A Brief History of Women, the new play by Alan Ayckbourn, bears a somewhat misleading title. It is really the history of a home, specifically Kirkbridge Manor, which between 1925 and 1985 serves a variety of purposes: as a Georgian country house, as a preparatory school, as an arts center, and finally as a hotel. Our anchor is Anthony Spates (Antony Eden), who keeps returning to this building in all its manifestations, first as a seventeen-year-old footman and finally as the elderly general manager of the hotel.
The four scenes that constitute A Brief History are snapshots of Anthony’s life, notable for what they reveal as much as for what they leave out. We see his first kiss, his first affair, and a first date, of sorts, with his future wife. But for the most part, the play deals with the memory of happiness more than happiness itself: the twenty-odd years he spends married to Gillian (Louise Shuttleworth) take place between set changes, and a budding romance soon gives way to melancholy widowhood. There is a pervading sense of loneliness here, both in and out of marriage.
Near the end of A Brief History, Anthony’s first kiss, now a nonagenarian, tells him that houses “never forget you. They always remember you.” Is this appeal to permanence genuine or ironic? Thankfully, Mr. Ayckbourn doesn’t give us an answer. The country house has loomed large in British literature for centuries—as a symbol of English continuity as well as one of aristocratic decadence—and the success of this play lies in its ability to balance quite effortlessly the sentimentalism of Mansfield Park with the cynicism of the Tallis estate.