Alan Ayckbourn: The Norman Conquests

[General] (02.13.09, 10:36 pm)

Several of Alan Ayckbourn‘s plays are trilogies, designed to be performed in Scarborough, which is a popular vacation spot in Yorkshire. The goal behind his writing of the plays is to fill a theatre house for a full weekend, three nights, but under several constraints. One of the constraints is that they were only able to afford six actors, so the actors would need to be shared between the plays. The second is that the plays must not be arranged in such a way that to appreciate any one all must be seen, and the plays must not be arranged into ordered parts, as either of these would drive away the interest of potential theatregoers. The resulting project is a set of plays that would be able to stand on their own, but would be arranged so that viewing one would pique one’s curiosity to see the others. Much of my analysis comes from the recorded BBC television performance in 1978.

The most interesting element in the plays is the relationship between plot and story. The individual plays are logical wholes, but together they make something more complete. The plays take place in different parts of the same house during the same weekend, featuring the same drama with the same characters. The plays have different pacing and focus on different pieces of the same plot.

The experience of watching one performance is of a comedy, a drama centered around the personalities of the characters. Events that occur in the other plays are alluded to, but the references to the other plays are sufficient enough to complete their relevance to the current action, without making them overtly mysterious. When put against the other plays, enough information is revealed to turn the plot into something which becomes more like a puzzle. References that were previously only background elements become central, and elements that were central to the drama in the other plays take on a passive role when viewing a new one.

What remains constant between the plays is an overall story arc, and the characters. In terms of digital adaptation, it logically makes sense for the trilogy to be treated as an encyclopedic text, and allow navigation between the different parts of the action. This is the subject of Hot Norman, a digital project put together by Janet Murray and Freedom Baird. This project enables the viewer to observe what is happening at the logical diegetic moments occurring in the different timelines. When one character leaves one set and goes to another, the user would be able to follow them. Additionally, Hot Norman enables the user to follow the references between the different plays, so when one event is referred to in one timeline, it is possible to look back at the source of that event.

This approach seems appropriate, due to the multiple nature of the narrative, but seems like it would be ultimately somewhat unsatisfying. Because the events are referential, and used as props for the dramatic flows of the story, it does not seem like a great deal stands to be gained from switching between the individual plays. Having viewed each play, it does not seem like there is much to be gained from navigating between them. Each play in the trilogy has the same plot, but offers different narrative perceptions of the plot. Weaving between the perceptions offers little more beyond being able to access them in the first place. I think the center of the viewer’s attention is not on the plot of the character’s lives, but on the characters responses and means of handling the plot that is taking place around them. The plot itself is not primarily about action that takes place within the plays, but it is about action that has already taken place or has failed to take place. The entire body of the trilogy is derived from the characters reactions to these events, both past and unrealized.

Being the contrarian, I think that the ideal way to explore the content of the play would be to expand it. Instead of being able to switch between the different views, it would be interesting to be able to command the characters, or arrange scenes with several of them present, and then see what happens. The dimensions of the underlying plot would not change, but new scenes would result.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorAyckbourn, Alan
TitleThe Norman Conquests
Tagsfiction, media traditions, specials, narrative
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

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