The Divide: Articles

This article was written by Alan Ayckbourn's Archivist, Simon Murgatroyd, to mark the public premiere of The Divide with its gala read-through on 27 September 2015 at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough.

Earliest To Latest: The Road To The Divide

by Simon Murgatroyd

The Divide is Alan Ayckbourn writing as he has never written before. It is an epic narrative for voices in five parts which charts a forbidden love in a dystopian, repressed future society where the sexes have been segregated by the Divide.

It is a satire of the sexes set in a post-catastrophe UK where mankind has been decimated by a fatal disease apparently passed on by women, leading to a world where adult men are forbidden to interact with the opposite sex. Told through documents, diaries and reportage, the piece brings to mind authors as diverse as Margaret Atwood and George Orwell with a touch of Shakespeare’s
Romeo and Juliet.

Of course this isn’t the first time Alan Ayckbourn has ventured into the future in his writing and his interest in it stems from a young love of the golden age of science-fiction writers.

“I began to love the allegorical stories they told, when they were using science-fiction as an allegory of, if we continue thus, then we will finish up here. This particular realm of science-fantasy wrote about the present day from a future stand-point, which - of course - is a very strong part of science-fiction. Reflecting the present day or extending the trends of the present day to its logical conclusion.”

The influence of such writers can be seen throughout Alan Ayckbourn's career from plays as diverse as
Henceforward... to Communicating Doors, Comic Potential to Body Language.

And as his latest work is about to be unveiled, it's interesting to note that this genre - from an archivist's perspective - is where it also all begins.

What is believed to be the earliest surviving manuscript written by Alan Ayckbourn is called
The Season and is held by The Borthwick Institute at the University Of York.

Written no later than 1958,
The Season is a rare surviving example of Alan's writing prior to his first professional commission. It is a strange love story set over four scenes and four seasons, which moves from Edwardian England into a post-apocalyptic landscape.

Alan has frequently mentioned he recalls writing approximately nine plays before his first professional commission
The Square Cat; most of them comedies but "with a couple of exceptions which had been rather morose pieces." The Season falls into the morose category.

Described on its frontispiece as a "drama in four scenes",
The Season begins in Spring in Medieval times, before moving through the seasons and time into Edwardian England and then the future.

It follows two characters, The Traveller and The Girl and the relationship which develops between them until the third act when The Girl, now The Woman, is close to death and the world apparently about to be engulfed by an apocalypse.

The final scene sees The Traveller meeting with The Girl, but apparently for the first time, venturing forth into a winter wasteland which has apparently been unseen since the catastrophe. The pair agree to explore the world together and set off into the snow.

Of course, the final scene could all be a pretentious metaphor for death from a 17 year old writer - and the scene alludes to death being like winter - but as the play mentions emerging from vaults into the world, it seems more likely to be a vision of a future after a catastrophe.

What's interesting about the final scene is - from today's perspective - the presumption would be this is a nuclear winter, but when Alan wrote the play, the term had not even been invented and there had been relatively little research into the after-effects of a nuclear war. Science-fiction writers - possibly read by Alan himself - had though explored this territory.

The Season is a fascinating oddity, although it offers no indication of the writer Alan Ayckbourn will become aside from the imagination of the piece. It is of historical significance though not only for being the earliest Ayckbourn play, but also one which shows an interest in a genre which will permeate his work from Standing Room Only (1961) through to The Divide (2015).

Just as
The Season finishes post-catastrophe in a strange new world, so The Divide, begins post-catastrophe in a world where the sexes are segregated and the world is no longer as it was.

But to discover more about this strange new world, you'll need to see
The Divide.

Article by Simon Murgatroyd. Copyright: Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.