The Norman Conquests: Articles by Alan Ayckbourn
Alan Ayckbourn's Introduction to the published edition of The Norman Conquests
In general, by an odd quirk of nature, the more fond of people I become, the more amusing I tend to find them. Love affairs in my life are matters of considerable hilarity. Necessarily, this has strictly curtailed not only my close circle of friends but my choice of female companions. Few women care to be laughed at and men not at all, except for large sums of money. All of which leads to the fact that I'm far too fond of the theatre to take it too seriously.
This preface is not intended to enlarge upon or in any way illuminate the plays contained in this volume. Despite notable exceptions, playwrights who attempt such comments are prone at best to sound faintly pretentious or (worse) untypically modest.
The Norman Conquests are the result of several days and nights of almost continuous writing in the spring of 1973. Already, little over a year later, it's difficult for me to remember why I chose to tackle this most ambitious and, frankly, seemingly uncommercial project. I think it was, within the context of the tiny Library Theatre-in-the-Round in Scarborough where I first stage all my plays, both a challenge and something of an adventure for the actors and for me as director. Certainly I never dreamed they would be produced elsewhere. Trilogies, I was informed by my London sources as soon as the news leaked out that I was writing one, are not Good Things for the West End. But then, when I am tackling a new play, I find it safer never to look further than Scarborough anyway. It always seems at the time quite enough of an effort to write and stage the play and achieve success there. Afterwards, when perhaps the piece is run in and seems to be working, it becomes possible to be objective and consider its chances elsewhere. In this I have always been extremely fortunate. I have written, to date, fifteen full-length plays, most of which are happily destroyed, but all without exception, even the first, guaranteed production before I set pencil to paper. In latter years, this apparent blind and some would say foolish faith that the management of Scarborough seemed to have that I would always produce the work is explained by the fact that I am also the theatre's Artistic Director. Like most successful relationships, this one is based on implicit mutual trust. All of which, I suppose, goes a long way to explain why I continue to work there and not, as has been suggested to me, try for the "big time".
Of course, this system has its restrictions, but fortunately these too seem to work in my favour. Scarborough is a holiday town, which means that a large proportion of the potential audience changes every week of the summer. On Saturdays, the roads in and out of the town are scenes of mile-long queues as visitors leave and arrive. When I first considered the trilogy, I was aware that it would be optimistic to expect an audience like this necessarily to be able to give up three nights of their precious holiday to come to our one theatre. Any suggestion that it was essential to see all three plays to appreciate any one of them would probably result in no audience at all. Similarly, were the plays clearly labelled Parts One, Two and Three, any holidaymaker determined to play Bingo on Monday would probably give up the whole idea as a bad job. The plays would therefore have to be able to stand independently yet not so much that people's curiosity as to what was happening on the other two nights wasn't a little aroused. Second, as I have said, it should be possible to see them in any order. Third, since we could only afford six actors, they should have that number of characters. Fourth, ideally they should only have two stage entrances since that's the way our temporary Library Theatre set-up is arranged (but then this is common to all my plays). There were other minor pre-conditions peculiar to this venture. The actor I had in mind to play Norman couldn't join us for the first few days of the season - which necessitated him making a late first entrance in one of the plays (Table Manners) to facilitate rehearsals. If this all makes me sound like a writer who performs to order, I suppose it's true. I thrive when working under a series of pre-conditions, preferably when they are pre-conditions over which I have total control. Because ultimately, of course, all these restrictions that come as a result of operating in a converted concert room, a temporary 250-seat Theatre-in-the-Round on the first floor of a public library, tend to work in a play's favour in its later life. In these austere times most theatre managers, if not the actors, prefer small-cast plays. Owing to our scenic restrictions, they are also amenable to plays with simple sets and, in the case of the trilogy, its flexibility of presentation has naturally proved an advantage elsewhere. The traffic jams of visitors to Heathrow are no less than the ones to Scarborough.
Anyway, once l had sorted out the pre-conditions and was aware that the scheme had few precedents, the problem of how to write it arose. I'm not one of those careful, methodic over-all planners. When I start a play, beyond an entirely general pattern, I have little or no idea what will become of my characters individually at the end. I generally follow their progress with a more or less benign interest and hope that the staging and construction will be taken care of by some divine subconscious automatic pilot. Since many of the actions within the plays had to cross-relate and, more important, since each character's attitude and development had to fit in with the general time structure, I decided in the case of The Norman Conquests to write them crosswise. That is to say, I started with Scene One of Round And Round The Garden, then the Scene Ones of the other two plays and so on through the Scene Twos. It was an odd experience writing them, rather similar to Norman's own in fact. I found myself grappling with triplet sisters all with very different personalities. Climaxes, comic ones naturally, seemed to abound everywhere. Hardly had I finished dealing with the fury of Reg's game (Living Together) than I was encountering a frenzied Sarah trying to seat her guests (Table Manners) or Ruth beating off the advances of an uncharacteristically amorous Tom (Round And Round The Garden). Strangely too, each play, although dealing with the same characters and events, began to develop a distinct atmosphere of its own. Table Manners was the most robust and, as it proved onstage, the most overtly funny. Round And Round The Garden, possibly due to its exterior setting, took a more casual and (as it contains the beginning and end of the cycle) a more conventional shape. Living Together has a tempo far slower than anything I had written before and encouraged me, possibly because of the sheer over-all volume of writing involved, to slacken the pace in a way I had never dared to do in any comedy. This crosswise way of writing them proved very satisfactory though of course made it quite impossible for me, even today, really to judge their effectiveness downwards or indeed to assess beyond certain limits, whether the plays stand up independently. This is not, I'm afraid, a problem that one single individual can resolve. As soon as one play is read or seen the other two plays are automatically coloured and affected by the foreknowledge gained from the first - which may sound like some sort of warning, though, in this case I hope, a little knowledge is a pleasurable thing.
Make Yourself At Home (Library Theatre 1973 production programme note)
In proscenium arch theatre, an audience is often required to imagine they are witnessing the action of a play through the ‘fourth wall’ of a room. Theatre-in-the-round, on the other hand, asks its audience, frequently, to become all four walls.
Tonight we see events in the lives of a family, from the point of view of the living room, over a single weekend. Complementing this and running in repertoire with it, are different views of the same period of time seen from the dining room Fancy Meeting You and the garden Round And Round The Garden. For me it is a new, and as far as I know, untried experiment in comedy. I hope you enjoy these three views of characters - from a choice of four directions. Which makes about 64 different ways of looking at it….
The Norman Conquests (Greenwich Theatre 1974 production flyer note)
The Norman Conquests concern not William the Conqueror but a new, dynamic modern hero, Norman the Assistant Librarian.
This new Norman's ambitions of conquest are as equally far-reaching though - his wife's sister, his sister-in-law and his wife. Here is a romantic who, after himself, loves no one so much as the woman he can't have.
Over the course of the three plays, each playing on a separate night, we follow the course of this pursuit by the awkward of the unattainable; of Norman's flailing attempts to bring happiness to everyone and satisfaction for himself.
The plays tell and retell of the turbulently comic events that occur in a house over a country weekend. Each is seen from a different viewpoint: from the dining room (Table Manners), from the living room (Living Together) and from the garden (Round And Round The Garden).
They can be seen in any order since, like a three-ended ball of string, it doesn't really matter where you start to unravel. See one, see two or, to qualify for the special Norman Award for Lack of Industry, see all three.
The Norman Conquests (Greenwich Theatre 1974 production programme note)
The three plays (Table Manners, Living Together and Round And Round The Garden) that go to make up The Norman Conquests were first produced, as were the majority of my previous plays, at the Library Theatre in Scarborough.
My writing career has always been inextricably tied to this company, initially as a result of encouragement from its late director and founder, Stephen Joseph. He was a man who believed that where possible playwrights belonged inside theatre companies, whether as actors, directors or box office assistants. At that time, apart from the more distinguished ones, authors were worried looking men who came to first readings, left, causing sighs of relief all round and occasionally, if they were allowed in, turned up at the dress rehearsal looking by now distinctly alarmed.
I count myself extremely fortunate in that when I started on my writing career I not only had a ready market for my work but was already an accepted member of the group who produced it. Not always the most painless way to learn one's mistakes but then actors with eight and a half second quick changes can be brutally frank at times.
I later inherited the job of director at Scarborough and, amongst other things, took full advantage of this by continuing to commission from myself one play a year.
The disadvantages of always writing for this tiny 250 seater theatre-in-the-round - rarely more than six actors to call on and only two entrances on stage - are outweighed by the need for me to meet deadlines, the freedom to experiment and the sheer pleasure of working for at least part of the year, directly, with actors and audiences.
The Norman Conquests were the result of my 1973 commission from myself. They were intended to be played, as they will be in Greenwich, in repertoire alternating night by night. Although very closely related thematically and in every other way they were meant to be enjoyed as individual plays. I realised the unlikelihood of an audience necessarily being able to see the plays either in any correct order or indeed that they could automatically find time to see all three anyway.
It is a dangerous thing to claim any sort of innovation in the theatre so I will merely say that this sort of thing hasn't been done all that often before.
It has always seemed to me that one of my main pleasures to be had in theatre is that of watching good actors blending skill with an enjoyment for what they are doing. It's my hope that these plays give them the opportunity to display this and, for the audience, the pleasure of sharing it with them.
The Norman Conquests (Unrecorded production programme note)
If you are in the process of reading this Programme, the chances are that you are already about to see, are in the midst of seeing, or have already seen, at least one of the plays that form The Norman Conquests. In which case, this advice is not for you. Do not read on.
For those who have seen none of the plays but may be wishing to do-so, it is hoped that the following notes may prove useful.
The first thing to remember is, understandably, don't see Table Manners first. This will give you a wrong time sequence and will only confuse you when you come to see, say, Living Together which, incidentally, you are strongly advised not to see second. Ideally, Round And Round The Garden should not be seen before you have seen Table Manners - but do not, on the other hand, fall into that old trap of seeing Round And Round The Garden after Living Together as this again will confuse the sequences of dramatic events. Do not see Living Together first as this will severely curtail a lot of the pleasure you gain from seeing Table Manners for the first time which latter play, for maximum enjoyment you should try and save till the end.
In short, do try and see all three plays first, or, if you really can't manage this, last. This way you will avoid any disappointment. Like most things in this world, there is a logical progression i.e. Parts 1, 3 and finally of course, 2.
The Norman Conquests (unrecorded 1974 production programme note)
The Norman Conquests are three full-length comedies which can, I hope, be enjoyed individually and in no particular order. I have avoided whenever possible referring to them as a trilogy since this generally suggests a continuing sequence in which enjoyment of one essentially depends on knowledge or anticipation of the other two.
Naturally, having said this, any three plays that concern the same six characters must, in some way, be related. In the case of The Norman Conquests very closely, since each concerns the same characters in the same house over the same weekend - all viewed from a different standpoint. Round And Round The Garden is seen from the garden, Living Together from the living room and Table Manners from the dining room.
Writing a play is always, to some extent, a matter of selecting events that one wishes to show on stage. It is often, say in the case of a one-set play, necessary to reshuffle and manoeuvre events so that what you want to happen can happen where you want it to happen. And there are variations to be done on this. In Absurd Person Singular, currently at the Criterion, particularly in the first act, I deliberately selected a view from the kitchen rather than the more usual sitting or living room. This device provides much of the scene's comic momentum, since we are placed on the fringe of the action, rather than at the centre of it.
In The Norman Conquests, we are always at the fringe of some action and at the centre of something else, depending on which play we're watching. It is my hope that, whichever play one chooses to see first, it can be enjoyed in its own right even if, ultimately, one becomes sufficiently curious to know a little more about the characters and their offstage lives.
Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.