The Norman Conquests: Articles by Alan Ayckbourn

This section contains various programme articles about The Norman Conquests by Alan Ayckbourn and other authors. Click on a link in the right-hand column below to access the relevant article.

This article is one of several relating to The Norman Conquests written by Alan Ayckbourn for Amateur Stage magazine during 1978.

Off-Stage Characters And Action

Very early on in my career as a dramatist I discovered that, given the chance, an audience's imagination can do far better work than any number of the playwright's words. The offstage character hinted at but never seen can be dramatically as significant and telling as his onstage counterparts. Offstage action is more difficult. Unless care is taken, if the dramatist chooses to describe rather than show his action, the audience can rapidly come to the conclusion that they're sitting in the wrong auditorium.

Absurd Person Singular could be described as my first offstage action play. The Norman Conquests was to all intents and purposes the end of my exploration of offstage action [as of 1978]. Three plays, two of which were happening offstage simultaneously with the one onstage, were quite enough.

Having been an actor and having gone through all those exercises that all actors go through at some time or other... What happens to this guy when he leaves the stage?... I had a natural curiosity about this, and I think the audience does, too, firstly about the offstage character and then the offstage action. Certainly I had gradually been discovering that offstage characters have a tremendous value. It's a device by a dramatist - as a painter might give perspective to a picture by putting something in there - whereby an offstage character can add a depth and dimension to a play and a sense of reality to life going on offstage, which one is always trying to do. In the least successful plays one doesn't believe the characters have any existence beyond the door that's painted on the set. A good test of a play is that people actually fill in. There's a character in
Absent Friends, Gordon, a very large man, who spends all his time in bed and never comes onstage - but a lot of people have said they know him very well, and it's only because of the way his wife speaks about him.

So when it came to
Absurd Person Singular this was carried a stage further - although there are two offstage characters, Dick and Lottie Potter, who are the more monstrous for not appearing. I don't know if the audience love them because of gratitude that the author is not going to inflict them on them! I started to write this play in the sitting room, as one would usually write about a party, and the atmosphere was deadly dull - as indeed all the parties were. And I thought, "It must be more interesting in the kitchen" - and indeed it was. It is one of the things I say to younger writers - that the first thing to do is to find where your audience is supposed to be sitting and then relate this to your action. There are occasions when one sees plays when you feel that as audience you're in the wrong room... people rush on excitedly describing things which have happened next door and you think, "I wish to hell he'd put us next door - we'd have had a really good time."

When it came to
The Norman Conquests I wrote them in time sequence. So I started with Norman's meeting with Annie in the garden, which is the earliest moment in any of the plays, and I finished with the latest, also in the garden. But I went from the garden to the dining room, then to the living room and back to the garden, and so on. I had the unique experience of finishing at one point two plays - Table Manners and Living Together - on the same night ... which I shall probably never do again. But having written them crosswise, one had no sense of judgment how they would work downwards: would they work as individual plays? So that was a gamble. For once one has seen any one of the plays, it's very difficult to divorce yourself to judge any of the others. They all have different and interesting shapes.

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