Alan Ayckbourn on the nuances of English
Richard Eyre’s anthology of interviews with various thesps and drama types (Taking Theatre) has been a fun book to dip into – the perfect filler for 5 minute slots (e.g.when people are late for a meeting). Lots of gems inside, but I particularly enjoyed this paragraph from playwright Alan Ayckbourn:
One of the things about being English – and I’m only aware of this because my plays have been translated into so many languages – is we have the most wonderful language for drama. I went to see Norman Conquests in German, and I said: ‘What’s the difference?’ The translator said: ‘We just find ourselves frustratedly using the same word where you’ve always chosen a different one.’ The first line in Relatively Speaking is a man saying: ‘I can’t say I’m very taken with this marmalade.’ Which describes his class. And the way he speaks shows a certain antagonism between him and his wife, a sort of distance. When the Americans try to Americanise it, they came up with the equivalent, which is: ‘This marmalade’s a freak out.’ Which said nothing. It’s the same language, sort of. But I think it’s the selection of words that’s English.
Then beyond that, there’s the way we behave to each other. We are a very oblique nation. I like that. I mean that feeling that you can go home, and it’s only when you’re on the bus you realise you’ve been insulted. [laughs] Or snubbed. And one explores the displacement activity that goes on. I don’t think any character in my play has ever said, ‘I love you’ directly to anyone. They’ve always been building a cupboard, or something, at the time, you know, and they’ve said it. Usually misheard the first time. There’s a feeling of indirection in a lot of our drama. My own Relatively Speaking is based on mistaken identities, which wouldn’t exist in some cultures. Somebody comes in and says: ‘Hello.’ And you think: ‘I don’t know who you are.’ But you don’t say, as an American might: ‘Who are you?’ You just carry on, hoping you’ll recognise them, and getting deeper and deeper into something. That’s very English.
Not only does it help overseas visitors or immigrants to England – rather like Kate Fox’s superlative Watching the English – it also briefly exposes how malleable and fiendish the nuances of the English language can be. I, for one, know how absurdly reluctant I am to ask the simple question ‘Who are you?’!