The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 635 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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.