31 October 1974: Nichols, The National Health

Circle in the Square / Joseph E. Levine Theatre, New York. Long Wharf Theatre production

I saw the Old Vic production in 1969-70 with Jim Dale (now in Scapino in New York) in the “lead” character of the orderly —and showman master-of-ceremonies — Barnet. This is a brisk, sprightly and efficient production of a play that has much in the way of both satire and fun, partly at the expense of the National Health (pun intended), partly at the expense of human mortality; but finally doesn’t quite cohere. These are the dregs of a medieval morality on the brevity of life — “How transitory we be all day” — lurking in this play, but without (naturally) the cosmo­logical dimension of morality. Nichols is a funny man, who knows how to get just the right mixture of the scatological and the sexual. He is one of many twentieth-century playwrights (O’Neill being another) who have independently rediscovered the connection between eros and thanatos. Thanks, Norman O. Brown, for making us all aware of this.

The basic structural mechanism of the play — not new, but serviceable — is an alternation of the “clinical” reality of a men’s ward in a London (or “British,” as the program says) hospital with “television” scenes of fantasy hospital romanticism. On the telly is played out a romantic melodrama of a “mixed” (white and Puerto Rican) love affair of doctor and nurse, and a kidney transplant operation conduc­ted by the doctor’s father, a famous surgeon, who saves his son’s life despite his disapproval of his son’s love. The donor, naturally, is the Puerto Rican nurse, and in the “televised” curtain call the wedding takes place. Meanwhile, the patients in the ward either die or get well, but in any case gradually go away, while Barnet, the principal voice for Nichol’s barbed realism, tells it like it is. Barnet is a sort of fey fellow, whose antics accumulate into a plea for the tolerance of aberrant ways of living. He is a kind of bisexual, and so unites in his person and attitude what is otherwise the rigorous separation of male and female into patients and nurses. He is both in and out of his role as orderly. He theatricalizes the occasion, and so functions to unite the sordid or, alternatively, moving realities of life and death in a men’s ward with the absurdities of that life as portrayed in popular art.

Yet Nichols’s play is itself, in a real sense, pop art. It doesn’t quite realize dramatically the implications of its theme. It doesn’t really ask us to stretch, ­morally, and accommodate the intolerable extremities of experience. Rather, the accommodation it makes is, finally, of our own values, our own shallow capacities for ironic realization, in a form that leaves us laughing but not chastened or outraged, or even resigned.

But it is a decently good play all the same. In this production I missed some of the sharpness of the ironies that I remember sensing in the Old Vic production. But that was in another country, and on a proscenium stage in a large theatre (the old Royal Coburg, several times transformed) where a balcony seat gives a thorough distancing effect. Here at the relatively new (only a few years old) Levine, in a semi-horseshoe arrangement, we are too close to the actors for our own good. The performances are good, quite creditable, but we lack the generalizing effect that satirical comedy gets from that good old proscenium arch.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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