The Norman Conquests - Living Together: Quotes by Alan Ayckbourn"Usually when I write a play I feel my head is peering up from a fox-hole while the critics take pot-shots. With the trilogy I felt I was standing up."
(Evening Standard, 6 June 1974)
"People come here [Scarborough] for a holiday week. They're not going to go to the theatre three times in one week, so I wanted them to enjoy the play on the one night they went."
(Evening Standard, 6 June 1974)
"It [Scarborough] is far enough away from London. I can relax and try something like a trilogy - which was a gamble. It is difficult to get people along to the theatre once - never mind three times."
(Yorkshire Post, 14 June 1974)
"Sarah in the The Norman Conquests tries misguidedly to get everyone together and make them happy, but the silly cow really shouldn't try. It's not the way to do it. But her motives are right, although she has a lot of ulterior motives like she really wants to lord it. I think that a lot of the worst things that happen in life are a result of very well-meaning actions."
(Vogue, April 1975)
"At the end of the  Scarborough season the local press boy came bounding up the stairs and asked what I'd got planned for next year. I said dunno, might finish up with a trilogy. So there was a note in the paper, "Trilogy Eagerly Expected."* I didn't put a denial in. I thought since the Gods have said that, let's have a go. The I realised I must make each play independent, as I couldn't guarantee that my little holiday audience could come three times a week. The division of the house followed. It had been hovering around in Absurd Person Singular with the idea of using the kitchen instead of the living room as a focal room. Audiences are always fascinated by offstage action, so I tried to pursue it to a logical conclusion.
"Writing The Norman Conquests took something ridiculous like 10 days (a normal length play takes me three or four days), but it's a round-the-clock operation, like a prolonged delivery. I start early in the evening and write through to 6 in the morning and then sleep. In the afternoon I dictate from scrawled notes onto a typewriter, which gets all the dialogue spoken; and then come on again in the evening from what we've typed up. If anything interrupts the flow, the play's doomed. If I leave a play for two days, it's out of the window. With The Norman Conquests came the great day when I finished two plays on one night, the first and last time I'll do that."
(Los Angeles Times, 5 October 1975)
"I wrote all three together and I suppose, ideally, they should all be seen to get the maximum enjoyment and understanding. Hopefully, a lot of the humour is extended and enhanced with the foreknowledge of another play. Also hopefully, they can be seen in any order and it's not essential to see them all. Audiences do like to revisit old haunts and friends (the secret of soap operas!)."
(Personal correspondence, March 1976)
"The only reason that Table Manners was put on first in Scarborough - which has set the pattern ever since - is that the actor who was playing the lead part could not turn up for the first few days' rehearsals and that was the only play of the three that started without him."
(Western Mail, 3 March 1977)
"The Norman Conquests, although, I thought, quite well done on television, are essentially stage pieces and always will be. I mean, the fun is in going on three different evenings, not in switching on three different weeks. Most of my ideas I pinch from other media. I pinched The Normans Conquests from The Archers."
(Municipal Entertainment, May 1978)
"It happened because a young reporter from the local paper once asked at the end of a season what I was doing next and I said I was doing a trilogy because I couldn't think of anything else to say. Then, months later, at the start of the new season there it was: 'Local Playwright Writes Trilogy'.* The theatre manager rang me and asked if he should issue a statement denying it. But I thought I might as well have a go. I wrote all three plays at once: first three scene 1s, then three scene 2s. It wasn't as difficult as I'd imagined."
(Over 21, August 1978)
"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."
(Amateur Stage, September 1978)
"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.
(Amateur Stage, September 1978)
"I couldn't have written The Norman Conquests today. Norman would end up in a terrible state. If I'd written them now, I wouldn't be able to resist letting them become sadder."
(Yorkshire Post, 14 April 1993)
"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!"
(Scarborough Evening News, 12 April 1993)
"Look at The Norman Conquests. Grossly over-praised. By no means my best work, as was claimed."
(The Guardian, 30 June 1999)
"Eric [Thompson, the director of the original London productions] said, 'Do you realise we could be the first people in history with three flops in a row, because if they don't like one, they sure as hell aren't going to like the others!'"
(What's On, 26 July 2000)
"I told them [the London producers], "Look, you get three for one, the same costumes, same actors - it's a real cheapo." Eventually I said a plague on all their houses and gave the lot to [his agent] Peggy Ramsay.
"To cut a long story short, dear old Eric Thompson [the director] read them in hospital, liked them, and we put together a cast for the Greenwich Theatre. On the first night poor Eric was so terrified he sat in the dressing room and asked me to join him. We listened to the tannoy, which went dead. I was convinced that the plays hadn't worked. In fact the laughter had blown the tannoy. Next day we had these wonderful reviews."
(Daily Telegraph, September 2008)
"There were various things running through my mind when I came to writing it; I think it’s an interesting structure to start with. I also worked on the principal that we were fighting a rear-guard action against television, which people were getting more and more attracted to and also getting attracted to the big soaps like Coronation Street. I thought, 'it’s because they want to see the same people night after night' and then I thought, 'well, I’ll give them the same people' and it sort of worked. People were saying, 'oh, hello Tom' as the third play went on. They knew him. They knew he was going to be no good because they knew the end and people love knowing what’s going to happen."
(Interview with Alan Yentob, 2011)
"My agent Peggy Ramsay rang me, ‘Are we going to do all these scripts [in London], darling?’ And I said, ‘can you leave them on the shelf, Peggy? Just hang on to it.’ And then, serendipity. Eric Thompson, my regular London director, rang me up and said, ‘If you don’t hear from me for a couple of days, I’m going in for a minor operation for my leg. Have you got anything for me to read?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I’ve got plenty for you to read. The Norman Conquests!’ He read them and then he rang me up and said, ‘Fan-tas-tic! I love ‘em! We’ll find someone to do them.’ And I said, ‘let’s do them out of London somewhere.’ He came up with Greenwich and a lovely cast. It was a very good relationship because, in rehearsals, we were Little E and Big Al - Little Eric and Big Alan - and he’d say, when we got to one of the set pieces, like the seating of the dinner party in Table Manners, ‘well now we’re going to the dinner party. Before we block this, Al, take it away.' And I’d say, ‘right, Tom sits there and then he gets up and he moves over here, and so-and-so’ and I’d say, ‘thank you very much” and I’d sit down again. I did the same in all three plays; all the set pieces. I’d get up and Eric was quite happy to sit back and take a back seat and the actors were quite happy to see the author bound in because it was probably much quicker than working it out from the page. How you do that dinner party scene is pretty tricky, although here are ways of working it out - Matthew Warchus worked it out very well in his production - but you can get in an awful tangle."
(Interview with Alan Yentob, 2011)
"Occasionally, lightning strikes like Matthew Warchus' production of The Normans Conquests, which he did beautifully. When he sat down with the actors on the first day, he said, 'I believe these plays to be sad and truthful and funny. We get all that if we approach them as if we were approaching Chekhov.' And they did that. I spoke to one of the actors, and he said, 'Oh, he's so fierce. If you did something funny, he would say, 'Take it away. Stop it.' And it worked because the characters were allowed to breathe and not do funny things that sometimes short-change them to the audience. I recently said to a director, 'Audiences are like furtive strangers standing outside school gates with bags of sweets. You follow them at your peril.' They lead you down the wrong path, and then they say, 'We don't believe you' at the end of it when they've laughed and laughed and encouraged you to be funnier and funnier. They drop you, and you're dumped as a character and as an actor, so always stay true. That's the point."
(Playbill, 28 December 2011)
"I always think that Norman's success with women rests in the fact that he thinks he's fooling them by working the charm whereas they can clearly see straight though him but are charmed nonetheless by his artless efforts and his touching transparency. In the end, Ruth knows he loves her and he's only 'working' the other two. What she really objects to is being taken for and being made to look an idiot.
"The art of playing The Normans Conquests is to take them very seriously yet never too solemnly; vulnerably but never sentimentally; and with a true love for the characters without for a moment losing sight of their defects and shortcomings."
*This frequently told story is almost apocryphal as the journalist in question nor the newspaper he worked for has ever been identified. Nor does the alleged article survive in any of the Ayckbourn-related archive. There is actually no physical evidence to support these statements.
Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn