Alan Ayckbourn: Most Performed Playwright?

by Simon Murgatroyd, Alan Ayckbourn's Archivist

One of the most frequently mis-quoted and inaccurate statements made about Alan Ayckbourn is he is the most (or second-most) performed playwright in the UK and / or the world.

Let's state this simply (predominantly for those who continue to perpetuate this fallacy).

Alan Ayckbourn is not the most (or second-most) performed playwright in the UK or the world.

There is not - nor has there ever been - any statistical evidence to support these statements. It is something that is reproduced almost constantly in the media but without evidence to back it up. As far as the playwright and this website is concerned, it is not true as it has never been verified.

Alan Ayckbourn is very popular. He is performed frequently by both professionals and amateurs around the world. There is no doubt he is amongst the most performed living playwrights in the world. But that is all one can say with any certainty. Definitive statements are impossible because there are no definitive facts.

An Explanation
Alan Ayckbourn's popularity has been 'quoted' and mis-quoted' frequently since the 1990s.

Yet despite what you may have read - and no matter the quality of the publication - no-one can say with any degree of certainty where in the theatrical pop charts Shakespeare, Alan Ayckbourn, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Dario Fo or any other playwright stands either in the UK or worldwide

We can take an educated guess (such as Shakespeare as number 1...), but that is all we can do as no-one has done any definitive research into this field - except (and this is essential to note) in very restricted and specific areas.

Which in the case of Alan Ayckbourn is the most probable reason why he is perpetually mis-labelled as the first or second most performed playwright in the UK. To explain….

In 1983, the Arts Council of Great Britain (as it was known), published for the first time statistics about regional theatres in the UK subsidised by the Arts Council (keep that in mind...). Compiled over a two-year period, it reported on the most performed play (
Cider With Rosie apparently), audience figures and, amongst other facts, the most popular playwrights.

Between 1981 and 1983, more people went to see an Ayckbourn play than a Shakespeare play - although there were slightly more productions of Shakespeare than Ayckbourn. This was promptly reported in the media that Alan Ayckbourn was the UK's most popular playwright and it would often be repeated without context from then to the present day.

But let's put that into context:

Those figures were pertinent only to regional theatres subsidised by the Arts Council. They do not include regional commercial theatres, West End theatres or amateur productions.

It's an interesting but somewhat limited view of British Theatre during a very specific period between 1981 and 1983.

These reports from the Arts Council continued to be published, again restricted to the same criteria, fairly regularly with Alan Ayckbourn and Shakespeare battling it out for the top spot and swapping places fairly regularly.

In 1990, the Arts Council published its Cultural Trends report which included the statistic that Alan Ayckbourn was the second most popular playwright after Shakespeare.

Again in context, this was limited to the previous 12 months and was again limited to regional subsidised theatres.

The Arts Council eventually stopped publishing such specific figures about plays and playwrights and I am unaware of any major media story on the popularity of Alan Ayckbourn (or any other playwright), validated by actual facts and statistics, since the mid 1990s. The Arts Council statistics from 1990 appear to have been the last to have been widely reported.

So when I'm (relatively) frequently asked where did the 'fact' that Alan is the second most performed playwright come from? My answer is: in all likelihood an Arts Council report in 1990 that has been regurgitated and repeated ad nauseum without anyone questioning where the statistic came from or, more importantly, whether it is accurate or can be substantiated in the present day.

And if the facts and figures don't exist for the UK, then I think you can assume they don't exist for the rest of the world. As far as I'm aware, no-one is collating statistics about all the professional (or amateur) performances taking place around the world. Let's face it, how would you? There is no statistical evidence to back up any assertion that someone may or may not be the most performed playwright in the world. If you read it, don't believe it.

Let's emphasise, there is no doubt Alan Ayckbourn is an extremely popular playwright - had the 1980s / '90s reports included amateur, commercial tours and West End productions, I have absolutely no doubt he would have had the highest attendance of any living playwright in the country during those decades.

But no-one did produce those statistics and no-one has produced them since that time so no-one can specifically say how popular he was then or now.

Today, Alan Ayckbourn's plays are still a staple of subsidised theatres in the UK as well as amateur companies. Generally there's at least one major tour of an Ayckbourn play going on at any one time in the UK and regional UK theatres and the West End still frequently mounts Ayckbourn productions. As a result, I've no doubt that were someone able to pull all the statistics together, Alan would still be in the top five performed playwrights in the UK.

But if you see anyone or any publication definitely state he (or any other playwright) is the first, second, third or twenty-third most performed playwright in the UK or the world without any clarification, take it with a pinch of salt or, better still, write and ask where they got the statistic from.

It'd be fascinating to know (and if they say Alan Ayckbourn's Official Website, you know they're fibbing...).

So what can you say? You can say, without fear of contradiction, Alan Ayckbourn is one of the world's most performed living playwrights. And leave it at that.

Personally, if someone were to ever ask me who the most performed playwright in the UK was. Well, I'd take a shot. I may be Alan Ayckbourn's archivist, but I wouldn't bet against Mr Shakespeare. He's got pretty good form over the years….

All research for this section is by Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without crediting the author and Alan Ayckbourn's Official Website. All written material © Haydonning Ltd.