Snake In The Grass: Articles by Alan Ayckbourn
Snake In The Grass (Stephen Joseph Theatre 2002 programme note)
A few years ago I wrote a short play called Haunting Julia. It was a departure for me on two counts. It had a cast of only three men, the first time I had written a 'single sex' play, and it was, in part at least, a ghost story.
Here, eight years later, is its 'sister' counterpart Snake In The Grass.
On the whole, the scholarly departments of the literary and dramatic worlds tend to be a little stuffy about certain genres of fiction. Crime novels, science fiction stories and, in theatre, comedies or farces as well get easily dismissed as if they were some alternative easy option to the real thing; the poor relations of serious, heavier literary or dramatic works. I'm still recovering from the question asked of me by a journalist (some years ago admittedly) as to whether I had any ambitions to write a serious play. I have this maxim that to be truly respectable as a comic dramatist you need to have been dead preferably for several hundred years. Once time has rendered all the best jokes completely unintelligible, then the scholars really come into their own.
As for the humble thriller, those are the ones many read or watch but few ever own up to, of course.
Yet it seems a curious distinction to make. Can't serious things be said equally validly whilst gripping, bewitching or reducing an audience to tears of laughter?
Can't a ghost story also reveal insights into human nature?
The answer is, of course, yes. Just as, conversely, a so called 'serious' piece of work can occasionally end up saying absolutely nothing of any relevance so a good detective thriller can often say a good deal.
Over the years, I've explored most genres one way or another. The thriller with plays such as It Could Be Any One Of Us and The Revengers' Comedies; science fiction with Henceforward..., and Callisto#7 and, with Communicating Doors, both those genres simultaneously. Historical romance? Well, maybe one day.
This is my second ghost play. Or is it? Not altogether. Not in the conventional sense, anyway. After all, most ghosts we encounter are not wailing nuns or headless monks. The phantoms lie within us, born out of a past that continues to haunt us; suppressed memories that grow into nightmares out of our own imaginings as we lie awake in the darkness. Is there someone else here with me? Whose breath is that on my face? Dare I open my eyes? Open them even the tiniest ... tiniest... ? BOO!
Hope you enjoy it, thank you for coming and I promise, if you’d rather, I won't tell a soul you've been.
Alan Ayckbourn's introduction to Alan Ayckbourn: Plays 5
In 1994, I wrote Haunting Julia which I had originally intended to be performed as an end-stage production to christen our company’s eagerly awaited, soon to open, ‘second’ auditorium of our new Scarborough home, the 160 seat McCarthy Theatre. In the event, building schedules being what they are, the move was delayed and the production was performed in the round in our old building but that’s another chapter.
Haunting Julia was unusual for me in two other ways. First, it was a ghost story and secondly it had an all male cast.
Ghost stories, especially theatrical ones, had always fascinated me ever since seeing as a child (far too young!) a stage adaptation of the W.W. Jacobs classic short story, The Monkey’s Paw. It gave me sleepless nights for months. My interest in the genre of ‘small-scale frighteners’ had recently been rekindled following my Associate Director, Robin Herford’s terrifying studio production of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black in an ingenious stage adaptation by the late Stephen Mallatratt.
Eight years later, in 2002, now securely installed in the splendid new Stephen Joseph Theatre, I resolved to set right the casting imbalance by writing a piece to complement Haunting Julia for three women. Finances being somewhat limited (but then whenever have they not been in theatre?), the play needed to occupy our larger Round auditorium. It also needed to utilise a previously existing set, in this case the production of Joking Apart, which was in rep at the time. It also, rather cheekily, even took its title from a line in Joking Apart, Snake in the Grass. Three women in a garden then, with a glimpse of a tennis court. I based it loosely on the H.G. Clouzot classic movie, Les Diaboliques, which wasn’t set in a garden with three women, but a boys’ private school and featured two women and a man and several others beside.
In the event as soon as I started writing Snake in the Grass, the ‘ghostly’ subject matter was soon overtaken with other darker, deeper lying themes, like the lasting damaging effects left on two sisters by previous parental and marital abuse. As with Haunting Julia, the troubled tormented child genius of misguided, over protective parents, the haunting shades in Snake In The Grass grew from all too solid human origins.
The plays are grey pathways, occasionally illuminated by comedy but whose light ultimately only serves to lead to darker places.
Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.