The Norman Conquests Critical Context - Essay

Alan Ayckbourn

Critical Context

Alan Ayckbourn writes what seem to be conventional comedies but creates unusual staging techniques for many of them. In How the Other Half Loves (pr. 1969, pb. 1972), two sets are superimposed to create the illusion that actions occurring at different times and places are happening simultaneously. The characters in Bedroom Farce (pr. 1975, pb. 1977) crisscross among three bedrooms in three houses. Taking Steps (pr. 1979, pb. 1981) is set on multiple levels of a house, and Way Upstream (pr. 1981, pb. 1983) takes place on a boat floating in a fiberglass tank of water. For Sisterly Feelings (pr. 1979, pb. 1981), Ayckbourn wrote two versions of the second and third scenes of a four-scene play and allows the actors to choose which to perform. Most unconventional is Intimate Exchanges (pr. 1982, pb. 1985), in which two performers portray ten characters and whose thirty-one scenes may be presented in sixteen combinations. The Norman Conquests has been called the most effective of these experiments for the mathematical precision with which its various parts dovetail. “House” and “Garden” (pr., pb. 2000) were two productions played in adjacent theaters, performed at the same time, and employing the same characters, who move back and forth between the two theaters during the course of the same evening’s performance. Doubtless The Norman Conquests, using a similar concept, sparked the idea of simultaneous performances.

The relatively sober ending to Round and Round the Garden is appropriate. Ayckbourn’s subsequent comedies have grown increasingly dark as the playwright strives to find the comic side of the alienation, frustration, and even tragedy of modern life. Although Ayckbourn has been criticized for being repetitive and too absorbed in middle-class mores, he has, for a highly successful commercial playwright, shown remarkable growth, as with his increasingly complex and sympathetic female characters, and an enthusiastic willingness to experiment.