Critical Context

In the context of modern British drama, Passion Play joins a tradition of dramatic treatments of marital infidelity, including earlier plays such as Arthur Wing Pinero’s Mid-Channel (pr. 1909) and Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea (pr., pb. 1952), both of which feature suicides or attempted suicides. Peter Nichols updates this tradition, keeping intact the universality of the experience.

Having earned a reputation for his skill in manipulating complex plots (The National Health: Or, Nurse Norton’s Affair, pr. 1969, pr. 1970, and Forget-Me-Not Lane, pr., pb. 1971, for example), Nichols here surpasses the inventiveness of those plays. His creation of the alter egos knits the inner and outer events more seamlessly than, for example, do the interior monologues of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg (pr., pb. 1967), in which the two main characters step out of their roles to address the audience directly.

Having earned acclaim for total honesty in exploring relationships in a family with a retarded child (A Day in the Death of Joe Egg), he surpasses even that honesty by the convincing subtlety with which he details the painful breakdown of a passionless marriage. Ironically witty, both dialogue and events move rapidly, with the doubling techniques creating an orderly confusion that evoked strong critical approval, especially of the first act. Unlike dramatists such as Harold Pinter, who express subtextual realities of characters in pauses and silences, Nichols uses alter egos, a device Irving Wardle of The Times (London) describes as “so comically fertile that it is amazing that nobody to my knowledge has used it before.”

Described by Philip Barnes as Nichols’s most acclaimed work since A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, Passion Play seems a culmination of the artistry Nichols has progressively demonstrated since his early, prolific writing for the television medium. The winner of a number of Evening Standard awards, Nichols is highly respected and has been called an uncompromising moral allegorist of his times. He is an outspoken critic of directors’ whims and philistine management, on occasion expressing his intention to leave the theater for other kinds of writing.