January 9, 2002: Nichols, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg
The play that brought Nichols to public notice, first produced at the Citizen’s Theatre in Glasgow in 1967 and transferred to the Comedy that same year. The program explains that the Citz took it on after no London producer would touch it; its reputation quickly brought London critics flying in to Glasgow.
It is a very powerful piece, whose moorings in the 1960s have not served to date it at all. Nichols, who is on record as saying that what he really wants out of playwriting is not “success” but the opportunity to observe the effect of his play on the audience, uses a format that alternates between the effective setting of the play and an outside-the-frame direct engagement with the audience. In this production the set is mounted on a revolve; when it turns 180° we see the back of the set and a couple of plain white chairs in which, or by which, Bri (i.e., Brian) and Sheila, his wife, act out part of the story in retrospect, to the extent of Bri’s taking on the personae of an obstetrician, a surgeon, and so on. In fact, before the curtain opens, Bri comes out and warms up the audience by treating us as the recalcitrant, misbehaving cohort of schoolchildren whom he attempts, as their teacher, to control and turn serious. Of course, the more he does so, the more we are amused. Given the horrific situation he and his wife deal with twenty-four hours a day, preparing us for comedy has an unperceived irony embedded in it.
The horrific situation is that their first child was born with severe brain damage, after a five-day labor in which Sheila, guilty about her promiscuous sex life before marrying Brian, has tried to hold the baby in. No one can persuade her that her actions in childbirth were not the cause — though it’s mentioned that the baby had forceps marks all over its body. This was ten years ago, and the child, now in a wheelchair, can do nothing except moan and go into convulsions. There is much black humor that emerges out of the situation. Nichols is an extremely resourceful writer in this regard, making his audience chronically uncomfortable for laughing at such a grim reality.
The “Joe Egg” of the title is the brain-damaged girl, Josephine (I think), played by two young actresses ages twelve and nine on alternate nights. Last night it was the nine-year-old, Sophie Bleasdale, making her legitimate theatre debut. She was splendid, making much of what one might at first have thought was a thankless role. She moans exactly on cue, and on cue flies into compulsive writhings that cease as suddenly as they start. At rest, in her wheelchair, her head lies at an angle against the head rest and her left arm is bent up, the hand in a sort of curl. Pathetic and terrible, the living example of the fear almost all child-bearing women and their mates harbor that something will go terribly wrong. Then, at the end of Act I, after an out-of-frame sequence involving her, she comes forward and speaks in her actor’s persona, telling us it is time for an intermission.
This frankness about the theatrical premise, far from relieving our anxieties (“Well, after all, it’s only play”) serves, paradoxically, to draw us even more deeply into the hopelessness of the situation. In Act II a couple of well-meaning friends arrive — Freddie, Bri’s old school chum, and his detestably shallow and uncomprehending wife, Pam — and try to pull Bri and Sheila out of their doldrums, to no avail. The arrival of Bri’s mother, a self-pitying, overly possessive widow, only makes things worse. By the time Sheila has come around to the possibility of institutionalizing their daughter, Bri has packed a bag and is leaving. In the closing moment, “Joe” is all alone on stage, in her chair, semi-comatose as always. I was moved nearly to tears, and felt a small kinship with the hapless couple. Reflecting on the fact that things could always be worse is of no help.
The performances, without exception, were extremely good, and the play overall directed clearly and crisply by Laurence Boswell. All were an implicit tribute to the consummate mastery of tone that distinguishes Nichols’s writing, who has no competitor, so far as I can see, in the implementation of mordant wit and wry humor in the service of facing human nature at its worst or, on occasion, at its best.