The Norman Conquests - Table Manners: Character Notes by Alan AyckbournThis is a guide to the characters of The Norman Conquests as written by Alan Ayckbourn for his casting director for the 1993 revival of The Norman Conquests at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough.
Not so much a meek personality as what one might term an 'anything-for-a-quiet-life' personality. Her anxiety to see least trouble often leads her to be taken advantage of by the others. 'Easier', she feels, 'To do something yourself than go through all the arguments and bickering required to persuade someone else to do it.' This attitude has led her to accept far too great a share of the family responsibilities, especially with regard to her mother. Ironically, she already sees herself as her own worst enemy and is well aware of what she is doing. Her low self esteem is something that instantly attracts Norman. But Annie is tougher than she looks. There is another dormant, tougher side to her altogether.
I suspect a psychiatrist would find Sarah a deeply unhappy woman. She is certainly shrouded in deep guilt about practically everything. This results in her assuming responsibility for the world and his mother. She foresees disasters that may never happen, finds a crisis (and even creates one) where there was none previously and invariably dramatises the tiniest incident. Maybe it is her instinctive sense of order that causes this. Her desire to see everything in its place and staying there. She must have been the saddest little girl. For ever scrubbing and polishing her dolls, scolding and reproaching them for failing to sit up straight or for falling off their chairs. All her tea parties must have ended in tears of frustration. Despite her apparent care for the world, she is extraordinarily self centred, somewhat vain, a bully, sexually repressed and not, alas, very bright.
Although she'd never admit it, her attitude is not a million miles away from Annie's. Ruth has simply chosen a different path to achieve the same result. In her case, a couldn't care less, seemingly cool manner which she affects in order to keep the world at bay. It is no accident that she chooses to view the world out of focus. That way she hopes to keep it from impinging on her. Yet there is another side to Ruth. She is actually a passionate woman and a very intelligent one - by far the brightest of them all. This has led her away from the safe relationships her head tells her would make sense towards the unconventional, the unstable - hers and Norman's. Although the two are chalk and cheese, of course they are opposites irresistibly attracted.
A bit of a contradiction is Reg. On the surface a bit of a man's man, gregarious, jokey, a mite vulgar, he's really just a little boy who's never really grown up. His and Sarah's relationship is far more mother and third child than husband and wife. And quite a loner. He's very happy with his own company and again is someone who's happy to settle for a quiet life. He's very fond of Annie but not it seems fond enough to do anything much about helping her. Once again his and Sarah's is a marriage which, whilst seemingly filled with turmoil, is probably one that suits them both. Reg's description of himself in Living Together is probably as accurate as anything. In between bouts of furious activity (he responds well to physical or practical emergencies) he is happy to sit for days staring at the wall.
Not quite as slow witted as he seems, Tom's real problem is his inability to tune in or focus properly on others. He's either a beat behind (more usual) or occasionally even a beat ahead. Or somewhere else altogether. People, so far as Tom is concerned, are a total mystery, an unreadable book. Their behaviour is totally inexplicable. Rages, depressions, bouts of tears, bursts of unexplained laughter. It's not that he doesn't listen. Often he listens too hard. To no avail. The harder he listens the more he tries to please them, the greater they rant and rage. But you should see him with an injured horse. An almost perfect communion between man and beast. If this makes him seem rather sweet and charming, yes, he is. He's also essentially as selfish and self-interested as the day is long.
The wild card in the pack. Norman's strength, though even he fails to realise it some of the time, is that he's totally transparent. He makes no secret of his needs and desires. He's discovered the greatest male sexual secret, namely that the quickest way to a woman's heart (and body) is to ask her for it. And to keep on asking her till she says yes. His 'yes' rate is extraordinarily high for someone with apparently such an unappetising profile and slightly dubious personal habits. How does he do it? other better groomed men ask in bewilderment. But then Norman is unafraid and rarely offended by a refusal. Indeed, he could probably have been the Don Juan he professes to want to be. But the thrill of the chase is all for Norman. Invariably, at the kill, he will back off or lose interest. Enough for him to know that the unattainable was within his grasp rather than spoil the romantic dream by taking it. It is this romance, this un-threatening harmlessness, this genuine love of women, all women, the ability to see them, every one, as charmed and beautiful beings, that attracts them to him. They know he manipulates, they are well aware he often schemes and lies, but when the end product of these machinations is a desire for them, themselves - what the hell. How often in life do you get the chance to be the irresistible object of someone's desire? It's good to have been there once, even with Norman. Needless to say, the biggest single driving force in Norman's life is his need to be liked, if not loved, by everyone.
Alan also wrote gave an insightful observation about the character of Norman in the Los Angeles Times in an interview published on 5 October 1975:
Norman the character illustrates to me the game that often goes on between men and women when a man spends an incredible amount of time setting up an elaborate act for the woman's benefit. The woman sees through it, and likes him despite the act. But the man continues to think it's his act that's doing the trick. Norman is patently the most transparent man in he world. He's like someone I knew who was a total failure with a disastrous marriage, but a tremendous live-wire to meet socially. Delightful, but not for very long. Norman's the wild card among these English limbo people I carry with me from childhood: the lapsed middle-class. It's a rich comic area.
In personal correspondence from March 1976, Alan also talks about the character of Norman:
Norman does manage to spread a veneer of happiness. He's a charming person in smallish doses. He won't change - certainly not over two days. He's too selfish and self-centred and any set-backs or disappointments he receives are merely going to bolster his own prejudices about 'other people'. Ruth, who spends most of her time deflating him in other people's eyes, although a victim of his charms, says more than a grain of truth about him, however exaggerated.
Some further insight into the character of Ruth was offered in 2012:
If you were to scrape the layers away Ruth is equally as vulnerable [as, for example, Kitty in Taking Steps] - she has simply managed to find ways to protect herself better. Her Achilles' heel, if one can call it that, is she loves Norman with her heart, although every fibre of her (highly) intelligent mind is screaming 'No! No! No! Don't fall for it.'
More insights into Norman from personal correspondence in 2015:
I agree Norman himself is a bit of enigma. But then many of the plays of mine around that period employ the (hardly original!) technique of introducing the wild card character (a cat) in amongst a conventional group (the pigeons). See, for example, Absent Friends, Time And Time Again, etc. I think Norman's background is deliberately sketchy - I'm less interested in his genesis than his impact. Blame my mentor at the time, one Harold Pinter, who directed me early on when I was playing Stanley in his deliberately opaque The Birthday Party. I too was mystified as to where my character had come from or even, after the play had ended, where on earth he went. So I asked him. Harold looked at me for a second and then gave me the immortal note, "Mind your own fucking business." I sort of knew what he meant and, after over 40 years of directing, it's one I rather wish I'd had the courage to give at times!
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