Themes and Meanings

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 668 words.)