(Robert) Brian Clark Essay - Critical Essays

Clark, (Robert) Brian


(Robert) Brian Clark 1932–

English dramatist and scriptwriter.

Clark is best known for his play Whose Life Is It Anyway? (1978), the story of a quadraplegic's decision to die with dignity and his legal battle with medical authorities responsible for keeping him alive. The protagonist presents his case with unsentimental logic and audiences usually support his request. Although the ethical and legal arguments raised by the play are didactic, its message is not overly moralistic.

Among Clark's other works are several television scripts which have been produced by the British Broadcasting Company and the stage play Can You Hear Me at the Back? (1979).

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 41-44, rev. ed.)

W Stephen Gilbert

Broadly, the revival [of Whose Life Is It Anyway?] is timely, questions of euthanasia, 'brain death', individual rights and so on exercise the press a good deal just now and the play suggests a link with those questions. What the play doesn't do, however, is pose a dilemma. As written and played, there is no question where audience sympathies are expected to be placed. Around the question of the title is a piece of pure 'General Hospital' coy gropings between a trainee nurse and a chirpy orderly; brisk efficiency on the part of matron. But the centre of the play is 'General Hospital' too, an issue made nice, clear, bright and no contest.

For Ken Harrison is a classic West End hero. He's a sculptor, for God's sake—so he's artistic, independent, sensitive, denied the use of his hands. And he's a know-all, he has all the lines, all the anticipation and the gumption (though of course it's a disguise for the horror) to joke about his plight. No one else can match him. The play reminds me of nothing so much as a good-hearted Otherwise Engaged.

Which is a pity. Clark is a serious, diligent writer, a self-effacing reporter and researcher of people faced with the vagaries of authority and bureaucracy. He could easily have made the central character an oik; then the play would have been the richer…. As it is, the play is knocking on the West End transfer door precisely because it's a portrait of an archetypal...

(The entire section is 566 words.)

Gary Jay Williams

[In Whose life is it anyway?, one] does wish Clark might have resisted the occasional gaudy, tendentious line such as Ken's closing line in the bedside court hearing, "If I cannot be a man, I do not wish to be a medical achievement." But on the whole, Clark has made his man so acutely honest with himself and has so effectively arranged the circumstances to make Ken's arguments manifestly correct, that audiences are hopeful from first to last that Ken will have his victory.

The play rises above being a topical polemic of any kind (much less on euthanasia, a term the popular press too loosely applies to the play) by virtue of Clark's nicely rounded characters. He does not oversimplify, even in his handling of the medical professionals where (unless I mistake audience reponses) it would be easy to create villains. One does not long doubt that the officiously professional chief physician … is working in good faith to preserve his patient's life. At the end, it is he who offers to see Ken through the six days it will take him to die, once the extraordinary measures are stopped. A young woman physician grows to have much personal affection for Ken and much respect for his arguments, though she stands to suffer much if he wins. The young solicitor Ken enlists … is not ambitious to argue the issue but comes to be convinced (in a scene with the chief physician that elicits applause) that without the law, his client's life is not his...

(The entire section is 462 words.)

Richard Eder

"Whose Life Is It Anyway?" is a battle of ideas and a battle for life. It is a rare successful effort to fuse a tense and provocative argument, carried on in unashamed vigor and prolixity, with a play that lives and moves….

The questions raised by the playwright, Brian Clark, are complex and fascinating. Is life a right or a duty? Do experts—in this case the doctors—have the right to usurp our decisions for what they consider our own good?

Mr. Clark clearly is on the side of freedom but he has set the terms of the argument in an agonizing balance. Emerson, the chief doctor, may disregard his patient's insistence on his human dignity but he is, after all, trying to save his life. Ken Harrison, the patient, makes an appeal for freedom that is irresistible, but his victory means his death. It is a battle between two opposed concepts of the good.

But this alone would make a theme, not a play. "Whose Life" never gets far from its argument. It is a work of unfashionable intellectual tenacity and once or twice, perhaps, it has the defect of rounding out its points a bit too completely. But it has a great deal more than that.

It is almost indecently witty, yet its wit is the plunging, sparkling release of its seriousness. Its characters serve as types and embody the arguments, yet virtually all of them have a rebellious individuality of their own. There is no one—the autocratic...

(The entire section is 403 words.)

Jack Kroll

I hope "Whose Life Is It Anyway?" becomes controversial, as well as the smash hit it was in London and that it promises to be on Broadway. There's something scary about the automatic applause that breaks out at the climactic moment when a judge gives its paralyzed hero, Ken Harrison, the right to choose his death. There's something grotesque about the thought that the ultimate democratic right is the right to choose self-extinction. Is this indeed the logic implicit in the entire history of Western liberal thought? If it is, then it calls for all our powers of irony and tragic vision to come to terms with it. This doesn't happen in Brian Clark's serious but disquieting—and, I believe, superficial—play….

The trouble with the play is that what ought to be a great debate on the ultimate issues of life, death and freedom never happens. The only matter argued in the bedside tribunal is whether Harrison is too depressed to make a rational decision, and of course the judge is right—Harrison is entirely rational. But his rationality should be only the beginning of the matter, and here it's the end. Harrison's lively, witty mind has done absolutely no deep thinking on the subject. It's simply informed him that he can no longer sculpt or make love and no overbearing doctor is going to deprive him of his inalienable right to die. That's what's disquieting about the audience's applause—Harrison is like a parody of the liberal hero; he's...

(The entire section is 573 words.)

John Russell Taylor

Brian Clark does tend a bit, even at the best of times, to reach-me-down, television-shorthand sort of characterisation. In Whose Life Is It Anyway?, for instance, there is that embarrassingly black orderly who has this strong sense of rhythm and is the simple, sexy child of nature in a neurotic white world. The concept, one would say, is nearer Crossroads than serious drama, where it might be supposed—or at least the possibility explored—that being black is not enough to absolve one from care and neurosis altogether. In Clark's new play, Can You Hear Me at the Back?, what has seemed up to now a peripheral infection eats away at the whole structure of the play.

The package seems to have been put together, in fact, largely to lure people who normally watch nothing but television. (p. 18)

[The] text is a relentless talk-fest, in which the characters seem to talk directly to the audience, standing in for various study-groups, lecture audiences, congregations and the life in his new-town setting, almost as much as they talk to one another. And when they do talk to one another nobody really listens, nobody really understands, they all have their little strategems for evading communication in such excellent repair. The central character, Philip Turner, is the architect of a new town who is going through some sort of male menopause, or identity crisis, or whatever, because he has come to feel that all the decisions on which the town was built are humanly wrong and he is disgusted with himself, his work, his life. Unfortunately as written …, he has none of the savage self-destructive energy which enlivens John Osborne's somewhat similarly situated hero in Inadmissible Evidence; he...

(The entire section is 718 words.)

Jack Richardson

The protagonists of the two most successful dramas this season on Broadway, Whose Life Is It Anyway? and The Elephant Man, are a paralytic and a physical monster. To those who follow trends in American entertainment, this should be no surprise. Already many perplexed and agitated articles have been written about the tendency over the past few years of television and the theater to celebrate the problems of mental and physical affliction, and a variety of dark conclusions, social and psychological, have been drawn as to why the crippled, the retarded, the blind, the cancerous, and the freakish have suddenly come to possess an urgent cogency for such a large audience. (p. 62)

[Since] we...

(The entire section is 886 words.)

John Russell Taylor

[Can You Hear Me at the Back?] has little to recommend it. Oh, it tries hard and it means well, but it is desperately undramatic, talky in the worst possible way, and I would defy anyone actually to believe in any of the characters, so rigidly are they slotted into the roles they must play in the development of Mr. Clark's thesis about the progressive dehumanisation of modern society. The hero, if so he can be called, is an architect whose dream of a utopian new town in the midst of England's green and pleasant land has turned sour. He blames himself totally and compulsively for this: he keeps gazing out across the audience towards imaginary tower-blocks and lamenting his own and the place's lack of humanity....

(The entire section is 300 words.)