The Square Cat: History

In 1959, Alan Ayckbourn's first play The Square Cat was premiered at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, beginning a remarkable career which has brought the playwright international success and acclaim for more than five decades.

Alan Ayckbourn had been writing in some form ever since he was a child, largely thanks to his single mother who was a successful writer herself. There is evidence of Alan writing throughout his school career, although he apparently had no intention of becoming a playwright (he did briefly consider journalism for a career) and his initial steps into theatre were as an actor. In 1957, he joined the Studio Theatre Ltd company based at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, which had been founded by
Stephen Joseph in 1955 with the intention of promoting both new writing and performance in the round (the Studio Theatre Ltd company was the first professional in-the-round company in the UK). Stephen was an inspirational figure and soon became a mentor to Alan; he was also aware of Alan's interest in writing and that he had written a number of plays - none of which had been produced.

In Christmas 1958, Alan expressed dissatisfaction with the role he was playing and approached Stephen Joseph to complain about the quality of parts he was being offered. Stephen's reply was that if he wanted a better role, he should write it himself - but to write the main part for himself. The result was
The Square Cat. That the play was centred around the lead character Jerry Wattis (and Alan Ayckbourn) can be seen from the fact it is literally an all-singing and dancing part; Jerry plays the guitar, sings and dances. Despite writing the role for himself, Alan could do none of these things well!

Until 2001, it was widely assumed and repeatedly reported the play that Alan had disliked so much was Joh van Druten’s
Bell, Book And Candle. As Paul Allen correctly pointed out in his 2001 biography of Alan Ayckbourn, this patently couldn’t have been the case as the van Druten play was in the same season as The Square Cat and both were advertised on the first flyers for the 1959 summer season. Considering Alan had been telling the story for at least 20 years (it features in Ian Watson's Conversations With Ayckbourn from 1981, but was purportedly being told years before even that), it's extraordinary to think it took so long to discover the truth behind this pivotal moment in the playwright's life.

The truth, as Paul Allen discovered whilst interviewing the playwright David Campton, was that Alan Ayckbourn made his complaint whilst appearing in Campton's
Ring Of Roses in December 1958 at the Library Theatre. Alan changed the title of the offending play so as, presumably, not to upset a friend and fellow playwright. Subsequent to the biography's publication, Alan Ayckbourn confirmed this was actually the true version of events.

The Square Cat was written during the Studio Theatre Ltd company's tour in early 1959 (probably at some point between January and March) and recent research suggests Alan was writing the play whilst appearing in Harold Pinter's play The Birthday Party, which was directed by Pinter himself. This was produced by the company after Stephen Joseph - who knew Pinter - offered him the chance to re-stage the play following the original production's critical mauling in London. Alan has said on many occasions Pinter is one of his writing inspirations and that playing Stanley in The Birthday Party and being directed by Pinter was an extraordinary experience.

The Square Cat took two weeks to write and was credited to the author Roland Allen as it was actually a joint effort between Alan and Christine Roland (Alan's first wife who he married later that year in May 1959) - hence the pseudonym (Christine Roland / Alan Ayckbourn). In a contemporary interview, Christine expressed surprise at how quickly they had written the play noting, "Alan's mother, Mary James, writes for women's magazines, and he seems to have the same talent for writing."

Paul Allen believes the collaboration was based on Christine’s knowledge of stage-craft and Alan’s “nascent gift for plotting and dialogue.” Alan later said the pseudonym of Roland Allen served two purposes, the first to credit Christine's contribution to
The Square Cat and, the second, to differentiate the writer from the actor, as Alan was best known for his acting at that point. Even so, the true author of the play was no great secret as it was reported in several articles within regional newspapers covering the Scarborough area. Perhaps what is more confusing is Roland Allen was misspelt in the original Library Theatre programme for the play as Roland Allan.

The title of the play, which was subtitled "A cool comedy" in the programme, was a play on 1950s slang language suggesting someone who was both boring and cool. While 'square' survives as a connotation of dull and boring, 'cat' was then slang for someone who was cool. This describes the two aspects of the lead character: the introspective young man, Arthur Brummage, and his extrovert alter-ego rock-star, Jerry Wattis. The play itself had three acts and was played without an interval; which was one of Stephen Joseph's quirks with the majority of productions at the Library Theatre performed without an interval during its formative years.

Although it would be wrong to suggest the play offers much insight into the playwright Alan Ayckbourn would become - and Alan has noted it had no aspirations other than to entertain -
The Square Cat significantly incorporates an unhappy marriage between Sidney and Alice Glover. Although there is a happy ending, a notable cut scene in which the pair face off with Alice noting her husband's short-comings, lends credence that this is the first example of what will become a very common Ayckbourn theme, that of - as the critic Michael Billington labels it - "unassuageable female discontent."

Despite being finished in advance of the 1959 summer season at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, correspondence held by Scarborough Library indicates The Square Cat was not initially planned to be part of the season. In a letter to the Chief Librarian, dated 11 March 1959, Stephen Joseph named the plays planned for the summer season which did not include The Square Cat. Alan believes he may not have finished writing the play at that point and the play was later incorporated into the season once Stephen had seen it and judged it was of high enough quality to produce; this seems plausible given the tours traditionally ran from January to March and Alan would have been on tour when Stephen wrote the letter.

The Square Cat premiered at the Library Theatre on 30 July 1959 and was an immense success for the company, following on from a poorly received adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein by David Campton. In a letter to the Arts Council the day after The Square Cat opened, Stephen Joseph noted the opening night had seen the best house of the season so far. Such was its success that Stephen decided to cancel the second run of Frankenstein (the theatre was already working to a repertory season) and to extend the second run of The Square Cat by a week; in a letter Stephen Joseph wrote: "The advance booking for The Square Cat has been so heavy that we felt it only fair to the author to make the most of his success." This was the first time a play at the Library Theatre ran for two consecutive weeks and Alan received £47 from these performances. According to the financial accounts for the season, the play was seen by 3,440 people during its three weeks of performance and made £695. A number of the performances were booked to capacity and a contemporary newspaper report quotes Christine Roland as saying she had met one woman who had enjoyed the play so much she had seen it six times!

The success of
The Square Cat led Stephen Joseph to commission Alan to write a second play almost immediately. The regional press announced in August that Alan was working on a second script, Love After All, for the winter season at the Library Theatre.

The Square Cat was produced only once more when the Studio Theatre company went on tour in early 1960 and it was performed at the Municipal Hall, Newcastle-under-Lyme, with Barry Boys performing the lead role; the role being re-cast due to Alan being called up for his short-lived National Service. By the mid-1970s, it was believed the play no longer existed as Alan, having withdrawn his early plays, noted on several occasions that he intended to destroy every copy of his early scripts. Fortunately, this was not the case as at least five original manuscripts of the play still exist today.

The significance of the play was marked on its 25th anniversary when the restaurant at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round in Scarborough - the successor to the Library Theatre - was renamed
The Square Cat.

In recent years, the first scene of the play has had several airings. Initially in 2005, when it was performed on the first night of
50 Years New, a celebration of the Stephen’s Joseph Theatre’s 50th anniversary. In 2009, this scene was also read as part of the 'Ayckbournathon' during the Ayckbourn At 70 celebration at the Royal And Derngate, Northampton. In 2010, the first scene was presented at an Ayckbourn Weekend event at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough. This event also saw the first performance in 50 years of a second scene from the play featuring members of both the only British and American amateur dramatic companies dedicated to Alan Ayckbourn plays: Dick & Lottie and The Forays.

The Square Cat is not available for production and has never been published; largely due to Alan Ayckbourn asserting this was his first play and part of his learning process as a writer. Despite not being published, original manuscripts are held by the Ayckbourn Archive at The University Of York, the British Library and The University Of Manchester.

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