A Day in the Death of Joe Egg

by Peter Nichols

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The Play

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Bri, an amateur painter and a discontented and unsuccessful teacher in a comprehensive school, and his wife Sheila, a homemaker and part-time amateur actor, live in the southwestern suburbs of London. They are the parents of one child, a seriously physically impaired and mentally disabled girl, Josephine, or Joe Egg, now ten years old. In a brief opening scene, before the lights come up on the set, Bri, an exasperated schoolteacher, hectors his pupils for their unruly behavior. Then he leaves, and the lights reveal the setting for the rest of the play, the living room of Bri and Sheila’s house. This room is pleasant in an unpretentious way and would be unremarkable except for two personal touches: The walls are decorated with two of Bri’s paintings, both of cowboy subjects, and among the other articles of furniture is evidence of Sheila’s devotion to all living things—a bird in a cage, a tank with fish, and potted plants. A further sign of this devotion occurs in the first words Sheila speaks, as she shoos two cats out to the kitchen. The implied kitchen is reached through a workable doorway to one side, while a second workable doorway leads to a front hall with both the front door to the house and stairs going up.

Shortly before Christmas, Bri comes home from his day of teaching, cynical and frustrated with his occupation and, perhaps, his marriage and family. Bri and Sheila’s conversation reveals that Sheila, although she probably suffered more initially, has adjusted to being the parent of Joe Egg better than Bri has, but at the cost of having no time for Bri and of deluding herself with signs of improvement in Joe. Joe arrives in a wheelchair, having been brought home from her Spastics’ Nursery on the bus. Joe has no control over her legs and arms and has to be propped wherever she is put; in her chair she sits with the upper part of her body leaning forward on the tray. All she can say is “Aaah.” Bri and Sheila take good care of her physically, and this care is clearly habitual with both of them; also habitual is the way they cope psychologically with this difficult situation—by making rather harsh jokes and by play-acting with Joe cast in various roles.

Later they reminisce about the time of their wedding, the birth of Joe, and their gradual realization that Joe was not a normal child; their reminiscence takes the form of more play-acting, involving satirical sketches of incompetent doctors and a clergyman. In all these brief scenes Sheila plays herself, and Bri plays the other men. Sheila regards the illness of her child as being in some ways a punishment for her own premarital promiscuity and her being pregnant at the time of her wedding. Bri and Sheila both exit, and the act ends with a short scene in which Joe, suddenly normal, skips rope, sings a rhyme about Mrs. Difficulty, and invites the audience to enjoy the interval and to return for the second act.

In the second act, in the evening of the same day, Sheila returns from her play practice, bringing along her friend and sponsor (and an old school-fellow of Bri’s), the rich-by-inheritance Freddie Underwood, and his wife Pamela. Freddie, plagued with guilt feelings about his wealth, has become a meddling socialist do-gooder; after meeting Bri, who has spent the evening painting another cowboy picture, and meeting Joe, Freddie advises Bri and Sheila to put Joe away in an institution. His fascist wife Pam, devoted to PLU (people like us) and repelled by...

(This entire section contains 865 words.)

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anyone NPA (not physically attractive), in an aside to the audience recommends euthanasia. Both Freddie and Pam urge Bri and Sheila to “put her away,” but in different senses. Bri’s mother Grace also comes in, with a cardigan she is knitting for Joe; she, like Sheila, has patience and hope for Joe, but she and Sheila do not get along. Grace blames Sheila for all the problems of her son and granddaughter.

Joe has an epileptic fit, clearly a frequent occurrence. Freddie and Pam go to the chemist’s shop for some medicine, but, while Sheila is rushing about and Grace is too self-absorbed to notice, Bri tries to kill Joe by exposing her to the cold. He first attempts to leave her outdoors in the back garden, but does not have the heart to do it, so he leaves her in the back seat of his car. After the others have reassembled, Bri brings Joe in, saying that he thinks “it’s all over.” Joe is, indeed, very cold, but they all rush out with her to a hospital.

The final brief scene takes place the next morning. Joe has recovered, and Bri, Sheila, and Joe are back home again. Sheila, ever sanguine, is planning to go on with business as usual; she even speaks of leaving Joe in a residential hospital for a few weeks so that Bri and she can take a vacation. Bri, however, has packed a suitcase: He leaves, abandoning Sheila and Joe. Sheila remains, making plans and talking to her pets.

Dramatic Devices

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Probably the two most distinctive dramatic devices in A Day in the Death of Joe Egg are the play-within-a-play and the direct address to the audience. Although this play makes use of a realistic set and generally realistic action, Nichols breaks up any sense of old-fashioned realism and excessive empathy with the characters by using these two devices.

Nichols uses the direct address technique several times. In the first act, Bri delivers the play’s opening speech to his classroom, although this is in a category by itself because Bri is supposed to be talking to the (fictitious) pupils and not to the audience; later, when Sheila goes upstairs to change, Bri starts talking a teasing play-talk to Joe but gives up and talks instead to the audience about how wonderful his wife is. Toward the end of the act, Bri leaves Sheila alone to tell the audience about Bri and about her hopes for Joe. In the second act, Pam makes her euthanasia speech and Bri, before the final scene, narrates to the audience the trip to the hospital and confides in them his plan to leave Sheila.

These speeches to the audience stand out from the rest of the play not only because of their nondramatic ontology but also because they are among the very few long speeches in a play whose dialogue is almost entirely stichomythia. The only other long speeches are two assigned to Grace, who is obviously supposed to be a garrulous fool who does not really care whether anyone is listening to her. The alternation between stichomythia and occasional long speeches is striking; Nichols evidently uses both forms partly for their musical effect, and the musical effect in turn draws one’s attention to the content, especially of the longer speeches.

The other major dramatic device that Nichols uses in this play is the play-within-a-play. Sheila is an amateur actor and, in a less public forum, Bri is also an actor: Most of the second half of the first act consists of their acting out scenes together. They begin by jointly telling the audience the story of their marriage and Joe’s birth, but then they switch into acting out two scenes of Sheila and doctors and one of Sheila and a clergyman (the doctors and clergyman being played by Bri) in order to share with the audience the pain they experienced as they came to a realization of Joe’s plight. On the one hand, these brief scenes are more lively than Bri and Sheila’s reminiscences about these events would be; on the other hand, the scenes are more frankly artificial than such a reminiscence would be. One additional theatrical advantage to these scenes is that they make the audience realize how close Bri and Sheila have become because of their common pain; over the years they have worked up these playlets as a way of coping with Joe.

Most of the play observes the classical unities quite strictly, but Nichols does not hesitate to put a long time-lapse into the middle of act 2, when Joe is brought to the hospital, treated, and brought home again. Like the direct address and the play-within-a-play, the break in time sequence disturbs the audience’s empathy and makes them more aware of the play as theater.

Bri plays a visual gag, not only on Freddie and Pam but also on the audience, when he enters in the second act hiding behind one of his cowboy pictures, with one arm sticking out holding a pistol, shooting off caps. By far the most shocking, and moving, visual surprise comes at the end of the first act, when Joe, who at all other times is paralyzed in her wheelchair, behaves like a normal ten-year-old girl—the girl that Sheila dreams she might be.


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Sources for Further Study

Barnes, Clive. “A Day in the Death of Joe Egg Opens.” In Contemporary Literary Criticism, edited by Carolyn Riley and Phyllis Carmel Mendelson. Detroit: Gale, 1976.

Berman, Paul. Review in The Nation 240 (February 16, 1985): 185-187.

Davison, Peter. Contemporary Drama and the Popular Dramatic Tradition in England. London: Macmillan, 1982.

Gold, Sylviane. “The Return of Joe Egg.” Wall Street Journal, January 15, 1985, p. 32.

Jones-Owen, Kim L. “Peter Nichols.” In British Playwrights, 1956-1995: A Research and Production Sourcebook, edited by William W. Demastes. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996.

Kauffmann, Stanley. Review in The New Republic 171 (November 2, 1974): 32.

Kerensky, Oleg. The New British Drama: Fourteen Playwrights Since Osborne and Pinter. London: Hamilton, 1977.


Critical Essays