The Norman Conquests (1975)

This article was written by Alan Ayckbourn as an introduction to the original 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.

Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn. Please do not reproduce without the permission of the copyright holder.