Wardle claimed that Ayckbourn’s characterization of Guy owed a considerable debt to Russian playwright Anton Chekhov. Like the title character in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya (1900), Guy is “a totally passive figure who throws a surrounding and highly assertive society into turmoil. Everyone defines Guy according to their own fantasy: as a lover, a crafty businessman, a Scot, or anything else that springs to mind.” In Wardle’s estimation, the play owes as much to the Russian comedic tradition as it does to the British comedic tradition.
Wardle argued the case for Chekhov, but Billington, in a 1990 essay, thought more of the influence of another Russian dramatist, Nikolai Gogol. The play, Billington argued, had an “unacknowledged source: Gogol’s 1836 Russian comedy, The Government Inspector. In that, a humble St. Petersburg clerk arrives in a small provincial town, is mistaken for the Inspector General and is enthusiastically feted to prevent him exposing the bribery and corruption that is rampant in local government.” Billington added, “Guy Jones . . . is very much like Gogol’s Khlestakov.” Given Ayckbourn’s interest and familiarity with the Russian comic tradition—he adapted The Forest (1870), by Russian playwright Alexander Ostrovsky, for the National Theater—either of these claims may well hold true.
Billington also discussed an element that has fascinated other critics: Ayckbourn’s use of the play-within-a-play. The device allows Ayckbourn to explore the lives of provincial townspeople and to emphasize the importance of art in everyday life. Ayckbourn uses the device to demonstrate “how art consumes, shapes, and organizes life.”
Billington argued that as well as foregrounding the importance of art, the device of the play-within-a-play allowed Ayckbourn to comment upon contemporary society. “Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera famously demonstrated eighteenth-century low-life aping political corruption; Ayckbourn today shows bourgeois pillars of the community jovially pretending to be highwaymen and behaving with much the same shark-like rapacity when it comes to land deals.” Richard Hornby, writing in the Hudson Review, agreed. Ayckbourn, he wrote, targets “sexual prudery, venality, and hypocrisy.” The critic pointed out that even the amusing sub-plot about the BLM land deal had a direct parallel in Gay’s Opera: “Gay’s song ‘I’m Bubbled, ’ refers to the South Sea Bubble, the great land scheme of the time, which is reflected in the shady scheme in the outer play.” Indeed, most critics found that Ayckbourn’s social commentary was a light-hearted but nonetheless constant undercurrent in the play.
Critical opinion about A Chorus of Disapproval has been remarkably consistent: all have praised Ayckbourn’s rare ability to “weave so much sadness, pathos and bitterness into a play that is still a comedy.” Almost all critics commented upon Ayckbourn’s technical prowess: although he is an entirely different writer from Tom Stoppard, the two are often compared for their ability to create plays whose intricate structure and complex plots reveal considerable dramatic acumen. Now that the tide has turned and critics are finally taking Ayckbourn’s talents with more than a pinch of salt, they seem united in the belief that Ayckbourn’s contribution to British theater has been considerable and that A Chorus of Disapproval is rich proof of his achievements.
Ifeka is a Ph.D. specializing in American and British literature. In this essay she argues that A
Chorus of Disapproval marries social criticism with comedy through the close parallels between it and The Beggar’s Opera.
Alan Ayckbourn has always enjoyed popularity among audiences, but for too long his critical reputation suffered under the lingering suggestion that a writer of light farce had little, if anything, to say about contemporary society. This view has been modified in recent years, although it is still rare to find criticism of Ayckbourn that takes him seriously as a social critic. Even a play like A Chorus of Disapproval, in which the close parallels Ayckbourn draws between his play and John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera are a clear comment on contemporary society, is usually discussed in terms of the play’s artistic merits rather than its socially critical elements. Yet it is precisely through the “artistic” elements of the play that Ayckbourn develops his subtle criticism of (prime minister) Margaret Thatcher-era Britain. The key to understanding his integration of social criticism and comedy is the close parallel Ayckbourn creates between both plays and thus between Britain in the early- eighteenth century and the late- twentieth.
Eighteenth-century Britain was a place of tremendous change and turmoil. Following the first great national revolution in Europe, the English Civil War (1640-1646), the Protector Cromwell closed the theaters and for fourteen years the stages were silent. The Restoration era of Charles II (1660) brought many changes to British politics and also transformed the stage: Charles reopened the theaters, supported them with royal patronage, and allowed women to appear on stage. By the early decades of the eighteenth century, the theater was the most popular form of public entertainment. In a culture that lacked television or cinema and in which literacy was the exception, not the norm, the theater offered everyone, rich and poor, spectacular visual effects and gripping stories.
Meanwhile, the explosion in print culture drew more and more would-be writers to London, who churned out sensational biographies of criminals and libertines, as well as penny-poetry, popular ballads, reviews, and essays. “Grub Street” supported an entire culture of print-shops, taverns, and Page 53 | Top of Articlecoffee-houses, and playwrights preened in its praise or withered in its contempt.
The time was ripe for a writer who could soak up the juices of popular culture and entertain his audience with a new combination of satire, pathos, and humor; John Gay proved to be just such a man. The Beggar’s Opera was first staged at Lincoln’s Inn Fields in 1728, and, as John Brewer noted in The Pleasures of the Imagination, the play quickly “became the talking point of the chattering classes. . . . At a time when most productions endured for less than a dozen performances, it lasted for an unprecedented sixty-two nights in its first season.”
Gay’s ballad opera was a sensation. His backers and patrons had doubted whether the unusual mixture of popular ballads and operatic arias, a love story with tales from the criminal underworld, political satire, and pomp, would appeal to audiences, but they were proved wrong. The play was not only an overnight sensation, it became the most often performed play of the century. It was revived year after year until the late- 1780s, and—just as contemporary Hollywood movie-makers extend their profits by selling toy and board game “tie-ins” to their mass market films—so could an audience member buy house screens, fans, and playing cards decorated with music and pictures from Gay’s opera. There were no “top ten” charts then, but the songs from the opera were widely popular and allusions to the characters and language became commonplace.
The play appealed to audiences for a number of reasons, but a primary attraction was its sly commentary on contemporary society: the corruption of government officials and parliamentarians, the aristocratic pretensions of low-life criminals, and the self-serving social-climbing of lower-middle class “shopkeepers.” Audiences appreciated this sly social and political satire. The Beggar’s Opera remained popular because the text lent itself “to topical political allusion, which the performers often provided in improvisations or elaborations on the play’s text.”
Ayckbourn’s decision to center Chorus’s depiction of the inner workings of a small town dramatic society around Gay’s ballad opera is thus not insignificant. The choice of the play-within-a-play immediately begs the audience to consider carefully the parallels between themes, plot, and characters, and as well as those between early
eighteenth century and late- twentieth century British society.
These parallels are not always immediately apparent. In Gay’s opera, Captain Macheath is a highwayman, a charismatic figure noted for his gallantry, sexual allure, and wit. Guy Jones, whose very name speaks his “everyman” drabness, may well be “manly” and “masculine,” but it would a long shot to call him witty, wild, or dashing. Whereas Gay’s eighteenth-century hero wins favor with the audience for his daring acts, Ayckbourn’s late twentieth-century anti-hero is most noticeable for his passivity. Yet American director Mel Shapiro has argued that Guy’s character is open to interpretation; rather than seeing him as naive and innocent, Shapiro’s lead actor believed Guy was potentially conniving, knowing, and opportunistic and played the role accordingly. To act the part of a man acting a part is a tricky feat, but such an interpretation of Guy is not uncommon, particularly since Guy clearly “grows into” Macheath’s character during the course of the play. Such an interpretation certainly makes for a juicer role and a more complex play.
The plots of each play also seem antithetical. The Beggar’s Opera portrays the high times and misdemeanors of a highwayman—his involvement with Polly Peachum, Lucy Lockit, and Jenny Diver, and his betrayal by the mean-hearted Peachum and by one of his one gang, Jemmy Twitcher. A Chorus of Disapproval seems light years away from such material: here is no London low life but rather the respectable members of a small town community whose lives, if anything, seem stultifyingly dull.
It is precisely this superficial contrast that Ayckbourn exploits so craftily in his plotting of the Page 54 | Top of Articleplay. The Beggar’s Opera is staged by a “Beggar” in the shadow of the gallows. The audience expects that Macheath will be hanged at the end of the play. The opening scene of A Chorus of Disapproval makes clear to the audience that Guy is being shunned by his fellow cast members: the entire play takes place in the shadow of this rejection. This kind of parallel between the stage and gallows was a familiar analogy in Gay’s day—public executions were a popular form of public entertainment, and the throngs who gathered to gawk at the condemned man were able to buy hot cider and watch bearbaitings while they waited.
The ending of Ayckbourn’s play is further evidence of the structural similarity between it and The Beggar’s Opera. In The Beggar’s Opera, the last scene finds Macheath imprisoned, mourned over by his paramours, and about to be executed. But—against all expectation—he is granted a lastminute reprieve by the Beggar, who, as John Brewer neatly explains, “justifies this unexpected twist of the plot by maintaining that ‘an opera must end happily’ and ‘in this kind of drama ’tis no matter how absurdly things are brought about’.” Likewise, in the last scene of A Chorus of Disapproval, the audience expects that after the curtain falls they will witness Guy Jones being served his just deserts. On the contrary, the production is a smash, and after the performance ends “happily and triumphantly,” the actors “embrace each other, most especially their hero of the night, Guy himself.”
The structural similarity of the plays emphasizes Ayckbourn’s close adherence to Gay’s themes. Key amongst these are the social climbing and scheming of the bored middle class and the sexual promiscuity that hides behind the facade of respectable appearances. The chief targets of Ayckbourn’s criticism are the BLM land schemers—Dafydd, Fay and Ian, and Jarvis and Rebecca. Each “interest group” attempts to extract information illegally from Guy, offering him a “pay-off” as a reward for his cooperation. Dafydd is a lawyer, and when at one moment he offers Guy an “arrangement” for his “help,” then adds that Guy should not share the information because “I’d be betraying my own client . . . [it] wouldn’t be ethical,” the audience is at once amused and repulsed by such hypocrisy. The most artful plotter of all, Rebecca, who has spread rumors about BLM in order to inflate the land’s price, bribes Guy and encourages him not to “deny the rumor.”
The punch-line to their wheeling and dealing is that BLM is in fact about to down-size, not expand, and that the whole community will feel the impact of the cuts, including, of course, Guy himself. Ayckbourn parallels Dafydd’s petty corruption with Peachum’s but advances Gay’s original satire one step further by suggesting that in the late- twentieth century, the only fish to grow fatter from such greedy skullduggery are the big multinational corporations.
Although the chief targets of Ayckbourn’s satire are the original PALOS members, it is Guy’s rise through the ranks that exemplifies the cast members’ self-serving approach to life. Each step up the ladder of success until he wins the dubious honor of playing Macheath is the result of a helping hand—or, more accurately, a greased palm. Innocent to the fact that Guy’s sticky fingers will soon be robbing him of his own wife, Dafydd first casts Guy as Crook-Fingered Jack. The female cast members support Guy’s elevation to Matt of the Mint before Fay, hoping for information about BLM, secures him the role of Filch and offers him sexual favors. Finally, Rebecca seeks to secure Guy’s silent acquiescence to her rumor-mongering by winning him the role of Macheath and sweetening the deal with five hundred pounds. Guy’s “casting couch” climb to success parallels Macheath’s equally immoral rise to fame, fortune, and popularity. Both men’s bubbles are pricked by the intervention of “justice” in the form of an avenging man (Polly’s father, Peachum in Beggar’s, and Ian and Dafydd in Chorus).
Too often, Ayckbourn’s critics allow their interest in his comedic talents to obscure his satiric skills. Ayckbourn’s social criticism is never blunt or heavy-handed, but the very faculty for which he is so often praised—his ability to unite humor and pathos—succeeds in part because of his subtle criticism of contemporary society. It is the emotional damage that results from Guy’s philandering and bribe-taking, and the ethical corruption of the PALOS members’ property speculation, that packs Chorus’s punch. Moreover, the careful accrual of parallels between Gay and Ayckbourn’s play—and their societies—broadens his social criticism from one small town to British society in general. Flexible ethics, hollow respectability, sexual promiscuity—these are the targets that Gay scored through with his quill and at which Ayckbourn, two hundred and fifty years later, also aimed his pen.
Source: Helena Ifeka, for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000.
Kauffman reviews the film adaptation of Ayckbourn’s play, finding that the movie version does not match the charms of the original stage play.
Alan Ayckbourn is a phenomenon. He is by far the most prolific British playwright of his time; after beginning as an actor and director (he still directs), he began writing plays in 1959 and has had 37 produced. Most of these plays by report (who could have seen them all?) are comedies on dark subjects about the English middle classes. Vis-à-vis film, Ayckbourn’s career has two odd aspects. First, for all his success, no play of his has been filmed until now. Second, the play that he chose to launch his film career is, in my limited Ayckbourn experience, one of his weakest.
A Chorus of Disapproval (Southgate) is set in Scarborough, that pretty coastal town in northeast England where Ayckbourn lives and runs a theater. A young widower (Jeremy Irons) is transferred to the town by the giant company that employs him. As soon as he settles in, he reads an ad calling for performers in an amateur production of Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera. He auditions; is accepted for a one-line role; then, by a series of accidents, moves to a larger role and eventually to the lead, MacHeath. He also gets involved with two married women in the cast. And he also gets involved, though quite honestly, in a scheme to profit by a land purchase his company is supposed to make.
Amateur theatricals can be, have been, serviceable in plots as catalyst and counterpoint. But Ayckbourn, who did the screen adaptation with the director, Michael Winner, makes only routine use of the amateur show itself and no use at all of Gay’s work as counterpoint. Irons gets into jams with the two women, then gets out of them: nothing is arrived at one way or another. As for the land deal, it’s just plot filler, with a hint of a threat that never materializes and a finish that’s quite incredible.
Incredible, too, are scenes in which the director excoriates actors in terms they have no need to endure; in which the two wives fight over Irons in a restaurant; in which wife-swapping takes place with a blatancy that makes Oh! Calcutta! look prim.
About the only interest in Irons’s performance is in the touch of Midlands accent he gives it (his character was born in Leeds). But Prunella Scales, familiar as John Cleese’s wife in the Fawlty Towers TV series, plays one of the smitten wives in a worn yet winning way. Anthony Hopkins plays her husband, Dafydd ap Llewellyn, the director of the show, with lilting Welsh accent and bullock energy. He rams right into the part, stocky and square, squinting in his left eye, evidently portraying a man he has met somewhere along the way. The script calls for him to do things we can’t believe, but he’s so good that we feel it’s Dafydd who is trapped in the plot, not Hopkins.
Winner, a director who started as a mediocrity 25 years ago and has since declined, is not much help. In any effective sense, the screen debut of Ayckbourn the Prolific is yet to come.
Source: Stanley Kauffman, “Truth and Inconsequences” in the New Republic, Vol. 201, no. 11, September 11, 1989, pp. 26-27.
Hornby offers a favorable review of Ayckbourn’s play.
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Source: Richard Hornby, review of A Chorus of Disapproval in the Hudson Review, Vol. XXXIX, no. 4, Winter, 1987, pp. 642-43.
Billington, Michael. “Art on Sleeve” in the Guardian, August 2, 1985, p. 11.
Brewer, John. The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century, HarperCollins, 1997, pp. 354, and 441.
Shapiro, Mel. “Directing A Chorus of Disapproval” in Alan Ayckbourn: A Casebook, edited by Bernard F. Dukore, Garland, 1991, pp. 173-76.
Trussler, Simon. Cambridge Illustrated History of the British Theatre, Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Wardle, Irving. “Painful Laughter” in the London Times, August 2, 1985, p. 15.
Billington, Michael. One Night Stands, Nick Hern Books, 1993.
This collection of the Guardian’s famous theater critic contains a good selection from two decades of criticism.
Bloom, Harold, editor. John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, New York: Chelsea House, 1988.
An excellent collection of essays on the Opera.
Branagh, Kenneth. Beginning, London: 1989.
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This entertaining autobiography provides insight into Branagh’s meteoric rise to fame and into the world of the London theatre.
Brook, Peter. The Empty Space, London: 1968.
Brook was one of the most influential theater directors in Britain in the Postwar period. He was long associated with the Royal Shakespeare Company. His directorial style showed the influences of Antonin Artaud and Bertolt Brecht. This collection of his essays offers analysis on the basic problems facing contemporary theater; the work has influenced many British and foreign directors.
Hume, Robert, editor. The London Theater World, 1660-1800, Southern Illinois Press, 1980.
This wide-ranging study is well-written and provides plenty of information about British theater during John Gay’s lifetime, offering background with which to compare Ayckbourn’s settings and environment in Chorus.
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2693200014