Peter Nichols Nichols, Peter - Essay

Nichols, Peter

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Nichols, Peter 1927–

A British writer for stage, screen, and television, Nichols is best known for his black comedy, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg.

From almost every point of view Forget-Me-Not Lane looks like a summary of Nichols's work to date, gathering together its various threads and presenting them to us in a satisfactorily rounded whole with even more dazzling skill than A Day in the Death of Joe Egg or The National Health. And yet it is a real play; it gives completely the illusion (if it is an illusion) of organic growth; it resolutely shows us everything, tells us nothing. That is why we understand so much from it. And indeed the success of Nichols's campaign to broaden our dramatic responses probably derives first and foremost from the fact that he never set out to mount such a campaign, never had any intention except to write single plays mirroring an aspect of the world as he sees it. (p. 35)

John Russell Taylor, "Peter Nichols," in his The Second Wave: British Drama for the Seventies (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1971 by John Russell Taylor), Hill & Wang, 1971, pp. 16-35.

It would be hard to review Saved without mentioning the stoning of the baby in Act Two, or, for that matter, to expatiate on Macbeth without revealing that the main character kills a King of Scotland. Both events seem to explain so much that occurs afterwards. But the promoters of Peter Nichols's Chez Nous ask us critics to remain mum about certain revelations made early in the evening, and I'm not the man to shirk a challenge. Let me tell you, then, that the play involves two English couples [Dick and Liz, Diana and Phil], one somewhat smugly in possession of a converted barn in the Dordogne, the other on a visit….

Believing with E. M. Forster (as I do) that character and theme are rather more important than 'that low atavistic form', the story, I must spill the beans. First, Dick and Liz announce that their 13-year-old, Jane, is the mother of the baby Liz is jubilantly passing off as her own. Then it emerges that Phil is the father…. [It] is, of course, the characters' longer-term response to their shock that really matters. 'What have I done wrong?' wails [Liz], and that 'I' is typical. All think first of themselves, second of their teetering marriages, and not at all of the teenage tot most intimately involved. We never meet Jane, and so little concern is expressed for her by the adults that Nichols is moved to indicate his disapproval of their egos in an unconventional way. Thunder intermittently cracks and booms, making the lights flicker and suggesting (so it seemed to me) that the authorial gods are not pleased; and a jet screams alarmingly low over the roof, as if practising for kamikaze. Mr. Nichols is clearly in the cockpit, a furious grin on his face, buzzing his characters and itching to strafe them.

Some may think this a fanciful interpretation of mere casual additions to the general atmosphere. But since Nichols ends his play by treating a hen's egg not just as a symbol, but as one with two or three meanings, I chose to believe he has more artistry and purpose than that. This is a very intelligent, careful play, which regards its protagonists with humour, horror, exasperation and compassion, though not always in equal proportions. Dick emerges pretty poorly, not least because he's written some pop sociology which advocates pubescent liberation: this public audacity sorts oddly with his private cowardice, his fear that Jane's baby will somehow damage his career. Liz is self-satisfied and insensitive: an emotional clod-hopper who likes to compare herself to Tolstoy's wife. Diana and Phil prove rather more sympathetic—she for all her fastidiousness and melodramatics, he, with his ostentatious crudity, his pathetic yen for youth and craving for paternity. Their reconciliation, in which she unfurls the hysterectomy-scarred body she's always kept hidden, is unexpectedly moving, a declaration that affection can survive a mangling. As Nichols sees it, men are in thrall to their sexual drives, women doomed to humour them, but both sexes more tenaciously committed to marriage than they sometimes realise. (p. 232)

Benedict Nightingale, in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), February 15, 1974.

Chez Nous is another evening of the familiar marital tug-of-war chez Nichols…. [One who] expected to meet old friends [would be] right. Dick is a slightly older brother to Bri in Joe Egg and Frank in Forget-Me-Not Lane: another impossibilist for whom daily married life is a Colditz from which he endlessly plots fantastic escapes. Liz is a greyer, cheerier version of Bri's Sheila and Frank's Ursula: the loving, patiently matter-of-fact gaoler who forever punctures her mate's fantasies with her walking reminder that you can have real emotions only about reality.

Unfortunately, it becomes clear in Chez Nous that this recurring opposition expresses an equivalent tug-of-war within Nichols' talent. Part of him is Bri-Frank-Dick, using his plays as play: as fantasies exploring the alternatives to real life. The other half is Sheila-Ursula-Liz: the realist who drags her yoke-fellow back to fact, reminding him that his play-acting emotions are only theatre. I'd be sad to see either excluded from the process of his creations, but I've no doubt that his best plays are the ones in which Sheila and Ursula, respectively, kept the upper hand. In The National Health, the spirit of Bri-Frank-Dick ran away with the evening and I felt, weakened it. The serious argument that each of us is entitled to his own death, with the real emotions proper to it, was overlaid by Nichols' farcical elaboration of the alternatives by which we evade these—euphemism, the cult of the Surgeon, the nursery-ritual of hospital life.

For too much of Chez Nous, as well, a sense of the play-as-play predominates. (pp. 27-8)

Its central incident is an improbability, a deliberate alternative to real life, engineered as a play-experiment to see what emotions one should have about it. Because it's unreal, as the Sheila-Ursula-Liz side of his talent should have told Mr Nichols, most of the emotions it generates are unreal too. (p. 28)

All right: the situation Chez Nous is built on is improbable but not impossible. It could be real. What real emotions could people have about it? Phil has two: shame … [and] sheer joy…. Liz has two more: fury … [and] delight…. Mr Nichols recognises their reality and approves of them, giving them place of honour at the end—I haven't said anything, I hope, which suggests that he's capable of writing a really bad play. But he spends far too much of his evening exploring all the unreal emotions. (pp. 28-9)

[The] ending …, rightly, has been hailed as one of the finest things he's done. But in the meantime, his indulgence of fantasy has made things too artificial for … much conviction. (p. 29)

Ronald Bryden, in Plays and Players (© copyright Ronald Bryden 1974), March, 1974.

[Peter Nichols] is a dramatist who has hitherto seemed possessed of as vivaciously original a comic talent as anyone presently operating in the theatre, and it is as surprising as it is dismaying to find that talent—which has risen buoyantly to the formidable challenges of being joyously and inoffensively entertaining even about spastic children and death in a geriatric ward—foundering bleakly in contemplation of the menace of the motor car, which is what The Freeway is about.

At least, that is what it is about on one level. Perhaps fuming frustratedly in his Peugeot in some bank-holiday traffic-jam and cursing the affluence of the age which permits so many other people to have cars to impede the progress of one's own, he has biliously imagined a future in which all but the abysmally underprivileged and handicapped are motorists and the pride of the nation is a vast motorway—the F1—running the entire length of Britain. Warming to his testy invention, Nichols has further envisaged an eighty-mile jam on this motorway in which the vehicles have been kept stationary for three days with rapidly dwindling food supplies, water meagrely rationed, no civilised sanitation and the general atmosphere of a city under siege. It would plainly be possible to develop the situation pretty humorously, but Nichols on this occasion seems to be altogether too embittered (he must have had some really terrible times in the Peugeot), and it is a measure, I suppose, of his desperation—and of the extraordinary fall in his standards of comedy—that he is reduced to the desolate business of trying to get a laugh or two out of people going to the lavatory in rather primitive circumstances.

In the little section of the jam presented on the stage, he offers us some stereotypical caricatures of the working-class and of the aristocracy, and it is hard to say whether his patronising view of the former or the quaint naïveté that informs his disdain for the latter is the more painful. Neither, though, is quite so distressing as the fact that his F1 and the trouble that develops on it are a tortured metaphor for British democracy, class-ridden and acquisitive, careering along a freeway to disaster. He is, of course, entitled to his point of view, but I strongly suspect that this is a case in which one might agree with what he says but oppose to the death his tedious way of saying it. (p. 472)

Kenneth Hurren, in The Spectator (© 1974 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), October 12, 1974.

Nothing dates faster than the future; and [The Freeway,] Peter Nichols's vision of a Britain transformed into countless car-parks linked by gigantic freeways already seems less apt than it would have in 1971 or 1972…. [He should] show an industry in slump, hit by the cost of oil and raw materials, by the relative poverty of the home market and the exasperating tendency of foreign buyers to want engines that start and doors that don't fall off. The England of 1984 would become a land of old bangers fuelled by hope and paraffin, threading round the clumps of grass that would by then be sprouting from the motorway tarmac. I have seen the future, and it walks….

[Mr Nichols] sometimes seems more interested in feeding us a series of extracts from Whitaker's, Anthony Sampson's Anatomy of Britain and the RAC Book of the Road, 1984 editions, than in constructing a living, growing plot to demonstrate his hopes and fears.

But if plot is defined as characters changing in response to events, and events occurring because of the interaction of characters, then Mr Nichols's National Health was a pretty static affair, too. There's nothing wrong with a play that's mainly concerned to anatomise a given situation and discuss the issues raised—provided, of course, it is all done with depth as well as breadth. But here The Freeway seems suspect….

We learn that individual self-indulgence can produce social misery; that labour tends to equate happiness with possessions, and that capital is only too glad to keep its power with the odd handout; that freedom, in short, may be slavery. But anyone who has read a little 19th-century history, or even heard a few economic discussions on Panorama, will want to see more slippery questions tackled. How, without real economic growth, can everybody in this country expect a reasonably secure life? How, with growth, can we avoid desecrating the environment, with houses and factories and perhaps even freeways? And do working people want cars from a vague acquisitiveness, or a wish to compensate for childhood deprivation, as the play suggests? … It's as if a physician were diagnosing a complex disease without taking all the necessary X-rays.

I found The Freeway not unenjoyable, a deliberately negative recommendation. As a play of ideas, it could be more provocative; as a comedy about people in a jam, more trenchant and amusing…. Mr Nichols's tendency [is] to substitute reportage for show. We hear tales of theft and violence; but all we see, apart from the principals and their cars, are lounging soldiers, a desultory queue of disgruntled motorists at the end of Act One, and the occasional figure skulking anonymously in the background. Given the size of the theme and the human resources [involved], it seems a dreadful swindle.

Benedict Nightingale, "Scrubbers," in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), October 11, 1974, p. 515.

"The National Health" … is a play about the physical and spiritual indignities of sickness, old age, and approaching death. It takes place in the men's ward of a hospital somewhere in England; the dreadfulness of suffering and the still greater dreadfulness of the certain end to suffering hang in the antiseptic air….

Hard as it may be to believe, Mr. Nichols' play is an unbroken series of successful jokes: gallows humor of a kind that makes us simultaneously gasp and laugh. It is a play in which the disgustingness of our failed mortality—the bedpans equally with the senile loss of reason—is transformed and rendered acceptable. Mr. Nichols implies that the price we pay for living is almost intolerably high, but "almost" is the word he emphasizes and celebrates…. Mr. Nichols' close, compassionate scrutiny of life and death heightened my sense of well-being instead of diminishing it; we forget at our peril that the artist is the best of physicians. (p. 60)

Brendan Gill, in The New Yorker (© 1974 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), October 21, 1974.

In a brief two decades, the young British dramatists who railed angrily at the Establishment have been succeeded by caustic young playwrights who acidly mock the welfare state. Underlying that mockery is a sour nagging resentment of the present sorry state of England. Thus it is no unintended irony that The National Health is set in a hospital ward for the dying….

Silence ought to be the motif of such a room, or so one might think. Instead, it is raucous with gallows humor. There is probably not an outright comedy on Broadway at which one could clock more smiles, snorts, giggles and guffaws. Quite apart from the patients' sometimes grisly jests, the response of the audience obviously has complex, uneasy, psychological roots. Laughter is a wonder drug by which man anesthetizes his consciousness of mortality. (p. 90)

No one in contemporary theater orchestrates mordant laughter with a surer hand than Playwright Peter Nichols. His forked tongue darts at everything, but his compassion is deep and pure. Those who saw A Day in the Death of Joe Egg know that he confected humor out of a situation in which parents were coping with a mongoloid child. One miracle deserves another, and Nichols has performed it again in The National Health. (pp. 90, 93)

T. E. Kalem, "Ballet of Death," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), October 21, 1974, pp. 90, 93.

Peter Nichols is … intelligent, witty, mordant and lazyminded. A Day in the Death of Joe Egg … had a strong central premise: two young parents with a mute immobile child and the comedy-fantasy life they build around her. Having got the premise, Nichols thought he had the play and, after he had gone on for an act, he had to patch together a story out of rags and tatters. Forget-Me-Not Lane was the narrator's memoirs of his youth and didn't do much more than exploit the (British) audience's recollections of period minutiae and the trite poignancy of characters who, we know as we watch them, have since died.

Now comes The National Health, set in a North London hospital (the Sir Stafford Cripps Ward!). Again Nichols' assets are plain, including his ability to write good parts. (He was an actor for five years and he knows how to write for actors.) But again the laziness. Here he leans—with some talent but nonetheless just leans—on the inevitable horrors and comedies and ironies in a hospital ward. In an assorted cast of characters, some die, some leave, some come back, and they don't all behave predictably in relation to those facts. But that's predictable: and Nichols doesn't go much further. Maybe he thought the title itself would help, with its connotations of, well, of national health. No luck. It doesn't fill the hole at the center of the concept.

He does filigree his play with two devices. The first is show-biz fantasy. He interweaves a series of episodes called "television time": romance between a young Scots doctor and a Puerto Rican nurse, as well as one between the doctor's doctor-father and a Scots nurse, done as a cartoon of TV soap opera but really as a cartoon of pop adulation of the people in whose hands the lives of the patients rest. An orderly steps out of the play frequently to act as caustic interlocutor. Vaudeville of the serious is not exactly new and Nichols doesn't use it as well as, say, Charles Wood did in his script for Lester's How I Won the War, but the montage of deathrattle and raillery has its effect.

His second device is mode-mixing in the straight scenes. He ruthlessly combines barrack-room gags (inopportune farts), realistic horror (a cancer patient's chilling screams), glib religious satire (a missionary and a chaplain lampooned), insightful humor (a woman doctor so overworked that she falls asleep on a patient's chest while listening to his heart), and moving moments (an ulcer patient trying not to worry about his young son). He also revives a few antique jokes ("If my old friends were alive to see me now, they'd drop dead"); still the constant changes of key give the play a tart, unfooled air.

But neither they nor the fantasy sequences redeem it. In all his work so far Nichols has shown irreverence for sentimentality and theatrical taboos but, fundamentally, not much more. He seems to bite bullets—in Joe Egg the anguish of having a brain-damaged child, in this play the implacability of the hospital beds waiting for every one of us—but he just mouths them for a while before he spits them out, he never really crunches. We keep waiting for the author's gravity as distinct from the subject's. And waiting and waiting. Nichols' talent so far is for choosing subjects and modes, not in what he does with them. (p. 32)

Stanley Kauffmann, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), November 2, 1974.

The Freeway is set at some unspecified time in the near future, possibly 1984…. [It] is clearly meant to convey the Plight of the Nation by means of a major symbol. (p. 64)

[Apparently] we are meant to believe that the country is partly in the grip of a neo-Fascist organisation, with its private force of armed rangers, which owns The Freeway, a toll-highway that has superseded the motor-roads. How this organisation operates in conjunction with the elected government, or whether it is an authoritarian organ of the government, is not shown, or I did not understand. I suspect that Mr Nichols has taken the vague hints of authoritarianism in the air and linked them to the hated motor-car to produce the simple contrast: freeway=road to slavery. True in one sense; the paradox of the motor-car is that it makes each individual free in the first instance, and then produces total nonfreedom, if all individuals want to avail themselves of their freedom at the same time. In other words, it is a perfect illustration of Existentialist liberty leading to the freeze-up of the practico-inert.

This is a problem which politics will have to solve, but it is not in itself a political problem; it is a pure consequence of technological proliferation. I find it difficult to imagine a neo-Fascist organisation centring on roads or motor-cars. I fancy it would be more likely, in an advanced society, to facilitate traffic movement and to clamp down elsewhere. Why not keep people buzzing from A to B and from B to A in the illusory conviction that they are doing something real, are accomplishing a projet? Movement could be the opium of the people (as indeed it already is to a large extent). I don't think Mr Nichols has thought out the whole psycho-phenomenological question of the motor-car in an interesting way. I have never owned a car, have never learned to drive, and would vote for any government that proposed a return to the bicycle; but it is a waste of time to be metaphysically naive or flatly negative about the motorcar, which is a poetic object for most people, whether they know this or not….

Equally weak is his treatment of the opposition between nature and culture. The Canadianised ex-Cockney has known the independence of the wilds and, when hunger threatens, he gathers mushrooms and blackberries, and shoots a pigeon. At the end, he walks off on his own with a confident smile, as if only he were at home in the "natural" situation created by a suddenly demotorised world. But this is an unjustified and sentimental implication. No "natural" man could survive for long in Britain without recourse to civilisation, although he might manage better for a time in the remoter parts of Canada. But even in Canada, he would not really be "natural", because Man is, by definition, the species which has, even in the most primitive situation, added culture to nature. Robinson Crusoe and Tarzan of the Apes are both highly civilised types, who convey an illusion of naturalness because of the very selective brand of culture they present us with. Man cannot return to nature; he can only choose between varieties of culture. All this has been debated ad infinitum since the 18th century, but Mr Nichols seems to go no further than the popular, non-philosophical clichés to achieve his theatrical effects, and therefore they cannot form a compelling pattern. Perhaps we can put it this way: Joe Egg and The National Health were good, because Nichols has a direct personal perception of physical or medical evil; The Freeway fails, because he does not sense with equal clarity the nub of political evil. (p. 66)

John Weightman, in Encounter (© 1974 by Encounter Ltd.), December, 1974.

Peter Nichols's A Day in the Death of Joe Egg (1967) had the characters directly addressing the audience so as to streamline the presentation and give a hearty music-hall humour to a gloomy subject, but the basis of its considerable appeal for audiences was that it dealt in straightforward naturalistic terms with a topical problem—what is it like to have a spastic child? His second play, The National Health (1969), counterpointed the fantasy naturalism of television soap-operas about hospitals with the "straight" naturalism of a "real" hospital. In Chez Nous (1974) he seems to have fallen back completely on the old domestic comedy routine, using language ostensibly directed from one character to another, but actually turned outwards to amuse the audience. In his latest play, The Freeway, he models himself unprepossessingly on Shaw. [One] might well feel depressed about the outcome of the Reformation if he had only Nichols's development before his eyes. (pp. 64-5)

John Spurling, in Encounter (© 1974–75 by Encounter Ltd.), January, 1975.