All six of the characters in Absurd Person Singular believe in the same twisted “religion”—materialism. Fanatically, they seek to accumulate physical possessions: washing machines, toys, bottles, spoons. It can be overwhelming just to think about all the useless stuff that the characters buy over the course of the play. Ayckbourn was writing his play at a time when the middle class was booming, and when the sale of nonessential products and appliances was through the roof. In many ways, Absurd Person Singular is his satire of the vulgar materialism of the era.
Why, exactly, are the characters in the play so obsessed with material possessions? One might think that these objects are important simply because they give the characters pleasure. For example, one of the first appliances the characters discuss is the washing machine in Sidney and Jane Hopcroft’s suburban home. While nonessential, this machine would seem to be useful because it gives its owners more leisure time. But Ayckbourn undercuts this assumption almost immediately by showing that its owner, Jane Hopcroft, actually enjoys doing physical labor. If given the choice of how to spend her free time, she’d scrub the kitchen, wash her laundry by hand, etc. Throughout the rest of the play, the characters exchange and discuss other appliances that, while potentially useful, don’t seem to give their owners any discernible pleasure—for example, in Act Three, Sidney and Jane give Ronald Brewster-Wright a set of screwdrivers for Christmas, a gift that seems to bewilder Ronald. One would think that material goods would bring their owners some kind of intrinsic pleasure, especially considering how much time the characters spend discussing them. But Ayckbourn goes out of his way to show that this simply isn’t the case.
So why, then, are material things so important to the characters in Absurd Person Singular? Ayckbourn suggests a second, subtler reason: material goods are status symbols, a way of showing off or currying favor with one’s peers. The characters use material goods for this purpose throughout the play. Even before any of the characters has spoken, for instance, we see Jane and Sidney Hopcroft preparing their home for a Christmas party. The purpose of their action is unmistakable: they want to impress their wealthy, successful guests, Ronald and Marion Brewster-Wright. They want to use material things—a clean, shiny kitchen, a brand new washing machine—to communicate that they’re successful, independent people, and therefore worthy of the Brewster-Wrights’ respect (and, in Sidney’s case, worthy of a loan from Ronald’s bank). Sidney also gives other characters gifts in order to signify his material wealth. At the end of the play, when he gives Ronald the set of screwdrivers, the message is clear, both to the characters and to the audience: Sidney’s fortunes have improved, to the point where he can flaunt his wealth by giving extravagant (albeit very weird) gifts to other people. So material things aren’t important to the characters because they’re intrinsically interesting or even intrinsically useful. Rather, material things are part of a language of status and power, in which all six of the characters are fluent.
Ultimately, this is the poignant side of Absurd Person Singular: the characters can only understand the world, and each other, in material terms. They have no sense of each other’s thoughts or feelings, and because they’ve been so brainwashed by the doctrine of materialism, they lack the capacity to learn. Consider the moment in Act One when the characters talk about the Hopcrofts’ washing machine. Nobody seems particularly keen on carrying on the conversation—but nobody has anything better to discuss, either. Even after Eva Jackson confesses that she’s suffering from depression (or another, similar psychological problem), the others prattle on about material things. Their materialism becomes even more disturbing in Act Two, when they busy themselves fixing Eva’s sink, light bulbs, and oven, so obsessed with appliances that they don’t recognize that Eva is actively trying to commit suicide. The characters’ obsession with material goods also explains why their gifts are often wildly inappropriate—for example, in Act Three, the Hopcrofts give Marion Brewster-Wright, an alcoholic, a bottle of gin for Christmas. Instead of empathizing with her condition, or trying to do something to improve it, they enable it. In all, materialism blinds the characters to anything that can’t be measured in strictly material terms—such as loneliness, depression, alcoholism, and insecurity. As a result, the characters live out miserable little lives, buying things they don’t want with money they don’t have to impress people they don’t like.
Materialism Quotes in Absurd Person Singular
SIDNEY: [chuckling knowingly] I don't imagine the wife of a banker will particularly choose to spend her evening in our kitchen. Smart as it is.
MARION: Just look at these working surfaces and you must have a gorgeous view from that window, I imagine.
MARION: It must be stunning. You must look right over the fields at the back.
JANE: No, we just look into next door's fence.
MARION: Well, which way are the fields?
JANE: I've no idea.
MARION: How extraordinary. I must be thinking of somewhere else.
RONALD: Ah. Well, as long as you know about him. Might have been after your silver. I mean, you never know. Not these days.
SIDNEY : No, indeed. No, he—he was from the off-licence.
MARION: This really is a simply loathsome little house. I mean how can people live in them. I mean, Geoff, you're an architect, you must be able to tell me. How do people come to design these sort of monstrosities in the first place, let alone persuade people to live in them?
MARION: Oh, God. Now he's going to tell me he designed it.
GEOFFREY: No. I didn't do it. They're designed like this mainly because of cost and people who are desperate for somewhere to live aren't particularly choosey.
SIDNEY: These people just weren't anybody. They are people in the future who can be very, very useful to us...
SIDNEY: Now. I'll give you a little tip, if you like. You’ll never get a sink unblocked that way.
SIDNEY: Don't do that! Don't do that! It's too late for that. Look at this shirt. This is a new shirt.
RONALD: Drink? No, I don't honestly think so. She's always liked a—I mean, the doctor did say she should lay off. But that was only because it was acting as a stimulant—She hasn't touched it lately.
RONALD: Both my wives, God bless them, they've given me a great deal of pleasure over the years but, by God, they've cost me a fortune in fixtures and fittings. All the same. Couldn't do without them, could we?
MARION: Why don't you just go in the hall and shout "Go away" through the letter-box?
RONALD: Because he happens to have a very large deposit account with my bank.
SIDNEY: That's it. Dance. Come on. Dance. Dance. Come on. Dance. Dance. Dance. Keep dancing. Dance . . .