Interviews with Alan Ayckbourn

This interview was compiled in 2009 by Alan Ayckbourn's Archivist, Simon Murgatroyd, from a variety of correspondence and previous interviews with the playwright concerning The Norman Conquests trilogy.

The Norman's Conquests: The Writer's Perspective

Writing The Trilogy
What inspired you to write The Norman Conquests?
We used to run a summer season here at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough (before we started playing all year round) and at the end of one summer a local journalist asked me in passing what I was planning to write next year. I replied, rather airily, that I had no idea since it was then only September and the play didn't start rehearsing till the following May. "Who knows?" I added, more by way of a throwaway. "Possibly a trilogy, who can say?" When the same journalist phoned me the following March enquiring how the trilogy was going, I realised I had been hoist. [1]
Why did you decide to write The Norman Conquests as three separate plays?
I wanted to explore offstage life. That is, the life of characters immediately before they come on and just after they leave the stage. I was also interested in experimenting with theatrical form. Whether in viewing the same weekend three times and making each play a complete evening in itself, I could also uncover fresh insights and altered perceptions of the characters each time someone sat down to re-see it. And whether seeing them in different orders would change their perception. As far as I know this had never been tried and although it owes a lot to the form, it's not strictly multi viewpoint theatre. I love pushing theatre to see how far it will shove.
How difficult was it to write The Norman Conquests crosswise?
I think it all seemed fairly easy at the time. The problem was that one could never, as the writer, read the plays individually with an innocent eye. I needed several fresh pairs of eyes to read them before I was assured that they worked 'downwards' as well as crosswise.
It was the natural way to write those plays. I needed to cross-plot the parallel stories and it was the simplest way of keeping track. I finished two of them in one night, I remember. I doubt that I'll ever do that again.
What made you choose the dining room, sitting room and garden as locations for your trilogy?
They were sort of logical locations. I'd just done kitchens (three of them) in Absurd Person Singular so I couldn't use them again. Living rooms and dining rooms seemed ideal locations for people to assemble or pass through giving me a great freedom to move my characters about. A lot of The Norman Conquests is about getting people on and off. The garden naturally followed and gave the piece a nice contrast. Drama always has such a different feel when it's out of doors.
Beneath the humour of The Norman Conquests, there is a darker side where human weaknesses are exposed. Was it your intention to write the play in this way?
I always set out, when I write a play, with some fairly serious intentions. The stronger the serious base upon which I build a play, the more I can allow my humorous side to run away a bit. I love this tension that the comic and the serious create when they run successfully side by side. It's a matter of balance: too dark becomes unbearable; too light and you are in danger of laughing at the characters which is really for a writer a terrible act of betrayal.
When you wrote this trilogy, were you aiming for comedy that came from a realistic view of society, or a parody of people that we recognise, but exaggerated versions of them?
I was looking to write a comedy that sprang from genuine observation of the recognisable. Not being a natural “gag” writer, I always rely on character and situation to create laughter. For that to operate properly, we need first to believe in the people we’re watching.

The Characters
What inspired the central character, Norman, and was it to do with the time, the post-’60s?
Norman was of his time, certainly. It amused me to conceive a character who felt it his God-given duty to please every woman he met. He sees himself as a New Man. In fact he is just an Old Man in New Man's clothing. Well, sort of. The joke is that he goes to inordinate lengths to seduce women who, for various reasons, don't really need that much persuading.
In Table Manners, there is a huge build-up of Norman’s character. The story goes this was for entirely practical reasons, but did it affect Norman’s character?
It's a true story. Christopher Godwin, the original Norman, suddenly found he couldn't join rehearsals till the second week. I constructed Table Manners to accommodate this. Actually, of course, it works rather in that play's favour since Norman's build-up is enormous. Also, as I was reminded when writing House & Garden nearly three decades later, it's hard to have characters in two places at once.
Was there anyone in particular who you based Norman's character on?
Not really. I once said Norman was how I'd love to be, Tom was how I appeared and Reg was what I feared I'd become. They're all parts of me, male and female characters.
I think Norman is not uncommon. I once asked a friend of mine what the secret was of his success with women. 'Simple', he said, 'I ask them'.
If you could meet one of the characters from The Norman Conquests, who would it be and why?
Well, I'd probably cross the road if I saw any of them coming but I suppose Annie would be the most likely. I think I feel sorry for all of them in different ways. They are all victims of themselves and of the people they've chosen, or indeed not chosen, to live with.

In Performance
Originally written to be performed in the round, how did moving it to a proscenium theatre affect the production?
Not too badly. There are some plays of mine that actually do suffer, I feel, in translation from round to proscenium. Taking Steps is one; Time of My Life another. Others, like Relatively Speaking, are probably better in the proscenium. The Norman Conquests is, like the majority, simply the same but different. You gain some things, you lose some. I think scale is more important. The round, certainly our round, is incredibly intimate, really. Most of the plays, outside of the ones written with the National Theatre's Olivier Theatre in mind, are thus written on a personal and very human scale. They don't benefit from being shouted, or from people generally banging about very much.
How did you react to the overwhelming response to The Norman Conquests in London?
It was extraordinary. The critics went barmy. But you don't appreciate the good times when they happen. It's only afterwards. I was very depressed after the first night. I thought it just didn't work and I went for a long walk. The next day the papers all came out with these extraordinary reviews and all I could think was that there was nowhere to go from here except down!
How did audiences respond to The Norman Conquests when you first wrote it in 1973, and do you think that people will respond in a similar way now?
Heaven knows how they'll take it now. I hope they'll enjoy them. They were written for fun and the plays, looking back on them, all have a great innocence about them. The characters get quite het up occasionally but they're totally devoid of malice or dark intentions. It's a celebration of love and that's still around, thank God.

Website Notes:
[1] Although oft-told, it's an unfortunate fact that the publication in question has never been identified. Although several newspapers have laid claim to the story and the journalist who asked about the trilogy, the actual article about the trilogy has never been identified and is not held in any of the Ayckbourn-related archives.

Article by Simon Murgatroyd. Copyright: Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.