A Day in the Death of Joe Egg

by Peter Nichols

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Critical Context

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As Sylviane Gold pointed out in 1985, back in 1967 A Day in the Death of Joe Egg seemed to be “a daring amalgam of two divergent trends in British drama . . . the social concerns of the ’angry young men’ of the 1950’s with the outrageous black comedy of the 1960’s.” Certainly this initial reaction, although reductive, is understandable and true up to a point.

At least some of the interest of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg lay in its dealing with the question of what it is like to have a disabled child and with the inadequacies of all political and social answers to that question. In the same vein, most critics have pointed out that this play is really about the way a marriage is affected by an unforeseen burden. Those members of the audience aware of Peter Nichols’s biography (A Day in the Death of Joe Egg is autobiographical insofar as Nichols and his wife themselves had a child like Joe Egg) would certainly have been inclined to approach the topic with respect and seriousness.

That is exactly what Nichols does not do, at least not on the surface. He takes his heartbreaking topic and writes a grotesque comedy about it. As Enoch Brater puts it, Nichols “treated with comedy those situations most playwrights had taken for serious drama.” By doing so, he showed how serious comedy can be without ceasing to be hilarious. In fact, the apparent two sides of the play are closely intertwined and perhaps are not two sides at all: Most of the jokes are simply Bri and Sheila’s way of coping with their almost insupportable problem. Gold notes that “running all through the entertainment is a compelling, life-or-death argument between the conflicting claims of faith and reason, between hope and despair in the face of the incomprehensible,” and the jokes are the medium of that argument.

This reading of the play, especially when combined with the play’s use of direct address, reminds one of German playwright Bertolt Brecht. Regarding Brecht’s influence on Nichols there are two critical opinions. Brater, for example, mentions the use of direct address to the audience as an “antitheater device,” the purpose of which is “to implicate the audience in the characters’ world.” On the other hand, Clive Barnes insists that Nichols’s “method is not Brechtian,” because Brecht’s soliloquies do not make any personal comment on the story, whereas in Nichols’s play the action would scarcely be intelligible if the characters did not explain their attitudes and behavior. Barnes also maintains, more convincingly, that Nichols, unlike Brecht, is not making any call to action.

There similarly exist two basic responses to the question of how successful Nichols’s mixture of disparate elements ultimately is. Stanley Kauffmann claims that Nichols “seems to bite bullets . . . but he never really crunches,” and Paul Berman speaks of “this central failing in Joe Egg, the failure to rise adequately to the household situation.” On the other hand, Gold writes that A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, “brimming though it is with theatrical invention and lively wit, is at bottom deeply philosophical.”

Nichols has authored a number of plays since A Day in the Death of Joe Egg. The following play, The National Health: Or, Nurse Norton’s Affair (pr. 1969, pb. 1970), also touches on ethical questions surrounding mercy killing, expanding them from personal to political issues. The hospital in the play can be seen as a metaphor for England’s troubled welfare-state economy. Privates on Parade (pr., pb. 1977) introduces elements of musical comedy to his work; the songs comment on the play in much the same way that the direct address speeches do in his other works. Because of his humanism and his deft hand at grotesque comedy, Peter Nichols has gradually become recognized as one of Great Britain’s leading playwrights.

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