Critical analyses of Peter Nichols’s major works have emphasized correspondences between events and characters in the plays and the playwright’s personal experiences. For the most part, Nichols does not, in fact, write unadorned autobiography. When dealing with autobiographical material, Nichols has been able to bring much passion and insight to his work, but this material has been transformed in every instance by the bold use of theatrical devices. The difference in quality between Nichols’s television work and his stage plays comes fundamentally from his skill in manipulating the communicative potential of the theatrical medium and not necessarily from his use of highly personal source material. His ability to sustain complex theatrical structures and to use them to exploit his subject matter makes Nichols unique in a generation of British playwrights who have typically written with great personal reflection and political commitment. Nichols might be considered somewhat conservative in comparison with his more radical peers, yet his use of theatrical resources allows the less controversial subject matter of his plays to have a strong emotional impact on his audiences.
The final impression of Nichols’s work must include not only a high estimation of his technical abilities as a theatrical writer but also an appreciation of his traditional humanism. Nichols consistently argues for mercy in a secular world and does so in a way that typically avoids naïveté and maudlin sentiment. The laughter in his plays is not usually silly but based on a kind of intellectual recognition that there is some overlooked truth behind the way people ordinarily behave. In his domestic plays as well as his more political musical comedies, Nichols appeals for understanding rather than violence, for comprehension rather than conformity. He notesthe danger of getting seduced by laughter for its own sake. But if understanding is the end of it all, or you manage to make the audience share your world view for a moment, or give them a glimpse of things they wouldn’t have seen if they hadn’t gone to the theater, then you’ve achieved something through laughter.
With such a point of view, Nichols cannot be dismissed as a merely “commercial” writer. He has created plays that entertain, but they often draw the spectators in only to challenge them, to encourage them to face themselves and their institutions from a new, more skeptically honest and intelligent vantage point.
A Day in the Death of Joe Egg
The pattern of biographical reception for Nichols began with the international success of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg. Many details from the play were drawn from Nichols’s personal experience as the father of a spastic child; his decision to represent such a character onstage had such a strong aesthetic impact at the time that biographical revelations only increased the play’s potential for sensationalist responses. The central character within the play, however, is not Joe Egg but Bri, the father, a young schoolteacher, and it is the father’s thoughts—in opposition to those of his wife—that direct the course of the play’s events. The argument between the married couple over their responsibility to the daughter provides a classically simple dramatic plot that has no biographical parallel; other particular events, such as the attempt to kill the child through exposure, are also inventions.
The play’s sense of intimacy in performance comes not so much from the audience’s knowledge of the writer’s biography as from the use of direct address. Nichols has acknowledged that the demands of expressing the couple’s thoughts about their child seemed to defy the kinds of representational strategies he had employed as a writer of realistic television plays. The child herself could not realistically speak, and the characters were dealing with such a taboo subject in such a pressurized personal situation that it seemed implausible that they would express their thoughts openly to one another. Thus, Nichols chose to have the stage figures acknowledge the audience as listeners. This decision motivated a kind of ironic semantic split that has since proved to be the most enduring, characteristic aspect of Nichols’s style.
A Day in the Death of Joe Egg begins with a “teacher skit” that Nichols wrote for an impromptu salon audience during his own teaching years. In the skit, the teacher speaks directly to the members of the audience, treating them as his class. This device served as a kind of bridge that allowed the audience gradually to be acknowledged at a time when modern realistic plays seldom did so. The teacher skit dissolves fairly quickly, but the apparent realism into which it dissolves remains pervaded with the trappings of theater: gag spiders, mad doctor bits, intentional comic misinterpretations. When Bri finally returns to soliloquy, the theatrical gesture seems more honest, more stable, than the troubled domestic scene.
The device of splitting the situations and characters into multiple semantic perspectives continues through both acts of the play and represents a kind of structural logic in the play’s development. Soon after Bri’s first monologue, describing the monotony of his daily life and the revulsion he feels, Sheila gets a chance to tell her side of the story in a pair of extended speeches. The final moment of the act is a coup de théâtre of the same order, in which the actress playing Joe Egg skips onstage jumping rope, apparently healthy and normal. The audience realizes that she is merely a projection of Sheila’s maternal fantasy when the actress calmly undercuts the childish image with an announcement of the intermission. In the first act, Nichols progressively applies the semantic split between confessional monologue and dishonest realistic behavior, between the character’s thoughts and actions, to both Bri and Sheila. Then, when the same device is applied to Joe Egg, there is no inner life to reveal, no consciousness, only an actress embodying a role. In act 2 the realistic action of the play gets split twice again. Because of the intimacy the audience acquired with the leading characters in the first act, it is able to see through the lies and delusions that occur in the parts that follow. The principal events in the second part are two visits, the first by married friends Freddy and Pam, the second by Bri’s mother, Grace. These visits gradually intensify both the pressures on the couple to justify their decisions and the audience’s sympathy for the couple, who must deal with the heartless, trivial behavior of the other adults. The ironic effect of the realistic dialogue continues through to the play’s conclusion, when Sheila has returned with Joe Egg from the hospital after Bri’s attempts to allow the child to die. Bri has finally abandoned his wife and child when Sheila has a last witless word with Joe about how devoted her Daddy is. The play ends enigmatically, with the handicapped child alone onstage. The multiple meanings encouraged by the other theatrical devices are finally distilled into the emblematic figure of Joe Egg, hopelessly alive.
The National Health
The splitting of characters and situations in A Day in the Death of Joe Egg causes not only pathos but comedy as well. The same strategy of creating bitter comedy through ironic juxtapositon characterizes the form of Nichols’s second major play, The National Health. The play draws on Nichols’s repeated hospital stays during his military service and when suffering a collapsed lung. Nichols has removed this play more completely from autobiography, however, by adding an independent interior play, a send-up of hospital soap opera. This decision to split the play into two parts is again based on the need to manipulate audience response. The first version of The National Health was a realistic television play called The End Beds. This play, of which Nichols was particularly proud, was roundly rejected by television producers; they preferred conventional, romantic hospital drama to Nichols’s grim, mordant chronicle play. Nichols responded by incorporating both attitudes toward hospital experience into the same play and changing to a theatrical venue where television norms could be viewed with more detachment. With the exception of the title character, the interior play has little contact with the unfolding of the more realistic hospital scenes, yet the principle of comparison deepens and informs the whole work.
A progressive principle applies again as well. When the play begins, there are six beds in the hospital ward; when it ends, there is only one. This image of gradual decay finds reinforcement in many other details, such as the gradual amputation of a cheerful, singing patient’s limbs or the discharge of a vigorous young motorcyclist who returns from another accident brain-damaged and helpless. These patterns of progression replace what might ordinarily be considered a plot; each patient’s background is sketched and his fate is sealed in the course of the action. The nearest approximation of a main character is Ash, a frustrated teacher with a stomach ulcer who worries himself helping the other patients while undergoing a more gradual decline of his own. His pathetic attempts to educate the helpless cyclist about his British heritage in a closing scene underline a second important irony in the play’s title: the equation of the hospital with the failing welfare-state economy of contemporary England.
A third level of theatricality, providing the same kind of bridge between two dramatic levels as the teacher skit in A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, exists in the figure of Barnet, a hospital orderly. After his first entrance, in which the lowest man in the hospital, an orderly assigned not to attending the sick but to preparing the dead, has cajoled the ward’s patients into good humor, Barnet begins to narrate the story of Staff Nurse Norton—not to the patients but to the theater audience. Barnet, beneath and beyond the hospital’s concerns, also delivers a series of macabre monologues that serve to emphasize the difference between conventional representations of hospital life and its grim realities; for example, a comic rundown of his duties serves to mask the disappearance of Rees, one of the most endearing patients, so that his death seems like a successful magic trick. Barnet even provides a running commentary counterpointing the climax of the Nurse Norton melodrama, a spectacular kidney transplant, with the weary, unsuccessful attempts of the hospital staff to resuscitate Foster, another important sympathetic character. At the end of the play, Barnet appears surprisingly in blackface, a device that stresses his purely theatrical identity, and asserts that the audience members are themselves patients of a kind in the national health, not immune to the terrible suffering and humiliation that have befallen those in the hospital ward.
The National Health offers a broader scope on the problems of mercy killing and ethical responsibility explored by A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, pointing out that these are not mere personal problems but political issues. Biographical material has been reconstituted in both plays to achieve a layered, communicative structure that allows Nichols’s characteristically ironic voice to emerge. The audience is encouraged to use one level of the play’s action to see through others, and so the apparently simple situations and language of the plays take on a hidden depth, acquiring an unusual richness in their ability to encourage emotional response. Nichols’s next few plays, though sometimes very successful, accomplish less, either because they address a limited range of concerns or because they employ less compelling theatrical techniques.
Forget-Me-Not Lane limits itself almost exclusively to Nichols’s troubled memories of his family life. He uses a very flexible theatrical structure, with scenes shifting through three broad time periods, fluidly moving onstage and offstage through a series of hidden doors that constitute the only setting. In Forget-Me-Not Lane, this theatrical structure, with its Nichols-like author/narrator providing the usual direct address, serves also to facilitate a more important thesis about the structure of the family. Nichols views the family as a kind of trap, where heredity and the following of role models cause the mistakes of the parents to be repeated by their children, even when such patterns are acknowledged and challenged. The play...
(The entire section is 5188 words.)