The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The Norman Conquests is a trilogy of full-length plays, Table Manners, Living Together, and Round and Round the Garden, each taking place during the same July weekend in different parts of a house and garden in suburban England. Table Manners, set in the dining room, opens on a Saturday evening as Reg and Sarah arrive to look after Reg’s invalid mother while Annie, his youngest sister, goes away for the weekend. Annie is going alone, leaving behind her friend Tom, a veterinarian who prefers animals to people and is, according to Sarah, “a trifle ponderous.” Tom has never touched Annie, who believes that he visits only when he has nothing to do.

Annie reveals that she is leaving with her sister Ruth’s husband, Norman, with whom she had sexual relations the previous Christmas, but prudish Sarah vows to stop them. Reg, on the other hand, is happy that his sister is finally going to have some romance in her life. The naïve Tom appears and says that he would have gone with Annie if she had asked. Even though Norman is in the garden waiting for her, Annie decides not to go.

Scene 2 of act 1 occurs the following morning, as Norman tries to convince Annie that he only wants to make her happy. Then Ruth appears, having been summoned by Sarah. Ruth and Norman argue about their marriage, with Ruth claiming that he has held her career back ten years. Norman discloses his adulterous plans with Annie, and Ruth laughs when he claims that they are in love.

Act 2, scene 1, takes place that evening, with Tom threatening to punch Norman for upsetting Annie. Norman attempts to enlist Sarah’s support by explaining how they are both sensitive. Ruth tells Annie that Tom loves her but needs to be coerced into action. Annie apologizes to her sister for her would-be romance with Norman. Over dinner, Norman and Ruth squabble, and dim Tom, thinking that Norman is insulting Annie, strikes him. Norman and Sarah unite in feeling misunderstood. In act 2, scene 2, the following morning, Norman suggests that Sarah needs a holiday and volunteers to go with her, promising to make her happy. She invites him to call her later. Annie tells Tom that she agreed to leave with Norman only because she was lonely, but he, as usual, fails to get the point. The play ends with Annie asking Norman to take her away.

Living Together is set in the sitting room and opens on the same Saturday evening as the previous play. Norman tries to explain to Sarah how innocent his weekend with Annie would have been, how no one would have been hurt if Annie had not told her about it. Annie tells Norman that she is fond of Tom but that communicating with the veterinarian “is terribly heavy going. Like running up hill in roller skates.” Norman continues attempting to seduce Annie, and Reg catches them kissing. Tom realizes...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The three plays that compose The Norman Conquests are meant to stand on their own and be seen in any order. With this approach, Alan Ayckbourn achieves considerable irony and humor, especially when his audience is seeing its third play and knows what is going on offstage. Tom’s effort, in Living Together, to describe the argument going on in the dining room between Reg and Sarah is more amusing for those who have already experienced this scene. After Reg catches Annie and Norman kissing in the first play and Sarah does the same in the second, it is hilarious in the third to find all the others staring, amazed, at the passionate couple. Ayckbourn also seems to be using this device to comment on the nature of truth. The audience for one part of the trilogy thinks that it fully understands the characters and their predicaments, but each play fills in details needed for full comprehension. (The playwright may be satirizing the theatrical convention of relying on offstage events to move the action forward.)

The plays are best seen or read in the order Ayckbourn presents them in the published version. When Norman’s entrance is delayed until the second scene of Table Manners, the protagonist begins to take on almost mythic proportions and is clearly the catalyst for all the action of the trilogy. Since Table Manners ends with Annie clinging to Norman and Living Together with Sarah considering going to Bournemouth...

(The entire section is 481 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Billington, Michael. Alan Ayckbourn. London: Macmillan, 1984.

Blisten, Elmer M. “Alan Ayckbourn: A Few Jokes, Much Comedy.” Modern Drama 26 (March, 1983): 26-35.

Dukore, Bernard F. Alan Ayckbourn: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1991.

Hayman, Ronald. “Innovation and Conservatism.” In British Theatre Since 1955: A Reassessment. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Howarth, W. D. “English Humor and French Comique? The Class of Anouilh and Ayckbourn.” New Comparison 3 (Summer, 1987): 72-82.

Kerensky, Oleg. “Alan Ayckbourn.” In The New British Drama: Fourteen Playwrights Since Osborne and Pinter. London: Hamilton, 1977.

Taylor, John Russell. “Art and Commerce: The New Drama in the West End Marketplace.” In Contemporary English Drama, edited by C. W. E. Bigsby. London: E. Arnold, 1981.

Watson, Ian. Conversations with Ayckbourn. 1981. Rev. ed. Boston: Faber and Faber, 1988.