Critical Context

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...

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