Articles by Alan Ayckbourn

This article about The Norman Conquests was written by Alan Ayckbourn for Amateur Stage magazine in 1978.

Writing and Staging The Norman Conquests

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.

Staging The Norman Conquests
It's obviously not possible for many amateur societies, or for that matter professional companies, to do all three plays in repertoire. My only strong reason for arguing that wherever possible all three should be done is that they do make very good box-office, because quite often there's a very nice "knock- on" effect - where people who have had their appetite whetted will come back and see two or all three. Certainly when we first did them we had a wonderful audience response - we tripled our audience, in fact. I realised that we were on a terrible gamble, because what may happen is that everybody hates the first play, and then we should be stuck rehearsing two more we were in honour bound to put on - and we had three failures. Fortunately the reverse happened: the first play was very popular and people came back.
They're not actually very difficult to stage. I work in a company where cheapness is a priority - we work on very low budgets. First you have three plays with three sets of identical costumes - so you have six hours of drama with very little outlay in the costume department. There are, of course, three different sets, but in London and indeed in our own productions two of the sets were virtually interchangeable. They're all written for two entrances, and all we did in London was shift a window round; in one of the sets (
Table Manners) there was a sideboard in a recess, and all we did for the Living Together set was take away the sideboard - and there was a window. You obviously have to change the furniture around, but that can be done terribly simply. The garden set is more difficult, but in some ways gardens are easier than interiors, because they can be suggested.
We did have to do quite a lot of alteration from the original production at Scarborough in the round, to the open and proscenium stages; quite a lot of re-angling was necessary. We did in fact lose one of the entrances in
Table Manners: we made it into French windows, whereas in fact it should have been a door to the kitchen. Staging at Scarborough was very simple. We moved the window seat round. We needed a large dining table for Table Manners, which is the main obstacle. A lot of the furniture even got carried from room to room, particularly the chairs. For the gardens we got a bird bath and a big gorse bush, and used some rostra for a verandah - it was as simple as that, and it doesn't need all the elaborations. I had a very small stage team, and the onus of playing in repertoire was really on them rather than on the actors, for whom it was stimulating.
When we first started rehearsing I wondered whether we might have problems of the actors being confused and forgetting which play they were in. We had the longest read-through of all time - some six hours - and I said we'd have to have some sort of a fine ( a round of drinks for everyone) for the first person who said a line from the wrong play, but it only happened once. The fact is that, as long as you come off in the right place, you can't go wrong; and once you're on, you're on - and you're all right.
What I found particularly nice also was getting that "club" feeling on the part of the audience in the theatre. Even when the plays went to the Globe Theatre, in London (which you can hardly call a "club" theatre!) there was that same "matey" feeling as a lot of the audience had seen each other before. They were getting out their diaries and saying, "Can we all manage the 25th? . . ."
I had set myself a series of principles - to work with a Scarborough audience. In the summer an audience is basically in the town for only one week. During that week it would be folly to expect them to come three times. They might - but it's unlikely. So I had first of all to cater for persons who saw only two: if they were faced with the thought that if they'd seen only two they wouldn't have enjoyed them, they wouldn't have to come to any. I also had to face the fact that people would not necessarily be able to come in the "correct" order - so they had to be capable of being seen in any order. They had to be interchangeable, and also to stand on their own, and any combination had to be understandable, but at the same time I had to spice a little into each one so that people wanted to come back to see the others... In each play there's a little reference to something happening offstage: "The disastrous thing in the garden" - and I hope people will want to find out what that was. It's very annoying of course sitting next to someone who has already seen
Round And Round The Garden, who goes "Ha, ha, ha" at this point, because one thinks, "What on earth is he laughing at?" The business with the waste-paper basket is, of course, the classic one.
The original order of playing in repertoire was:
Table Manners, Living Together, Round and Round the Garden. In my book the only reason for Table Manners opening first is that technically it is slightly more difficult: it has more props, there's all that food... it's fairly simple food, but there's quite a lot of business with knives and forks, etc., for Sarah to deal with, and it can be quite a little headache. A lot of people claim that Round And Round The Garden is the best to start with, because it is the frame to the whole picture - it has the very beginning and the very end. I'm very loath to label them in order 1, 2, 3, because I think it is possible to play them in any order; in fact, it's interesting that a lot of people claim that the order they saw them in is the best - which rather proves my point. Naturally people do have their favourite of -the three, but fortunately these seem to be fairly evenly divided.
When I first wrote them West-End managers were very wary of them, as a trio. What encouraged me was that I got separate offers for separate plays - which was better than everyone wanting to do the same play but not being interested in the other two.

The Norman Conquests & TV
As far as the TV production was concerned - I think that all my plays tend to lose something on television, because they're written for the stage. Talking to TV directors, they tell me that one of the problems is that if one is writing well for the stage (which I hope I am!), then anyone who is on the stage is important. But in TV you are always selecting: the whole art of television drama seems to me to be able to focus on the correct face at the correct moment. In my plays for the stage there are no correct faces: if, for example, you take the seating scene at dinner in
Table Manners, which on the stage is a pretty high comedy spot, it goes for nothing on TV, because the director is forced to select his or her face; the joy on the stage is to sit back and watching the five or six stupid people wandering round the table, arguing and getting furious with each other - it is the whole visual impact which is wonderful. You can't shoot everything in long shot on TV - so it loses.
Where the TV production did gain was in a kind of melancholy aspect - one saw them as rather sadder characters. Herbie Wise, who directed, said to me: "I'm not going to be able to make them as funny as on the stage, but I'll try to make the characters as true as I can. Maybe there'll be elements that will be indicated by the close-up. Annie's plight became that much more poignant." I think anyone who hasn't seen them onstage quite enjoys them on TV, but anyone who has is always disappointed. You just can't capture that shared experience with the rest of the audience.
At far as affecting future box-office is concerned, the TV production of a stage play does reach an audience that it wouldn't normally reach. When you're talking about viewing figures, you're talking in millions. But I don't think the TV audience and the average theatre audience necessarily overlaps at all. As far as a playwright is concerned TV productions do help because it means that your plays do reach a much wider audience. When one thinks of the number of productions my plays have had, and the amount of publicity, it's mainly been theatrical - so there are still vast numbers of people who know me less well (even in a town like Scarborough, where I'm always in the papers) than they would a TV playwright, because his name is in their sitting room, whereas this is theatre and therefore something different. Theatre is still a minority interest, though I think an increasingly sizeable one. I hope there's a feed-back to the theatre - for I would hate people to think that having seen
The Norman Conquests on TV they had seen The Normans Conquests. So maybe it will help wider audiences to think, "Oh, I've heard of him on TV - I'll give it a go in the theatre."

Copyright: Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without the permission of the copyright holder.