A Small Family Business: Quotes by Alan Ayckbourn"[A Small Family Business] is about honesty, the erosion of virtue, trying to be honest in a dishonest world, and where does real dishonesty begin."
(Sunday Times, 1 June 1986)
"It's about where you draw the line. People steal paper clips in the office without thinking about it. They cheat with their fares on the bus. So I explore a family that shifts imperceptibly from this to being involved in drugs. I suppose I'm moving into morality plays."
(Sunday Tribune, 17 August 1986)
"It's unheard of. I finished it in April and I had to submit it to Sir Peter Hall. That was a unique feeling. I have been submitting plays to myself for years and accepting them without a qualm. I was extremely nervous. Of course some people would say it should happen more often. Now I've cast it and it's sitting in a drawer while I sit here twitching, wondering whether I'll still like it when next April comes and we start rehearsing it. I hope to God I do."
(Sydney Morning Herald, 14 September 1986)
"When Peter Hall asked me to write for the Olivier it was the first time I had come up against a request to write for any theatre other than Scarborough. My usual way of writing there is to take a month off (three weeks worrying about the play and one week actually writing it) then we go straight into rehearsal. For the National Theatre, I had to write it much earlier, the deadline being last October. As it turned out I could not leave it that late because by then I was to be in rehearsal for Tons of Money. In fact I finished it in the Spring last year and it's the first time I've written a play that has been on hold for a year....
"It's [about] a family furniture business. I got interested in people's notions of honesty - what they consider to be honest and dishonest. We all have some measure of deviousness - does it really matter that we take home a few paper clips? that sort of thing. I wanted to take the audience by the hand and lead them to somewhere where they did not know they were going. In the play, I'm trying to say 'Let me take you on a journey and lets see how far we can go'. It's about a man who takes on the responsibility for this small family business who says 'lets make an honest business of it - the bosses won't fiddle the expenses and everybody will be absolutely honest and open.' When this idea breaks down, the big question raised is 'how is it possible to remain honest in a society like ours today?' Are there not too many pressures for people to withstand the feeling 'well, look, everybody else is doing it, everybody else is fiddling their income tax and the free bus ride so why shouldn't I?' The play takes you through every crime you could mention so that the characters ask themselves how on earth they get to the point that they do. A Small Family Business is a fairly black comedy that lands up in an area of dead bodies and drug smuggling."
(Plays International, February 1987)
"[It's] Middle-weight. Yes. I don't think I ever write, or want to write, really heavy-weight pieces. But some of my plays are obviously more substantial than others, and built on a larger scale. Writing with the Olivier in mind, I had my mind set on the scale and the sort of subject necessary to sustain it, and I came up with the idea of a "modern morality play". My son had been studying catering, and he was telling me about all the tricks of accounting, what you regularly have to write off every day. And there I was feeling like a complete idiot, asking all those old fuddy-duddy questions like "You mean they steal food from the kitchens? Why don't they stop them? Why don't they pay them more, and then dismiss them if they are caught doing anything dishonest?" And so I decided to write this morality about a man who decides to run his family business on lines of absolute honesty, paying people what they deserve and then expecting them to take not so much as a paper-clip, being absolutely straight with the tax people and so on. Of course it is a sort of tragedy. First one of his family gets into trouble, and, his duties as a father coming first, he has to bend the rules a little bit. And once he has started, one thing leads inevitably to another, until by the end he is involved in heavy drug-smuggling, the works. And all through this, we have to sympathise with him and condone what he is doing every step of the way.
"What the play's really about is the virtual non-existence of set moral codes any more, and the fallacy of trying to live by one. I think now the only thing we can do - and in a way cannot help doing - is to make up our own moral codes as we go along, following out our feelings that "I would do this, but I would draw the line at that". The conclusion the play leads to, I might say, is the purely practical one of "You can take the paper-clips, but draw the line at the desk." I suppose that's why, in the end, it's a comedy, not a tragedy. I suppose that's why all my plays are."
(Plays And Players, April 1987)
"It's the first time anyone has died in a play of mine. It's a fairly dark theme - honesty. It was sparked by the fact that everyone has their own idea of what honesty is."
(Sunday Express, 24 May 1987)
"I am quite a moral writer, in a funny way, and I do think that if one looks at my plays, a lot of people who sow do reap by the end. I don't say that all the good people go to Heaven and all the bad people don't, because I don't think that really happens. Would that it did. I do think that we do share an awful lot of responsibility - much more responsibility for each other perhaps than we're prepared even nowadays (and particularly nowadays perhaps) to recognise. And I think there is an awful feeling of let them be, it doesn't matter to me."
(Kaleidoscope, 8 June 1987)
"I start with a theme and the theme in my new play, A Small Family Business, is honesty. It's about an honest man and his relationships in a dishonest society. I've often thought, for example, that if Jesus Christ came back and arrived in the City of London and spoke only the truth, he would probably be regarded as the greatest con man who ever lived."
(Alan Ayckbourn, 1987)
"Even at my most optimistic, and I am rarely that, I have never sought to ignore real life in my plays. Though in the past many have chosen to ignore the underlying sadness and savagery in them and treated them as jolly romps, alas.
A Small Family Business is not a comedy. I don't describe it as that. It is a play. It has humour in it; it also has sadness. And some anger. Above all, I hope it has truth.
It says what I want to say about the state of the nation today. That collectively it is as greedy; selfish, and as lacking in any overall moral leadership, as over-obsessed with the material as opposed to the spiritual as any this country has seen.
The play postulates that even if there was a truly honest man he would be hard pressed not to be corrupted, so ill defined and shaky is our current code of moral conduct, the border lines between right and wrong.
It concludes that not one of us can distance ourselves from the distress and sorrow around us. Nothing terribly original. I think Jesus said it and several Greek Dramatists before him."
(Personal correspondence, 1987)
"With its doll's house set on two floors, it was really the first play I had written that could not be staged in the round at Scarborough. It is what I term a light heavyweight piece. In the Olivier it is difficult to do ethereal plays with delicate messages conveyed by eyebrows; I think you need something with a bit of clout. It was good, as I started to build the company, to bring in actors who had worked with me over the years in Scarborough, many of whom had worked for so long and so hard up there for so little, but all of whom understood and supported the company system. A critic said recently that the acting team seem to bat all the way to number eleven. We also bowl a bit, too."
(Sunday Telegraph, 21 February 1988)
"We were into previews of A Small Family Business before the next disaster occurred. We were doing some tidying-up sort of rehearsals one afternoon. Gerald Scarfe was sitting in the stalls sketching away, bringing out the less fortunate features of Michael Gambon and myself, when Michael tripped on a backstage cable, severely damaging his ankle. Being the man he is, we stood around for some moments enjoying this latest example of his sense of humour. A few seconds later we realised how serious the injury was. He insisted on playing that night, a sort of one-legged, hopping performance. We watched in horror as he turned grey and then yellow with pain. On the following night he was back again, expecting to play. By now, the pain of walking was so intense that it was actually difficult to make out what he was saying. Blessedly, he agreed to go home. I sought out the understudy, Allan Mitchell, to inform him that he was to take on Gambon's huge role that night. I found him running his lines, appropriately, in the NT's quiet room, an area generally reserved for meditation and prayer. Mitchell took over brilliantly, but the official opening was delayed until Gambon's return."
(Sunday Telegraph, 21 February 1988)
"I wrote A Small Family Business a year ahead, knowing I couldn't do my usual last-minute capers in the National Theatre, a user-unfriendly building, with five floors of scattered dressing rooms with no names on the doors, hundreds of people the actors don't know. I came to it fresh and followed the author's directions - and it was wonderful! We blocked the play and found all the directions worked. I can't remember why I did half of them. The actors assumed it would work, but it was satisfying for me. It was a good decision I made, to go to the National for that two years, because it made me write for that big auditorium and somehow try and lick the brute; it's a beautiful auditorium for big classic drama. I always wanted to write the occasional big, robust vehicle."
(The Stage, 25 August 1988)
"In a play like A Small Family Business, I show what could happen when we compromise our principles even by the tiniest amount. And how, yes, we all of us tend to alter the rules to suit ourselves. But we do so at our peril. And most of us don't, thank God, finish up murderers and drug smugglers just because we've stolen a few pencils from the office. But we could."
(Personal correspondence, 2 November 1988)
"People have different ideas about what it is right to steal from other people. For instance, some people consider it is morally justifiable to steal books because they contain ideas which should be available to everyone. People can be very reasonable about it but it's so dangerous. Where do you draw the line? One evening at the National Theatre someone was giving a lecture on the play, which I didn't know was going to happen. He said it contained all seven Deadly Sins, and it's quite true. I think my plays have become a little more fantastic."
(Birmingham Post, 26 August 1989)
"What I try to do when I write, though, is to present the unfamiliar or the unexpected as normally as possible. The whole point about Jack's family in A Small Family Business is their essential ordinariness. I wanted everyone to feel they could identify with that family. I tried to make nothing in Jack's behaviour anything other than natural. The decisions he takes to compromise his principles, he makes in all decency. We are invited to condone his actions - encouraged to do so - until, of course, too late, we find we have incidentally condoned murder and drug pushing. The detective, Mr. Hough, is really no more than the Serpent in the Garden.
"One of the recurrent themes that I have is that characters who "fall" are often those waiting to be pushed. That is, they have the seeds of their destruction already within them."
(Personal correspondence, 1989)
"In A Small Family Business the absolutes are felt to be impossible to achieve. I mean, who hasn't done something in their lives that makes them blush - lifted a book out of W H Smith's, done something in some drunken spree (or even sober)? The point I was trying to make is that although we're all prone to this, there's a direct link between a tiny crime and a big crime. It is a dangerous slope that you step on if you condone one crime - one racial incident, one anything. Again, at the centre of the play is this totally honest man, a rather belligerent man, Jack, who's almost impossible to live with. He's a cross between Don Quixote and St George, always going off looking for dragons.
The mark in that play is his first speech to his family, which is awkward. He talks rather self-consciously about moral values in a very clumsy way, and he phrases it wrongly - and I deliberately wrote it with hesitations and repetitions. He talks about things that in decent society aren't talked about, like having principles. Everyone nods and looks a bit embarrassed and wishes he'd shut up, because they'd rather get on with the party - and also it's painfully close to the bone because everyone in the room is a crook! But by the end of the play he's mastered the speak, and he's giving the smooth politician / Mafioso speech about family and ties; it's all very smooth and honed, says almost the same things as before, only much more briefly, swiftly, and shallowly. The movement has been very small in real terms. He's shifted from being a totally honest man to being a corrupt man. But without being aware that it's happened to him. The moral of that play is that we can change without realising it, if we compromise on what we believe in. And we are a nation of compromisers. It's that combined with our apathy that has saved us from doing the unspeakable."
(Interview with John Wu, 1992)
"At one stage there was this terrible old patriarchal society where Mr Macmillan [Harold Macmillan, British Prime Minister between 1957 and 1963] was obviously the most honest man in the world; he'd shot a few grouse and things but knew what was good for you. He was like some sort of old uncle, really. And then somebody discovered that there was as much corruption in politics as in the rest of the world. One wasn't so surprised by that, because politicians are representative of us - we voted them in. But then everything became corrupt! I mean everything. We didn't believe in anything. And there was this terrible attitude for a very long time that nothing was worth anything - a completely nihilistic thing."
(Interview with John Wu, 1992)
"It [the play] might have been written in a lighter moment by Sarah Kane."
(The Guardian, 5 August 2000)
"I'm always careful not to be overtly political with any of my works, as I prefer the focus to be on people and characters. But that's not to say politics do not influence my characters and their situations. A Small Family Business is probably a good example - I had at the time observed that we in Britain, due to the diminished influence of organised religion and lack of any real moral leadership from the government of the time (the play was written during the height of the Thatcher years) had as a nation started creating our own code of ethics. These new values, however, tended to differ from person to person without a commonly agreed consensus. Right and wrong, in other words, were becoming blurred. The action of the play shows what steady personal decline can result from following such social and political codes."
(Personal correspondence, 2005)
"The ending is black and terrible. The daughter Jack set out to save he ironically all but destroys."
"A Small Family Business is essentially a morality play in which a character, Jack, starts out as pure as driven snow, as we say, gradually and initially with the best intentions, compromises his beliefs in pursuit of self interest. It was a play born very much out of the climate at that time with Thatcher’s Britain in full rampant unstoppable flow. That philosophy of putting self first, society second, of every man for himself, is still very much alive. Rather than changing it has grown - witness the recent world wide financial crises - and is an ingrown norm in our society."
(Personal correspondence, May 2012)
"Really most of my ideas grow from smaller and lower-level things. This [A Small Family Business] came in part from watching my dear late mother, who in her later years worked in offices and would pocket things at the end of the day. I'm sure she wasn't the only one taking paper clips or a few pens, but I really thought it was a slippery slope and I fully expected her to come up the drive one day with a desk under her arm. I also had a wider sense of values being chipped away at by sub-clauses: thou shall not steal, except if it's not that big a thing; thou shall not kill, apart from … So I started on the story of a man, a good and honest man, who does something few of us would object to when he helps his daughter after she is nabbed for shoplifting a sachet of shampoo that costs peanuts."
(The Guardian, 29 March 2014)
"[It's about] doing things we all might condone in themselves, until we find ourselves neck-deep in shit and asking how the hell we got here. People thought it somehow fitted with the mood of the '80s, but if anything that sort of resigned acceptance of things has got worse and it is rather sad that the play appears to be even more apposite now than it was then."
(The Guardian, 29 March 2014)
"I didn’t want to make it an out-and-out attack on the Tory Government. I’m not David Hare - I’m always looking out from the sofa, not the platform - but I was reflecting the climate at the time."
(The Times, 1 April 2014)
"It [the National Theatre's 2014 revival of A Small Family Business] didn't seem like a play of the late 1980s. I haven't changed a single word. People were just as awful then as they are now. Hardly a day goes by without some politician being exposed with their expenses, everybody seems to be fiddling the system and the media portrays everything as suspect."
(BBC News, 9 April 2014)
"It got labelled at the time as a broadside attack on the Thatcher government, but I really didn't mean it like that. I meant it more generally, in terms of society losing its moral compass a bit. It seemed to me that 'Thou shalt not kill' had became replaced by 'Thou shalt make a lot of money'."
(BBC News, 9 April 2014)
"Like most of my plays, it’s basically quite a simple moral fable. It’s only complicated in the telling! Now that is very complicated indeed. You need to stay wide awake to hang on to this play’s narrative. It’s full of locational and temporal leaps. But the characters themselves should avoid complications (that’s not to say they shouldn’t have depth, they need plenty of that), but their motives and actions should remain clear and simple. My little self rule: never set complicatedly motivated figures against an equally complex background. It’s like standing in a sweater with a complicated pattern against intricate wall paper, you’ll never stand out, you’re indiscernible. And with A Small Family Business we should always be able to ‘read’ the characters."
(Personal correspondence, 2014)
"This certainly was a breakthrough - finishing a play nearly a year before the first rehearsal instead of the usual day before. I took advantage of being away from Scarborough by writing for a large cast and setting the piece in a two storey house with six rooms - like a giant doll’s house. Something we could never have achieved in our tiny Scarborough space. At the National Theatre during the opening minutes, the laughter used to roll round that huge Olivier auditorium like shock waves of thunder. Very satisfying."
(‘Ayckbourn At 50’ souvenir programme)
Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn