In Absurd Person Singular and his other plays from the 1970s, Sir Alan Ayckbourn offered a scathing critique of the British middle class. For most of the early 20th century, the British class system was mostly split between the working class (families whose incomes came mostly from manufacturing-based jobs) and the upper class (families whose incomes came mostly from financial and managerial jobs, or who lived off of an inheritance). That changed following the end of World War Two: Great Britain (rather like the United States) became a country with a large and influential middle class.
All six of the characters in Absurd Person Singular are recognizably middle-class. To begin with, the men’s professions aren’t immediately tied to manufacturing or some other kind of physical labor (which would probably make them working-class), but nor are the men financially secure to the point where they don’t have to worry about money. One is an architect, one runs a small bank (we know it’s small because he suggests that a single customer’s deposit could make or break his business), and one is in some kind of real estate-related field (he’s described as having many tenants and having put up many buildings). They all have to go to work, but what, exactly, they do in the course of a day is never made clear. Furthermore, the three women don’t appear to work for a living, but have enough disposable income to buy non-essential items like washing machines. Financially speaking, all six characters are doing well, but not to the point where they can afford to do nothing. And this can be downright nerve-wracking: the characters are obsessed with making money and entering the ranks of the upper class, but they’re also terrified by the possibility of failing and falling back in with the working class. This, in a nutshell, was the dilemma of the British middle class of the 1970s.
Ayckbourn explores this dilemma throughout his play, but especially through the characters of Sidney Hopcroft and Ronald Brewster-Wright. Over the course of the play, Sidney gets richer and Ronald gets poorer. However, it’s never clear why; the characters’ jobs are vaguely defined, and as the play goes on they become vaguer, not clearer. In the first act, Sidney Hopcroft appears to own a few general stores, but by Act Two, it’s unclear how he’s earning his money: he just says he’s had some “lucky hunches” (you wonder if even Sidney himself completely understands the source of his own success). Because we don’t understand how the characters make their money, we can’t fully understand why their economic status keeps rising or falling. Ronald Brewster-Wright’s status appears to be going down, while Sidney’s appears to be going up, but it could just as easily be the other way around. Such is the inherent instability of middle class life, Ayckbourn suggests.
Ayckbourn matches his characters’ economic instability with cultural instability. The six characters have no real heritage or traditions to fall back on (which is especially striking, considering that the play takes place during the Christmas season, when many families celebrate their traditions). The characters never even discuss their own backstories, or refer to any event that takes place long before the beginning of the play. Their conversations are nauseatingly present-tense, revolving around crass products and incomprehensible business deals. This could then be interpreted as Ayckbourn’s commentary on middle-class values. Bereft of a real heritage (unlike the upper class or the working class), the new middle class of the 1970s strives to make its own values and traditions and legacy, but without much immediate success. Indeed, one of Ayckbourn’s most important insights is that the defining feature of the middle class is precisely its lack of a stable identity and set of beliefs: everything is in flux.
In the absence of a strong culture or sense of identity, the middle-class characters of Absurd Person Singular are often alienated from one another—sometimes comically, sometimes tragically. Such is the case throughout the play, but never more so than at the end of Act Two, during which four of the characters make idle chitchat and tinker around in someone else’s kitchen while Eva Jackson, supposedly their friend, tries to commit suicide in various ways. The six characters in the play are supposed to be a community, looking out for each other. Instead, they seem oblivious to each other: no values or beliefs, aside from a shallow materialism, bind them together. The flaws of the middle class are at the core of Absurd Person Singular, and in a way all the other important themes of the play emanate from this one, underlying theme.
The Middle Class ThemeTracker
The Middle Class 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.
JANE: No, but it's special tonight, isn't it? I mean, with Mr. and Mrs. Brewster-Wright and Mr. and Mrs. Jackson. It's important.
SIDNEY: Don't forget Dick and Lottie Potter. They're coming, too.
JANE: Oh, well, I don't count Dick and Lottie. They're friends.
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.
MARION: [bending to read the dial] What's this? Whites-coloureds—my God, it's apartheid.
JANE: Beg pardon?
EVA: Did I put that glass in there?
EVA: My God, I knew it, I'm going mad. I am finally going mad.
MARION: Oh, that's lovely. Just that teeny bit stronger. You know what I mean. Not too much tonic . . .
SIDNEY: No, well . . .
SIDNEY: Actually, that's neat gin, that is.
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.
GEOFFREY: Eva—I'm being very patient. Very patient indeed. But in a minute I really do believe I'm going to lose my temper. And we know what happens then, don't we? I will take a swing at you and then you will feel hard done by, and by way of reprisal, will systematically go round and smash everything in the flat. And come tomorrow breakfast time, there will be the familiar sight of the three of us, you, me and George, trying to eat our meals off our one surviving plate.
GEOFFREY: Now, I'm going to phone the doctor. I’ll just be two minutes, all right? Now, you sit there. Don't move, just sit there like a good girl.
JANE: I must clean that oven if it kills me.
JANE: Shall I tell you something—Sidney would get so angry if he heard me saying this—but I'd far sooner be down here on the floor, on my knees in the oven—than out there, talking. Isn't that terrible. But I’m never at ease, really, at parties. I don't enjoy drinking, you see.
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.
EVA: Darling, I hate to remind you but ever since the ceiling of the Harrison building caved in and nearly killed the Manager, Sidney Hopcroft is about your only hope of surviving as an architect in this city.
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: Yes. Up at Walter's place. Walter Harrison.
RONALD: Oh—old Harrison's.
SIDNEY: Oh of course, you'll know him, won't you.
RONALD: Oh, yes.
SIDNEY: Oh, yes, of course. Asking you if you know old Harrison. I should think you do know old Harrison. He certainly remembers you. In fact he was saying this evening...