Henceforward...: Interview With Alan AyckbournThis interview with Alan Ayckbourn about Henceforward… which took place at the Stephen Joseph Theatre on 29 June 2016.
Simon Murgatroyd: What led you to decide to revive Henceforward… for this summer?
Alan Ayckbourn: It was an interesting play of its time and I was spurred on by a recent production in Hamburg, where its been massively popular and done phenomenally well in a huge theatre. I think on that evidence, it may well talk to a contemporary audience.
For those who haven’t seen it, tell us a little about the play.
Henceforward… is - at its serious centre - really about the nature of creativity. It’s about a composer, Jerome, in a dysfunctional near-future, living in a northern London no-go area. He has reached a crisis point, where he no longer has access to his source of inspiration or his muse; over the years he has come to believe his only way forward as a composer and creative musician is through his daughter, Geain. Jerome is trying desperately to win her back from his wife - who long ago left with Geain - and in order to lure her back, he goes to some extraordinary lengths. But when that opportunity does arise, the questions are will he even recognise his daughter when she returns and also be able to complete his life’s work?
You obviously believe it has relevance to today’s audiences.
I definitely think it is still relevant today, particularly with regard to the idea of the artist; Jerome records everything and then uses it for his music. He has recorded everything single thing his wife and daughter did before they left him, put them into a computer and then used it for his music. So they had no personal privacy - even in the bathroom and certainly not in the bedroom! This applies to many artists - the most popular question I get asked is, ‘where do you get your ideas from?’ It’s from the people I live with and who are around me. Conversations I hear - even sometimes part of private conversations - inform my writing. I don’t think I’m as blatant as Jerome, because his is completely committed to his personal artistic ambitions. But how artists create and the lengths they go to is as relevant today as ever.
Why did you decide to make Jerome a composer rather than, say, a writer?
It has to be a composer as they are visually far more interesting to watch; watching a writer struggling over a pad of paper or staring at a screen furiously is hardly entertaining! And no-one paints a picture that quickly unless they’re one of those extreme artists. At that time in the 1980s, composers were going through a phase which - of course - continues through to this day, in which they were becoming much more instant in their creations. A composer allowed me to plausibly show an act of creativity on stage.
The original production featured an extraordinary climatic composition by Paul Todd, which utilised the nascent idea of sampling. How have you approached the music for the revival?
With the best will in the world, I think Paul’s music from the original production might just sound a bit old fashioned today. Although at the time, we recorded it on a machine that one could rarely lay one’s hands on that was valued at a quarter of a million pounds! We cajoled a programmer in London to help us and the machine was the size of this room. We sat looking at a vast cinema sized screen with dancing sound waves on it and it was amazing. It was an early form of sampling, which she assembled under Paul’s instructions; something that one presumes an eight year old could now do on their laptop.
For the revival, I’ve created a composition and have forgone melodics for a sound montage built up from sounds that Jerome has assembled; it’s much more modernistic and non-melodic. It re-iterates that Jerome is not a successful composer and stoops to recording sampled babies for commercial reasons. His real interest is serious music for a very few select people who are probably amongst the minority. For that reason, I think my music might well fit the bill.
It’s also your first play in the science fiction genre and introduced us to the first of your many androids.
It is one of my 1980s science-fiction dramas and my earliest brush with pre-Comic Potential androids. The one here, NAN, is even more dysfunctional androids than those which follow - which is saying something!
How has the advance in technology affected the play?
I think most of it is just about right now actually. When I wrote it, it seemed way into the future - we just about had robot dogs being developed! Now we know that robots can walk, talk and look reasonably human. Bizarrely, it’s the little ideas from the play which we haven’t got round to; I don’t think we’ve got round to the self cooking meal yet! Although certain technology was anticipated in the play in 1987, the technology has certainly moved on since then and so I’ve moved it on a bit for the revival. Good old fashioned DVDs have gone and its now all solid state tech - I guess there’s always going to be keyboards though so Jerome still composes off a couple of keyboards even though he’s not playing conventional sounds off them.
When we recorded the original music, we were still working on reel to reel so to be looking at CDs and video discs at that point was really reaching ahead and assuming this would be normal in the future. I remember when CDs came in during that period and I was always an early adopter of technology. I had a very early CD player and I went out to buy some CDs for it and I think I bought a copy of every one that was available in Scarborough, which was about twelve CDs! This included some very strange music such as Ry Cooder - I’ve never bought Ry Cooder again - but he came out on CD and I thought ‘hey, I’ll play that.’
For a play so interested in technology, how do you think technology has changed since it was written?
I think we as a race generally take one step forward and one step sideways and two steps backwards! So there is never a tremendous sense of progression. There was a moment in the tail end of the 1980s when it seemed the sky was the limit; men had already gone to the moon and at the speed we were going, we were going to be on Saturn within three weeks and then everything slowed down tremendously; yet other things such as computers have sped up behind belief. So who can tell? When I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968, you thought that could be very possible. But now you think, a huge spaceship going to Jupiter? You must be joking. A space station on the moon? You’re kidding. That huge space station circling the earth with all those people having cocktails looking out at the planet, I suppose it’s foreseeable now but some way off, I suspect it’ll probably be 2101 now before we hit that.
It’s also the first of your plays to tackle the increasingly relevant question of what it is to be human.
Jerome is, I think, a man possessed, who is willing to carry his obsession to the nth degree - I suspect we all have moments like that, but hopefully we let our own humanity click in. But Jerome carries within him the seeds of his own self-destruction and - if faced with the possibility - would seriously consider completely sacrificing his personal life to his personal ambition to write the perfect piece of music.
One of my favourite moments in the play - and which begins a recurring theme of humanity vs technology - is where Jerome’s wife says: ‘For God’s sake, explain to your daughter why she would live with a machine and why it’s better to be with living beings, come on.” And he says, ‘I can’t think of a single reason.’ That is as pertinent as ever today.
Henceforward… is undoubtedly one of your darkest plays. How do you think it will be received today?
I don’t know, but I’ll be very interested to see what people think of Henceforward… now because that is a very, very dark play indeed. What could be darker than a play where the entire cast are wiped out by the end of the evening? Even the poor android sits down and dies on stage, whilst the rest are all banging on the door, probably about to be slaughtered and can’t be heard above the din of Jerome writing his futile, final composition. It will be interesting.
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