Absurd Person Singular | Study Guide

Sir Alan Ayckbourn

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Absurd Person Singular | Themes

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Importance of Social Status

The characters in Absurd Person Singular are all members of the British middle class, but some are more successful than others. For them, success is defined by material prosperity, or at least the appearance of prosperity. The play follows three couples through three years of professional gains and losses. Sidney and Jane get richer while Ronald and Marion lose their former wealth and Geoffrey and Eva face marital and financial troubles. Ayckbourn explores how people earn —and lose—social status and how others treat them differently as a result.

Sidney and Jane are upwardly mobile, and they work hard to ascend the social ladder. Act 1 introduces the idea of parties as a vehicle for increasing status. Sidney hosts the party in Act 1 primarily to make a good impression on Ronald, an influential banker, and Geoffrey, a skilled architect. He laughs when Ronald and Geoffrey discuss cheating on their wives, even though he is uncomfortable with the topic. His wife Jane struggles to pull off a flawless social occasion, panicking when anything goes wrong. At first their attempt doesn't seem to work. Geoffrey and Marion, Ronald's sophisticated wife, privately mock their hosts' suburban home as a cheap, desperate attempt to appear wealthy. Ronald advises Sidney not to let service workers come in the front door—demonstrating his own status by emphasizing that he lets lower-income workers know where they stand.

After a good business year, Sidney grows bolder in Act 2. He no longer has to act subservient to others. Instead he implies that others need to watch out for him. When Sidney tells Ronald he had better do a good job looking after his money, it seems like a good-natured joke, but it also implies a threat. Ronald could lose a lot of money himself if Sidney pulls his account from the bank. By Act 3 Sidney and Jane are significantly wealthier than they were before. Now the other couples are nervous about impressing them. Eva urges Geoffrey to play Sidney's humiliating Act 3 party game since she knows Sidney can provide Geoffrey with work.

Both of the other couples—Ronald and Marion and Geoffrey and Eva—lose status. As a professional who gets work through personal connections, Geoffrey struggles to follow the lead of the most successful person in the room. Unlike Sidney, Geoffrey has little desire to raise his social status by hosting parties. In Act 2 he resists the idea of working with "the up-and-coming [Sidney]." He doesn't have much respect for the way Sidney conducts business. But by Act 3, a major failure on the job has put Geoffrey and Eva in a dismal financial state. Recognizing that no one in town will hire Geoffrey, Ronald suggests that an article in the paper unfairly smeared Geoffrey's reputation. Geoffrey falls into a depression, proving his career prospects affect him more than he likes to admit. He also loses status when Eva takes charge of his career. When Eva asks Sidney to hire Geoffrey in Act 3, it is a reflection of the Act 1 scene where Sidney tentatively asks Ronald for a bank loan. The person with lower status is reduced to making a request they'd rather not make.

Additionally, when Ronald's bank suffers losses in Act 3, the drop in status makes him reconsider his entire life, including his marriages. His wife Marion worries about the terrible things she has said and done in the past. Their loss of status damages their sense of self. The absence of heat in Ronald and Marion's home in Act 3 demonstrates their fall from importance—they're literally left out in the cold.

Materialism and Greed

The characters take pride in having and showing off coveted possessions. Ayckbourn demonstrates both the outsized importance his characters give to material prosperity and the inability of this prosperity to satisfy real needs.

The objects Sidney and Jane own in Act 1 signify the kind of people they want to be. The automatic washing machine, the electric stove, and the Formica countertops are possessions Sidney and Jane associate with the ease of an upper-class lifestyle. By purchasing appliances that take care of household tasks, they can buy a life of convenience. Jane takes pride in explaining how the washing machine works to Marion. She also brags about how Sidney's income allowed him to give her the machine for Christmas. The stage directions indicate Sidney and Jane's kitchen is a "model kitchen," or one meant to demonstrate wealth and high status. The couple hopes their fancy kitchen will improve others' perception of them. The men's Act 1 conversation about Lottie shows how women are considered objects to own and admire as well. When Geoffrey describes his many affairs, he tells Ronald, "There's so much good stuff wandering around."

Other characters brag about their wealth in overt and subtle ways. Ronald and Marion make frequent references to their unseen housekeeper, Mrs. Minns. Ronald remarks in Act 2 that Mrs. Minns's "heart of gold" is "largely paid for by us." In Act 3 the newly rich Sidney praises the lavish house of his new business acquaintance Harrison. This leads to a moment of awkwardness when Marion briefly thinks he has complimented her own home. Characters aren't shy about using material objects to signify their perceived superiority over others. Marion and Jane condescend to Eva in Act 2, remarking on the dirty state of her oven and floor. Sidney and Jane show off their wealth in Act 3 by being the only party guests to bring gifts for others.

Cutthroat business tactics may provide the money for material objects. The brutality of characters' business decisions demonstrates greed, and the work philosophy Sidney details to Ronald in Act 1 is a primarily greedy one. Sidney wants to earn as much as he can, and he therefore surrounds himself with people who will help him. Harrison—the unseen businessman who hires Geoffrey to design a shopping complex in Act 2—has a similar self-serving philosophy. He refuses to pay Geoffrey for work or follow Geoffrey's higher-cost recommendations for the complex—leading to an on-site disaster. Sidney and Harrison are known for their underhanded business tactics and are rewarded for their greed, while Geoffrey is punished for not using these tactics himself.

Though characters covet a wealthy lifestyle, the objects they purchase often fail them. Acts 1 and 2 include elements of physical comedy when devices break down or don't work correctly. In Act 1 a malfunctioning soda dispenser splashes Ronald, the most important guest. Frustrations mount in Act 2 when Ronald and Sidney both suffer humiliations trying to repair fixtures in Jane's kitchen. In a use of situational irony, inventions intended to make people's lives easier end up making their lives more difficult. Additionally, in Act 3 Ronald and Marion's material possessions fail to protect them. Their heating system breaks down in the middle of winter. Even Sidney and Jane's seemingly perfect kitchen cupboards and windows fail to make the intended impact. Marion and Geoffrey privately insult the bad design of Sidney and Jane's house. Despite their attempts to appear wealthy, Sidney and Jane's efforts are not good enough for someone even wealthier.

Middle-Class Gender Roles

As husbands and wives fight minor and major domestic battles on stage, Ayckbourn examines the way men and women treat themselves and each other. Power dynamics among the men revolve around money and work, while power dynamics among the women focus on caretaking and household goods. Men and women also conflict with one another, showing disappointment, frustration, and divergent expectations.

Ronald, Sidney, and Geoffrey appear to support each other's careers and marriages. Secretly, though, they're competing to be the most successful—and success is defined by both business prowess and sexual freedom. The element of sexual competition between the men is highlighted in Act 1. Ronald admires Geoffrey for his ability to stay married while having multiple affairs. All three admire Dick, who is implied to be more at ease flirting with women. By contrast, Sidney's low status in Act 1 is demonstrated by his discomfort with the other men's sexual jokes. Geoffrey's decline in status by Act 3 is illustrated when his wife Eva starts making career decisions for him, reversing the power dynamic in their partnership.

Though Geoffrey and Ronald blame their wives for marriage conflicts, the play indicates the men are more to blame than the women. Geoffrey's Act 2 monologue to Eva is meant to display his lack of self-awareness. He pretends his cheating is something he can't help rather than a choice he is making. Eva's silence during the monologue signifies the couple's failure to communicate and understand one another. In Act 3 Ronald similarly feels confused and alienated from Marion and from his first wife. He and Geoffrey both describe their wives smashing dishes during fights, presenting the idea of women as emotion-fueled creatures and men as rational ones. However, the men in the play behave just as irrationally as the women. Ronald and Sidney both lose their temper at their wives, for instance, and Geoffrey fails to confront Eva's suicidal depression in Act 2.

The women are under pressure to be charming hostesses. They need to dress well, act cheerful, and keep a clean house. However, each woman fails to live up to hostessing standards at her party, and each faces a lecture from her husband as punishment. They worry their worth is defined by their looks and their husbands' affection. Marion flirts with Sidney in Act 1, but by Act 3—two years later—she fears men will lose interest in her as she ages. In Act 1 Eva admits she embarrasses her husband, and Ayckbourn implies that Geoffrey's infidelity and neglect contribute to her Act 2 depression.

Finding their husbands impossible to please, the women demonstrate power over one another by competing over who keeps a better house. Marion praises Jane's kitchen with compliments she doesn't mean, and Jane insists on cleaning Eva's oven and washing her dishes. By Act 3, when Jane is the wealthiest of the women, Marion sarcastically asks if Jane plans to wash her kitchen floor. This implies Jane tidies other people's houses as a show of authority.

Anxiety and Isolation

All the characters feel the stifling weight of career uncertainty, marital troubles, and high social expectations. Despite the celebratory mood of the Christmas parties they host, the couples go through each year feeling anxious and alone.

Characters demonstrate anxiety through repetition in dialogue. Many characters repeat short words and phrases like "dear, oh dear" and "yes" so often that they come across as nervous tics. Nerve-fueled automatic politeness leads characters to hastily agree with one another. Jane's Act 1 repetition of "gin and bitter lemon—shake the bottle first" reveals her worry about impressing the guests by getting their drinks right.

Sidney and Jane have heightened social anxiety because of the high stakes of their party. In Act 1 Jane's repetitive cleaning and her hesitancy about going out for additional tonic water demonstrate her fragility in a high-pressure situation. She and Sidney each demand that the other person keep up appearances for their guests at all costs. Sidney insists Jane apologize for walking through the living room in her raincoat—indicating his own fear of what people will think. Additionally, in Act 2 Jane confesses to Eva she only socializes at parties for Sidney's sake.

Other characters struggle with nerves as individuals and as a group. Marion also has severe social anxiety, as Ronald implies in Act 3, but she drinks to cope with it—leading to greater anxiety from drinking. Eva takes medication and openly discusses her vulnerabilities. In Act 3 when the other guests hide from Sidney and Jane, the scene is both amusing and incredibly tense. If Sidney feels socially slighted, Ronald might lose him as a client.

Isolation also defines the characters, particularly the women. Jane is locked out of her own home and party in Act 1. She is effectively banished by her husband, who is so eager to win Geoffrey and Ronald's favor that he refuses to let her in. Eva tells Sidney she feels invisible to her husband Geoffrey, and Act 2 illustrates this invisibility. She barely speaks as the characters carry out their own actions around her. The multiple misinterpretations of Eva's suicide attempts keep her alive but increase her isolation. Marion isolates herself in a room in Act 3, later lamenting the challenge of being stuck alone with her thoughts. Each woman is in pain she can't communicate for fear of not being heard or understood.

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