Theatre Myths: Most Performed Playwright After Shakespeare

This section of the website features articles by Alan Ayckbourn's Archivist Simon Murgatroyd concerning historical myths about theatre in the round in Scarborough.

Theatre Myths: Most Performed Playwright?

by Simon Murgatroyd

The Myth: Alan Ayckbourn is the second most performed playwright after Shakespeare.

True or False: False - or at least unprovable.

The Explanation: This is an oft-quoted but never substantiated 'fact' by the media. Alan Ayckbourn is undoubtedly one of the most performed living playwrights, but there is no evidence to support the statement he is the second most performed playwright after Shakespeare and it would be practically impossible to verify anyway.

It can be said that Alan Ayckbourn is one of the most frequently performed living playwrights in England (particularly if you include both amateur and professional productions) and is substantially performed in Europe and in America. His plays have been translated into more than 35 languages and there are productions of his work constantly taking place around the globe - but no organisation keeps track of all professional and amateur productions around the world.

As such, it is impossible to state with any certainty he is the second most performed playwright after Shakespeare - either in England or the world - and, accordingly, should not be stated as such. It is far more accurate to say 'Alan Ayckbourn is one of the world's most performed living playwrights.'

As to where this quote originated, for this we do have a definitive answer. The quote goes back to a press release (click
here to view) issued by the British Arts Council in 2 November 1983. This states: "Plays by Alan Ayckbourn have been attracting larger audiences in the regional theatres than those of Shakespeare."

This was the first such report to be published by the Arts Council and it showed between 1981 and 1983, there were 1034 professional productions of Alan's work in the UK playing to 327,000 people (in comparison there were 1060 professional Shakespearean productions performed to 318,000 people).

Subsequent Cultural Trend reports during the 1980s and 1990s would see Alan fluctuate between first and third places in the annual performed playwright rankings. The initial 1983 report was widely reported in the media such as The Stage which announced the news as "Alan Ayckbourn had upstaged William Shakespeare to take top billing in the first regional theatre popularity charts."

It is essential to note though the quote is confined to a very specific time period and very specifically to British regional theatres. These statistics did not include productions in commercial West End theatres or amateur productions. In the former case, this would have undoubtedly strengthened Alan's position as between 1970 and 2000, there was at least one and as many as five professional Ayckbourn productions in London every year. With regard to the latter, Alan has long been one of the most performed authors by amateur groups in the UK according to the UK's leading play publishers Samuel French Ltd.

The quote gained traction again circa 1990 when Alan's public profile was arguably at its peak and the Arts Council's Cultural Trends report stated he was the most performed playwright in the UK after Shakespeare. This was reported extensively in the print media - but crucially can only be applied with any certainty to that specific time (i.e. 1990) and within the specific context of regional, subsidised theatre in the UK - excluding commercial productions, touring productions and the West End. This information has never been updated by the Arts Council, so it is impossible to currently know whether Alan is still the second most performed playwright after Shakespeare within this context.

Article by and copyright of Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce this article without permission of the copyright holder.