Written by Nick Richardson
“The Citizens feel obliged to warn the public that this play deals with the case of a chronically retarded child and that not only the subject but the extraordinary way it is treated may possibly give offence. However such is the honesty of this play, and so grounded…in first-hand experience that we believe it entirely vindicates its production in our theatre.”
– Citizens Theatre, 1967
So ran the warning published by the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow, Scotland on all promotional materials for the world premiere of Peter Nichols’ A Day in the Death of Joe Egg in May 1967. The Citizens’ board members feared that the play’s representation of a child with cerebral palsy (or a “spastic,” in sixties’ medical terminology) was grotesque and stipulated that the production must include the above notice. Critics and audiences alike responded so favorably to the production that the Citizens removed their advisory after the first night.
Having a character with disabilities was not the issue at hand; rather, the Citizens Theatre fretted over Nichols’ humorous approach to the heavy subject matter. Nichols brings levity to raising a daughter with cerebral palsy by playing with form, meshing kitchen-sink realism with other non-realistic theatrical styles: music hall variety performance, high farce, and even stand-up comedy. These presentational styles break the “fourth wall,” creating a direct relationship between the characters and the audience. This allows the characters to openly share their thoughts. Through their direct address, we see our protagonists Bri and Sheila use humor to cope with the challenges of raising their daughter, Joe, and maintaining a loving marriage.
Though Nichols’ quasi-comic approach may seem unconventional – even tactless – it stems from his own life experience. He and his wife had a daughter with cerebral palsy who died at 10 years old, and he personally used humor when discussing his own family. Nichols does address Joe’s condition with an earnest realism at times, but the comic performances throughout the play suggest their own truth: humor as resistance against futility. In this light, Bri and Sheila’s coping tactics seem far more plausible.
Today, 50 years since the play’s premiere, we still debate the same complicated questions at the heart of Bri and Sheila’s disputes. What constitutes “quality of life”? Who gets to decide what “quality of life” means? Who should make decisions about care for someone with limited faculties? Which decisions are right? The playwright offers no answers; instead, he employs comedy as a vehicle to present Bri’s and Sheila’s opposing perspectives on making the most of life – their daughter’s and their own.
Nick Richardson is a first year MA Theatre Studies candidate. He graduated from FSU this past spring with a BA in Theatre and a minor in Spanish. During his undergraduate career, Nick performed in ten opera productions with the College of Music. He presented a paper at the Southeastern Theatre Conference as their 2016 Undergraduate Young Scholar. As a Master’s candidate, he hopes to continue researching gender, race, and sexuality on stage.