In their twenty-fifth year of married life, James and Eleanor Croxley undergo what in contemporary jargon is glibly referred to as a mid-life crisis. Both of their children, now grown, have left home, and both James and Eleanor are, to all appearances, successful in their respective professions—restorer of modern religious art and musician—and comfortable in the solidity of their marriage. The catalyst for the action of the play is the death of a friend, Albert, who, having left his wife, Agnes, had been living with Kate. Younger even than one of the Croxley daughters, Kate loses no time in forming a liaison with James. The action of the play consists of the slow change from what at first appears to be an innocent diversion to a complex, all-consuming passion which, feeding on itself, eventually leaves the marriage intact but hollow. In the last scene, a daughter and her husband join James and Eleanor for the beginning of Christmas festivities; the audience is left with the devastating contrast between appearance and reality, even as guests arrive and all wish one another “Happy Christmas.” James and Eleanor perfunctorily perform their duties as host and hostess, although their alter egos, Jim and Nell, are at total variance with the appearance of things.
The play opens with James and Eleanor entertaining Kate, sometime after the funeral of Albert, a “crusading editor,” as Agnes describes him. Comfortable with themselves, neither James nor Eleanor suspects Kate’s admiration for James, even though she has expressed it to Eleanor, with the object of having Eleanor relay that bit of information to James. James yawns repeatedly, and Kate apologizes for keeping her hosts up. As Kate leaves, the parting dialogue is drowned by a loud burst of choral music from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Dies Irae” to “Stricte discussurus” (1791); Peter Nichols frequently uses such musical techniques during moments of passion between Jim and Kate or during other climactic moments in the play. After Kate’s departure, James and Eleanor retire, sexually comfortable with each other. Kate’s plan, however, has succeeded, for Eleanor has casually informed James of Kate’s attraction to him. For the time being, James throws off Eleanor’s comment.
In the next two simultaneously staged scenes, James meets Kate for a professional lunch, and Agnes visits Eleanor for a coffee chat. Kate begins her seduction of James, and Agnes, even though she herself is currently enjoying a male friendship, vents her hostility toward Kate. As Agnes leaves, James arrives, Eleanor commenting on his sexy smell as they kiss. Then, for the first time Jim, dressed as James, enters, as in answer to Eleanor’s question he lies, blaming the traffic for his lateness. So begin the small deceptions, lies, more assignations, telephone calls, and eventually letters, intercepted by Agnes and shown to Eleanor. Intelligent and broad-minded, Eleanor does not enter as Nell until she reads the letter Jim has written to Kate. Now Nell joins Jim to engage Eleanor and James in a tug of war, reaching a dramatic climax in a scene at the end of act 1 in which all four, along with Kate, indulge in accusations and counter-accusations. Nichols describes this scene as a “fugue of voices with the written speeches predominating and improvised dialogue continuing behind.” Kate then leaves for the Far East, and Eleanor’s confusion about what to do becomes acute.
In act 2 Kate returns from her travels, and Eleanor visits a psychiatrist, speaking to him as both Eleanor and Nell, as she tries to explain the trap in which she finds herself. James tells Eleanor that she must learn to play the new...
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game of marital freedom, and Eleanor responds with her accusation that he wants “to have his cake and eat it.” Both watch as Nell swallows a whole bottle of pills, one at a time. As Eleanor, Nell justifies her attempted suicide as the only card left for her to play. Finally, for the monogamous Eleanor, there is the sad departure of Nell during the Christmas festivities, but for James, who has returned to art restoration in his home workshop, there is Jim, who furtively reads one letter and addresses another.
Peter Nichols’s main device is his doubling of the two main characters into ego and alter ego and having four different actors play those roles. Another device used to stunning effect is the simultaneous doubling of scenes, such as the one in which Eleanor reads Jim’s letter to Kate, even as the audience sees Jim writing that letter. Both reader and writer slip the letter into its envelope at the same time, in one of the finely tuned details that proliferate in the play. The scene is an important one, as it is at this point, when Eleanor and Agnes are discussing the letter in a tea shop, that Nell enters for the first time, dressed like Eleanor and taking her place between the two women. She becomes an antagonist to Eleanor until her unnoticed departure from the Christmas party at the end.
Perhaps the most moving of Nichols’s dramatic devices is his use of music. As mentioned earlier, Mozart’s last work, Requiem (1791), crashes in a “sudden, fortissimo burst of choral music” as Kate leaves the Croxley home in the first scene. When James and Eleanor turn off the lights in their bedroom, the “Dies Irae” bursts out again. At the end of act 1, after Jim and Kate discuss Kate’s trip, Kate assures Nell that they will go shopping and talk like girlfriends again when she (Kate) returns. Once more, the Requiem, which has been swelling during the scene, drowns out the voices. Following her departure, James and Eleanor go upstairs for their ritual “liedown,” and the “Dies Irae” resumes. In a final burst of irony, at the end of act 2, the music to which Nell leaves the house is no longer Mozart’s but that of hollow Christmas carols.
With music and art as the paradoxical metaphor for his play about modern marriage and about two middle-class, middle-aged professionals and parents, Nichols evokes the passionless nature of a whole age.
Sources for Further Study
Barnes, Philip. “Peter Nichols.” In A Companion to Post-War British Theater. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble, 1986.
Glendenning, Victoria. “Only Four Can Play.” Times Literary Supplement, January 23, 1981, p. 83.
Jones, Kim L. “Peter Nichols.” In British Playwrights, 1956-1995: A Research and Production Sourcebook, edited by William Demastes. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996.
Parkin, Andrew. “Casting the Audience: Theatricality in the Stage Plays of Peter Nichols.” In British and Irish Drama Since 1960, edited by James Acheson. Houndsmill, England: Macmillan, 1993.
Storm, William. “Adulteration as Clarification: Dramaturgical Strategy in Peter Nichols’s Passion Play.” Modern Drama, Fall, 1994, 437-450.
Taylor, John Russell. The Second Wave: British Drama for the Seventies. New York: Hill and Wang, 1971.
Wardle, Irving. “Doing Justice to the Theme of Adultery.” Times (London), January 14, 1981, p. 11.