Figure conception and figure characterisation in Alan Ayckbourn's "Things we do for love"

Seminar Paper 2001 26 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature



1. Introduction

2. General Characteristics of Ayckbourn’s Figures
2.1. The English Middle-class
2.2. Gender
2.3. Human Relationships
2.4. Round And Flat Characters

3. Figure Conception in Things We Do for Love
3.1. Barbara
3.2. Nikki
3.3. Hamish
3.4. Gilbert

4. Figure Characterisation in Things We Do for Love
4.1. Explicit-figural characterisation techniques
4.1.1. Self-commentary
4.1.2. Outside Commentary Offstage Characters
4.2. Implicit-figural characterisation techniques
4.2.1. Non-verbal techniques
4.2.2. Verbal techniques
4.3. Explicit-authorial Characterisation Techniques
4.3.1. Speaking Names
4.3.2. Descriptions in the secondary text
4.3.3 Setting
4.4. Implicit-authorial Characterisation Techniques
4.4.1. Interpretative Names
4.4.2. Correspondence and Contrast

5. Conclusion

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1. Introduction

Ayckbourn is best admired by audiences for his brilliantly clever technique and is most esteemed by critics for his keen character portrayals and insights into human relationships. (Baker, 28)

The aim of this paper is to outline figure conception and characterisation in Alan Ayckbourn’s play Things We Do for Love. First, I will summarise recurring themes of Ayckbourn's plays and general characteristics of their figures. Then I will discuss Things We Do for Love in particular.

2. General Characteristics of Ayckbourn’s Figures

2.1. The English Middle-class

All figures in Ayckbourn's plays belong to the middle-class. Ayckbourn himself was brought up in a middle class family[1], accordingly he writes about those people he knows best. Although there are also economic reasons:

I'm very lucky that my particular level of writing, class-wise, is a slap-bang in the middle of the English theatre-going public. If I was a working class dramatist, I'd have a much harder time of it because my reflected audience would be that much smaller. (Watson, 109)

Ayckbourn is aware of hierarchies within this class. The relationship between boss and employee is a recurring theme in his plays.[2] In Things We Do for Love, Barbara's relationship to her boss Marcus is very important for her characterisation. On the other hand, she looks down on Gilbert, who is a postman.

2.2. Gender

'Men and women are much nearer than they sometimes say they are, but at the same time they do think quite differently and their attitudes are quite different.' (Watson, 119-120) As the majority of Ayckbourn's plays deals with married women who are suffering because of neither being understood nor helped by their husbands, some critics regard him as a feminist writer. But he stresses that he is more interested in human relationships than in gender[3].

Ayckbourn’s plays show recurring images of women. They live in unsatisfactory relationships. Wives feel depressed with household tasks, childcare and insensitive husbands. In contrast, there are career women for whom their jobs count more than their spouses. The third group of female characters are self-determined women.[4] Ayckbourn’s men ‘often commit harmful acts in a state of blindness, abusing those near and dear to them’. (Hornby, 103) In Things We Do for Love Ayckbourn also introduces a transvestite. But Gilbert wears Barbara’s clothes not because he wants to be a woman but because he is obsessed with Barbara.

2.3. Human Relationships

The general theme of Ayckbourn’s plays are problematic relationships[5] between friends, relatives, lovers and especially married couples. Ayckbourn’s attitude towards marriage is very negative, because his mother was divorced twice and his own marriage also broke up.[6].

All figures in Things We Do for Love are unmarried but nonetheless marriage is a substantial theme. Hamish and Nikki are engaged. Both have quite miserable marriages behind them. Gilbert's wife has died and Barbara’s beloved boss is married.

2.4. Round And Flat Characters

Flat or monodimensional characters are 'defined by a small set of distinguishing features' (Pfister, 178) whereas round or multidimensional characters are 'defined by a complex set of features' (Pfister, 178). The figures in Ayckbourn's plays are substantially round, always more than a mere instrument of the author's intention.[7] Often based on people he knows, his figures are very realistic.[8] Kalson asserts that ‘[the] audience recognizes their humanity, knows that such persons can and do exist’ (Kalson, 91). Hence the dramatist provides identification models for his audience. By contrast, Stefan notes that many of Ayckbourn’s figures are stereotypes, due to the genre of comedy.[9] Uta Bartsch believes that it is impossible for the audience to evade Ayckbourn's figures:

Seine Charaktere sind von jener Ambivalenz, die es letztlich schwer macht, die Figuren in ihrer gedankenlosen Egozentrik, ihrer mangelnden Sensibilität, ihrer bestürzenden 'Normalität' zu verurteilen oder befriedigt-selbstzufrieden abzutun. Zu ihnen gehören nämlich auch ihre Verletzlichkeit, ihre Einsamkeit, ihr Hunger nach Verständnis, ihr Kampf um die Überwindung der zwischenmenschlichen Distanz und die beunruhigende Vergeblichkeit ihres Bemühens. Sie geben mit ihrem Tun reichlich Anlaß zu froher, ja schadenfroher Heiterkeit, aber auch zu nachdenklicher Betroffenheit. (Bartsch, 241)

I have quoted the passage at length because an important point of Ackbourn’s work is that sometimes the laughter dies on the audience’s lips because the figures are suffering so severely.

3. Figure Conception in Things We Do for Love

Figure conception refers to the anthropological model that the dramatic figure is based on and the conventions involved in turning this anthropological model into fiction. (Pfister, 176)

In the following, the figure conception of Barbara, Nikki, Hamish and Gilbert will be discussed. The four figures are not completely monodimensional but they refer to specific types: the independent, unmarried woman, the romantic, weak girl, the rationally-thinking, charming men, and the nice but strange neighbour. Pfister also distinguishes between static figures, who are constant and don’t change, and dynamic ones, who develop in the course of the play.[10]

3.1. Barbara

Barbara Trapes lives alone and seems to be very self-conscious and happy. But beneath the surface of her self-chosen celibacy she is in love with her boss Marcus and envies his wife the happy family life herself will never have. Her work as assistant of an investment consultant is very important for her. She enjoys to have responsibility and power.[11] Barbara is very clever, works hard and believes that the firm could not be run without her[12]. II.iii. proves the opposite and she is really afraid of the thought of losing her job.[13] On the one hand she is in some situations very frank, mean and rude to Gilbert and Hamish but she really cares about Nikki’s feelings. Barbara is very orderly. She believes that the flat she rents to Hamish and Nikki is not clean enough[14], her own flat is always tidy, she wants to be the good host[15] and even when she and Hamish are about to tell Nikki the truth she wants everything to be perfect.[16]


[1] Cf. Glaap, 191; Rank, 10

[2] Cf. Watson, 116

[3] Cf. Watson, 126; Londré, 87

[4] Cf. Londré, 88-91

[5] 'I find there is in many relationships [...] a sort of love-hate.' (Watson, 119)

[6] Cf. Rank, 10; Billington, 3; Watson, 119: 'As soon as people feel that they are married, there's a sense of entrapment.'

[7] Cf. Bartsch, 241

[8] Cf. Stefan, 80

[9] Cf. Stefan, 81

[10] Cf. Pfister, 177-178

[11] She is very unfriendly and bossy to her Assistant Devonia Hargreaves, cf. II.i. 79, I.iv. 61

[12] ‘The fact is, Marcus can’t move without me.’ (I.ii. 16)

[13] Cf. II.iii. 102

[14] Cf. I.i. 5-6

[15] Cf. I.i. 36-37; I.iii. 45-46

[16] Cf. II.iv. 90


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Title: Figure conception and figure characterisation in Alan Ayckbourn's "Things we do for love"