Banal though his mid-life crisis plot of marital infidelity may seem, Peter Nichols places still another version of what he has called the “genetic family trap” under the unblinking, microscopic eye of a steady observer of human passions to produce the kind of detailed texture found in the works of Gustave Flaubert, August Strindberg, Émile Zola, and Leo Tolstoy, all of whom examined marital infidelities and their destructive consequences.
Nichols gives outward forms to those passions in the alter egos or doubles. Stunning though his technique is, it is the ironic truths that technique conveys that place Passion Play in the forefront of modern British dramas about marital infidelity. Those truths reach into psychological, social, and religious arenas of conflict. The deepest personal urges are represented by the instincts of Nell, who comes from a provincial, working-class family, in which the major outlet for her passion (like that of Emma Bovary of Flaubert’s novel) was the church, particularly the music of the church. It was the only place in her rundown village that seemed alive, a place where she heard stories and poetry, joined in the hymns, and enjoyed the streets thronged with people twenty minutes before the service. When her confidence in her marriage crumbles, she realizes that the freedom she and James had eagerly anticipated once their children were gone was in itself an illusion. “Out to lunch, as they say in America,” she repeats at intervals in the play. Her music and James’s art restoration provided each with an out, until the arrival of the seductress Kate. Reanimated, James, who had always found religion silly and Christianity “a terrible disaster forced on the rest of us by madmen in the Middle Ages,” discovers a vitality in middle age that he had never experienced in his work. He describes himself as “an unemotional man who’s inspired a passion in my partner. And I needn’t tell you what passion means? Suffering. Self-inflicted torture. Masochism. All that’s holy. Like that exquisite depiction of a bleeding corpse that’s waiting for me in Zurich. . . .”
Kate, from a prosperous middle-class background, has assimilated all the freedoms of the new age, unhampered by the disillusionment of the monogamous Eleanor and by the conscience of James. Of a new generation, she is agile in claiming the sexual attention of one married man after another.
Socially, the two main characters (of the lower middle class) have moved up, but they still remain on the borders of the world the sexually liberated Kate inhabits. James works at his restoration of modern religious paintings (a seeming contradiction in terms) with a craftsmanship that is technical rather than artistic. His cultural mediocrity is suggested by the lack of passion in his work. Before his seduction by Kate, he yawned constantly and had to have eight hours of sleep every night. Eleanor, on the other hand, has come a long way from her provincial origins, having known something like passion in her early church associations. She continues teaching pupils and singing in a choir. She feels emptiness and pain, the former because of the loss of her illusionary marital comfort and the latter because of her loss of a friendship with Kate. Despite their age difference, she has found a vitality in her friendship with Kate that she could not enjoy with her own daughters, both of whom are about Kate’s age. Thus she suffers the double loss of husband and friend. Agnes, on the other hand, acts in traditional modes, continuing to harbor desires for revenge on Kate and going so far as to take advantage of her access to Kate’s apartment to steal the letter responsible for the emergence of Nell.
In Passion Play, Nichols continues his stripping away of illusions from reality, a theme that is at the core of all of his plays. Here, however, his comic wit takes a more somber tone, and the ironies as they multiply become darker than in the earlier dramas.