You remember The Importance of Being Earnest: “In married life,” Algernon quips, “three is company and two is none.” “That, my dear young friend,” ripostes Jack, haughtily, “is the theory that the corrupt French drama has been propounding for the past 50 years.” “Yes,” Algy snaps back, “and that the happy English home has proved in half the time.” In Alan Ayckbourn’s plays, no English home is ever happy, but Algy was undoubtedly being ironic. Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests—an elaborately constructed trio of full-length plays, the events of which are supposed to take place simultaneously during one horrific family weekend—might be said to live entirely inside Algy’s comeback.
Wilde meant the word “corrupt” in two senses: To Jack, a conventional moralist and rather priggish, French drama was corrupt because it treated extramarital relationships (kept off the British stage of the time by the Lord Chamberlain’s censorship) as normal. But to Jack’s author, and his colleagues, French drama was aesthetically corrupt: The nonmarital sexual affairs in French plays, like their platonic equivalents in British adaptations or imitations, served merely as building blocks in the contrived structures of the “well-made play,” which left little room for the realities of human behavior.
When the serious playwrights of Wilde’s generation—Ibsen, Shaw, Chekhov—dug within the “well-made” form and pulled it to bits, farce, a genre that had grown to ripeness in France during the form’s hegemony, was left stranded: The nightmarishly piled-up circumstances of Feydeau had taken it as far as it could go without breaking its bounds. Most major 20th-century farces, when not openly surreal or absurd (The Bald Soprano), relocate the genre in more raffish territory (The Front Page, Room Service), spin it up into pure abstraction (Noises Off), or use it, like Joe Orton, to delve into previously “impermissible” subjects.
Ayckbourn, who loves to contrive ornate structures, built of interlocking circumstances, would rank as a dogged follower of the well-made-play tradition, but he modernizes it in two ways. First, his structures burgeon eccentrically beyond traditional shapes: His plays come in linked pairs or trios, or shift into alternate realities when someone goes through the wrong door, or involve baroquely Escherian games with space and time. Second, Ayckbourn knows Chekhov, and has no compunction about depicting characters whose unhappiness stems from real-world concerns rather than the more fanciful setups in Feydeau. (The latter’s plots depend on tenuous coincidences, like a dimwitted hotel porter just happening to be the hero’s exact double.)
Superficially, Ayckbourn displays more reality than Feydeau. Hence the British, recognizing his characters’ homey external traits and everyday activities, mistake him for a realist: He has often been compared to Chekhov, and Britishers wax indignant when Americans suggest that Neil Simon might make a better analogy. That comparison isn’t accurate, either: Ayckbourn can write gags, but rarely does; the basic fabric of his plays is a pile-up of comic circumstances in the Feydeau vein.
The trouble for me and, I suspect, for many other Americans, is that Ayckbourn’s pile-ups rarely build to any effect. Feydeau uses his improbable premises to launch his characters into their nightmare situations at the start so that he can extricate them, shaken but readjusted to life, at the end. No such thing usually happens with Ayckbourn: His characters, who share with him the English tendency to minimize or deprecate everything—sorrows, as well as joys—most often appear miserable at the beginning of the action and only marginally more miserable at the end. Apart from being rather drippy (they’re often the sort of people the British would describe as “wet”), they seem less like Chekhov’s jostling misplaced souls than figures in comic strips, whom no disaster ever dents. This tends to pull down the superficial reality with which Ayckbourn paints them into a kind of disaffecting flatness, so that you usually wonder, at the end, why Ayckbourn bothered putting them through such elaborately concocted permutations. It all starts to seem rather like watching lab rats take a stress test.
In The Norman Conquests, Ayckbourn’s three-decker experiment is conducted on a middle-middle-class family unit. Invalid, indolent Mum, unseen upstairs, makes herself a perpetual nuisance, waited on by unmarried Annie (Jessica Hynes). Brother Reg (Paul Ritter) and his snippy, bossy wife, Sarah (Amanda Root), drop in periodically to spread their mutual loathing more generally. Vain, ambitious sister Ruth (Amelia Bullmore) shows up less often, in part because she’s married to Norman (Stephen Mangan), a bushy-haired, infantilely narcissistic nitwit, oblivious to everything but his own impulses, whose only gift is for creating havoc, but whom Ayckbourn and his female characters apparently mistake for a modern avatar of Eros.
No disillusionment ever sets in on this point, no matter how feckless or deceitful Norman gets. Since he and Ruth have inexplicably managed to stay married for five years, you’d think the rest of the family would know by now that the only practical solution for Norman would be to nail him in a barrel and roll him into the Thames, but no. Annie, frustrated by the apathy of her dim-bulb quasi-boyfriend, Tom (Ben Miles), wants to sneak off for a dirty weekend with Norman, leaving Reg and Sarah to mind Mum. Naturally, the plans get bollixed, leaving all six stuck there for the weekend. The farcical confusions don’t so much mount as ooze from scene to scene and play to play, somehow never altering the characters’ dogged determination to muddle through as if nothing were wrong.
Funny for five minutes, the event’s unaffecting pointlessness makes a stupefying seven-hour sit-through. The British cast, under Matthew Warchus’s direction, plays it all extremely well; why they or anyone else would bother is the incomprehensible part. The one clue I could garner, from the audience’s laughter at certain non-funny moments, is that Ayckbourn makes the ordinary public feel intelligent by showing them how the pieces fit together. That the effort is pointless and the resultant picture uninteresting makes no matter; the busywork of assembling the puzzle is enough. It seems a terrible waste of the theater’s resources.